10 Things I Learned in 10 Years of Girls at Play



“I think my goal would be to promote confidence in women through kayaking. I would be promoting the sport and promoting women. I think I would really like to do something like that.” This is my journal entry from July 2001 right after I placed third at the World Freestyle Championships in Sort, Spain. This is the idea that was beginning to manifest in 2004 via a whitewater kayaking instructional video for women called Girls at Play.

I’ve written and been interviewed about how Girls at Play got started many times and some of you may be familiar with the story that my desire to promote confidence in women comes from my own experience of struggling with self-doubt in a male dominated sport. It also stemmed from wanting to share the amazing feeling of joy and accomplishment that kayaking had contributed to my life. Like the first time I rolled: “And then I did roll up and I felt like I could do anything! I was so proud of myself!” to the time I made it down a class III section of whitewater without swimming: “It’s given me a lot more confidence and now I feel as though going down the river is fun and not just scary!” to making the podium at a freestyle competition for the first time: “I’m so happy and proud of myself. It was weird and cool to be on the podium with all of these amazing paddlers!” And of course, running a a challenging river successfully: “I love the feeling of confidence that comes with acing a challenging run. It’s one of those feelings that makes you feel on top of the world.”

Although kayaking has provided me with many joyful, confidence building moments, in the early days of my kayaking career I also experienced being overlooked in favor of male athletes and feeling unsupported by some male peers. There are journal entries about feeling bad after training at a feature with my friends and then going back to look over the video to find out that they had filmed everyone except for me (everyone else was a guy). Or about appearing in a popular paddling video and being the only paddler who didn’t have their name appear on the screen or mentioned in the credits. Being told by a company that they weren’t sponsoring anyone to then have my boyfriend call up and get sponsored immediately, or being so excited about running the Lower Gauley for my first time without flipping just to have the guys tell me it’s no big deal.

Girls at Play was born out of passion and joy, as well as frustration and a desire to make a positive impact in the world. Ten years later I am grateful to be able to say that I feel that GAP has made a positive contribution to kayaking and to women in kayaking. And it was mainly made possible by you. Yes, you!! We wouldn’t have made it ten years without amazing ladies like you with a desire to improve your skills to have more fun, build your confidence to feel empowered and take leaps of faith to live life to the fullest and make your own positive impact on the world!

I have a folder full of thank you cards that GAP paddlers have gifted me over the years and my heart soars when I read them. As much as many of you think that you come to learn from me and other GAP staff, I know I’ve learned just as much from you and from running Girls at Play as you have from us. I’d like to share 10 things I’ve learned in the last 10 years about myself, about kayaking and about turning a passion into a business. It’s not a complete list because I truly have learned, and continue to learn so much, but these are the 10 things that came up as I sat down to write this article. Thanks for your continued support of Girls at Play and love of paddling!!

1. I am not a victim. All of those ‘negative’ experiences I mentioned earlier were in my life to help me get clear on what I wanted to contribute to the world. Once I started Girls at Play I no longer felt unsupported, I had plenty of sponsors wanting to support GAP, I made my own videos and I created the opportunity to cheer women on for the smallest and biggest accomplishments on the water! This quote from Eckhart Tolle sums it up: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

2. Celebrate the good stuff and the bad stuff – that’s how you learn. It’s challenging to feel good about ourselves when our self-talk revolves around negativity, dwelling on what’s not going right or how we messed up. I remember one student who did so many things well, but got stuck on a few skills that she was struggling with. Focusing so much on what she saw as her shortcomings she stopped having fun, couldn’t receive any positive feedback and couldn’t enjoy the friendships other women in the class were extending her.  No one is perfect, everyone has bad days and everyone messes up – EVERYONE. Celebrate the good stuff because it feels awesome and celebrate the ‘bad’ stuff because it is the seed of our most profound learning and growth.

3.  We are all unique expressions of awesomeness. In the past I was attached to teaching kayaking a certain way, doing business a certain way and wanting results to look a certain way. Over the last 10 years I’ve learned that being too controlling is stressful and squashes creativity. When I teach my ACA instructor courses I remind instructor candidates how important it is for them to take the skills and teaching methods that I’m giving them and develop their own unique instructing style. In fact, I love learning from the creativity of the instructor candidates and GAP staff. My own instructing improves greatly when I keep in mind the fact that I can learn something from everyone.

