The Kayaking Effect

By Susan Langlois

If you find yourself wondering at the end of a long, crazy, camp day, why you ever decided to make a career in camp business, take a moment to consider how much campers can get from what you provide.


For example, think about what most adults look forward to during their working lives... going on a really fun vacation. Every year more people plan their vacations so that they can golf, mountain bike, inline skate, kayak, hike, sail or just about any other lifetime sport.

When you ask these vacationers how they first got into their sport, you will find that very often they credit instruction that they had at camp as their first exposure to their sport.

We have all heard about the growing epidemic of obesity and how inactive young people are because they are spending more of their free time on the Internet and playing video games. And the latest projections about how this physical inactivity will increase future health care costs is downright scary.

So if your camp introduces young people to lifetime sports that help them to enjoy being active and being healthy for life, you can have a huge influence on your campers' health and enjoyment.

Helping campers to learn how to play a sport that can be enjoyed at any age can have great physical, mental, and social benefits for the rest of their lives. What better reason can there be for a career in a camp business?

Hooked on Success
If you have taught a group of young people a new sport skill, whether archery, swimming, or skeet shooting, you have probably noticed that some of them are just naturals. Researchers in physical activity call these people motor gifted.

What is really important to know is that in the general population of campers, only about 13 percent have the natural ability to master a sport skill. These gifted athletes need just a little instruction, perhaps a demonstration, and then they are ready to make the most of their first attempts and they can start making immediate refinements in their technique.

If you ask motor gifted individuals to demonstrate in front of the group, they are usually happy and confident to take the stage and perform.

Then there are the rest of us mortals… those who are one step behind or feel like they have two left feet. Most instructors instinctively know that struggling beginners are going to refuse to demonstrate the skill in front of the group.

For a lot of campers, firing a bullseye or staying horizontal in the water isn't going to happen for a while and probably not without some frustrating attempts.

So the real challenge for sport instructors is to develop a learning situation where everyone can get hooked on the feeling of success.

The Kayaking Effect
Albert Bandura, a pioneer in psychology, developed the term self-efficacy. He defined it as "the confidence to execute a course of action."

Bandura also believed that self-efficacy is the most powerful influence on human behavior. So, before I start to teach a new group of campers any new sport skill, I explain what I call the kayaking effect theory.

I maintain that most people who have never kayaked have this preconceived notion that there is a lot of capsizing, and rolling-over-to-save-your-life involved.

When I have my first class with these novices, I can see the tension in their faces. Before we get into the kayaks, no matter what I describe or demonstrate, this tension usually doesn't go away, even if I guarantee that basic, beginner kayaking is actually much more stable than canoeing.

Anticipating this trepidation, I plan my lesson carefully: The first lesson involves only flatwater, flatbottomed kayaks, a partner to help each camper into the kayak, shallow water, a paddle with a tether so that the paddle can't stray out of their reach, and I even include the comfort (distraction) of a water bottle in a secure holder.

But it isn't until they experience their first ten minutes or so of success that they start to release their white-knuckle grips on their paddles.

However, if they have a close encounter with another kayaker or if they realize that they have strayed into deeper water, the white-knuckle grips resurface. Finally, by the end of the first lesson, they realize that they really are not going to capsize and roll.

Now for the kayaking effect... Usually the kayaking effect occurs once the lesson is over and their feet are safely back on shore. It is so interesting to watch both the expressions of relief and the smiles of pride wash over their faces.

I have to admit that I sometimes have to hold back a laugh when I watch beginning kayakers swagger back to their cabins after they have "survived" their first kayaking lesson. Now these kayakers have Albert Bandura's "confidence to execute a course of action."

Why do I take the time to explain my kayaking effect theory to all my campers in every sport skill I teach? Learning physical skills in a group is a very public event. Even if no one is watching, initial attempts of something new can raise anxiety levels, create tunnel vision and the kind of muscle tension that would make folding a napkin an impossible task.

And believe it or not, even the motor gifted will eventually find a sport that they will have to struggle to master. I believe that every camper needs to know that high anxiety is often just wasted energy and that high anxiety makes learning a lot harder than it needs to be.

Telling that story about beginning kayakers usually starts to decrease campers' anxiety about learning something new. Of course, the laughs that come from the campers who can remember their first time kayaking usually help everyone feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Golf is another sport where there are very public and dramatic results from a beginner's mistake. I am not sure which is more painful to the beginning golfer who has just sliced a golf ball across two fairways -- the horror of realizing that a very hard projectile is headed toward an unsuspecting foursome, or having to scream "fore!" across the two fairways so that everyone in earshot has to duck, after which they will inevitably scan the area to identify the guilty hacker.

For many beginning golfers, just the prospect of hitting an errant shot is enough to put them into a highly stressed state. The result of this stress is often a death grip on the club that makes it almost impossible to execute the proper swing.

A good golf instructor helps campers learn the fundamentals of a relaxed grip and a smooth swing with practice balls that can't endanger anyone.

Control is always emphasized over power. Chipping and putting drills are taught first because they eliminate the fear factor and ensure immediate success and confidence building.

Golf etiquette and the rules of the game are learned on mini-par-3 courses on a day where the course is deserted. A smart golf instructor plans the beginner lessons so that there is no pressure, just a lot of opportunities for campers to feel like they can control the golf ball and have fun doing it.

Beginning golfers who have developed what I call the kayak effect usually have less anxiety about making mistakes and they give more of their attention to executing their fundamentals. They have confidence that they can improve and will be successful on the golf course, and so it goes with any sport.

Instructor Homework
Instructors need to plan how they will develop their campers' confidence and competence so that all campers can experience success early and often.

It really isn't fair and it really isn't teaching to give a quick explanation, throw in one demonstration and then expect that everyone will eventually get it.

Breaking a complex skill down into easier, simple steps, creating larger targets, using softer balls, giving a lot of feedback that stresses what campers are doing right, and what they need to do to correct what isn't right, are all important to building each camper's self-efficacy.

Anyone can throw out the ball and watch the motor-gifted just do it; but there is no greater satisfaction that I have received as a camp instructor than helping campers who are really timid about learning a new sport skill to believe that they can do it.

All that it takes is some careful planning, constructive feedback, and communicating to campers that you have confidence in them.

Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.