Life and the Forward Stroke


Not perfect. Better.

A long time ago I had a conversation with Alistair and Marianne Wilson about perfecting the forward stroke. Alistair and Marianne are both two-time Olympic flatwater sprint kayakers. They also started Lendal paddles together back in 1964. The two of them know a whole lot about training the forward stroke.

At the time, I was working hard to improve my forward paddling. I had taken a forward stroke class with Brent Reitz who was touring the country doing clinics and promoting his instructional DVD. I had a decent grounding in the fundamentals but I was frustrated with my progress.

The problem was, when I went out on the water to practice, I couldn’t get it all to come together. As soon as I concentrated on one aspect of the stroke, some other part of it fell apart.

Simple and Complex
Forward paddling seems simple. The guides at Savannah Canoe and Kayak teach it to thousands of people every year. When you go on a tour you get a quick intro to paddling.

There are three steps: Put your paddle in the water near your feet. Pull the boat past the paddle. Pull the paddle out near your seat.

In at the feet. Out at the seat.


Just three parts: more technically, Catch, Power and Recovery.

Catch is putting the blade of the paddle in the water. Power is pulling the kayak past the paddle. Recovery is cleanly slicing the blade out of the water at your hip. Catch, Power and Recovery are repeated over and over, alternating sides in a continuous motion.

Describing the forward stroke in three parts makes it seem simple. In reality, each of these components contains a multitude of details. They’re very complex.

Take the catch. You initiate the catch by twisting your upper body so that you can reach forward to plant the paddle in the water. This rotation is accentuated by applying pressure on the opposing footrest, which shifts your pelvis slightly in the kayak seat and allows for a longer reach. Once your torso is rotated, the paddle blade is inserted into the water. This is best done with the top hand, stabbing the paddle slightly forward and downward. Ideally the blade enters the water with a minimum of splashing. A quiet blade allows for more power.

That’s just the catch. Power and Recovery are equally complex. Perfecting the forward stroke requires perfecting all of these individual components.

Once you set your mind on perfection, or at least improvement, you realize that the forward stroke is massively complex. It has so many moving parts that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Your attention is constantly shifting, trying to hold everything together. But you can’t. You can only focus on one aspect of the technique at a time. When you do, everything else reverts to where it was before.


This is the challenge I was experiencing when I first started working on improving my forward paddling. If I focused on torso rotation, I lost track of what was happening with my top hand during the catch. If I focused on what my lower body was doing, my upper body form deteriorated. I might be getting everything to click with torso rotation–push with the opposite foot, shift in the seat, rotate forward–after a few strokes I realized that the blade was splashing more than it should.

Training the forward stroke seemed like an endless game of Whac-A-Mole.

When I mentioned this to the Wilsons they nodded. I think it was Marianne who said, “It’s like that for everyone. You really have to pick one part and focus on it for a while. After that, you just paddle.”

That was a long time ago. For some reason, the memory popped into my head the other morning while Cristi and I were walking.

“Huh,” I thought, “Life is like the forward stroke.”

Complex physical skills like the forward stroke are more easily learned if they are broken into smaller parts. Focusing on small but important sub components of the Catch, Power Phase and Recovery reduces the complexity of forward paddling to discrete, manageable chunks. You might call these micro techniques.

As Marianne told me, you can’t focus on all of them at once. There are just too many. So you focus on one and try as hard as you can to train it to perfection. All the while accepting that the rest of your technique will be sloppy.

By training the discrete parts of the stroke you build muscle memory. Technically, you build motor engrams: neurological patterns stored in you brain. These patterns fire your muscles to perform a physical action automatically.

As you refine the motor engrams that code for each part of the forward stroke, your actions become more automatic. Your body knows what to do even when you aren’t focusing your attention on it. You no longer have to think about everything all at once.

Your baseline shifts.

With training, you improve across the host of micro techniques that comprise forward paddling. You still lose concentration on one aspect of the stroke when you focus on another. That doesn’t change. What changes is the underlying level of skill.

Everything gets better.

The rest of life seems a lot like this, too.

Reading James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits convinced me of this. Clear makes the case that habits are the building blocks of daily life. Small, discrete actions that, taken together, can create an enormous increase in efficiency and power.

Training habits is like training a physical skill. You use repetition to build neurological patterns in your brain. These patterns make habits an automatic part of your day. Everything from turning the lights off when you leave a room, putting down the toilet seat or putting the cap on the toothpaste tube can be trained through practice. As can more significant habits. Daily exercise. Healthy eating. Meditation. Reading. Keeping a journal. All sorts of things that we know will make our lives better.

All sorts of things. That’s part of the problem. There is really no end to the number of habits we could build to move our lives in a more positive direction. There are so many things to improve. The list is almost endless. Overwhelming. If you try to do everything at once you won’t be able to hold it together for long.

Shifting Baselines
This is what hit me the other morning. Building good habits is like training the forward stroke. As soon as you focus your attention on one area, other things start to slip. There just isn’t enough willpower to hold everything together all at once.

Maybe we shouldn’t try.

I used to think that I could either focus on eating well or on maintaining a consistent exercise program. Not both at once. For whatever reason it seemed to take all my self discipline to stick to one thing or the other. I didn’t have enough willpower.

So I focused on one at a time.

Sometimes that meant eating junk and working out every day. At other times I experimented with healthier eating but gave myself permission to back off on the exercise. Years passed, and something unexpected happened. I improved my exercise habits and found a way of eating that was healthy and easy to stick with. Suddenly I was able to exercise every day and eat right. It didn’t require as much willpower. My baseline had shifted.

When I first tried meditation more than 20 years ago I couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes. I quit. I started again. Quit again. Changed my approach. Started a walking meditation practice. Started sitting again. Learned more. Something began to change. I could sit for 10 minutes. Then twenty. Then thirty. It didn’t take as much willpower. My baseline had shifted again.

And the forward stroke? Training the different components of the forward stroke improved my technique dramatically. I’m faster. Stronger. More efficient. And I don’t have to think about it all the time. I’ve built enough muscle memory around the core aspects of forward paddling to dramatically improve my base level of performance.

I realize that it may seem like a trivial comparison to say that forward paddling and life are the same. For me, it’s a powerful analogy. I remember the frustration of trying to make improvements in this fundamental kayaking skill. Feeling like it was impossible to get it right. Over time, with practice, everything improved.

That doesn’t mean that I’m done. I don’t have a perfect forward stroke. In fact, I’m not sure that’s possible. The forward stroke seems easy, but it’s not. The forward stoke is hard.

Life is like that. Personal growth isn’t easy. It takes work. But if you put in the work, you can bend your life in a better direction. You won’t be able to stop things from slipping, but you can shift your baseline. When things slip, they won’t slip as far. And when one habit becomes automatic you can set to work on a new one. You don’t have to do everything at once.

It’s a process. There’s no finish line. We’ll never be perfect.

We can be better.


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