Ep #8 How to gamify your paddling for performance and longevity with Clay Wright

Clay Wright, a legend of the whitewater kayaking world who recently won Kayak Session Magazine’s Paddling Legend Award in 2023, shares strategies for keeping your passion for whitewater fresh, and your performance top-notch. 

You’ll also learn Clay’s journey growing up in a paddling family, and how being left behind on trips has shaped how he approaches kayaking and coaching. Clay and Anna discuss strategies for facing fear and empowering your paddling mindset. 

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • The importance of doing your homework and being prepared for a new river.
  •  How to make smart decisions based on your own comfort level. 
  • How helping others with their fear can help you with your own. 
  • Why it’s important for you to choose your own game and take the stress out of the experience and more…
About Clay

Clay is a 2nd generation paddler who grew up on the Ocoee River and has been paddling for years. He’s been competing in freestyle for almost 40 years. He is a 4x and current ICF Squirt kayak World Champion, Coach for, and member of the US Freestyle Team. Some of his notable accomplishments include inventing the Loop, was the first ever Green Race winner,  and has 1st descents in 7 states and 5 countries. He’s worked and paddled for Pyranha, Perception and Jackson Kayaks, and is currently the Jackson Kayak regional ambassador team manager, and one of the head instructors for OKS Keeners on the Ottawa. 

How to connect with Clay:

Instagram: @rclaywright

FB: Clay Wright

Anna
Clay Wright is a second generation paddler who grew up on the Okohi River and has been paddling for 50 years. He’s been competing in freestyle kayaking for almost 40 years. He’s a five times Quirt Kayak World Champion, Coach for and member of the US Freestyle Team. And some of his notable accomplishments include inventing the loop. He was the first ever green race winner and has first ascents in seven states and five countries.

He’s worked and paddled for Piranha Kayaks, Perception Kayaks, and Jackson Kayaks, and is currently the Jackson Kayak Regional Ambassador Team Manager and one of the head instructors for Ottawa Kayak School Keener Program on the Ottawa. Clay and I have known each other for a very long time, and I’m excited to have him here. So thanks for being here, Clay.

Clay Wright
Thanks for having me.

Anna
So my first question is, what does your discomfort zone feel like?

Clay Wright
Oh gosh, it’s huge. It’s a vast ocean of breadth and width and depth. I feel like I’m just comfortable a lot of my life. I can be from not remembering what I was supposed to buy at the grocery store to not sure what the best route is to the river to wow, I really wish I had put on a spray skirt to do this silly little crossing that I’m doing with my feet out because I’m about to sink my kayak. I feel like it’s almost like a way of life in a way that’s sort of like, I think I’m going to wing it and see how it goes. I feel like sometimes I’m looking for opportunities to make myself a little bit nervous or scared. And I do them all day every day. And then when you get to the bigger ones, you’re a little bit used to it.

Clay Wright
You know what I mean by that? Like, every day, I don’t think I ever have moments that I’m like, I know exactly what’s gonna happen today, and if I do, then I mix it up somehow.

Anna
Yeah, you’re looking for that discomfort. So why do you do that? What benefit does it bring you?

Clay Wright
I think improvising or knowing that there’s some sort of risk or some sort of rush or some sort of You know penalty if you don’t do this right it sparks something in my brain that feels good and makes it work better Maybe it’s adhd. I’m not sure what that is, but there’s definitely like anytime. I’m you know, i’m walking with the dogs or whatever i’ll see

Oh, there’s a shortcut. I could leap across these rocks and try to do that. And that would be a lot more exciting. And I look for the novelty of the situation, I think. And, and that sparks that part of my brain that, you know, that kayaking does and all the fun stuff does when you’re adapting to changing situations and improvising with, with your situation and, and trying to get things right. Um, I think I just look for that in a lot of different ways, even in really mundane situations.

Anna
When you say it sparks that part of your brain, can you say more about that?

Clay Wright
Um, you know, like anytime you’re doing something where a lot of your brain is engaged, be it, uh, driving on a dark road or in the fog or in the rain, you ever notice how that’s a little bit more fun? Um, and you’re actually paying attention and you’re like looking at that white line really carefully and trying to make sure that you don’t miss a street sign or that you know where you are. Um, whereas, you know, on a sunny warm day.

you don’t even know what happened. You got in the car and you’re like playing with your phone and noticing that there’s trash in the back and then suddenly you’re there. But there’s no memories made for the whole thing. It’s just like autopilot. And so I live on autopilot a lot and I like to jumpstart myself out of autopilot having to pay attention.

Anna
I love that. And what’s really interesting is I was just in a yoga and neuroscience workshop this past weekend. And the focus was meditation, was yoga and meditation. And the neuroscience aspect of it was all, or one aspect of the neuroscience was that our brains have a default mode, what’s called the default network, I believe. And that is, you could consider it mind wandering.

So what kind of what you’re talking about, like you aren’t paying attention and your mind is wandering and then you don’t remember. And in neuroscience, my understanding is that default network can spin into negativity if it’s left uncontrolled. So if folks who are…

The tendency is that folks who are in that default network mode, who are letting their minds wander a lot, tend to have more negative emotions and negative thoughts than folks who practice the self-control to bring their minds into the present moment and focus and concentrate on something in the present moment. Pay attention, practice mindfulness.

So I find it really interesting because I feel like what you just described is that you appreciate and you look for opportunities to get your mind out of that default mode and into the present moment. And what helps you do that is the discomfort is fear essentially, whether that’s the driving you talked about or whether that’s kayaking something difficult or trying a new trick on a wave or in a hole. Would you say that’s true? Is that what I just said, does that resonate?

