Words: Steve West
An old school mate recently visited me in the UK from Hong Kong. The antithesis of myself, he’s a fast paced executive in the clothing game. Short on time, long on money, he loves his sport and has interests in kiteboarding and mountain bike riding. A natural sportsman, he’s impatient and has a need to want to learn any new sport quickly and doesn’t mind paying for it. He has an intolerance of mediocrity, a view we both share with regards to paying out for instruction, and it doesn’t take him long to calculate the ratio of quality of experience balanced with what he’s paid out.
Not so long ago, he paid an eye-watering £1,000 for a four-hour one-to-one advanced mountain bike course in New Zealand. This led to partaking in the latest thing, heli-biking, being dropped off high on a mountain top and riding back home – and you don’t even want to know what that costs. It reminded me of story of a party of wealthy businessmen who had chartered a game fishing boat in Cairns, Australia, who, upon running out of beer and recognising the gravity of the situation, telephoned the local helicopter service and had them fly out a carton of beer at an eye-watering cost.
Well, maybe it’s that you get what you pay for or simply that there are people out there willing to pay for excellence and who have in place a different set of values, governed by how much money they have to invest. Club Mistral offer the same bespoke service in some of their resorts, a ‘Prestige’ package for wealthy executives and high flyers, who want peace and solitude away from the eyes of others and this extends to windsurfing and kiteboarding, in which they have high levels of expertise. Which brings me to the thrust of this missive.
There is the worrying possibility that SUP sport has in fact been dumbed-down to the point where it’s quite possible it is being grossly under-sold and therefore under-valued by a very large segment of society. Since the beginning of its contemporary surge in popularity, it has been universally promoted as ‘easy’ and if not easy, then as a ‘core-workout’; promotional catch cries which are the antithesis of each other. This serves to pay homage to the notion of dumbing-down the appeal of the sport to those who are either simpletons or dumb enough to think that it’s actually possible to have an ‘easy core-workout’. The double-downside to this logic is, of course, that this line of approach will not work with the more hard-core sporting element, as they will see through such misdirected, juxtaposed promotional nonsense.
Curious about SUP, the sun shining and a light breeze blowing, it was time to introduce my mate to the sport. His level of interest was more or less based on scepticism, not unbridled enthusiasm. His view, like so many thousands of others naturally gifted at sports pursuits, was that SUP sport seemed somewhat baseless and that learning required no particular skill other than the existence of a pulse, backed up by much of the literature which continues to promote the experience akin to being just above the level of sitting on the couch watching sport, rather than doing it.
Knowing his level of athleticism and ignoring most of what all good instructional organisations would deem to be ideal conditions, we would take on a 4 knot cross-current, zigzagging weekend yachties and power boaters, choppy water and an 8 knot head wind. I opted to provide him with a 14ft MI Mistral iSUP, ZRE paddle and XM knee leash. In short he was getting good kit and further more, dare I say it, me. After sharing a few pearls of wisdom, we set off. Starting out on his knees as instructed, he paddled the first 500m, over the worst of the choppy waters and current and when clear of boat traffic, took to his feet. He ‘paddle-wobbled’ while I gave a few cursory lines of encouragement and let him indulge in the much underrated process of discovery learning. Twenty minutes, three falls and a couple of swear words later, we reached the beach we had set out for.
He was shattered and had a look of incredulity on his face, which said it all. Not ‘easy’ in fact. He had had an epiphany that SUP-sport is in fact anything but – though in truth, I had made sure it wasn’t, as the last thing I wanted was to have him maintaining his belief that the sport appeared pointless. Falling off had elevated his experience in connecting him with the medium with which he was working and because the water was choppy, you could visibly see his legs shaking from the feet right up to the gear box area of his hips. His upper body was doing its level best to keep swinging away to ensure momentum and pressure on the blade. His heart rate had been elevated throughout the experience, not just through physical effort, but by the nerve impulses firing heavy duty signals throughout his body in an attempt to stay focused and balanced.
