Rolling Instruction. We can do much better.

Saturday, 27 September 2008
Not the best kayak rolling lesson...Last week Derrick wrote a small piece on his blog about why he feels that instructors don’t do a great job teaching rolling. A couple of days went by and yesterday a follow-up article was posted with some great suggestions on how we can make both learning and teaching rolling more fun.

Since, I was the one to trigger the follow-up article through a comment on the first, I thought I would weigh in on the issue and talk about it from my perspective.

Rolling. For some reason at seems to be the pinnacle of success for kayaking, there is a huge amount of people who have tried and given up learning it. Could that be the reason for the mystic?

There are different priorities in regards to rolling between the whitewater and sea kayaking communities. In whitewater, you learn how to roll very early on in your boating career. The reason is simple. Pretty soon, it becomes a required skill if you want to get out and paddle in anything bigger then class 1 rapids. Spending the day swimming sucks and that is a pretty big motivational factor to learn how to roll. Contrast that to sea kayaking where it is viewed as a very advanced skill to be learned after you have mastered all the other rescue types. One could very easily paddle their entire lives never needing to roll ever.

I agree with Derrick that a lot of students leave a pool clinic feeling very frustrated. I can understand that frustration as it took me over a year of solid work just to figure it out. That’s hours and hours in a pool or lake hanging upside down. During that time worked with at least 5 different people with various degrees of success. Then one day it all snapped together and it has been bombproof ever since. How and why that happened? No idea.

From my experience, I think that some of the frustration of rolling comes from a combination of poor boats and poor instructors.

Outfitting and proper fit is one of the keys to success to learning how to roll. The problem is that unless you own your own boat, you are forced to use the club or paddling school boats that are more likely not to fit well or have worn out or poor outfitting.

Sea Kayak outfitting is years behind whitewater boats. Most companies put thigh braces in only one spot. If they are adjustable, they usually require tools. Most backbands are designed to wrap around you like a chair and doesn’t provide the type of freedom you require to do a good proper roll. Until companies start to focus on quality, easily adjustable outfitting, it is always going to be a hindrance for new rollers.

Another issue that frustrates new rollers is the quality of instruction out there. To be honest and very generally speaking, I don’t think that it is that great. Don’t get me wrong. I’m including myself in this as well. I am an instructor trainer for Paddle Canada so I am able to teach a couple instructor courses each year. During the courses, we spend a lot of time talking about how to actually teach people. Students work through all the common strokes and rescues that get used for introduction courses but it isn’t until somebody becomes a mid-level instructor (Paddle Canada Level 1 Instructor) that they are taught how to actually teach rolling.

On one level that makes sense, it is a complex skill and you need a fair amount of experience to read people and provide possible solutions on the fly. That isn’t always easy for absolutely brand new instructors. The problem is that we have a whole pile of instructors out there who might be able to roll themselves but have never been through the formal process of how to teach it.

I know people will read this and say that a good instructor should be able to break down any skill and be able to teach it. Yes, that is true but teaching a very complex skill like rolling requires you to know some of the inside trade secrets to be able to get somebody rolling as soon as possible.

Ok, so where does this leave us?

It’s a multi way street, students need to understand that it can be an uphill battle to get right and be encouraged to stop working on it as soon as they tired and come back with a fresh body and mind. Instructors also need to make sure that they know how to teach the skill well before they tackle it or risk frustrating students. Finally, clubs and schools need to quit promoting it as something you will get in a single 2 hour clinic. It just isn’t realistic for the average Joe.

If you find yourself teaching rolling and getting frustrated with the level of success with your students, there are a couple of things you can do:
  • Talk to other instructors. Find out works for them and if there any tricks that you can steal
  • Read books on rolling. Pay special attention to how they explain it. Does it make sense? If it does, try to work it into your conversation and lesson plans. All rolling books have some sort of section on common errors and possible solutions. Read through them very carefully and make notes. That will be a huge help for you when you are helping a struggling student.
  • Got a fleet of boats that need some outfitting help? You can now buy portable outfitting and slide in hip wedges that will really help out. It's worth the purchase. You can also make your own out of closed cell foam that works great for pool session. Your students will thank you!
  • Pay attention to your student's energy level. When they are showing signs of getting tired, stop. I always say that 2 half hour training sessions is better then a full hour of rolling.
  • Finally, there are lots of different ways on how to roll. Don't be afraid to switch styles with your student if it isn't working.

Of course, I'm not the definitive expert on teaching rolling. There are lots of better rollers and instructors out there so if you have a teaching tip or don't agree with me, pipe up! That is what the comments section below is for.
David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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