Headbands and Noseplugs: My Mental Game


By Em Shanblatt

Like most physical endeavors out there, kayaking is extremely mental.  The success of a run can be determined by your attitude, confidence, and nervousness to excitement ratio.

Every kayaker has figured out her own personal tricks to get in the right headspace for a river, especially a challenging or new run.  Coping with fear and nerves is universal, no matter what level of  kayaker you are.  While many of us try and share our strategies with fellow boaters to help a sister out, I’ve found that one’s mental game is so personal, it’s difficult to take someone else’s trick and use it effectively as your own.

The best way to train mentally and practice getting your mind and nerves ready for a big run, is to create your own routines and practice them often. Here are two tricks I’ve recently added to my mental game repertoire.  While I know they may not work for you, hopefully they’ll spur something inside of you that helps grow your mental game and tackle whatever river or rapid you face next.

Lots of mental preparation went into this moment


1) My Headband.

The headband came on in a round-about fashion.  I’m also an avid soccer player, and adopted the straight across headband look when I cut my hair and could no longer put it up.  The look was sported by many pro soccer players I watch and admire, so I gave it a shot. 

The headband offers me several valuable things.  Firstly, when I roll, it holds my hair back!  On a practical level, this is huge, because when you roll up in the middle of a rapid, having hair in your eyes is the last thing you want to deal with.

But the importance  of the headband is much deeper than this.  I put on my headband at the put in, just before my helmet.  As I carefully place the thin piece of athletic wrap around my forehead, I say to myself “It’s go time”.  The headband signifies a mental switch.  It gets me out of my previous mode of hiking in, driving, or hanging with friends at the put in, to a game-face, ready-for-action, time-to-focus mentality.  Once the headband is on, so is my attitude.  I take a deep breath as I mindfully put my helmet over my headband, ensuring a solid placement.  From here, there is no turning back, and I know that I’m ready.

The removal of the headband at the end of a run also provides a significant mental switch.  When the headband comes off, I can relax.  I take a sigh of relief, or let out a shout of excitment as I literally let my hair down.  Taking off my headband is the symbolic representation of the phrase, “Heck Yeah! That was badass!”

When I wear it, Mary Frances thinks I look like a fairy, and Anna thinks I look like some medieval character….I don’t really care how I look, because it helps my mental game.  And that’s all that matters.

2) Noseplugs.

Non-boaters laugh at them.  New boaters are addicted to them.  Many boaters rely on them to allow for longer down-time when they find themselves upside down.  All types of paddlers wear them, playboaters to creekboaters, novices to pros.  Some love ’em, some hate ’em.

I’ve personally gone back and forth on the matter.  There is no doubt they let me hold my breath longer and more easily in a beat-down situation.  I also agree that rolling is more comfortable with them, since you don’t get water up your nose.  There are many benefits…so what’s the dilemma?

I’m not the kind of boater who wears them all the time.  I used to put them on selectively above big rapids, or places I knew flipping was very likely.  But this created a glitch in my mental game.  When I put on my noseplugs, I was inadvertently telling myself “There’s a good chance you might flip here, or get beat down and need to hold your breath for awhile”.  Then I realized…why would I want to send myself that kind of message, even if it’s subliminal!?!  On one hand I’m saying “It’s go time, you got this, paddle hard, you’re gonna style this shit!” and on the other hand I’m saying “you might mess up or get in a bad situation and need some extra help”…such mixed messages!

Part of my mental training is to eliminate all negative or self-destructive thoughts…including premonitions of beat downs.  So in order to stop sending my brain the subtle message of potential wreckage, I decided to stop wearing my noseplugs all in all (with the exception of playboating, because then it’s just inevitable).

I now go into every rapid with the thought of “You’re gonna kill it!  You’re not gonna flip!  And if you do, you’ll roll up so quickly it won’t even matter that you’re not wearing your plugs”.  Now THAT is a powerful  and positive message.


For more tips on improving your mental game, check out a weekend clinic or a day of private instruction!