We talked, we paddled home and by the time I was finished with him, he was converted to the fact that here was a sport which was anything but easy, aided by the fact I had set out to not make it so. I had not over looked his pre-existing ability by giving him a 10’6 x 36″ board, nor underestimated the importance of a good paddle. I certainly was not going to provide him with billiard-table flat water as a first experience, which would be dull and uninteresting and only serve to lend weight to pre-conceptions that SUP sport is in fact easy and, for many, not much of a workout.
Having conceived and written the instructional training content for SUP Water Safety and Rescue (with Chris Rea), the Exposed Waters and Downwind course and conceived the blue print for their Ready to Race courses for the Academy of Surfing Instructors (ASI) and now working with the recently formed Water Skills Academy Ltd (WSA), I can vouch for the fact that many instructors seem somewhat overly protective of their students. They are preoccupied with avoiding and limiting the possibility that their students will fall in or that, God forbid, they are confronted with having to work hard to stay deck side. Discomfort, it seems, must be avoided at all costs during the learning phase. You have to question if this is a virtue or a vice.
Falling and retrieval
Perhaps this is born of the belief that falling and retrieval and being challenged to maintain balance is in some way a negative factor. The reality may well be that adding greater challenge and the definite possibility they will fall, will in fact add to the experience and dispel some of the myths that could be detracting would-be participants, rather than attracting. While it’s not always possible to offer bespoke lessons within larger school situations, the idea should be nurtured along with a higher price tag for the service. In doing so, you must delve into the past sporting history of the individual and create a structured approach which sets out to spark their imagination and interest. One way to achieve this, is to avoid making learning overly easy and to ensure that stabilising muscles are indeed being fired to induce a reaction of the core muscles.
The net result can be electric; in so much as their body will be charged with chemicals and electrical impulses in trying to stay connected with the board and maintaining balance while swinging the paddle. Your student at session end should, in short, be knackered and red-faced, their body surging with feel-good endorphins after their first experience – not so unstimulated as to be bordering on an outbreak of narcolepsy. A soporific experience it must not be.
As SUP sport matures, so too should our interpretation and approach to how it should be promoted to those not yet converted. This is especially important when considering those who are already talented watersports enthusiasts; or snowboarders, mountain bikers and their kind. As instructors gain in confidence, they need to adjust their strategies for teaching and hence for learning, so as to elevate the first time experience and seek new ways to not only create novel and captivating strategies to hook their students, but strategies that ensure students do not leave with a casual indifference to the sport, but feel fired up, challenged, elated and stoked to want to come back for more.
Cotton-wool pandering approach
At the beginning of the evolution of windsurfing, it was by default hard to learn. Despite the level of physicality required and more especially the skills required to master it, where falling and retrieval went hand in hand with the learning experience, the sport flourished. Not because it was easy; far from it. And there was not much that instructors could do to make the learning process much easier – it was hard, period. When compared to the average SUP sport first time experience today, you have to question if the cotton-wool, pandering approach, supported often in turn by the industry’s obsession with making barndoor stable boards, is in fact somewhat counter-productive, if not certainly counter-intuitive, to what should in fact be a wetter, harder, tougher, first time experience.
Much of this stems from the windsurfing industry (now SUP converts) paranoia in wanting to avoid taking SUP sport to its extremes in nullifying the elderly, the young and the women as it did with its original core business of windsurfing. However, in respect of the end-users actual experience and even of intermediate paddlers, the obsession with stability and not falling off could well be hindering the appeal and attracting the lower end of the socio-athletic gene pool, whilst ignoring all others – to the detriment of the sport. What’s needed is broader appeal through a broader approach to instruction; you could even go so far as to run differing entry-level courses based on pre-existing skills, easily offered with a vivid imagination.
Steve West is acting Brand Ambassador and Consultant to Mistral Red Dot Division International. In addition, he is Senior Consultant to the Water Skills Academy Ltd and Managing Director of KANUculture Publications. Author of ‘Stand up Paddle – A Paddler’s Guide’, recognised as the ‘SUP Bible’ across the globe. He is a two-time outrigger canoeing World Champion (Molokai), past professional windsurfer and National Coaching Director (Australia) and Consultant to the Fijian South Pacific Games Race Squad for over seven years. Instrumental in the establishment of the ASI SUP (2011) Instructor Courses in the UK and Europe, he has been an ocean paddler for over 35 years and remains an active participant in both SUP and OC sports.