'Progress' is a bit of a funny one. Business can talk about 'SMART' aims (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-linked), but in the world of the Outdoors, we don't really do those. We don't normally set aims, we don't really closely monitor our progress, we don't have personal development plans, we don't do increments. So what do we do when we recognise a problem and want a long-term, hardwired, resilient solution to that issue?
The root of my paddling issues I've covered at length on here, so you know the problem. Obviously I needed to improve my technical skills and my confidence, so I started keeping a live log of my river days and making notes: What went well, what went not so well, how I felt on the river, what I think I need to work on. That's coupled with one of my 3 aims from a while back, to pass my 4*, and I have a 4* profiling sheet, so I can look at my progress against the things I need to do. I've still got Kelvin, the coach's, notes from my training, back in December '12, and they're a useful guide of what someone else thought of my paddling, at a time when I was probably beating myself up about it a lot.
My log is into it's fourth year of boating now. What's noticeable? Progression, physically and mentally. It's kind of heartening to see it spread out the way it is, and to look at the issues I had back in 2011. Going from notes like "Generally okay, silly swim on Dog Leg (weight balance wrong, stuck on boil line)" to "Great fun. Chilled out run, nice surfing and steady work on eddies and ferries." The root of it was the club's Wales weekend back in 2011, that seemed to be the time I first sort of pushed myself back into boating and maybe realised how much I'd dropped away. And, perhaps, how much I wanted to get back into it.
One of the interesting things is the number of days paddling I have done over the past few years. 2011, when this all started, I only got 12 sections of river in 11 days paddling over a year. I was training for the Grand Raid des Pyrenees and, while I still did a lot of pool sessions and polo, my river boating days were utterly minimal. 2012 was better, 22 sections over 21 days. Still not exactly a royal flush, but a massively better hand than the year before, but it did include my 4* training which started the next phase of recovery. After that, 2013 was kind of my breakthrough year, 37 sections over 30 days paddling, and probably the biggest single progression impact, the Alps trip. As I said at the time, you can almost *feel* the progression when you can run similar sections day-on-day for a fortnight. The three sections that we ran twice, Upper Guisane, Gyronde and the Briancon Gorge, I felt noticeably better and happier on on our second run even though the two runs were only 5 days apart at most. Partially because of that, I'm going back to the Alps this year and I'll be interested to see what my log says for this time round.
The general gist of the whole thing, if I were to plot 'how things went' on a graph, is a nice upwards trend. Things have been gradually getting better, and that's awesome. It's interesting, though, to look at the outliers and blips too, the days when I've felt bad, when I've not bothered, when I've paddled badly. In some cases, like the Tyne Tour and at least one day on the Washburn, it's been beer-related - paddling with a hangover was never my forte in the past, and it continues not to be. In a couple of cases bad days have been kit-related - forgetting the hip wedges for my boat, having a bust drysuit zip. But mentally my worst days have been when I've felt I was the weakest paddler in a group, and when I was paddling new sections. The days, like Sunday just gone on the Lune, when I'm coaching or leading on a section I know well, I'm invincible (well, not quite, but you get the idea). New sections where I'm following, like the Gloy over New year, I struggle. Everything about that river put the shakies up me, even though it was the kind of low-ish volume, fast, micro-eddied technical beck paddling that I quite like. I paddled with Mike and Duncan as a trio, two people I haven't paddled with regularly, if that makes any difference. I paddled at the back, worried, fretted and inevitably made a couple of cockups - nothing major, no swims, no rolls - and generally felt a bit out of my depth. I got down the river but there was nothing stylish or smooth about it, I felt like a complete numpty.
Those are the type of days I said I wanted to avoid, so what could I have done: Not got on the river? I did enough no-boat days over the New Year trip, the levels were ridiculously high and I wasn't happy in my own abilities on flows like that, that's something to work on though. Paddled at the front more? That's a possibility, forcing myself to up my game and lead more might have helped. Paddled with a different group? That shouldn't matter, I shouldn't be deriving my own worth from my perception of others. I've said this for a while, other people's skill levels might define the order we paddle but shouldn't define *how* we paddle.
Why a river within my skill level should affect me so much based on the company I've kept I'm really not sure. I've no definitive answer for that one yet, and I'm not really sure there is one. I'll keep logging my days, looking at my data and, judging by the progress I've made in the past 3 years, I'm sure I'll work it out sometime.