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  • Writer's pictureJonny Hawkins

Get a Grip!

Dave signals to eddy out. We are deep in a class 5 gorge surrounded by Bornean jungle, day 2 of a multi-day trip. Another waterfall. We get out to scout it, there is a line… just. To make a mistake here would be unthinkable so the pressure is on. We set up safety, get cameras in position and I head back up to my boat. My heart is racing, adrenaline pumping, fear building, why am I taking this risk? I trip over boulders with so many thoughts running through my head. I’m in no state to paddle this rapid. I put my deck on, take some deep breaths, all is calm, I imagine the key boof, flying over the munchy hole. “You’ve got this”. I break out….

Jonny boofing a big hole deep in the Bornean jungle. Photo - Dave Burne

For professional kayakers racing on grade 5 and paddling huge waterfalls, mind games play a huge role in their performance. So what can we learn from them to help us on our weekend paddle or trip to the Alps? These athletes use psychological skills to build confidence, focus their minds, improve motivation and increase concentration. All of these elements are useful to us so how do they do it?

Sam Sutton getting phyched up to win Sickline 2017. Photo - Adidas Sickline video Screenshot

A bit of theory

There is a lot of complicated research on the topic of ‘Arousal Theory’ so I have simplified it to make it more applicable to kayakers. Arousal is basically how psyched up you are and it effects things like muscle tension, coordination, attention and balance. Too low and you feel lazy, unfocused, distracted and unmotivated. Too high and your thoughts will be going crazy, your paddling will be stiff and jerky and you will miss your key stroke. So as paddlers in stressful situations, we need to develop strategies to get the sweet spot of psyche and keep performance at its optimum.

Arousal Catastrophe Model in stressed situations. An increase in arousal causes an increase in performance to an optimum level. Any more arousal leads to a dramatic drop in performance. As kayakers we need to develop strategies to keep out arousal at the optimum level.

How to control it?

I learned a great acronym from kayak coach Georgina Maxwell teaching the army to control their arousal whilst kayaking and then on operation. GRIP. Goal set, Relaxation, Imagery and Positive Self Talk.

Goal set

A clear goal is vital for good performance and helps you focus your thoughts on the task. It encourages you to set a clear intention and makes what you are about to do feel more real.


This clears your thoughts, calms you down and allows your mind and body to carry out effective imagery without other thoughts distracting you. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. Other folk look at the sky or at their spray deck. Basically get rid of distractions and allow your thoughts to disappear.


Is a full sensory experience not just visualisation. Visualise - paddling the rapid in ‘go-pro’ view, spot your markers, picture your key strokes, see yourself making the crux moves and paddling away upright. Feel - how the river affects your boat, how water affects your strokes, the course your paddle will travel, splashes on your face. Hear - what will the river sound like, what about the sound of your boat as as you land the boof flat. Smell and taste are less important for me but could still play a role Salt or freshwater taste? HPP or Highland burn smell?

Positive self talk

A short sharp phrase said aloud or in your head to build confidence, reaffirm your ability and initiate your performance. I say things like “come on Jonny”, “I can do this”, “you’ve got this” if I am lowering my arousal or “focus now”, “you need to get the boof” if I need to psych myself up. Play with different phrases to find ones that work for you.

Jonny using G.R.I.P. to reduce his arousal level on a high consequence drop on the Falls of Bruar.

These techniques can be used to increase your arousal at the start of the day, during your 5th lap down a section or the last rapid of a long day. Equally they can chill you out when you are driving to a scary river, paddling a hard rapid or getting back on after a swim.

In conclusion

  • Your mind is the strongest organ in the body, your paddling will improve no end if you can use it well

  • All top kayakers use psychology to improve their performance so we should as well

  • We want to control our level of arousal/phyche to paddle at our best

  • Use the acronym GRIP (goal set, relaxation, imagery, positive self talk) to raise or lower your arousal

  • Practice it on easy whitewater so it works when you need it for real

Highland Kayak School are running skill courses for all abilities this autumn from our fully catered accommodation in the heart of the Highlands. Join us to refine your paddling technique, gain confidence and up you mental game!

Check out our courses page for more info.

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