4. Set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. I could write so much about this because there are many different sets of boundaries – physical, emotional, boundaries with co-workers, with staff, with friends, family, on the river etc… Our boundaries change with the situation and the people we’re dealing with. The important thing is to not be afraid to have boundaries. I feel that women often have a difficult time setting boundaries because traditionally we’re suppose to be compassionate, giving and supportive to everyone. The number one rule of river rescue for trip leaders/head instructors is to make sure that you’re safe first so that you can lead a successful rescue. If something happens to you because you jump right in without thinking or assessing the situation then things can go downhill fast. Take care of yourself and you’ll be better able to make a positive impact on others. And remember that if you want others to respect the boundaries you set you need to respect the boundaries of others.

5. Many leaps of faith are required in kayaking and in following our dreams. We all take leaps of faith when we run a challenging rapid. Even when you’ve prepared, you’ve scouted, you’re with a good crew, it’s still a leap of faith because you don’t know for sure how it’s going to work out. That’s what makes it so exciting! None of us know, nor can we control how our lives will unfold. Instead focus on what you can control – yourself, your outlook, your attitude, your preparation, your boundaries, action steps you can take right now. Do your best, jump and when the net appears don’t be attached to how you thought it was going to/should look.

6. Let go of expectations. There’s something in Zen practice called ‘beginner’s mind.’ This means approaching life as a beginner with no expectations. Remember when you first learned how to paddle? I bet you didn’t even know what to expect and so your first few experiences were probably really awesome! Once we start gaining knowledge and skill we start putting expectations on how we should perform or on how our day or our trip should turn out. It’s good to have goals and to want to improve, but when we get too attached to our expectations we miss out on some really great stuff happening in the moment.

7. Be authentically you and don’t compare yourself to others. As I said earlier, we are all unique expressions of awesomeness and it’s important for each of us to appreciate our own unique gifts. When we compare ourselves to others we diminish our own light. Just today I was reviewing an edit for the new yoga for kayaking segments that I’ve put together and I noticed myself feeling self conscious of the fact that I have a bigger, rounder body than most female paddlers and yogis. I wondered for a moment if I’m good enough, pretty enough to do this. I have a choice, let the vulnerability of putting myself out there just as I am scare me off or be brave and share my gifts authentically with the world. I choose being brave because there is nothing more beautiful or more courageous than accepting ourselves for who we are. I think when it comes to being authentic Dr Seuss summed it up perfectly:  “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those that mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

8. Trust yourself, you know best for you. Don’t let anyone, including your mind, talk, ridicule, shame or guilt you out of your deepest desires and dreams. Seeking council from people you trust and love can be very helpful, and keep in mind that everyone’s opinion/advice is colored by the story of their life. Mentors, friends and colleagues can be wonderful fountains of information and experience, but remember that the answers you’re looking for are inside yourself. If I had listened to the advice of friends and family telling me that I needed to stop kayaking and get a ‘real job’ years ago Girls at Play wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be writing this article.

9. Surround yourself with loving, supportive relationships. In whitewater kayaking who I’m paddling with contributes greatly to how the trip feels. I aspire to be able to feel just as confident no matter who is around me, but in my experience so far I would rather be surrounded by people who I enjoy, trust and who love the experience of kayaking. I’ve witnessed thousands of female kayakers thrive in Girls at Play programs. In fact, many of our clients have said that the supportive nature of GAP inspires them to push their limits in whitewater much further than any other paddling environment. Never underestimate the power of loving, supportive relationships in helping you fulfill your biggest dreams!

10. Play is just as (or more!) important than work. When I’m faced with the dilemma of making choices I ask myself what I will remember most when I’m at the end of my life. Will I remember getting extra hours of work in or will I remember the joy I had doing something fun with friends? Will this X amount of money be a big deal at the end of my life or will I remember the joy of going on an awesome trip now? When we feel bogged down with the routine and responsibilities of day-to-day living it’s easy to forget that this is the only life we get and nothing is guaranteed. Play, laughter and adventure are also powerful healers, especially when you feel stuck in a rut. No one knows the stress of bills and the pressure to make a living like a self-employed small business owner! Still, there can always be a good balance between work and play.

For ideas on ways to play on the water with us check out our events calendar!!