Project WwSUP: Fear of Falling

Last year on a perfect summer Sunday afternoon I accepted an invitation to a small pond party near Stuart, VA. “And bring a paddleboard or two if you can!”

And so I did bringing two heavy but incredibly stable Jackson Kayak SUPs designed for navigating rivers… which I don’t think I actually paddled at all because both my friends and their kids kept them occupied almost constantly on the 2 acre spring-fed pond. Instead, I got to paddle a couple beautiful and lightweight but less stable boards brought by other guests. While my middle-aged peers had been paddling with cautious, rigid bodies taking great care to remain upright and dry I was dancing around and falling off the more nimble boards more than anyone other than the kids. The kids got it. And eventually a couple of my older friends got it too. The effect of all this falling in the water? More relaxed paddlers experimenting with movement when on their feet and both risking and accepting falls into the cool safety of the deep pond water … all without any “instruction” other than a little playful modeling from me.


Later, relaxing in the shade of my host’s beautiful pond-side pavilion a fellow guest told me about her own passion – horseback riding – and the notion that you’re not a ‘real’ horseback rider until you’ve fallen off 100 times (or 50 or 7 or whatever depending on who’s telling it). The principal, she explained, is that until you know how to fall and no longer fear it you will never have the confidence to truly progress as a rider. If part or most of your mind is distracted by the stress of potential injury – to your body or ego – you have that much less attention in the moment to focus on the task at hand.

That made sense and sent me searching for other sports in which the ‘fear of falling’ hampers skill progression.

Experts in skateboarding, rock climbing, surfing, and even aging find important benefits from developing safe falling skills – both for the mind as well as the body. Chris Wing – one of the most talented and imaginative whitewater kayak instructors practicing today calls the mental aspect of dealing with the fear of falling – or, in his case, flipping upside-down in a kayak – Taming the Lizard Brain.

The martial art of Judo is the oldest athletic discipline I found that treats falling as its own discipline (Ukemi). Falling is the first skill new practitioners learn at the dojo. Parkour – the practice of jumping, climbing and flying through urban terrain like a gymnast – also understands falling as a critical sub-discipline and borrows much from the world of Judo.

The point of all of this attention to falling is not simply harm reduction but more broadly connected to improving performance by reducing anxiety around falling. For some guidance on building confidence falling in swift rivers and creeks check out one of my first posts for this blog – Falling on Rocks.

This video of me (Dale) at Suddy Hole rapid on Big Laurel Creek – a tributary of the French Broad River – illustrates a parkour-style of responding to a fall. Note the aggressive approach and the quick response to the rock that stopped the board – despite the appearance this tumble resulted in no injury other than minor bumps to my butt.

#ProjectWWSUP #wwsup

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