30 Jun 2016

Self Confidence and the Psychological Fundamentals (J. Males)

This months guest article comes from Jonathan Males. Jonathan is a sport psychologist and executive coach, who I met through our mutual work with the Canoe Wales Slalom Team.  He has been kayaking since 1975, covering pretty much every aspect of the sport. Over the years his delight in paddling has been interwoven with a fascination for the inner world, the psychology of Performance.  Perhaps this was kicked off when he first realized how much his own performance as a slalom paddler was influenced by his thoughts and feelings. Jonathan offered to write an article for the PSK Journal after we had a lengthy discussion about the role of Self-Confidence in my 2012 and 2015 UK Circumnavigation trips. This article is based on writings from within Jonathan's book - In The Flow.

Self Confidence and the Psychological Fundamentals

by Jonathan Males

My own performance paddling has tended to take place on slalom courses, but growing up in Tasmania provided plenty of opportunities to paddle on the sea. In fact one of the best days I’ve ever spent in a kayak was trip around Cape Pillar on Tasmania’s exposed and beautiful south-east tip.  100 metre high cliffs, a touch of sea-sickness, a tricky landing on Tasman Island, and a total distance of 50+ km made it quite an adventure. 

I’ve learned that self-confidence is the single most important psychological factor in successful sports performance.  Self-confidence is based on how you think about a situation and assess your chances of success.  It’s the realistic knowledge and belief that you are capable of achieving what you set out to do. Self-confidence is more than bravado or na├»ve optimism – although it’s easily confused with both. Truly self-confident paddlers don’t need to talk themselves up or talk their competitors down.  Truly self-confident paddlers know how to weigh up the risks, and understand that some crossings are better left to another day. They also understand that no matter how confident they are in their own ability, that the force of the ocean remains outside their control, so results or safety are never guaranteed. Being self-confident doesn’t mean you never feel anxious or scared, but it does mean you can deal with these feelings productively rather than them hampering your performance. While some paddlers seem to possess natural self-confidence, the reality is that everyone’s self-confidence fluctuates – whether you’re a veteran sea kayaker or a raw beginner.  So it’s important to understand where self-confidence comes from and how you can develop it.  

Through my research and over twenty-five years practical experience with top class competitors and coaches in a wide range of sports, I’ve identified the four core psychological capabilities that any paddler needs in order to be self-confident. Self-confidence comes when you have the right attitude and goals, know that you have planned and prepared well, you know how to focus under pressure and you trust the people around you.  I call each of these factors the Psychological Fundamentals and each has an important role to play by itself and as one of the foundations of self-confidence.  

The Fundamentals that underpin Self-Confidence

Here is a brief explanation of these terms and their significance for sea kayaking:

Mastery Motivation

This is your attitude, determination and commitment to achieve mastery over yourself, your competitors and your environment. Mastery Motivation underpins your fierce will to win and provides the drive to challenge yourself to find the limits of your ability. 

Decision Making 

This is the ability to plan ahead, think clearly and to learn from experience.  Making good decisions means more than whether you break a record – at sea they can be a matter of life or death.


This the ability to remain totally focused so you can perform under pressure.  Being able to execute your skills automatically will help you when you’re tired, facing an un-expected change in conditions or when you need to dig deep on a long stretch.


This allows you to build effective relationships and get the support your need from coaches or paddling buddies.  Having a good relationship with your coach, for example, helps sustain your competitive career, and getting on well with your mates on a multi-day self support sea kayaking expedition is pretty useful too.  

The Fundamentals work together to support your ability to paddle confidently, and developing competence in one area will have a positive knock-on in other areas. The quality of your Decision Making influences your ability to Execute well, especially when these two components are powered by Mastery Motivation. When good Teamwork is in place too, all four Fundamentals come together to create self-confidence.

In my book In the Flow I look at each Fundamental in turn, and help you understand what it is and how it helps performance, the warning signs that suggest you need to work on it, and some practical things you and your coach (if you have one) can do to improve.

Jonathan Males
June 2016

In the Flow is available from Amazon, or directly from http://performance.sportscene.tv

Wings – can they make you fly? (PSK)

by John Willacy

A question that is often asked on the edge of the Performance sea paddling world is - should I paddle wings? Closely followed by – so which wings should I buy?

For me, the first was a question I asked when I was preparing for an attempt on the Anglesey Circumnavigation record, back in 2005. I had been paddling wings for about 15 years at that point but I was still unsure whether they would provide a useful advantage in the specific world of sea paddling. I asked around to see if I could find an answer. Figures were banded about, 2%, 10% even 15% faster. I heard plenty of opinions, though I realised that none were backed up by any reliable figures.

So in the end I headed up to the lake with my sea kayak and a car full of blades – flats and wings.

I set an out-and-back course on the lake, and using a heart rate monitor to paddle at a constant pace, I measured the time taken to paddle the course, repeating runs with different paddles. This wasn’t a great scientific experiment, it was just little old me with a pile of paddles. However as the test was repeated a number of times, averaging out various factors, it did come up with a result.

