May the force be with you...on the water


Fast and Furious – a recap on the 2021 competition season and how to use the Force on the race course by: Sabrina Barm

Photo: Sedivy Jakob

In wildwater, as in every other discipline, the critical edge is given by how well you master your Jedi mind tricks. The paddling isn't what's really difficult. Don't get me wrong, it absolutely is difficult. However, the art of manipulating a paddle and boat in turbulent currents represents, with all its challenges, still a fairly tangible set of skills. There are differences, of course, between extreme racing and wildwater, which mostly takes place on safe, artificial courses. But in the heat of the moment and in the face of the challenge, it feels equally hard. As we were warming up for the qualification heats in Bratislava, my friend from Croatia who knows that my main passion is with the steeper stuff, asked me a question. She asked: "When you paddle such scary whitewater, the big stuff, how do you do it? How do you manage being scared?" For instance, I could tell her that the consequences of messing up are so much less severe on a safe artificial facility vs. sections like the Wellerbrucke or the finals section of King of the Alps. I've spent my fair share of time crying on the banks of either type of whitewater, a physical reaction to an internal conflict between the desired performance outcome and the fear of failing at achieving it. When it comes to executing the plan however, it hits different if the consequence is mere embarrassment (which at the end of the day, no one cares about except ourselves) or a serious injury or worse. In the first case, it's easier to let go of whatever anyone else thinks and just send it. But the real answer to her question, how I manage fear was: "I don't!" Which of course, doesn't mean that I do nothing. Those days that I begin terrified out of my mind are a regular occurrence, have been for a long time. I've worked a great deal to get out of that perpetual detrimental state of paralyzing fear and into something more manageable, a place where I found still fear, but also joy and purpose. Entire books have been written about the patterns taking place inside our minds and how to manage them, and I have been reading a few of them. 'Rock Warrior' by Arno Ilgner is one of my favourites, and 'La methode Target' by Christian Target and Ingrid Petitjean for those who can read French. All the study helped to a point. But I still found myself with my boat by the riverside and my cojones nowhere to be found because they had gone on vacation (without me of course). What really began to make a difference and what I meant by "I don't" was: At some point I stopped fighting myself.

It comes down to a few things that are very hard to put into practice and yet very simple:

  • Acceptance
  • Perception
  • Confidence and solution oriented thinking

Let’s break it down:

Acceptance  - You cannot fight your demons. You have to become them. You have to accept that they are there, or even make them your allies. You have to come to terms with the fact that they will always be there and won’t go anywhere, no matter what you do. Believe me, I’ve spent more than 10 years doing my best to fight my fear, and I’m one hell of a tenacious fighter! However, I never made much progress. One day, I realized: This is pointless! I can either stop paddling to avoid this immense discomfort, or I could accept: This is just what my mind does and I cannot do much about it. I am scared! Period! And also: it’s natural to be scared. It’s ok! It’s important to make wise choices, and look at what positive things the river brings to you, despite the fear.

Bruce Lee (ok, he’s not a Jedi/Star Wars character, but still awesome) once said:

“In order to control myself, I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

Perception - This one is one of the greater gifts I received from my coach, Gregor Becke. A true Jedi Master who has a unique and inspiring way of using the Force, so to say. Whatever the situation is, and no matter how dire and unnerving it seems, you could always ask yourself: What positive could the situation have? What positive things could come from it? I may be scared shitless by the rapid I’m about to run, but what if it goes well? I could learn a great many things from running the rapid, it could be an amazing, fun experience. Or, I have to complete a training session on the water, despite cold, nasty weather conditions. Do I look at it as an annoying chore? Or do I look at it as an opportunity to get stronger, a gift (I get to paddle, yay!!) and a chance to spend time and have fun with my friends?

Confidence and solution-oriented thinking

We have a problem. Do we really? James Weir, a good friend of mine, says: There are no problems, there are solutions. So, chances are that for whatever challenge that presents itself, you already have skills and solutions to address it. If not, there are solutions you can find and skills you can learn. What I’m trying to say here is: Your energy is always directed towards what you focus on. Instead of saying “This is hard. Can I do this?” you could rather say: ”Ok, this is hard. HOW can I do this?” What solutions and skills do I have to address the situation at hand, and how could I learn new skills that are necessary? This way of thinking, instead of blocking your brain by a sense of being overwhelmed, opens up more pathways and more creativity to actually come up with a solution. In 10+ years of racing, I’ve been nervous at the start line every damn time and always experienced various degrees of uncomfortable physical sensations. Eventually I realized: I do feel like sh**, but that has always been the case, before nearly every race or big rapid I have ever done. And yet I have often mastered the challenges at hand and achieved a good performance, by accepting those uncomfortable emotions and sensations as part of my reality and then getting to work. 

Photo: Milos Jakobi

Cutting a long story short – what does all of this mean? I'm still scared AF and the journey is far from over. As you take your steps, from Padawan learner to Jedi knight and one day maybe even a Jedi master, the more you realize how much you still have to learn. But I have accepted that the fear is there and that it won't go anywhere, no matter what I do. Which allows me to look a bit further.

Your focus determines your reality (Qui-Gon Jinn)

The fear is there, but so are other things. What do you look at the most, what do you focus on? What good things could possibly happen, what positive aspects does the situation have? What did you do and learn in similar situations you have faced before, what can you remember and acknowledge from when you’ve handled a situation well?

Question yourself. But never doubt yourself !  (Quinlan Vos, Star Wars Legends)


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