Paddling - When we daren’t can’t, won’t and don’t

07 Feb

Paddling - When we daren’t can’t, won’t and don’t 

We just cancelled this weekend's Canoe Leader Assessment.  The forecast is for gale force winds, far exceeding the remit of the award.  There might have been ways of ‘ticking the boxes’;  Hiding in a sheltered bay, finding a short and sheltered river trip.  This would not have been a full or fair assessment, and as a National Trainer I have to be seen to be setting the standard.   Apart from this, many of those involved, (the candidates and people they would have been leading on the assessment) were traveling with canoes.  In 50mph gusts that would be ‘sporting’ to say the least. So we can't and won’t.  It was an easy call to make. 

Other times when I daren’t , can’t, won’t and don’t can be more complicated, some instances are almost inexplicable to those outside the situation.  In the world of outdoor professionals we talk about the ‘row of lemons’ theory of disaster.  The idea being that accidents and incident are rarely caused by one simple disastrous factor.  For example, it is rare that there is a catastrophic failure of equipment, or someone gets struck down by lightening.  Most incidents are caused by a conspiracy of factors, or ‘lemons’.  

When considered in isolation these ‘lemons’ are harmless enough… but together they are a world of badness, like on an old school fruit machine where a row of lemons means ‘game over’. Say, the weather comes in a bit sooner than expected, the coach has a hangover, one of the group is carrying an injury.  All the things independently are incidental fluff.  However, when they start adding up the ‘lemons’ can come together in a catastrophic combination, and you end up with a ‘whole row of lemons’ and disaster strikes.  Part of the skill of coaching, leading or participating is being able to spot the lemons racking up well before the point of ‘game over’.  

It is not only recognising the gathering lemons, but verbalising it.  If you are thinking things aren’t going well, chances are other people are thinking the same thing... but not saying it.  When I was involved in outdoor education I always worked on the principle that I would rather finish a session early when the lemons were gathering, and come back with everyone in one piece.  This was often difficult to explain to my boss… because nothing had actually happened! 

The ‘sunk cost fallacy’ is another one to look out for. If you have invested a certain amount of time, money, energy in to something, and even though it doesn’t look like there will be a good outcome, you continue to invest in it, simply because of the outlay you have already made.  The beauty of the English language captures this perfectly with expressions such as ‘you can’t polish a turd’.  Often people are tempted to put themselves and others in situations that they wouldn’t otherwise; simply because they have done things like drive across Europe to get to the river, spent money on accommodation, or it is the only day they can paddle that month even though the rivers are brimming. 

How about times when I don’t because I daren’t?  There is some seriously weird head stuff involved here. I scrutinise my own worth, ability and credibility.  I used to really struggle when running away from a trip or rapid that I am qualified to lead and coach on.  It is a big thing!  Questioning if I should even be able to call yourself an Advanced Water Coach?  Feeling like an imposter.  Sometimes things just aren’t right, and I have no idea why.  Paddling is a massively psychological game and even the experts struggle to conceptualise what is going on there, and we, as human beings probably aren't clever enough to understand why anyway.  I recon boating is 10% physical 90% emotional (that isn’t a scientific figure!) For me, it is enough to have faith in the idea that there will be other days when things are going to be right, when everything is going to flow. It took me years to learn to be kind to myself about this. I don’t  *need* to paddle that rapid today, it will be there next time and who gives a stuff what anyone else thinks anyway.  Everyone gets scared.  If you aren't afraid of anything then you need to be in hospital.  Scared is what looks after us, it is all about whether we use the power of 'scared' for good or bad.  Ultimately, be kind.  If it isn't your time to feel discombobulated, someone else probably is.

* The email will not be published on the website.