For me, there was a measurable and reproducible difference between flats and wings. I measured a time advantage of between 4 and 6 % in favour of the wings, not huge but significant.

So if we lay down the cash and buy a set will they change our world? Not exactly, but they might help. Let us look in a little more of detail.

The difference

A flat paddle blade ('flats' - sometimes known as European style) is what most of us would know as a standard kayak paddle. The front and rear face of the blade is relatively flat, often with a central reinforcing rib running the length of the rear face. The blade face may be slightly curved both in cross section and longitudinally but not greatly so.


 The difference with the wing blade is immediately obvious; the blade face is deeply curved in cross section with a concave drive face and a matching convex rear. There is a pronounced overhanging lip along the upper edge and no obvious reinforcing rib along the rear face. The blade looks a little like a stretched spoon.

 The wing paddle evolved from the competitive desire for efficiency and advantage. The wing paddle was first developed by Stefan Lindeberg in Sweden, with the Swedish national team starting to use the paddle in the mid 1980’s.  It quickly caught on across the racing world and is now de rigueur in both the flat and wild-water kayak racing disciplines.

Wings derive increased forward efficiency by reducing slippage of the paddle through the water  and also by allowing the paddler to generate drive better from their torso rotation, so bringing larger muscle groups into play. When a flat paddle is combined with pronounced torso rotation the paddle blade starts to slip sideways through the water, losing forward drive.


How do they work? A little more detail...

You may hear stories of how wing paddles generate ‘lift’ or you may even hear that they move forward  during the stroke. Grab a handful of the old sodium chloride at this point. Wings tend to give an advantage for a couple of reasons, simple reasons:
  1. Wings ‘grip’ the water better than flats. The lip on the upper edge of the blade, combined with the convex cross-section of the blade, helps prevent slippage of water across the blade and over the upper edge – this removes blade flutter, and so energy losses during the stroke.  If you are a regular wing paddler and switch back to flats, blade flutter is probably the first thing you notice. You miss the way the wing blade ‘locks’ into the water. The lip and cross-sectional shape also minimise 'slip' of the blade through the water, further lowering losses.The blades 'lock' into the water rather than slipping through it.

  2. A good wing paddling stroke will encourage the paddler to use torso rotation, and hence larger muscle groups during the stroke. This in turn will give more power and less fatigue. This is arguably less of a gain and more of a stroke efficiency improvement. Either way you look at it though, it still gives a (slight) advantage.

The Stroke

 An effective wing paddling stroke is a little different from a flat-blade stroke. It’s not difficult, just a little different. Wing paddles tend to guide the movement of the blade through the water themselves. They also tend to move away from the boat as the stroke develops, though this varies from one blade design to another.  This movement is partly what encourages the torso rotation and in turn the use of larger muscle groups as mentioned above. You do need to have a reasonable paddling stroke to get the most from the wings, it doesn't have to be perfect but it does need a little time to nurture.

The Ups and Downs

So let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of using wing paddles over flat paddles.  If we look at the modern racing world we see that virtually the entire field are using wing paddles, so they must be’ better’ surely? Well, as is often the case, there is a little more to it than meets the eye.


Going back to that advantage figure again of between a 4-6% advantage (let’s call it 5% say). So if you are out for a 1 hour paddle with your buddies, paddling wings will get you home around 3 minutes earlier – everything else being equal. That's all, 3 minutes - not exactly something to write home about.

But then if you are out for a 10 hour record attempt, then those same wings may get you to the finish line 30 minutes earlier - now that is a bit more useful.

You also grow to like the way the paddles grip the water. In a fast-sea kayak flat-blades may feel ‘under-geared’.


From the sea paddler’s point of view there are two main disadvantages:

As we heard wings are good for forward paddling strokes, after all that is what they are designed for, what they are optimised for.

However they are less effective than flat-blades at steering strokes, such as sweep strokes, stern-rudders etc. They are also pretty poor at slicing strokes - sculling-draw and bow-rudders for example. Rolling is less effective with wings too, as is reverse paddling.

You could probably sum it all up by saying that wings give an advantage to forward paddling strokes, but a disadvantage to pretty much everything else.

Wings are also different in rough water. Those less effective turning strokes can become significant here, and the fact that support strokes can become a little trickier isn’t exactly a positive characteristic. Wings don’t take too well to allowing the blades to sink below the surface, getting them back out again can be awkward.  None of these factors is a great problem in it’s own right, but you need to be aware of them, they can catch out the unwary. If your life revolves around ‘gnarly’ days in big water, lots of falling in or surfing, then life is going to be more comfortable with flats on the whole.

Wings also need a high paddling style; they do not work well with a low style. So if you drop to a very low style on a windy day, they may not give you too much help.

What few mention also, is the fact that for wings to be effective then you need to paddle at a certain pace. That does not mean that you always need to go at hairy-bears race pace, but you do need to keep the boat ticking along smoothly to gain that advantage. If you are out for a gentle bimble, chatting and taking life easy, then the wings are probably less efficient than a good set of flats. If this is your sort of paddling, then well, save your money.

