The Shoshin of Kayak Instruction: The Beginner’s Mind


Celebrating during our whitewater kayaking clinic.

“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

In Zen Buddhism, the Beginner’s Mind is the idea of having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. I had the opportunity to experience this for myself this summer teaching beginner whitewater kayak clinics with Jill Wrenn at Mind, Body, Paddle. While I was there to teach brand new boaters how to whitewater kayak, I realize that I learned just as much as they did and so much of it revolved around cultivating a beginner’s mindset.

Provide just enough detail

As an instructor, it can be easy to get lost in the technical aspects of kayaking and geek out on the finer aspects of the forward stroke or how the chines of the kayak affect performance. My students reminded me that they are primarily there to have fun, so I learned to not get lost in specific details that they would better off picking up down the road. It can be challenging to find that balance of enough information for students to get the basics of the skill but not so much that their eyes glaze over. I discovered that if I  overloaded them with all of the finer points of dialing in that perfect forward stroke, they would likely feel overwhelmed and frustrated when they don’t “get it.”

Play games

Kayaking supposed to be fun! One of the ways we helped students build skills and confidence was to play games. Our favorite this summer was kayak polo in the pool at Fishtop on the Lower Green. It allowed students to get out of their heads and paddle instinctively. They let their competitive side come out and had a blast!

Have a plan B

Sometimes things didn’t always work out the way we planned. The river levels were higher than normal due to rain, someone got too tired to keep going safely or the dam didn’t release when we expected. It seemed like every trip, there came a point where we had to go to plan B. Just as sometimes happens when we go through a rapid, things don’t go how we planned and we had to think on the fly about what to do next. We learned to be flexible and creative.

Everyone learns a bit differently

Each of us learn a little bit differently. Some are better hearing something explained, others want to watch first and still others like to jump right in and do it through trial and error. Jill and I learned to adapt to our students’ learning needs and switch up who was instructing since we each have our own way of teaching the same skills. Bottom line: learn from you fellow instructors, tune into your students’ needs and make sure to give your students plenty of time to practice and work it out other own.

Talk about fear

Kayaking can be scary. Remember what it was like that first time you went upside down in your kayak and had to wet exit? One of the first things we teach our students when we get on the water is how to wet exit. For some, that can be a really scary experience and so can swimming for the first time. Talking about our fears and anxiety became an important discussion we had as a group and individually every class. Through naming it and talking about it, it became a shared experience. That then opened up the discussion about how we talk to ourselves, how we experience fear and how to manage stress on the river.

Put yourself in their shoes

Back to that beginner’s mindset. We have all been in our students’ shoes…not knowing which edge of the paddle is up, bobbling into every eddy and spinning in circles like a leaf down the river. Working with new boaters this summer has reminded me that it hasn’t always been easy and the things I can do now without thinking were once really hard and sometimes scary. I look back on this summer with fond memories of celebrating the joy of students being able to put their spray skirts on by themselves for the first time, working through how to make their boats go straight and excitement of having successfully navigated their first rapid, among many other memories. I learned just as much as our students!

Interested in learning to kayak or more advanced instruction? Check out the Girls at Play page of Mind Body Paddle.