Clay Wright
Yeah, I think you’re right. There’s a good chance that it’s something I could be avoiding and getting my mind stronger in lots of other ways, but I do believe that’s true. I was getting in a wave hopper just the other night, and I’ve gotten so used to just doing this now that without even thinking about it, I’ve slide the wave hopper over, and I was like, I didn’t think about it. This just happened. I thought, I’m not even…

going to get ready. I’m just gonna go because I’m good enough to do this and all I’m really risking is getting cold and wet and I just jumped in with exactly what I was wearing. I didn’t store my phone. I didn’t hold on to the little place where I can hold on to the dock. I just slid into the wave hopper and it went fine. I didn’t flip or anything but I got this like instant buzz of like whoo Might not should have done that it is pretty cold out here and you know I thought all of a sudden I thought of all the things but in that moment I Mean I can see it right now. I can see Making that decision and how clear it was suddenly going when the wave hopper was like Sort of in the air and catching it with the paddle and thinking do this right and I just like it all went so good

Suddenly I was popped in the wave hopper. I didn’t have to jump the back band didn’t have to do anything My feet had gone right in and I just paddled away and I was like, that was good but it’s kind of a weird thing when you’re doing a flat water workout to think that This is so not gonna get that part of my brain that I want to stimulate right now that I’m gonna find a way To do it anyway, and I did I mean that’s kind of it That would be I would feel pretty stupid if I’d missed the wave hopper and ended up swimming in a in a down jacket in my pants and everything right next to the dock. But there was…

Anna
Yeah, and for those folks who are listening, a wave hopper, who are not familiar with a wave hopper, it is a wild water boat. It is a tippy, it’s a bit of a tippy boat, long, and it has a special shape. So when you think of kayaks, it doesn’t look like your typical kayak. I just wanted to put that out there for folks who are listening. So it’s a little, it’s tippier.

Clay Wright
Yeah, it’s got a really small cockpit, so it’s a little bit hard to get in. And typically if I do it the normal way, like I’ve been doing it all season, getting in and out, it’s a little bit of a challenge because you can’t quite get your knees in it. So you’re kind of like having to sit on the back band and then slide your way down. And I just thought, you know, if I go in one nice fluid motion, I’m going to make it. And I did. And it was great. But that’s kind of a weird thing where I look for challenges because I feel I like the…

I like the clarity it gives me.

Anna
That’s really cool. Challenge giving you clarity. Is that what have you learned about yourself through your discomfort zone?

Clay Wright
I feel like sometimes I have two senses of what I can do and what I can’t do. And one of them is the conservative clay that is very conservative. And that I have done this many times even this year for instance with the same analogy of the wave hopper I have.

Special pair of pants that I wear when I’m down there and I have a life jacket ready to go and I take off all The fleece which would be really heavy if I was to fall in the water for any reason I have all of those things prepared. I have a light on the back because I get back after dark sometimes You have all these things set up so that I can be as safe as possible Because I don’t I don’t like to risk when I don’t want to But then I also have this other person who comes out who says this is ridiculous, you can do this, you don’t have to go through all that, just do it. And sometimes when that guy shows up then I’m confident I know I can do it and I just do it.

Anna
That’s cool.

Clay Wright
I don’t know why one person shows up one day and one shows up the other day. I really don’t know. But it was interesting to have that just happen. My life jacket was laid out. I was getting ready to change pants and I was like, stop being ridiculous. Just do it. You’re fine. And I was. I feel like that with Rapids sometimes. Sometimes I’ll get to you, Gorilla, and I’ll look at the drop and I’ll think, I might bang my hand. I really…

I think that a lot lately when I get to gorilla. Like, ooh, that practice run, I bang my hand on the left wall at the notch. Or on this one, I hit my elbow on the right wall below. Ooh, I don’t want to do that. Ooh, that’s awful. And then otherwise, I’m sitting there talking to somebody and I look at it and it’s like, it won’t hurt that bad. What am I doing? Get in your boat.

Anna
Do you ever have a, when, it sounds like you listen to both when you’re talking about like the different, your different kind of minds that show up. So what is the difference do you think of the times that you listen to quote unquote, the more conservative clay versus the more risk-taking clay?

Clay Wright
Yes.

Clay Wright
I think when I’ve got other things to do or other things on my mind, a lot of times I’m more like, just get through this. This isn’t the time to be taking risks. You’ve got enough going on that you are focused on doing and want to accomplish. For instance, a freestyle event coming up or a trip that I’m really excited about or something like that. And I’m like, don’t mess this up. This is not the time to be hanging it out there. And other times I’m a little bit more like, no, this is what you’re here for.

Anna
Do you have a early memory of stepping into your discomfort zone?

Clay Wright
God, my whole childhood was discomfort zone in some ways. Or, you know, I made a lot of memories. Our family was definitely into playing outdoors, and we did rappelling and climbing. And I jumped the bike off of things and learned to skateboard early. But I mean, my parents and whole family would jump off the bridge. And you know, I learned to ski when I was three my sister and cousins and all those people have to learn to ski and jumped off the tower and swim across the lake without the life jacket and all that stuff was just kind of part of the Dobson DNA. It’s what we did when you’re down at the lake. First you jumped off the dock, then you try to dive off the dock, then you jumped off the high part, then they threw you balls in the air and you try to catch them as you jumped off the high thing. Then you try to do a twist. Nothing like kids do today, but

For the times, it seems like we are always pushing ourselves a little bit.

And when I would have a good day, it was when I was more focused on what to do and I wanted to do it. And a lot of times that sparked by someone telling me no. I think I would have been a really bad kayaker except for there were so many days when my parents would go. I mean even on the Nanda Hala and I would have to stay in the car and like play around the NOC or whatever. Well, because I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t have a role yet. I couldn’t go with them today.

We’ll go to the Hiawassee or we’ll go somewhere, we’ll go when it’s warmer or whatever. When you get your role, you will be able to do this. And so I got left a lot, or was constantly with older and better people. And so there was a whole lot of, if you don’t get to this point, then you’re going to get left. And I remember going on a trip with people and they just kept leaving me and I kept…not being able to and they said, this is when my parents weren’t around, but they said, you know, if you don’t roll, we can’t take you anywhere because you don’t roll. And I was like, what are you talking about? I can roll great. And they were like, yeah, but you don’t roll in the river. And it was like, you know, tell me what to do and I will do it. And they were like, you have to be able to roll in the whitewater. And that was pretty much it. I rolled in whitewater and then I rolled the next trip in white water and I started practicing, go upside down through this rapid. And I just stopped swimming because it was kind of like, oh, is that what it takes? Okay. Whereas before it was more like, I’m scared, I’ll swim. I didn’t recognize the consequences and the doors that would open for you when suddenly you could do what they were talking about. Climbing was the same way. Oh, you can’t do this. You can wait. We’ll do something easier later.

