The Emotional Side of Kayaking


Kayaking is a relatively intense sport, and all paddlers experience emotion on the river. Sometimes it’s the excitement of completing a challenging river or a new freestyle move. Other times it’s frustration that comes from failing to attain a goal, fear in the face of difficult whitewater, or intimidation when sitting in an eddy full of skilled paddlers.

There are many articles and resources in the kayaking world to help paddlers improve their paddling technique, but very few have addressed how to manage the emotional side of kayaking. During the creation of Girls at Play, my instructional video for women, I conducted interviews with over twenty female paddlers on their approach to the emotional side of kayaking.

Combining my personal experience with information collected from these interviews, I have come up with some helpful tips on how to approach and deal with the emotions we face on the river.

  • Face your fear. Admit that you are afraid or nervous.
  • Identify the source of your fear. It’s important to separate “irrational fear” from “rational fear.” Rational fear is fear that comes from a real hazard on the river: an undercut rock or a big recirculating hole. Irrational fear is fear that comes from preconceived notions we have about the dangers of the river and our own ability to successfully tackle them.
  • An example would be someone who will not practice their roll in a pool with an instructor because they’re afraid of drowning. The chance of that person really drowning in that situation is very small. Yet they may have been told that practising the roll is dangerous. Or they may have previously had a bad experience in water.

Recognize the source of your fear to determine how best to approach the situation. If the fear you’re dealing with is rational, then you might want to walk the rapid. If the fear is based on something someone else has said, or on irrational fear, then you should try to evaluate the situation objectively. Only after doing this can you determine what is best for your particular skill and confidence level.

  • If a rapid makes you nervous, break it down. Focus on the class two, three and four moves you have to make and not on the “big, scary rapid.”
  • Paddle with people who will allow you to go at a pace you feel comfortable with.
  • Breathe! Remember to breathe deeply, take the time to relax and assess the situation with a clear mind.
  • Paddle for yourself. Don’t do something because someone else wants or expects you to. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, then don’t do it. Ultimately, you are the one who has to deal with the consequences of your actions. 
  • Be grateful for all of the skills, teachers and positive experiences that have brought you to this moment. 
  • This exercise will shift your attention to positive thoughts and staying positive is one of the most effective ways to face your fears.


Remember that feelings of intimidation exist only in our own minds. Most paddlers are friendly people who like to see new faces on the river.

Remember that every paddler has felt intimidated by someone at some point in his or her life. It’s something that everyone experiences. 

Be kind to yourself. Focus your attention on what you are doing and what makes you happy, not on who is around you and what he or she is doing.

Try to get to know the person that intimidates you. You will probably discover that you have a lot in common. 

Smile and be friendly to other paddlers. Chances are that some paddlers are intimidated by you. 

What other people think about you is none of your business!  Sound strange?  It’s true if you’re acting with integrity and aren’t hurting anyone.  So don’t worry about what you think other people may be thinking about you, do your thing and have fun!


  • It’s okay to cry on the river. Crying is a normal emotional outlet for people, especially for women. In most cases, the person feels much better after crying. Her head will be clearer and her emotions calmer. Healthy crying usually happens in short bursts.
  • If you give a person the space and the time to cry, he or she will feel much better and your day will go much more smoothly.
  • If, however, a paddler is crying uncontrollably and often, it’s probably a good idea to get him or her off the river.

In some paddling circles, showing emotion on the river is sometimes frowned upon. The notion that you are “hardcore” if you can “keep it together” on the river is misguided. Kayaking does not have to be hardcore. There is something for everyone in kayaking, from class two to class five, from eddy lines to enormous waves. Accepting the emotional aspects of kayaking will help create a more comfortable and supportive environment for all paddlers.

 About the Author

Anna Levesque was the 2001 Freestyle Kayaking World Championship Bronze Medalist and is a motivational keynote speaker. Her company Girls At Play, LLC offers white water kayaking tours, trips and classes for women.

She also provides kayak reviews and beginner guides on how to kayak – “Learn to Paddle with Anna Levesque”. Visit her website –