Over the weekend some of us went out and paddled a couple of rivers in Southwest Michigan. First warm day of the season, and the rivers were still pumping. While out paddling, we were all obviously playing like river otters. But there was also focused practice taking place. We were all trying to ferry across the river and hit specific targets. You look across the river and see an eddy behind a rock and you aim for the rock. If you don’t aim, you miss the rock and drift downstream. ┬áThis is the essence of focused practice.

All the way back to my days playing soccer [football], everyone loved doing a scrimmage or 5 v 5 in front of the net. Even hitting a dead ball towards the net was more fun than some skills. No one liked doing focused practice on movement skills without the ball. The problem came when we were forced to exercise these skills in play.


How many times do you think he (Gareth Bale) hit the ball from that position before he could hit the ball up and over the wall (yellow metal cutouts) and down into the corner of the net?

Certainly this being Gareth Bale he does have talent. But I can tell you, he’s hit that in training thousands of times. Thousands. It’s crazy to expect expert level performance of ourselves as athletes from only having been introduced to skills briefly in a coaching session. I want to repeat that. It’s crazy to expect expert level performance of ourselves as athletes from only having been introduced to skills briefly in training.

In the video above where the woman peels out of the eddy, this is a skill we should all practice until it is fundamental. If this is the first time you’ve seen the skill why would we expect that you should be able to do it first time. And further keep doing it precisely without focused practice? Each of the skills is about timing, pace, and a dynamic environment. They are in fact way harder than the look on TV.

For paddlers, some of us really like doing focused practice. Others just want to paddle. Understood. But to actually improve at anything, you need to have focused practice sessions where you spend 10-15 minutes executing a skill repeatedly.

For any skill worth doing here are some thoughts on how to setup focused meaningful practice.

  • Get coaching to be able to fully understand the skill to be able to use it in context.
  • Setup practice in an area where the skill would be useful.
    • Sometimes the environmental factors as in the case of the peel out depicted above in the video need to be present. Make sure that the conditions are reliable and not too challenging, it’s about having an area to execute the skill easily. If it’s too hard, you won’t progress, if it’s too easy you won’t progress.
    • While you’re learning make it easy on yourself, warm safe learning vs. cold scary dunking where possible.
  • Set a time limit, 10 minutes then rest.
  • Set visual targets for your skill. rocks, trees, features in the water. You have to aim to miss.
  • Focus on getting the skill so that you can make it look easy. Don’t stop when you hit it, stop when you hit it with style and you’re relaxed.
  • Vary your practice, if you’re doing something methodically every time, try doing it fast, or the reverse.
  • Because it’s kayaking don’t do something on one side and not the other, do it on both sides.
  • Keep adding to practice and learn new stuff.

While we do say get coaching, the purpose of this is definitely about making sure the coaching is effective through practice. Without the practice the coaching is wasted. And we love to see students come back with skills they got just through practice.

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