You know, whatever it was, and all of a sudden it was like, oh, this isn’t like a, I don’t know, I either can do it or not. This is something you have to work at. And if you do the homework and you pass the test, then doors open and you get to have more fun in life. And then I got a lot more cerebral about figuring out how to do things. You didn’t have to think, I’m good at this. It wasn’t like, can I do it or can I not do it? It was like,

Oh, this is a puzzle and I have to put the puzzle pieces together in order to get the picture right and then the door opens um, and I think I got Pretty good at that pretty early like watching the you know We’re going to the rope swing or whatever and I would everyone else is like, oh, this is scary and maybe vapor locked And I would be thinking Watch the people who can do it What are they doing? What am I going to do? I’m going to do exactly what they did um

I can remember people talking to me a lot when someone was going off the rope swing and I was just like, how can you be talking right now? Like every brain cell that I’ve got is trying to figure out how to do this.

Anna
That’s really interesting. Do you think that drive to strategize, I’ll call it, has helped you stay in competition as long as you have, specifically freestyle competition?

Clay Wright
I would say that my love of the process has helped me stay in that. The wins and the losses, and like I know EJ for example really likes to win. He’ll play seven games in a row just hoping to win one of them and when he gets that win he feels good about all the rest of them. I don’t actually like competing that much. I like performing.

And so my motivation is a little bit more like, you know, the phonics monkey comes out and I’m just like, oh my god I don’t even want to do this. It hurts my shoulder and it looks hard and I’m just gonna fall in my face And it’s like oh gosh, this is gonna be a whole lot of figuring it out But then you know you get to the perfect spot or whatever you’re like, here we go, you know You’ve done this with a hundred other tricks. Now you’re gonna do that with this one, too Okay, they’re doing this their angles going in at this. Let’s just work on the beginning of it. Okay

I know I can do a loop, so now let’s do really crappy loops at this angle with my paddle all in the wrong place. Oh yeah, I can do that too. Okay, so now let’s put those two things together. And all of a sudden you’re getting it. And so I really like the puzzling of the game. I don’t like it when it’s 100% physical. And it’s really challenging right now when the timing stuff is so much like the air screw just drives me nuts. Because I’ve been bad at air screws for like 30 years or something.

but I like it when it’s things I can put together and learn and make my brain work in a better way to do it. And then try to make your body work too, but it’s nice when you figure out what it is that you got to do. That has carried itself a little bit more into coaching than I thought it would because when I’m watching the rides, the Jacksons are just so darn good at figuring out the points and figuring out what it takes to win. And that’s never really been where my brain goes.

I’m more like, you know, I’m watching this great ride and stuff and I’m like, Oh my God, did you see how he took off on that pan? Yeah. Oh my God. I’ve never thought about that. He took off with his paddle completely on the other side of the boat. You know, just, just whatever it is. I like watching what people are doing and then seeing if I can make the boat do that too.

Anna
Yeah, what I find really interesting about what you just shared on the one hand is what I heard you say when you were younger, that there was a test, these were your words and I’m paraphrasing, like a test you needed to pass. And if you could pass that test, you got to do more fun things. So there is some pressure in that. And I hear a little bit of like, or a lot of pressure to perform and to do it right.

On the other hand, when I hear you talk about your process and what you just described, like for instance, learning the phonics monkey, is that you’re not afraid to fail along the way. So I find that really interesting of, so do you feel like you are willing to fail or do you more live out of the, I’ve got to do it right? Or do they compliment each other?

Clay Wright
They compliment each other.

If you care what other people think about your paddling, I say this a lot, if you really care what other people think about your paddling, you’re never going to get where you want to go. You can’t be held back by what other people are going to think while you’re in the process. If I’m working on the backside of a tricky woo over and over and over again, and someone says, you know, I don’t understand what you’re doing, that’s not even a trick, I can either share, oh, I’m actually doing the backside of the tricky woo because I’m really bad at that and I’m tired of doing the front side and failing at the backside. So all I’m doing is the backside of the tricky woo and I’m not even going to do the front side today. Or I can just laugh and be like, I know it’s funny, isn’t it? And just kind of get back to what I’m doing and focus on what I’m doing and think, you know, I’ll tell them when later, but I’m not going to like stop my ride for this because I’m working on something and I’m having fun and this is what I’m here for today.

Some days I’m here to share paddling with the group. Some days I’m here to work on these tricks. And other days I’m working on like, okay, there’s these things you can’t do. Today’s gonna be a homework day. I’m doing my homework. I’m gonna work on these things I can’t do. And you just have to know that if someone is looking to see how good Clay Wright is today, they’re gonna think he’s not very good. And that’s okay, because I just don’t care.

Clay Wright
Other days, I really feel like I have to show off. Like you want to be able to show off when the test comes. You know what I mean? Like, and I feel like that about that early paddling experience is I was actually learning a lot of things. But at the time, for some reason, maybe from paddling with canoers so much, and a lot of them just swam every time they turned upside down and it was okay and everyone tried to make it okay and they said, oh, it’s fine. People swam and it was just kind of part of the trip.

And I was doing that part of the trip a lot. But I didn’t really think about it as in like, don’t do that. Um, and then all of a sudden we’re in Colorado and the rivers are continuous and everyone’s like, you can’t even go, you know, you don’t even roll up when, when it’s easy. It’s like, Oh, I didn’t know we were playing that game. You want me to play that game? Okay. I’ll play that game. Um, and then all of a sudden it was like, Oh yeah, swimming sucks. Why was I doing that? Um, but you know,

That involves, I’m sure everyone who’s ever been in a kayak knows that you have those moments when your brain goes, Oh my god, freak out! And you have to rein it in and be like, oh no, things are about to get a whole lot worse if you let that take over. Do not do that. I would much rather bump down the rocks for a little while and get this thing upright than I would swim down the rocks. But it takes a little while to recognize that.

