Telluride Kayak School
Two students paddling at Telluride Kayak School, Colorado. (Erin Raley)

Roll With It

If an experienced kayaker can get dumped while teaching his girlfriend paddling skills, what hope do you have for teaching your better half an adventure sport? At least some, if you follow these rules.

Telluride Kayak School

Andy Bagnall had exactly what he wanted in his girlfriend of six months. She was a water-loving, mountain-biking, outdoor junkie who introduced him to backcountry skiing. Now, the 27-year-old was going to introduce her to his sport: whitewater kayaking. Bagnall started kayaking as a 12-year-old boy scout, and he’d dished plenty of pointers to his guy friends seeking whitewater training. His early dates with his girlfriend involved floating and paddling trips, just not on whitewater. So, he thought, no big deal to give her a quick lesson on the basics and head out.

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson Matt Wilson, owner of Telluride Kayak School, and student.

The first roadblock came when Bagnall tried to teach her to roll. The roll is one of the more difficult kayaking skills for beginners to master. She hated the feeling of going upside-down under water, and Bagnall couldn’t teach around the problem. Bickering ensued. “The roll adds heightened stress to any situation,” Bagnall recalls. “Both of us were alphas in our own right, and maybe we were both stubborn. I was guessing at the situation and didn’t really know what to offer her.”

The kayaking eventually worked out, but the head butting during the kayaking lesson proved that their relationship was fallible. A few months down the line they weren’t together, in or out of the water.

One year after the roll-induced relationship fiasco, Bagnall was teaching raw beginners over as a certified instructor at Telluride Kayak School. He now sees why his teaching inexperience caused problems in his relationship, and lucky for you, he wants to share his wisdom.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is easy to gloss over. When suggesting an adventure sport, think about the key points that might make someone nervous. With a sport like kayaking, you’d evaluate how much she fears water and speed. “You can’t just decide to go kayaking,” Bagnall says. “Getting overwhelmed with the sport will ruin it for anybody.”

Once you’ve identified her fear be sure to respect it, says Dr. Warren Farrell, relationship expert and author of Women Can’t Hear what Men Don’t Say. “Let your partner know they always have control,” Farrell says. “And ask them how they’d like the process to occur.” By letting her dictate the process she will have more control, and a better handle on her fear.

There are three main categories of learning—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—and professional instructors are taught to use all three. Here is a quick cheat sheet to help you identify which of the three main categories she falls under. After you identify how she learns, think about how to tailor your lessons to that method.

Visual: Does she tend to draw you pictures when she’s telling stories?

Try demonstrating the mechanics of kayaking, so she can see the dos and don’ts. A toy kayak and a hypothetical river course will help her understand how to navigate rapids. If you want to go all out, bring a video camera to the lesson so she can watch herself and see exactly what she is doing wrong—and right.

Auditory: Does she talk through work problems by giving you a blow by blow?

Women tend to need to understand the reasons behind mechanics. Don’t just explain what they need to do, explain why it works to do it that way. For example, when teaching boat control, men are more likely to go for it first and understand mechanics later, whereas women want to understand why strokes work, so they can think through controlling the boat before actually doing the task.

Kinesthetic: Does she gesture a lot while talking?

She will need to physically go through the skills as you teach them. Be sure to start out in a pool or calm pond where she can concentrate on getting a feel for the movement, and you can manipulate her body when she doesn’t get it quite right.

If one tactic isn’t working, try another. Presenting something in different ways is better than repeating the same instructions endlessly.

Once you understand her teaching style, pick an easy spot for learning, scope it out, and take it slow.

Bagnall went wrong because he tried to teach the whole roll in one lesson. When things didn’t progress smoothly, he had no backup plan and became frustrated. You’ll want to start with the basics, anticipate a slow learning curve, and be prepared to stop and come back to a point at another time. “The key is to just take baby steps,” said Bagnall. “Have fun, build confidence, and leave people wanting more at the end of the day rather than wishing they had not done as much as they had.”

For a sport like kayaking, the initial lesson might go something like this.

–       Find the perfect spot: Look for flat water with an easy entry
–       Identify the equipment on-shore: Without teaching her kayaking vocabulary, she won’t understand what you are saying when you reference specifics later.
–       Getting In and the Wet Exit: Before anything else, she needs to know how to get in and out of the boat. Go over this in detail and have her practice in a few different easy to enter and exit locations.
–       Proper strokes: She will need to master holding the paddle correctly as well as a forward sweep and forward stroke, before making the jump from flat to moving water.
–       T-rescue: Knowing this rescue means that she can right herself without having to swim or roll.
–       If she’s comfortable, teach her the roll. Try this with your girl: stand in the water and demonstrate the starting and ending position of the roll. Then guide her through the mechanics of getting from point A to B. By standing right there, you will reassure her that nothing bad will happen, and you will see where she is going wrong.
–       Move to something fun: If the roll doesn’t come, she can still practice moving around. Save the roll for another practice. If the roll comes, do a simple run in slow moving water.

Your relationship puts additional stress on the learning environment. In addition to any other fears she might have, your girlfriend will experience a natural fear of disappointing you. A teaching method called The Sandwich is the best way to combat this insecurity. Sandwich each negative comment between two positive comments—For example, say you want to tell her she needs to keep her head down as she rolls, rather than just saying “keep your head down” go for the longer winded, but more effective:  “You’re staying relaxed underwater—perfect—but you need to keep your head down as your roll toward the surface, but your body awareness is excellent.”

It won’t hurt to think up some positives before the lesson, just in case she struggles. It’s much harder to come up with new positives in the moment, especially if you’re frustrated. And, You look hot when you’re angry, does not count.

If all else fails, remember that you don’t have to learn together. You might think this defeats the purpose, but it could be the better way to go. Married couples tend to prefer to learn separately, while young lovers try to do everything together. Learning separately can still bring the relationship closer, provided both parties are actively engaged in the process. “It helps to see your partner each day during the lesson process,” Farrel says. “It’s important to let your partner share her progress step by step.”

If she wants to learn to kayak, let her do it. You don’t have to be by her side to support her new hobby. Once the heavy learning is out of the way, you can still enjoy the sport together.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: Erin Raley