Pushing Past The Kayaking Plateau

 By tOM Humphries

Almost universally dreaded by anyone striving for improvement in any activity, the plateau is a part of any journey toward improvement. Having as much or more experience with plateaus than most folk and having not only learned to recognize them early, but to enjoy their arrival as much as seeing them in my rear view mirror leaves me with a few insights for any aspiring person to consider.
Photo by Jason Learned

Simply put the plateau is a flat spot on the improvement curve. It can be caused by a number of things but generally its arrival is an indicator of basic skill, technical understanding, mindset and training discipline levels all approaching or reaching their limit at the same time. This in itself is not a bad thing. It is only bad if your desire to improve is greater than the influence of the plateau and you refuse or fail to recognize and then deal with it. 

Some folks are blessed with an easy threshold of satisfaction. They are typically happy dabbling in many activities and are content balancing their time between several of them at a level they are comfortable with. For these folk the arrival of the plateau is often the signal that this is where their comfort level is. There is nothing wrong with this and in some ways I'm jealous of the bliss and balance they seem to enjoy as they meander happily from one endeavor to the next. I, and so many I know, are not in this way blessed. We are passionate, obsessed and driven by something within ourselves to see how proficient we can get, or to reach that next level and always searching for moments of perfection. For us of the latter ilk, the arrival onto the plateau can signal weeks, months, even years of frustration while looking for that next breakthrough. The further up the skill ladder one climbs the longer it can take for minute improvement. So why would I or anyone welcome the arrival of the plateau?    

Photo by Mark Boyd

First we should consider if the plateau is real or just perceived? Tied to this first question is how are we measuring our improvement?  If you are driven like most of my crew, you are probably well aware of your shortcomings and critical of yourself in the assessment of them. Equally bad or worse is thinking you are improving when you are not; so there is a real need for accurate self evaluation along with some outside marker posts. This is easily done in speed events, where one can measure time required in consistent conditions. Then there are other disciplines, surfing, rock gardening, river running, play boating and all manner of rough water activities where conditions can be so dramatically different one day to the next. In these cases we often fall to measuring ourselves against our paddling partners which can bring another list of variables into our self evaluation. Are your partners improving? Is their improvement outpacing yours? Are they backsliding? Are you both backsliding? If you are honest with yourself and lucky enough to have a good regular crew you will have a fairly good sense of your status. Your improvements should be gauged from your own honest perspective, but comments and observations from your partners may be especially helpful. Regular training runs are always a good gauge. If in doubt, or if you're wanting to jump ahead a bit faster sign up for a class with a respected coach. Remember that some days are diamonds and some days are coal, look for trends in your performance, don't base your improvement on a single spike or valley. Bottom line is, don't worry over a problem that does not or may not exist. Worry is the enemy.

If you feel you've arrived on the plateau what then? Oft times as frustration sets in determination takes over and we may try beating our head against that brick wall a little harder, repeatedly. This is a typical response and usually no harm done in trying to work things out for a short spell. But when things really aren't working, to just continue is not only cementing what does not work into muscle memory, but is confirming failure into your mindset and setting you up for the potential of an injury that could set you back or worse. Instead, try to determine what the key limiting factor is. I broke these down as basic skill, technical understanding, mindset and training discipline. Because a deficiency in any one of these can cause a slow down on the improvement path I am usually in a constant state of review of them. Consequently, when the real plateau shows up I'm usually aware of where the main efforts need to go. Remember to not overlook any of the other factors.

Basics are the absolute foundation of all you do in any activity. Every coach in any sport will tell you that without fundamentals you will always be limited. I always start troubleshooting with a review of basic skills and learn how to improve their application. The devil is often in the details, so look to see if your basics are not only correct but their application as well. There is always room for improvement and it is always time well spent. Watch a video, go practice, have someone shoot video of you, get some private coaching, go practice with someone who is better than you or all of the above. The more advanced you are the more critical avoiding small lapses in form becomes so be critical of bad form. At worst you can be assured your basics are not the limiting factor at your current level. Suck it up, put your ego away and do it, you will be glad you did!

As a person advances in understanding their technique, timing, effort and even gear choices will change. If you've outgrown your current understanding you will need better information and the ability to execute in order to improve. Some of us are partial to discovery on our own or studying others that are better than ourselves.  Many prefer the guidance of coaching through classes, symposium, or private instruction. There are videos and written materials that can add good information to any effort. Along the way most will utilize a mixture of everything available to them, the important part is to ensure what you learn and try is safe and correct. Implementation of new technique takes time and should be done with caution; usually best done in a controlled fashion so experimentation with nuance can yield measured results. Most times this means waiting for smaller conditions to reap the best understanding. Always remember that with a gear change you may need to change how you execute and it can initially have negative effects. Substantial gear changes should be introduced at a lower intensity until you are comfortable with them.  

Without a proper mindset nothing will work for you at or near potential. If you have doubts they will manifest themselves in your efforts. Particularly if your confidence has suffered get your basics and technique in order and build your continued efforts on success. Simply put, sometimes you need to step off to the side before going forward. 

A good a well rounded training discipline means different things to different people and largely depends on how dedicated a person is to outcome. It can be as simple as having a mental list of things to consciously work on, or to the other extreme, having a specific physical training program coupled with comprehensive skills exercises and working specific techniques in specified conditions. The thing to remember is physical abilities will be limited by physical fitness. There is no getting around this fact; improvements on strength and fitness will only happen as fast as your body will accept them, so this takes prior planning to implement. Remembered that changes in your body, particularly with significant time out of your boat, will cause changes in your basics and technique. There is no easy button or magic pill, so if fitness is your limiting factor and you are unable or unwilling to adapt your body to more advanced conditions admit where you are at is your threshold and learn to be happy with it. 

Photo by Bryant Burkhardt
The arrival of the plateau really signals the end of improvement to your current skill level and effort. This is not a comforting thought to many. It means that further improvement will require work, thought, effort, discomfort, expensive gear purchases and probably some pain too. So why do I welcome the arrival of the plateau? "Because it is there", no; because it means I've exhausted my current effort and I'm ready to move forward. I am always eager for what lies beyond, because it is a limit and limits are to be pushed.

All the best, tOM
Neptune's Rangers -Push Your Limits-