I do not want to be in the water bumping down rocks while everyone else has to go save my boat. I really don’t want to do that and I’m totally okay if I bang my head and my hands and my back on the way to getting back upright.

Anna (
Yeah, I will say that I coach people. I mean, I think it’s important because like you said, anyone who’s whitewater kayaked for any amount of time has taken swims. I mean, and it is part of the sport. And so, you know, and for me, this golly season, getting stuck under that raft and swimming on the upper golly, like that was a big ego hit. And I was like, what just happened?

Clay Wright
Hehehehe

Anna
And it was so humbling and I started to go down like, you know, am I someone who swims on the upper Gali? But then again, it is really, and you know, Andrew and Toby had to get my boat and it is super humbling at the same time. Once I got down to my boat, no one cared. No one cared, you know, they were just stoked that I wasn’t still stuck under the raft, the raft guides who didn’t know what they were. They weren’t raft guides, they were, anyway, didn’t have a lot of experience.

Clay Wright
I love that you posted about that because I don’t really swim that often. If a rapid is going to make me swim, I just don’t run it. If it’s got a really nasty, you know, I just don’t swim that often. So I’ve thought a lot and this has happened, you know, it’s been 20 years of doing this. But while I was like, man, I don’t even know if I would swim. I wonder if I should tell people, like, I just don’t swim anymore. If the boat ever doesn’t roll, come get me because something’s wrong.

And then of course I did swim and it was like, well, that was the most instinctive thing ever. Wow, that was pretty obvious. I was like, whoa, you’re fully under this thing. It’s not coming out. You’re swimming. And it was no big deal. But I’m back in that window where I’m kind of like, oh man, I think if I swam, it might like really damage my ego and I might like have a hard time paddling back up the eddy or running the river again. But I hope not.

Anna
I think you would be fine. I got back on the upper gully like the next day. It was totally fine, you know, and…

Clay Wright
Yeah, I had that brief window when my shoulders were messed up and I ran the golly with the idea that I don’t know if I can roll. And that was definitely in that same sort of thing where I was like, oh my God, I should really walk off. I don’t even know if I’m going to roll. I think I got someone to spot me on a roll because I really thought like my arms are bothering me so much. I don’t know that I can raise my hands over my head. And then I also had to do a double take and be like, you know.

This is a pretty cool game. Can you run the golly without flipping over? I’m pretty sure you can. You might have to skip a few moves.

Yeah, so I injured both shoulders in a freestyle competition and I wasn’t sure how bad it was. So I get to golly season, so excited, but I’m definitely kind of like in the back of my mind, like, you know, I don’t know if my shoulders are okay, but I can’t miss the upper golly I’m doing. And I got on and they were hurting so much that I was just like, I don’t know that I can roll right now. This is…pretty bad situation, I think I should probably get off the river. That’s not safe. So the conservative Clay points out the rules of the river in the club mentality, which is you would not want to run the upper gully without a roll. And then immediately it was kind of like, but it’s actually kind of a fun game. You know, normally when you run the gully, you’re doing all these slots and all these tricks and being upside down like a hundred times from put in to take out, but you can do it without.

And really quickly it became pretty fun, where I was like, oh, I think I can do this lot, and I think I can do this flat, and I can do all this stuff. And it was just another really weird way to run the golly. And I had a great time. I did end up flipping at sweets. I think I tried to do just a regular boof instead of a 360 boof, and I flipped, and I did roll up. But I enjoyed the game. I performed well. But I went home afterwards.

I was like, that’s, I just can’t do this again. So that’s an interesting situation where I enjoyed the challenge. I did not walk off the river, but I also knew you don’t wanna be repeating this over and over again.

Anna
Yeah. Have you read the book Hidden Potential by Adam Grant? It’s a great book. And he is a behavioral psychologist, behavioral organizational, organizational psychologist. And he talks about how gamifying training is so important. And he has, he has some specific examples of, I think, an NBA basketball player, maybe it was Stephen, Stephen Curry, Stephen Curry,and someone else. But anyways, what I hear and what you’re talking about, what you’ve shared so far is that you really like the gamification that really helps you learn and improve. And it just made me think of that book and the science shows that the more you can gamify things, even though whitewater kayaking is super fun in and of itself, you know, giving yourself some challenges. And that’s

You know, the beauty of like hard moves and easy water, give yourself some challenges and gamify it. So I think that’s, that’s cool. It’s a good book.

Clay Wright
Oh yeah, I have really good, I have not read it, but I definitely gamify things a whole lot. I, on any trip on the Caney Fork, my home run, I always, not always, but almost always, I think one thing I’ve never done. I’m doing one thing I’ve never done all the time. Some days I might say I’ve got to find five things I’ve never done. But most of the time it’s just one. And on the Gali, I try to do one thing I’ve never done most every trip.

And I had a season where I decided I was going to find a new best line on pillow, which was fun. Because I put so much, it’s, you know, nobody cares. But I’ve done a lot of runs on the goli and there’s a lot of good rapids. But there’s some pillows, just one of the best rapids. Because it’s like, I tell people if you’re not scared going into pillow, then you’re not really pushing yourself. Because I think everybody could be scared going into pillow if they were trying something and there’s so many things to try uh… that it’s kinda like yeah i get nervous every time i come into pillow i have had some days when we were shooting some video whatever they wanted me to run the regular line i was like okay fine i’m nervous anyway because i want to do this so freaking perfect that i don’t have to walk back up and do it again i’m gonna do a Colleen Laffey line i’m gonna run

I’m not even going to get my face wet and I’m going to take as few strokes as possible. All of a sudden I realize you’re trying to run the sneak with as few strokes as possible without getting a splash to the face. That’s what turns on my brain to where I can see the wash up rock so clearly and what angle I’m going to have as I go into it and how I’m going to come off it and where that next wave is coming in. It’s almost like I turned running the sneak.

into a huge challenge as if there was like a crevasse or an undercut on both sides of the line and I had to make it. And then you know you perform.

