Mental Toughness Training for Canoe Racing An Introduction to Visualisation

General / Nov 25, 2012

Do you aspire to be Tyler Bradt (world record, Palouse Falls 198ft, WA USA) and brave big rapids and waterfalls, pushing yourself to your limits? Or are you a competitive racer working towards a National ranking? Either way, you need to develop the mental toughness in order to succeed, and the mental skill of imagery (visualization) is a necessary component of that mental strength.

Based on interviews with elite level coaches and the research in sport  psychology on Imagery in Canoe-­‐Slalom, we explore the psychological challenges in Canoe racing and show how and why imagery is used to meet those challenges.

Mental Challenges in Canoe Slalom:    

Canoe Slalom requires intense focus to coordinate one’s line, pace and execution with water flow characteristics and gate locations. The speed and control elite performances demands depends in part on a highly relaxed and responsive mental state; a balancing act between a race plan and the need for constant flexibility and adjustment to unpredictable conditions. The lack of control over the elements requires one literally to ‘go with the flow’ and simultaneously to stick to the plan of attack.

In 2011 Richard Fox, a decorated and influential coach and National Performance Director with Australian Canoeing described the ideal mental state as a relaxed focus that allows the racer to be adaptable and agile with present moment decision-­‐making, ready to take advantage of “good water” and manage the “bad surge”.  If you miss a gate, the rest of the run is a mental and physical game of catch up, as the current does not afford even a second to re-­‐focus. This lack of time to assess the race once a line is lost can lead to an ‘avalanche effect’ of mistakes, and some athletes give up, as recovery feels out of reach. Nonetheless, one must remain present, accept there is no perfect run, be prepared for thee uncontrollable (there are eight groups of them!) and exhibit tolerance and persistence. 

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) does not allow a practice run at competition events in a sport where one’s confidence and self-­‐belief is extrinsically linked to their familiarity with different courses. Each course provides a new set of challenges, water conditions, record times and skill sequencing necessary to avoid errors. Without practice runs at events, competitors who do not have a ‘home river advantage’ face complex mental challenges that can sap confidence and increase anxiety, even in the top performers.  

Imagery builds Menta Toughness in Canoe Slalom

Macintyre, Moran and Jennings (2002) found that Canoe Slalom athlete’s imagery skills were predictive of their rankings in competition. The better you are at imagery, they better a paddler you will perform in competition. How and why is the use of imagery successful in combatting these pressures and mental challenges?

Two studies explored Athlete’s use of imagery in Slalom. White and Hardy (1998) found various uses of imagery by the British National Junior Canoe-­‐Slalom team. Here’s what some of the elite competitors said:

“I walk the course, each section, watching the water and then thinking about how I was going to do it: imagining myself, watching myself do it”

 “I do one (full run) sitting in my boat before I get in.” “In my warm up I always do a full run in my head.” “Just two minutes before I run I go through the lines.” “You do it after to review mistakes.”

“If I’ve messed up my first run…, I just go through it again so it’s not a problem.”

These athletes use imagery to improve their pre and post race routines. If there is no opportunity to do a warm up, walking the course and watching others run the course allowed them to anticipate their run. This reduces stress on unfamiliar courses and improves preparation. Since there is no time to assess mistakes during races, imagery can be used to review technique and adjust lines after races.

In training athletes regularly compiled imagery of the first half and second half of a particular course to practice stages of the race in their mind. They then linked these two imagery sets (each about 50 seconds, 10 gates) into one full run just as an elite half pipe snowboarder or skateboarder does with their run. They do not just see the course during imagery, they use kinaesthetic imagery to feel the water and the biomechanical sequence of manoeuvre’s needed at each gate.

Athletes also use focused visualization of successfully navigating difficult transitions and gate work. Experiencing the race in imagery allows one to speed up or slow skills down skills in the mind to evaluate technique when adjusting or learning new skills vital to gate execution. Verbal instructions must be translated into complex sequences of motor execution when learning new skills. Imagery can act as the “action-­‐language bridge” allowing the transfer on information from language to procedural form to improve skill learning.

But imagery is not just used to improve the learning of new skills and planning of new runs. Some athletes’ have used imagery to achieve greater responsiveness and flexibility to changing water conditions, increasing their confidence in being able to adjust the lines in the moment or adapt to new courses. Macintyre and Moran (2007) report that elite Canoe-­‐Slalom athletes who use imagery to solve water condition problems such as wave direction, current speed, and gate location are literally adjusting the physics of the river in their minds to practice being flexible in their gate approach. So not only does the elite racer visualize and mentally rehearse the race plan and lines but also how to be flexible and adaptable to changing conditions during a race.

Imagery also helps the Canoe athlete regulate emotions to pump up, calm down, feel Zen, or feel aggressive (White and Hardy (1998). Every athlete has his or her own optimal levels of emotion for peak performance. Athletes use kinaesthetic imagery to relax and emotion-­‐ focused imagery to achieve that optimum performance state.

Macintyre and Moran (2007) followed the imagery use of elite Canoe-­‐Slalom athletes over a season and found that athletes would create a ‘benchmark imagery’ that represented an average performance; they then use this as a self-­‐standard to compare other performances, both bad runs and good.

They also found that athletes use imagery to solve problems. They would watch other athletes runs at a new course and imagine what it feels like to be them, planning their own run and learning from observed mistakes by incorporating what they view into their imagery set, translating seeing into feeling.

Conclusion and Considerations:    

It is interesting to note that junior athletes that White and Hardy (1998) interviewed admit they don’t make the most of imagery in training and rely on it in competition. They are aware of its importance but when the stress of competition in not present they do not utilize it. This is an important difference between a junior and an elite athlete.

By practicing poly-­‐sensory imagery (all senses, even taste!) including kinaesthetic (body motion) and cognitive emotional content (thoughts and emotions of race) in training and outside of training athletes can develop the ability to control their imagery and to make it more vivid and effective, leading to success in competition.

Some athletes think they are just not good at imagery and never will be. This is simply not the case. If you struggle, begin with imagery of simple familiar objects, sounds, sensations, emotions etc.

For instance imagine your paddle, what it feels like to hold it, your boat, your favourite river corner, how that particular spot makes you feel, and finally add them together. Or arrange for a sport psychologist to help you develop this skill.

Canoe athletes can improve their skill execution and race planning, as well as manage their emotional and energy levels through the use of imagery. They can enhance their mental flexibility for uncontrollable conditions and they can review mistakes after competition. Together this builds the mental toughness that sets elite athletes apart from the run of the mill in Canoe-­‐Slalom.

For more information on developing your imagery skills to improve your performance, whether a freestyle paddler, a big river runner, or an Olympic hopeful, please contact Abra Garfield at Condor Performance by emailing


MacIntyre, T., Moran, A. (2007). A Qualitative Investigation of Imagery Use and Meta-­‐Imagery Processes Among Elite Canoe-­‐Slalom Competitors. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 2(10), 1-­‐23.
MacIntyre, T., Moran, A., & Jennings, D. J. (2002). Is controllability of Imagery Related to Canoe-­‐ Slalom Performance? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 94(3), 1245-­‐1250.
White, A., & Hardy, L. (1998). An in-­‐depth analysis of the uses of imagery by high-­‐level Slalom-­‐ Canoeists and Artistic Gymnasts. The Sport Psychologist, (12), 387-­‐403.