About two years ago, I started seeing a psychologist specialising in CBT, Kate Castle (cbtbristol.net), because of some hard times I was having. As the conversations with Kate developed, a pattern formed; negative thinking and fear were holding me back in all areas of my life, and if I wanted to change, I was going to have to re-train my brain to think differently about how I lived
But there was one area where this negative thinking didn’t happen: kayaking. Kate helped me, over a series of sessions, to map out and analyse the thought processes I had for kayaking and use these as a framework to change my thinking. And I’d like to share this experience, as it really has been life changing.
Before I start, I guess I need to caveat this (and maybe this is the old fears and anxieties creeping in): I’m not an elite or professional kayaker by any stretch; I am not claiming first descents, dropping 70ft waterfalls or throwing airscrews on the Nile… But I don’t think you have to be doing those things to have a story to tell….
Historically, my defensive way of thinking about cool things I’d love to try was “you can’t do it” “that’s not for people like you”. I realise now, after two years of CBT, that this was to avoid disappointment and to avoid failure – hey, you can’t fail if you don’t try.
My eureka moment came when I finally pinned down how my thinking in kayaking differed from my thinking in other areas: in kayaking, I don’t set artificial boundaries on what I can achieve, I have learnt and practice positive thinking, and I am able to celebrate success and learn from mistakes…not so in other areas!
During my psychology sessions, I recollected the first time I ever saw freestyle, at CIWW; I was there making my first tentative paddle strokes onto white water; I remembered how I’d watch people throw loops and tricks and my initial reaction was to set that artificial boundary “I’ll never be able to do that” – but then a quieter, new voice chimed in with “or maybe you could give it a try”. (note: I’ve recently discovered some people don’t have an inner monologue and think really differently….so for those people, voices in your head is normal alright…)
So a year or so later (change takes time), I decided I would try freestyle, and I bought a boat. I swam….I swam a lot…I got beat-downs, I face-planted, I got cold, I got frustrated, I frequently nearly gave up….but I didn’t . Looking back, this was a break-through time in my life; I don’t remember consciously thinking “I must persevere with this/I must change my thinking” – it just kinda happened and I’ll tell you why I think that was: because I’d already been whitewater kayaking for about three years, and during that time, I’d been lucky to kayak with a fantastic club coach – a guy called Andy Wilson – who had taught me strong headgame – which fostered in me that little voice “you might just have a go”.
So here are some of the ways that kayaking has changed my mindset:
We’re all in between swims: the kayaking community is expert at fostering this mentality – in lots of jobs I’ve had, and other hobbies, making mistakes has been seen as weakness and shameful, rather than as an inevitable part of life and as a valuable learning experience. “Having the confidence to suck at something new” is a key life skill – it builds resilience, it helps you learn from mistakes. I spent a summer faceplanting to learn how to double-pump. The faceplant developed to an edge rock, developed to an end, to a second end, and I eventually ended up in a five-end flatwater cartwheel (fist bump for me), creating a new “life rule” that “perseverance equals success”. This may seem obvious, but when you are trapped in negative thought spirals, truth is relative and it’s pretty impossible to feel good about yourself just by repeating “I don’t suck” over and over. But the physical act of achieving that five end cartwheel was something my negative thoughts couldn’t argue with; actual physical proof that I didn’t suck as much as I might think!
Look where you wanna go/focus on where you wanna be, also known as “don’t look at the rock!”: I have suffered from wicked social anxiety; for weeks in advance of parties and festivals, I often spent an inordinate amount of mental energy worrying about all the things that could go wrong, psychologically paddling myself into a “rock” over and over. Conversely, at the same time in my kayaking, I was learning the technique of looking where you wanna go and not focusing on the rock you want to avoid. Many coaches have taught me the art of visualisation and mental rehearsal – of a line you wanna take, a freestyle move you wanna try – and this has honed my ability to control and shift the focus of my attention. Applying this “look where you wanna go/don’t fixate on hazards” mentality to my social anxiety worries has helped me learn to push those worries aside, to quieten down the busyness and not get sunk by what Oprah calls “shadow thoughts”. Now, off the water, I don’t allow my worries to spiral because I don’t focus on them…and on the water, I don’t crash as much.
Finding your F%£$ it switch: “procrastination is the thief of time” a great person once said. I have had so many experiences, some great, some questionable, because I’ve learnt the ability to flip my f&*% it switch. This does not mean I’m advocating doing stoopid stuff. As an example, I think a lot of people have sat in their freestyle kayak on the edge of a hole or wave, having an epic mental struggle about whether or not they’re gonna go in…I spent many an hour at CIWW doing just this, until I met Tony Chattin, Luke Edwards and Daithi O Brien, who, through their patented ‘positive peer pressure’ ‘encouraged’ me to “get in that hole Ness and show those boys how it’s done!” – flip the switch, paddle-in and deal with it! Susan Jeffers sums this up perfectly in her book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” when she says “Every time you encounter something that forces you to “handle it,” your self-esteem is raised considerably” – kayaking gives you many, many opportunities to experience this self-esteem boost.
So in conclusion, learning to kayak has helped me embed mental habits that have completely changed my mindset. Negative thinking is an insidious thing – the only way to combat it is through mental rehearsal of positive messages and to experience and build a bank of positive experiences to back them up. I have found physical activities such as kayaking takes you into a different mental space; it gives you a clean slate, a fresh head-space where you can re-invent yourself.
In life and on the river, the rocks are still there; but now I can navigate them.