Anna
I love running pillow. I love the challenge of running pillow without getting my hair wet. And then I also love the challenge of, yeah, going up on the pillow and like, not in like being super smooth between the wash up rock and like the, you know, whatever they call it, toilet bowl or whatever it is. I will say that I am a big fan now of just not talking about sneaks versus just, it’s a different line. Because like you said, there’s a challenge.

Clay Wright
Hehehehe

Anna
in every line, depending on who you are, what your level is. Right? It’s about finding that challenge.

Clay Wright
And I would say a weird thing about it was I think my ego comes into play in the same way. When you’re going for, you know, around the rock, surf the wave, split the curlers and hit the room, come out without getting your face wet in free will off Volkswagen, which I do a lot. That’s my favorite little thing on pillow right now. It’s very acceptable to miss it, I think, because there’s not that many people trying it.

Other people probably assume it’s harder than it is or whatever because there’s just not people doing it. So in a way, you’re risking your knuckles, which I hate. I don’t like to have scraped knuckles. It’s like having a big dent in the front of your car. It shows you messed up. But if you’re not doing that, how do you express what I call the, you know, all the time and all the effort that I put into knowing how to run a kayak down that rep?

How am I going to show that? And so in a way, the fear of what other people think comes back into play and helps me motivate to be like, oh, if I’m going to run something that everyone’s running, oh, now the game is on. Because I just went into the huge bracket where there’s 1,000 people competing, and I’ve got to somehow or rather separate myself from the pack. And it becomes the same damn thing. It’s so weird. It’s like.

I’m still trying to show off.

Anna
Yeah, well, it’s good that you have an awareness of it.

Clay Wright
There’s just no co-

Yeah, there’s risk show off and there’s social risk show off. And if you can mentally just boost the social risk part to all those people on the rock, I don’t want them to think I’m just like scared today or just have a lost date or I’m too old or whatever. And I can boost that social pressure into that same sort of, I’ve got to hit this that it takes to do a hard move right in front of the pillow, I think.

Anna
Well, what’s interesting is that earlier you said when you’re practicing freestyle, you don’t care what other people think. But just now you said that you do care what other people think, because you’re worried that they’re gonna think that essentially you’re a sucky kayaker too old if you don’t run a certain line through pillow. So I find that interesting. I’m not saying that it has to be either or. I think there are times when you do feel like, yeah, because you know in the…
when you’re working on your freestyle moves, you’re working towards something and that people will see you over and over. And then there’s that moment, like you only get to, I mean, you can walk back up, but typically most of us don’t necessarily spend our days walking up back up pillows. So you’re doing it once, maybe twice, and you feel that pressure. I find it, yeah, well.

Clay Wright
I think I look for it. I think I look for it when I need it. And I think…

Anna
Yeah, I was… Go ahead.

Clay Wright
Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. Some days I’m like, I remember getting out to scout Pilla one day and there was another, you know, an old friend who was a top kayaker at one point. He was like, what are you doing? And I was like, I’m scouting. And they were like, why are you scouting Pilla? I just run it. And it was funny because I already thought.

I don’t care what you think. If you don’t understand why I’m scouting Pillow, I don’t even care. Because I’ve got this thing that I’m doing for me, I’m really nervous about it. I really wanted to hit this line. I’d scouted like four times already. I don’t know if I did it that day or if it was a couple days later that I tried it, but I was like, I had my own way of getting myself to that point where I was in that mode of like, I’ve really got to hit this. This is scary. And on days when that’s not happening to me.

when I’m not getting that boost, when I’m just kind of drifting along into pillow thinking what am I going to do today? It’s almost like maybe what you’re talking about is when you’re in the low stress situation, you’ve got this sea of negativity that’s surging and splashing on the rocks and occasionally just dousing you with unwelcome thoughts and you’re like, man, I’ve got to get out of this. What am I going to do to get myself out of this and get back into the, whoo, here we are.

And so I’ll build up enough. I can’t find the actual risk. And then I build up a social one. I think I know what I’m doing. I think I, I think sometimes I really care what this ride looks like on the wave as a way to get ready for a competition. Um, in other rides, I just don’t care.

Anna
Yeah, and I think, you know, I have, it points to when you have self-awareness of my ego is in play right now and that’s okay. Like I definitely, my ego pushes me to continue to run rapids, like Oceania for instance on Tallulah. Like, you know, there’s, you know, when I get there,

Clay Wright
Hehehehehehe

Anna
You know, there’s some rapids that I’ve been fine letting go of, like for me, Gorilla on the green, I let go of that a long time ago. There are other rapids that, or like even paddling the green, like I want to be someone who paddles the green. I have the skill. Like that is important to me from an ego perspective of being a good paddler and being known as a good paddler. And I think that there’s nothing wrong with that when you’re aware of it. I think that problems come in when folks are not aware of it and they do things based on ego that, solely because of ego, without having an awareness that that’s in play, that they can really go over their heads and take maybe unnecessary risk. I don’t know. Who am I to judge? But what I’m saying is that ego is not, a bad thing when you have awareness around. Yes, it’s in play right now. I know it and I’m choosing it. And that’s okay.

Clay Wright
Exactly, you choose it. Oceana is a great one to bring up because I was went drove all the way to the Tallulah having a great time. We get the Oceana and I got out on the right because I thought it’d be a better angle to shoot. It wasn’t but Dan is all excited to do his kickflip and he doesn’t get it on his first try and he’s getting ready to walk back up and I’m like oh well I wonder how many times he’s going to do this and then I’m noticing oh it looks kind of hard to walk your boat up there.