That grip that is characteristic of the wings can become a downside when paddling a sea kayak into a stiff headwind. The blades can feel as if they have been set in concrete, or doubled in size, after a while it can become tiring.


How hard is it to switch between wings and flats? Well, with a bit of practice it really isn’t. A paddler experienced with both sorts of paddles should be able to switch between them and be paddling along happily within a minute or two.

Wing Blade Characteristics

Blade Shape -

Basically this can be broken down into ‘parallel’ or ‘tear-drop’ type designs. Parallels may also be
known as Rasmussen, while the Tear-Drop may also be known as Burton or Gamma. These terms basically refer to the way the upper and lower edge relate to each other. The parallel blades tend to be the older style of designs, while the tear-drops tend to be viewed as more recent designs, and more performance based. Both styles of designs are quite happily paddled on the sea and moving water; from the sea paddlers point of view the following factors tend to have a more significant effect on blade handling than the outright shape.

Layback - 

This is the angle that the blade 'lays back' from the shaft - i.e. the blade is not a direct extension (or parallel) to an extended centre-line of the shaft. It is actually angled forward, away from the hands, so the tip of the blade lies ahead of the shaft centreline. Larger angles of layback tend to be found on flat water racing wings with an aim to give a better/cleaner entry and increased power transfer. From a sea paddling point of view, layback can make the paddles more unpredictable on moving water, and more awkward for stern-rudder surfing.
More Layback
Less Layback

Twist – 

A rotation along the length of the blade, so it is twisted a little like an aircraft propeller blade or a screw thread. Again the aim is to improve performance and power transfer during the stroke. Twist is less of a problem than layback on the rough stuff, but differing amounts of twist can make designs handle very differently from one another. An example of this is seen once again on the stern rudder where twist can give the blade hydro-dynamic lift, i.e. it may rise vertically out of the water when surfing – it can get tiring to always have to push it back down into the water. Some levels of twist can also make a blade more difficult to return to the surface when it has sunk.
Twist Compared

Lip -

The lip along the top edge of the blade tends to give the blade ‘grip’ in the water (along with pure
blade size too of course) - lots of lip makes the blade 'solid' in the water, less lip allows a little slip. With a heavy sea kayak, into a strong headwind, too much grip can become hard work - tiring and a strain on the joints.
Lip on upper edge

Tips -

If your wings get damaged at the tips it makes a big difference to how they enter the water and how much splash they make, so a metal tip can be a good idea. Some alloy/aluminium tips take the knocks well, but some also corrode badly in the salt environment, eventually ruining the blades. A stainless steel tip is expensive and a little heavier, but will make your blades last much longer. There are no corrosion problems with Kevlar tips either, but then if you hit rocks on a regular basis they are not going to last just as long as the metal ones.

Blade Choice

Blade choice for wings can become a difficult, time-consuming and possibly expensive affair. The wide variety of wing designs makes a much greater difference to the paddling experience than is the case with differing flat blade designs.Finding the right blade for you can be difficult.

 General selection pointers

A blade that has been designed specifically for Wild Water Racing or Surf Ski Racing is usually a good starting point as it usually has quite friendly/average handling characteristics. Some people paddle successfully with flat-water racing wings, but I tend to find they don’t take the knocks quite as well and, more significantly, they tend to be a bit of a handful on rough water. I tend to go for rather ‘average’ designs, leaving the more advanced ones for flat-water.

Wings will grip the water more than flats, after all that is what they are designed for, so go with a smaller rather than larger blade size if in doubt. Likewise a little shorter overall length, and a more flexible shaft is not a bad idea. I tend to avoid split shafts for the reason of stiffness if I can.

Wings on the rough


So are wings the choice for you? Well only you can make that choice...sorry.

Wing paddling is not difficult, but it does demand a level of skill and technique. It does bring advantages and reward but these may not be as significant as first thought.

Think back to the figures. Earlier we said that wings give around a 5% advantage.  So for a 1 hour paddle we will arrive 3 minutes earlier with wings, over 3 hours it will be around 9 minutes earlier. For that advantage we have to take a performance penalty on our rolling and steering. Is it worth it?

 That depends on our skill and what we have planned of course.  If we have a 3 hour race or a 10 hour record attempt ahead of us then it probably is. If we are looking for expedition paddling, racing, records, fitness training or just all-round efficient cruising then wings are likely the way to go. Likewise wings can be an option to broaden paddling horizons or to help improve our paddling stroke.

However, if our paddling is predominately gentle cruising, group coaching or heavy white-water playing or surfing then those standard flats are probably the better choice.

Wings can be, and are, paddled successfully in all areas of sea paddling – rough and smooth. However it must be realised that they are just a set of paddles, there’s nothing magic involved here. Sometimes they will be the better choice, sometimes flats will be. You pays your money...

One thing that does stand out though, once a paddler gets acquainted with their wings, they rarely want to swap back.

John Willacy
June 2016

Random Shot

Dry Feet