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Real Assessing

So in the paddling community, there’s some emphasis on assessments. Whatever the program, there are certain levels used to define a paddler’s overall ability in their chosen discipline. Theres BCU (British Canoe Union) and ACA (American Canoe Association), levels 1-5 respectively. There are only so many ways to paddle a boat, and it’s good to have a measuring stick to gauge skill level and establish goals. To earn these badges, a paddler finds a coach offering an assessment, and that coach puts them through their paces in an appropriate environment, and offers pass/fail/needs improvement.

However, a more important kind of assessment is not for handing out awards, but gauging conditions. There’s also assessing ability, regardless of grade level. Paddling skills are perishable, and diminish without practice.

So there I was (as all good stories begin), all prepared to teach a level two course at the shop. Not ACA or BCU, just the next stage in the shop’s internal curriculum. I had three students, two of whom had recently done our level one introductory course, an the third who had some paddling experience on harbor trips. OK, beginners, but not novices, I thought.

It was a beautiful, sunny, summer afternoon, with a flooding tide at the start of class, and steady northwesterly winds. The result was a fair amount of chop – nothing terrible, but irregular waves, and definitely not a glass surface.

I’m not going to offer a play by play; I’ll offer up the highlights. This class did not go well. I feel it’s important to write openly about my failures, to help me learn from them better, and to share them with others for learning as well. No one was injured, and no one died, but I came away with a bad feeling, and I figure if I did, so did my students.

First, I did not assess the environment correctly. What were to me some playful, fun conditions were, to a beginner, terrifying. I could see it on at least two of their faces, and the third I’m convinced just had a better poker face. In a level two course, a wet exit and rescue are mandatory, so I figured everyone had to be prepared to get wet. What I neglected was, not by accident. Most inexperienced paddlers still have this fear of the water, whether it’s a sign of failure or a genuine fear of going in the water and drowning. I knew they’d be fine, and easily rescued if they went in, but they had no way of knowing that.

I found the part of the embayment that was least affected, somewhat sheltered from wind and tide alike. All the same, we had to reset our position several times – which meant lots of turning, paddling back, and working a bit more before we reset again. Paddling around the embayment was even more of a challenge because these students did not have the skills to deal with this level of wind, and were too terrified to push the limits of the skills that they did have.

This brings me to my second failure: I did not assess the students correctly. Any teacher knows this problem. They arrive having completed the first level. You assume they are ready for the next. Oh no, absolutely not the case, not in general, and not with these students. I didn’t have the full picture when we started, but basically two students had had a single class less than a month prior, and the other had been scheduled to take the introductory class in the morning but opted for a paddleboard class instead.

Knowing that, what followed was predictable. There was very little torso rotation, and poor handling of the boat. What did I do? I chalked it up to inexperience and conditions and drilled right down the level two syllabus: leg driving, edging, applying these skills to forward and turning strokes. After the first few capsizes I decided to move rescues up from the end of the class, and by then I’d completely lost my rhythm.

If I was thrown off-kilter, I know the students were as well. Within half an hour I was constantly thinking, ‘how do I fix this’, which meant I wasn’t focused on the students and teaching. Talking with my own coach later, it was clear: I should have simply made it a remedial course, worked on the basics, and found exercises to give them a sense of safety and control in these conditions. That’s it. Nothing fancy to it.

Instead, I felt obligated to stick to the script. I was actually thinking I owed them something, as in, they signed up for this course, I need to give them this course. But the truth is, we owe the students nothing more than duty of care and making them better learners. Whether that’s deciding to limit the venue, or working on forward stroke instead of edging, or rescues instead of rolling, the first thing to do is to assess the students and to assess the environment. For some of the people I paddle with, this would have been a great day to capsize repeatedly, to paddle against the current, and to surf ferry wake in. For beginners, reinforcement of existing skills and building the confidence to go out in something more exciting than a glass pond would have been enough.

So, lessons learned. The more I go down this path of guiding and instructing, the more conservative I become. What can go wrong? Who’s with me? What’s my fail plan, and backup, and backup backup? What happens after that? And then, to turn around to my charges – whether club members or paying clients or friends – and make it fun, and interesting, and seamless.

That’s the challenge, and one I hope to live up to better in the future.

Published in 2014 American Canoe Association Backpaddle British Canoeing Coaching Instruction Kayaking New York NYKC Sea

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