And I was like, oh, well, you can just take mine down. And then all of a sudden it was like, oh, oh no. If he takes my boat down, then I probably won’t walk it back up. And I’ll be the guy who walks Oceania. And I don’t want to be that guy. But then he’s like, no, I got it. It’s fine. And then I said, well, how many laps are you going to do? He’s like, oh, I don’t know, five or six. It’s like five or six. So I think I watched like three more. And I was finally like, OK, well, you can definitely take my boat off if you want to now.

And he did. And then by the time, I think he did eight. I don’t know, he did a lot. And by the time he got through going, hey, I just didn’t care anymore about whether I ran it because I was kind of like, I’d gotten all the adrenaline I could get just by watching him try to do this. And I’d gotten a lot of brain stimulation of trying to figure out how he could do it better and all this other stuff. But yeah, then there was the sort of shameful paddle back across from the bottom.

I was like, okay, what is it I’m doing right now? Am I feeling a loss for the endorphins that I wish I’d gotten? Probably. I think I wish that I had gotten the endorphins around the Oceania. But at the same time I was kind of like, but now I’ve been like focusing on the shot and focusing on thinking about things. I’ve been kind of like standing here for a long time. I don’t know that I even want to feel that right now. I don’t think I really wanted to…

get the big blow back into a skip even, even an ideal situation. Um, so that was kind of weird. It was hard, hard to get going again. I really like when I get to that point where I’m kind of like, Ooh, I’m ready for some violence, some non-painful violence is what I’m seeking right now. You know, that fall on a snowboard where your, your gloves and your goggles go flying and you’re tumbling and you’re just like, this is awesome. Um, or in kayaking, when you get out of control of the hole and you’re like, trying to make sure both blades don’t catch at once, but you just don’t know which way is up or down, and it’s like enthusiastic violence and none of it hurts. It’s like so fun to be out of control in that way. And sometimes I just can’t quite get it. Sometimes I’m like, oh, I don’t really wanna get jostled right now. Maybe that’s just part of being old, or maybe it’s like your brain, or you just, you don’t have the endorphins going on your brain at all. Like after watching Dane do whatever, all the laps he did on Oceana and being down there for probably, you know, 45 minutes. You know, all that enthusiasm for the rapid was gone and I was left with just like, I felt like I was just like sitting there watching a sporting event and then someone wanted to throw me the ball and I’m like, I don’t really want to play now. I’m just sitting here watching. So that’s kind of a weird thing to it. I think when you get in the moment and you’re excited about doing things for yourself, you

it stimulates, it reduces the pain receptors and it stimulates these fast twitch muscles and you’re like really ready to go. And then there’s other times when you’re just not stimulating those same things and you kind of think, I think I’m not ready to go. I think I’ll be fine, but I think I’m not going to perform my best. And I think if I do hit my elbow, it’s going to hurt right now. You know, I’m not in that mental state of being ready to take a hit.

Anna
Yeah.

Clay Wright
And maybe recognizing that is good, maybe I’ve got to learn. I think I’ve got to get better at boosting back in to the performance state of where it’s not going to hurt. On the other hand, there’s guys who still like to play touch football all the time and I’m kind of like, no one is pushing me down. The last thing I want to do is catch a ball and have somebody chase me around and try to knock me down. That sounds terrible. Why would I do that?

Anna (43:29.273)
Yeah, exactly. And I think that it’s, well, it’s, everyone is different and unique. And I think finding what works for you and accepting all parts of yourself, right? The days that you don’t want to do it in the days that you do. And I think that’s, that’s important.

Clay Wright
Yeah, I mean, I’ve had a ton of times when I’m just so excited to run the waterfall or whatever because you’re just like, I know I can get my bow down. I know I can throw my paddle. And after that, I just don’t care. I’m not going to get hurt in a physical, in a horrible way. And I want this view so badly that I am just so fired up to be looking into that crevasse and into that abyss and just explode.

I don’t know what that is. That’s just like a mental setting that you get in. You’re just thirsting that new, that excess stimulation. And there’s other days you’re just not.

Anna
So what is your strategy for facing fear and calming yourself down?

Clay Wright
It depends on the situation. If I’m in a comp situation, I can definitely start to build up a bad sort of stress. I’ve started to recognize when that’s happening sometimes. You kind of have to remind yourself what you’re doing there and that you want to be there. You put a lot of effort into making this experience happen. So what’s keeping you from enjoying it? What is it?

Clay Wright (
that you’re, are you actually worried that you’re gonna hurt yourself in a way that you won’t be able to live the rest of your life the same? Or are you actually worried about you’re gonna be uncomfortable for a couple days? And those are two big different things. If it’s like a, I might die in this situation, then sometimes I have to think, okay, is this like cautious clay saying, yes, I’m looking in a spot where you actually could die, kind of like looking at a telephone pole on the side of the road when you’re driving really fast?

Clay Wright
You can sit there and look at the telephone pole and get all freaked out about, I hope I don’t hit it. I hope I don’t hit it. Or you can just accept the fact that you do this all day and you don’t even think about it most of the time. And you’re just obsessing about the risk. Um, and those are different things. Like we went to suck Creek the other day and I got this fearful feeling first time that I’ve been back on suck Creek, first time of the season, first big rain of the season. There’s all these little red flags that are waving up in my little

They’re spinning like wheels on the drive there. I’m like, there’s all these things that increase my average risk for running Suck Creek right now. So what am I doing? I’m choosing this adventure. And Nick’s like, oh, we’re going to get a bunch of laps. And I’m like, I don’t think we’re getting a bunch of laps because I’m going to do my homework. This is the run of the year when we do our homework. And we did. We walked in multiple times. We looked at almost every rapid.

We talked to everyone that we saw who had been on the run recently. And then at the put in, I felt so good about the whole thing. I was like, I have done my homework. I am ready for this test. We did everything we could. We’re good enough to be good at this. This is going to be awesome. And my brain was just in a completely different place. Um, whereas somebody else who was, uh, on the trip with us, when we were talking about it in advance and I was like this rapid to this rapid, and we do this on this rapid and I was going down the whole run.

