Monday, February 21, 2005

Rolling rolling rolling, git them kayaks rolling

What a great rolling class we had last night! One student – D1 I’ll call him – got his first roll – and then got 3 more (2 of them actually in a row!). Oh, there’s just nothing in teaching paddling that beats a student getting their first roll. It’s just awesome. I always let out a whoop (couldn’t suppress if I tried, it makes me so happy) and do a little victory drum on their boat – and it’s funny because almost every single time, the student looks at the instructor and says “did you help me?” and then you, the instructor, get to say “No, that was all you!”…oh, and the look that people get on their faces as they actually realize that they did it? Beautiful.

The other students who are just learning to roll are all extremely close. In fact we all – me, the head instructor, and the other students who were already done for the day after 2 hours of hard work, really thought O. was going to get hers right at the end – she has been ALMOST up any number of times but then each time, she lifts her head and down she goes again. AUGH! Oh, we all wanted her to get up so much – you could hear the collective intake of breath as her boat would start on it’s way to rightside up, and then we’d all go “D’oh!” as she lost it right at the last minute. Sounded like a Homer Simpson Impersonator Convention. Even the lifeguard was transfixed. She was great, too – some people would’ve seized up with everyone else watching like that, but she was so game…oh well, next week, next week. One problem with rolling classes is that by the end, you’re just pooped and cold and waterlogged, and it’s tough to really concentrate on lining everything up right. Next week she’ll have everything she got this week (95% of the way there!) and she can put it all together when she’s fresh, and…knock wood again.

Rolling is a funny skill to learn and (at least in my less experienced opinion) to teach. It just so isn’t what it looks like it should be. If you watch somebody rolling a kayak, doing a basic c-to-c roll (on of the two varieties most commonly taught as a first roll) first you’ll see the paddler capsize. The upside-down paddler raises the paddle up to or slightly above the surface of the water, parallel to the boat. The forward blade then sweeps out away from the bow so that the paddle ends up perpendicular to the boat. Then the paddler does something you can’t see ‘cause they’re underwater – and then the boat turns right-side up. Hey! Cool! Neato!

Naturally, the mind of the watcher sees this & wants to figure out how that bit you can’t see works & usually ends picturing something like an underwater chin-up – with the arms pulling the body upright. I did that on my first-ever try at rolling a sea kayak (as opposed to a whitewater boat) – I’d first rolled (in the very pool where I’m now teaching, which is cool) in March 1999 or so, and decided to try it again sometime that July or so & had of course forgotten EVERYTHING about how it was supposed to work – reached up – swept out – pulled down – came uncomfortably close to dislocating my own shoulder. It went back in by itself but it was icky. Took some getting over both physically & mentally – that could be a whole other post some day .

So one of the first 2 challenges for teacher & student is to delete that picture of the roll being somehow about yanking yourself up by brute force. The other is to get the higher brain to convince the reptile brain that being upside down, underwater, with half the body inside and attached to a big lump of plastic is actually OK. The two go hand in hand. The roll isn’t about the arms pulling you up at all – it’s actually about snapping the hips to get the boat rolling, then just letting your spine go all overcooked-pasta & letting the momentum and weight of the boat do all the work. No pulling. Pulling wrecks a weak roll & weakens a good roll. And the head has to be down - raising the head before the roll is done pulls you right back down again (the human head weighs a lot). But when you find yourself upside down for the first few times, and your reptile brain is screaming “AIR! WANT AIR! MONGO NO BREATHE WATER, MONGO BREATHE AIR!”, your instinctive reaction is to use your arms to drag yourself back up to the air, craning your neck to get your head up to the air as fast as possible. That just doesn't work, though. Hard on the arms & shoulders, hard on the instructor if climbing the instructor happens to be the most expedient route back to the air. Doesn’t feel like fun.

The first week of the class was all about getting over that. Signs that we were moving in the right direction? O saying, with a pleased look on her face, after I asked her how a particularly graceful hip flick off the side of the pool felt (that’s Step 1, practicing turning the boat over & back up again and again with your hips while both hands rest on the nice solid secure edge of the pool), “It felt like nothing!”. That was nice – I think that’s going to become one of my “learning to roll” stories that I use in teaching ‘cause really, it was a beautiful way to express what a good hip-flick feels like – as opposed to the grunting effort involved in pulling oneself bodily upright. Then, feeling S’s hands, as he was starting to practice the same movement using my hands as support (step 2), go from tense and shaking to relaxed and calm…that was nice too. As the instinctive fear dissipates and the confidence grows – the learning (& teaching) move away from feeling sort of scary to feeling like play – and that’s what I was really feeling yesterday. Good stuff. Oh yeah, and everybody’s either rolling or darned close…yay! Next week. Knock wood. Cross fingers. All that. As the head instructor said to everyone at the end of the 2nd class – they all have all the pieces they need to roll – each one of them has done every single element of a successful roll – now it’s just a matter of doing them all at the same time.

I’m feeling pretty OK about myself as an instructor too. I’ve been feeling bad about the young lady that decided to drop out of the Sarah Lawrence classes – can’t help wondering if there was some other approach I could’ve taken that would’ve worked – and I was a little afraid, when I first said “yes” to the job offer, that I was somehow going to be a disappointment. We’re playing now, everybody’s having fun & making clear progress – I’m still very happy to be the assistant to a head instructor who’s done this for years, but I think I’m being a good assistant & actually helping move the students along towards their goal of rolling their kayaks.

I find teaching rolling challenging in a way that’s really satisfying once I get through the initial “I can’t do this” nervousness and find the groove. You really have to be a good ex-post-facto ( and pre-, too) explainer, since (unlike beginner skills) you can’t explain at the moment of doing because the student is underwater, which also challenges your ability to pick up on what the student is doing right or wrong – and then the main thing is that bar is so darned obvious! Almost rolling is good and encouraging and all that, but rolling is the grail here, not almost rolling. I’ve gotten people there but I’m still working out what I do that works vs. what I do that screws ‘em up. The main critique I’d give myself, as an instructor, is that I want to go too fast & in the gradual introduction of this counterintuitive skill, adding a new piece too fast sometimes just discombobulates things whereas patiently drilling each step until it’s understood not just by the brain, but the body, allows for faster, smoother progress.

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