Reflections from the Cockpit May 2007
"The Transient Nature of Skills"

Are the skills we perform today going to work for us tomorrow? The nature of skills is very complex.  I would like to share my thoughts and experiences with you regarding skills. This reflection goes hand in hand with last month’s USK reflection “Can I Still Do It? – Thoughts on Self Assessment.”

To add credibility to my comments, I have a Masters Degree in Anatomy and Physiology.  I worked a year towards my Ph.D. (which would have been in Bio mechanics) before I accepted a position to teach Anatomy and Physiology at UC Santa Barbara.  I feel I am qualified to discuss the study of movement and learning.

Learning a physical skill is training the body to perform a certain movement in a coordinated fashion.  Learning a skill is often done slowly and commonly uncoordinated at first.  Then we refine the skill, through repetition of the correct sequence of movements. It is not “practice makes perfect”, it is "proper practice leads to perfection”.  From a scientific view, we are developing neuromuscular pathways as we practice skills.  These pathways are reinforced the more we practice.  If we do not practice then performance diminishes. If we practice incorrectly we have instilled pathways for poor skills.  That is why you often hear; "it is easier to teach a new skill correctly than retrain a bad habit."  This is a good reason to get quality instruction from the beginning, so you can have a base of efficient skills.

In theory, one would think that once you learn a skill you can do it anytime and any place. However, I have learned there is a lot more to performing the skill than just the physical aspect of the skill.  Here is a list (in random order) of some of the more influential elements when we try to perform a skill:

Mind Set
Energy Level
Fatigue Factor
Hormone Levels
Kinesthetic Awareness
Anxiety Level
Temperature Levels (too hot or too cold)
Environmental Conditions
Equipment Changes
Stress Levels -

With such a list and with so many variables, you can see why I use the phrase “the transient nature of skills.”  I am sure you can add more elements to your own list. 

The best example I can give of this is sharing stories of staff training's with you.  When I ran Adventure Programs at UCSB we trained college students to lead trips and assist in our outdoor classes.  Rolling a kayak was one of the many skills we taught.  Keep in mind, we are training eighteen to twenty-two year old men and women who have fit bodies and no real sense of mortality. In the first evening many of them learn a roll.  Some learn the offside roll that same night and a few even get hand rolls.  Before we let them use our kayaks in the surf (UCSB is right on the ocean) they need to demonstrate three to five consecutive rolls in good form.  It is amazing how often these “rolling pros” end up swimming after they get tumbled by their first ocean wave.  What happened to the roll? Was it fear?  Was it the cold water up the nose?  Was it the disorientation of dark green water, versus a nice warm clear pool? See USK article “Mental Game of Rolling.”

Eventually they get accustomed to the ocean and they have the proverbial “bomb proof roll”; or do they?  The next level in training is going to the Kern River in early April to learn whitewater kayaking in the spring run off (very cold water). Again, we often see these “bomb proof rollers” swimming after a simple capsize.  Was it the cold water?  Was it their helmet skidding over a rock? Was it the thought of going over the rapid upside down? In theory, once you learn the neuromuscular pattern of doing a roll it should be performed successfully, regardless of the situation.  Since we are human beings (and not Data on Star Trek) outside and inside influences affect our performance.

There is a term used with respect to training called "Specificity of Exercise." The basic concept is to do the exact training in which you will be performing. When I taught exercise physiology classes I was often asked before ski season, "how do I best train for ski season?" My response was, "go skiing." If you think about it, how can you expect to go into a gym for an hour a day and expect to condition yourself for a full weekend of skiing where you are on the slopes all day for two days? What exercise can you do for an hour a day that will mimic paddling all day? It cannot be done. However you can do exercises that build a foundation of strength and endurance that will hopefully cross over to your particular sport. Crossover training is what we do when we go to the gym to keep ourselves in overall condition. If you don't paddle every few days, you know that a full day on the water usually gives you some sore muscles. I raise this point because there are other implications to this concept. Since there are so many nuances and factors that influence our performance, I believe one should consider "Specificity of Conditions" in their training. Is a roll done in a pool the same as a roll done in cold rough water? I am a firm believer that the external environment is a major influence on skill performance. The recoveries we practice in calm water in a basic class are just giving you the basic concept of how to do it. It needs to be practiced repeatedly in calm water to refine it.  Then it needs to be taken to some confused water in controlled settings.  I recall a recovery class I did inside a harbor with a club.  After the harbor portion we went out in front of the breakwater to try the skills in very confused water. Some of the skills were not working as they were in the calm water.  During the debriefing session, the participants realized they needed to practice their skills even more and needed too refine them in the rough water. I believe practicing skills in the conditions in which you will use them is the best barometer of knowing that your skills will work in those conditions. The challenge is finding the training locations that mimic the conditions with acceptable levels of risk. If you cannot find the exact conditions then getting as close as possible is the next best thing.

Since skills can be affected by so many elements it is wise not to depend upon any one skill.  The more skills you have the greater your options.  I call this my “bag of tricks”.  It is not tricks, but it is my collection of practiced skills and experiences. 

Regarding these influences to my performance, I have learned to minimize their affect by concentrating to ignore them, eliminating them or working through them while practicing. There are also times when I know I should not be on the water, because I am not physically or emotionally ready for the conditions.  The judgment of when and where to paddle is another topic for future discussion. As a side note, I believe the physical part of learning a skill is the easiest part of the equation.  Learning to deal with the other influences, which affect the performance of said skills, is the greater challenge.

Dressing properly, staying hydrated and fed addresses some of the influences.  Practicing the skills in calm water and rough water will help your anxiety and self-confidence.  When you can isolate which elements are negatively affecting you, you can then begin to address ways to minimize their influence.

If you now look at skill development as a dynamic endeavor (ever changing) rather than a static one (once you learn it you have it), you will realize that it is an ongoing process.  Even with the numerous variables at play in skill development, reliable skills can be attained and maintained if you choose to do the work. Skills are fleeting, if you let them go, through lack of practice. I encourage all of you to work regularly with your paddling partners in order to maintain those skills you worked hard to achieve.


Wayne Horodowich


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