And they kept getting things out of order or wrong or not quite remembering things and they decided not to go at the put-in in their gear literally said I Think I’m not gonna go And it was like perfect you aced it you just failed the test We just walked ourselves through the river and you’re not comfortable with the answers that you gave You got a bunch of red pins on your sheet and you’re choosing Oh, I didn’t get that right. I think I’m not going. I thought, this is absolutely perfect. This is what aging paddlers do. If you feel like you did your homework and you got a good grade and you’re completely ready for the experience, then you approach it with a completely different mindset of when you’re like, which rapid are you talking about? Once you’re in that like, oh gosh, I don’t know, I don’t know, then it’s really hard to get it back.

Anna
Yep.

Anna
Wouldn’t you say that person actually passed the test because they made a smart decision versus failed the test? Yeah.

Clay Wright
Yes. Yes, I think that and that’s what I was trying. I did try to enunciate that because I noticed in advance. I was like, oh, this is, you know, every time we start talking about what we heard and what we saw, you’re getting little details wrong. And then I was kind of like, well, it’ll be fine. But I was thinking in my mind, I was like, you know, I’m going to put that person right behind me and I’m going to be watching really carefully. And so then when he said, I

just don’t think I have it right now. And I was kind of like, exactly, you don’t. You’re a much, much better paddler than this to take a stupid risk because you don’t remember the rapid order and where the sieve is. And so it was really cool. And I think that’s just, that’s the voice of experience. And that if I had gotten some of those things wrong, I think I would have changed my mind too. Cause I was thinking in advance, I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared. There’s all this. unskill based risk that I’m about to encounter. Because I don’t know where I’m going that well and there’s been a lot of changes and there could be some wood. And then we hear that there is wood and I don’t know the name of the rapid. And I’m getting all this like, oh, this is not a skill based thing. This is just excess risk. So we hammered it down and spent an hour scouting the whole thing. And then once that excess risk was gone, I felt great about it.

Anna
Yeah.

Clay Wright
And a lot of times I feel like that. On my second run down something, I paddle so much better. On my first run down something, when I get in that place of like, oh gosh, I’m scared, I’m scared, then I have to like totally do this weird reset thing where you remind yourself. And this is not really fair. And I don’t know if it’s really accurate. But sometimes I’ll think, there’s lots of paddlers who were not as prepared as you are who have done OK on this.

So yes, you’re risking more than you wanted to, but it doesn’t mean you’re risking that much. So let’s get through this, do everything you can to get out of this situation and go out of your way not to re-encounter it. That’s when you get like you’re above a rapid, you can’t scout anymore and you’re not quite sure where to go. It’s like, I don’t like this situation. I’m gonna do my homework better next time and not go into this. But for right now, stop obsessing about it. Let’s get ready to perform.

Anna
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Okay. Do you have a question for me?

Clay Wright
Okay, you think about these things a lot more than most people. Stress and performance and ego and all the things that we’ve been talking about. Does it put you in a better situation when you’re on the river to shift your brain back and forth between all these different lessons that you’ve read and lessons that you’ve heard? Or do you think it opens new avenues to kind of worry about other things?

I’m not sure if people who really think about it, if it puts them with more tools to deal with situations, or if it also makes them look for things that are going right or things that are going wrong. How does the texture of the experience work when you add so many more ways to define it?

Anna
I think, well, for me, it helps me out. One, because I coach and instruct. And so there are times when I’m nervous or scared. And definitely I feel like I have, my mind tends towards, well, I know my mind tends towards worst case scenarios. So that’s what I deal with when I’m on the river. And I know that about myself. And so I, having thought about it and having many strategies and studied yoga, meditation, reading the science, the neuroscience, it gives me a lot of strategies and also the coaching and instructing keep me accountable. So, you know, I am a big fan of if I’m like walk, walk my talk, it’s really important to me in my life to walk my talk. So.

That doesn’t mean that I’m going to run the hardest rapids. I don’t feel like I need to go back and run, start running gorilla again. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about when I am nervous and scared that I can, that I actually use the tools and that I continue challenging myself. I do allow myself to challenge myself in different ways. So just because, you know, a lot of folks are running a rapid doesn’t mean that I need to

Anna
I’m not going to be able to do that. I’m teaching. And so I like to take some time off in the winter from paddling. I love alpine skiing, but I know that when March rolls around, it’s time for me to get back on in kayaking, get some class four runs under my belt, get back on the green so that I am walking my talk when I walk into the beginning of Creek Week. You know, I’m ready. Kind of like what you said, doing your homework. And it helps to keep me accountable.

Clay Wright
Yeah, and I’ve really found that helping other people with their fear has helped me with my fear because it all of a sudden It makes you more aware of what game you’re playing When showman’s in a position where they just 100% I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I want to do this I don’t think I you know, I just want to get out of my boat right now And then you piece it down to where you’re like, okay, so where’s the dangerous part? What are you scared of that? Okay

Is there any way that you could possibly make sure that doesn’t happen? Well, I could start completely over here. OK, so what’s the problem with starting completely over here? Oh, well, that’s not where everyone else is going, and that doesn’t set you up for this. And you’re like, well, are you really worried about that down there? Is that really your main concern? They’re like, well, no. But it’s like, then what would happen if we just walked our boat to over there and tried it from here?

Are you still in the same sort of fear? Well, no, because that’s just not going to hurt. And you’re like, oh, OK. You think you’ll paddle better or worse? And they’re like, well, I’d probably paddle better if I started over there. It’s like, well, OK, let’s consider starting over there. And I play that game all the time now. So I’m looking at one of the moves on Suck Creek. Well, it’s like, oh, this looks really hard to make. And then all of a sudden, it was like, but there was that stupid little.

one little eddy part way down, but you couldn’t really get to it. And so I got to the top of that rapid and Nick’s getting ready to go. And I was like, you know, I think I’m just gonna slide down into this eddy because I’ve got an upstress. We’re at the very top of the run. What’s the point? And the next thing I know, I’m like going backwards over these rocks and like wheel-chairing down into some little side eddy. And I thought, you know, so effective.

