Head Games

I currently have two blog posts sitting incomplete in my drafts folder.

The first is all about my summer – from finishing my degree back in May to my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, the main focus of the article. At some point I’ll get round to finishing it off and uploading some nice photos from my travels. I’ve had a fabulous summer and I like sharing my adventures, hoping that maybe it might inspire others to go off and start their own.

The second blog post is this one. It isn’t one I had intended to write. But as I sit here in my new room, in a new city, thinking about the adventures to come, I find myself contemplating the trip I’ve just returned from and feel that it might be worth writing down some thoughts. For my non-kayaking friends, this topic may be of little interest to you, but I think there are parallels that can be drawn between my struggles in kayaking and other extreme sports or outdoor activities, and perhaps beyond sports altogether.

The topic is head game.

My parents are fairly active folk and as children my sisters and I were encouraged to participate in sport. Swimming became my most regular sport and I went through different stages of lessons and then onto club training and swimming galas. I did my share of races but I wasn’t particularly fast and I found that the more I trained, the less I enjoyed being in the pool. Eventually, as with most kids who enter the world of club swimming, I cut back on sessions and gave up on the galas. I trained only twice or three times a week, just for fitness, and I no longer dreaded coming home from school and going to training. Even now as an adult I pop along to a session every so often and my old coach welcomes me back and works me hard, just for fun. And it is fun. There is no competition there. The only competition is with myself so that I know that I’m getting the most out of it.

I stumbled upon the world of whitewater kayaking when I started university. I had been to a few trial sessions with the water polo club at the uni, but the strict structure of the training sessions reminded me of those swimming days and I was deterred. The canoe club was something totally different – a community that focused on having fun outdoors, a sport that was incredibly exciting, and people who were not interested in race times and gym hours. I was hooked, and the more time I spent on the water, the more I loved it. I felt compelled to better myself, but only in the interest of self-fulfilment so that I could paddle more rivers and hopefully capsize less often!

I think my competitiveness is one of my absolute worst qualities. It can really hinder the enjoyment of any activity and I know I can be much harder on myself than I should be. But in my first couple of years in a boat, this self-competitive trait helped me to improve even though I didn’t get much time on the water. There was also another attribute that helped my progress that others told me I possessed – head game.

“Sacha, you have a good head!”

Em…thank you..?

To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. For a long time I thought it meant that people thought I was brave, that I was courageous for paddling a rapid in which there was a chance I would swim. In reality head game is so much more than that. It’s an entire mental state, a mixture of attitude, confidence and focus that keeps you grounded in the present. And as with so many things in life, you only really appreciate what you had after it is gone.

In Kyrgyzstan this summer, I lost my head game. In fact, I’d lost it before I put-on the first river on the first day. I’d never felt so much fear on a river before in my life. Last to leave the bank and break-out into the main flow, I capsized about 15 seconds later on a wave train. And that isn’t about skill, it isn’t about fitness, it was just an issue of head game. I had never felt like that before. Never had I questioned my own ability so much, questioned the safety of being on the river. If I went down that same section of river today, I would absolutely love it, and I would get down with no problems because it is within my ability. But I struggled to enjoy kayaking that day. And the subsequent days brought more troubles to the forefront of my mind, and before I knew it I was dreading putting on the river. I was so nervous, but it wasn’t the good kind of nerves that give you focus when running a new rapid or a line that will test you. They were nerves that limited my vision on the river and became panic. Suddenly the sport I had fallen in love with was terrifying. I would never wish for anyone to feel like that.

Unfortunately I can’t upload videos here but below are freeze-frames taken from unedited GoPro footage that I took on the 5th day of kayaking. I’ve watched the footage several times because I remember so clearly how I was feeling, the panic. The clip shows two short must-run rapids on the big Naryn river, right after a portage. It is evident how my fear affected my paddling and I struggled to stay online in the first rapid.


Already off my line and fighting to get river left.


At the end of the first rapid. I can hardly speak. Egor tells me to wait.

Egor told me to calm down in the eddy and then I followed him down the next rapid with a little more success.


Remember to breathe!


When I look at these photos now, I think it looks incredibly beautiful and lot of fun. But I recall all too vividly that that was not how I felt at the time. When I got to the bottom I wanted to walk off. But the hardest rapids were behind me and I was persuaded to stay on and finish the section (thanks Tomass!). I’m very glad that I did.
It’s just grade 3, it’s easy”
Russian grade 3?!
“International grade 3
Slowly, my fear evaporated and I started to enjoy the day.

By the end of my two week trip, I was loving every second on the water again and I was very sad that the trip was over. If I could go back now and do it all again, I would in an instant. But I had to work hard during that first week to get on the river and to enjoy it. I learnt more on this trip than I thought possible and in writing this post I hope that I can cement in my head the concepts and the advice that ultimately turned a frightening experience into an incredible adventure. Perhaps these ideas may even help you or someone else going through a similar experience. I’d never lost my head game before, not in such a major way, and I hope it never happens again. But if it does, then these are the thoughts that I will turn to…

Today will be a great day.
When I started to believe it, then it started to become true. Your opening mindset greatly impacts your ability to achieve any goal. If that goal is to have an awesome day on the river then sitting in your boat worrying about potentially swimming before you’ve even seen a ripple in the water is not going to help. An awesome day starts with positive thoughts, in the same way that running a rapid well starts with a good line. After my major breakdown in the gorge, I was determined that the following day would be spectacular and that I would get down the river without any problems. That next day turned out to be my favourite of the entire trip. (Great Naryn is incredible!!)
My youngest sister is a Sabre fencer (a pretty good one, too) and I’ve seen the difference it makes to her fight whether she has a good head game or not. A negative attitude can cause her to lose even though she was the better athlete. I think this idea transcends sport as well.

Listen to those around you.
I was so lucky on this trip to be in the hands of some fantastic boaters with a much wider breadth of experience and skill than I have, and was fortunate enough to get some tips here and there. There is a big difference between hearing and listening so put it action the advice that you are gifted. Everyone learns from experience but I think you can also learn from other peoples experience too. I treasure the stories that were shared.

Stay fit. Paddle often.
It’s that old mantra – healthy body, healthy mind – but I think it is really important. My fitness level was not where I wanted it to be when I started the trip and it certainly would have made some of the paddling much easier, thereby relieving some pressure. I love the more adventurous, less competitive, side to kayaking but I recognise that it’s still a sport and it gets easier when you’re a bit stronger. It’s also more enjoyable when you spend more and more time on the water, allowing you to build off experience. I’m determined to get in a boat as often as I can (despite now living in London).

Know your limits, and push them.
I think this comes down to experience and time on the water as well, but when I truly know my limits I’m far less likely to lose my head game because I can better assess whether I can make a certain line or move on the river. When you can accurately assess your own skill level, then you can also tell how far you can push yourself too. Then if you portage a rapid or walk off a river you can be sure that you did it because it was the smart decision that day, and not because you were overwhelmed by fear.

It is supposed to be fun!
It is a really obvious statement but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And for me, personally, being reminded of this by the Two Blades team and others on the trip was probably the biggest help of all in overcoming any anxiety. If it’s not fun, then what is the point?

When my head is in the right mindset, I think it’s almost impossible to not have fun on the river. And, for me, that’s what it is all about.

A massive thank you to Tomass, Egor and Alona who got me back on the water and to all the advice I received from everyone on the trip. Happy paddling!



The Great Naryn – my new favourite section

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