Because now I’m not even worried about this, and I’m just thinking about the next rapid, and I’m getting about my day. A little like deciding to skip Go Left on the race. That was so fun when I would stress out about, I’m going to do it, I’m really scared about it, blah, and Go Left would be such a big part of the race. And then one time I missed it. I just came into it, didn’t have the right angle, had to be like, well, missed that. Not going to do that, or I’m not set up. Didn’t seem to matter.

And then it was kind of like, man, I can just do whatever I want and not even worry about it. And if I feel like doing it, I’ll do it. And if I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t do it. And then all of a sudden, the whole race was so much less stressful. So I love being able to take the stress out of it for other people and to say things like, well, if you want a really cool photo, you can put in right here, do the cool part that looks really fun and skip the actual danger part. Or you can say like, I can swim from here. So let’s start there.

But then I try to put that into my own paddling. So I’m not always thinking like, I think the last time I ran gorilla, I did the stupid pencil sharpener thing. I have no idea why I did that. It was horrible. But I was literally like looking at the squirrel and looking at the gas pedal and I’d messed up the gas pedal or something like that. And I was like, you know, I’m just gonna take that whole thing out of the equation. I didn’t like the pencil sharpener. But it was kind of fun to end up, you know, plop into that stupid Eddie and be like, oh.

And now we can just kind of sit here and we’re not the slightest bit stressed out, we can focus on the notch. Wow, this is different. It was kind of fun to put that into your own paddling, just the idea that I can choose my own game.

Anna
Yeah, choose your own game. That’s good advice right there.

Clay Wright
Some days I’m going to not wear a life jacket and try to slide into a wavehopper on the fly without even slowing down. And I’m risking getting wet. And that’s what I’m going to do for fun. And other days I’m going to be like, oh my phone might be waterproof. I don’t know. But I’m going to put it in a waterproof baggie. And then I’m going to put on my life jacket. And then I’m going to put on the headlamp. And I’m going to get every single thing ready. Because I just don’t think I like risking anything.

Anna
Yeah. Okay. We’re ready for rapid fire round. Also, I’m going to have to take Andrew to urgent care because he hurt himself at an axe throwing, the axe throwing astral Christmas party. So, okay. I know it’s sad. Okay. So rapid fire questions. You ready? You’re supposed to, the idea is to answer them in like one word or one sentence. Okay. Here’s your first rapid fire question.

What’s a morning ritual that sets you up for success?

Clay Wright
Walk with the dogs with a glass of coffee in my hand.

Anna
What’s your non-negotiable self-care practice?

Clay Wright
Get outside and look for wonder.

Anna
What’s a favorite motivational book or talk?

Clay Wright
Pass.

Anna
Okay. What do people get wrong about you?

Clay Wright
People used to think that I was crazy.

Anna
Mm.

Clay Wright
they don’t realize I’m pretty calculated.

Anna
Throughout your life, have you considered yourself the underdog or the favored to win?

Clay Wright
I like being the underdog. Sometimes I’ve been favored to win, but that’s less comfortable for me.

Anna
Hmm. Hard moves in easy water or flooding.

Clay Wright
If I’ve been doing a lot of hard moves in easy places, I need some flooding every once in a while but always hard moves in easy places.

Anna
So I hear both.

Clay Wright
Well, I do. I look for the hardest. I like to look for challenging moves anywhere I am, whether I’m getting in a wave hop or on flat water or not.

Anna

Yep. Okay. One word that describes your comfort zone. Your comfort zone.

Clay Wright
variable.

Anna
Variable, okay? Freedom through discipline or I do what I want.

Clay Wright
I do what I want.

Anna
In one word, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Clay Wright
uh… haven’t thought about it uh… one word uh…

Uh… had fun? Fun? I dunno.

Anna
Fun, okay, love it. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our listeners?

Clay Wright
I hope anything I can add to someone’s life that I am open to doing and if people don’t care what other people are doing, they just want to do their own thing, that’s a great thing too. So many aspects of life you have to discover for yourself, but anything I could do to take the danger out of something or to boost the experience of an individual day, I want to do it. I like helping other people have more fun.

And I also like helping people be safe, but I have accepted the fact that we have to let people choose their own games and their own risks and their own pleasures.

Anna
Great. Where can people find you, Clay, if they wanna connect with you?

Clay Wright
Um Facebook Instagram, I’m at rock island an awful lot lately I’ve been on the same path for a long time. I’m kind of doing the columbus mixed in the winter then uh some west virginia and then some colorado Mid-may mid-june ottawa summer golly rest of port green Kind of on the same path for a while. I really missed the hairy lemon though

Anna
Yeah, the Nile. That was a special place. Yeah.

Clay Wright
The Nile, that was a special place for so many people and it was such a big loss to not have that as my winter plan anymore.

Anna
Mm, yeah, I hear you.

Clay Wright
I haven’t discovered Ecuador, but it looks like everyone else has.

Anna (
Yeah, you’ll have to check it out. Ecuador is fun.

Clay Wright
Yeah, it looks great.

Anna
Well, if y’all who are paddlers want to connect with Clay, go find him on a river. And, uh, I really appreciate your time, Clay. Thanks for taking the time to chat. It was fun.

Clay Wright
Yeah, that was fun, Anna. And I love paddling with you and Andrew. And I hope that the axe wound is not too terribly bad. And I’m so sorry that he hurt himself at an axe throwing party. That’s the kind of thing that I’m very conservative about. I might be a risk taker in certain things, but I rarely step between the axe and the target.

Anna
Yeah.

Anna
Yeah, well, it was actually pulling the axe out of the target that when he got hurt. So I need to learn more about it. But yeah, he… So he is, he really is. All right. Thanks, Clay.

Clay Wright
Oh, I can see how that could happen. That’s an unseen risk because you’re inexperienced. I can see that. Andrew’s pretty calculated.

Clay Wright
Awesome. Bye, guys.