During the many years that I’ve taught kayaking to women I’ve observed that we have a unique approach to paddling. So I was intrigued when I came upon a study by a group of UCLA researchers that explores the theory that, unlike the Fight-or-Flight response that men experience when they’re stressed, women experience a response called tend-and-befriend. The study describes how women who are stressed or feel threatened exhibit behaviors that involve tending to and protecting their children, including befriending and forming strong bonds with other females or males that they trust. In the study the researchers cite that: “…under conditions of stress, the desire to affiliate with others…is one of the most robust gender differences in adult human behavior…and is the primary gender difference in adult human behavioral responses to stress.” (Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, Updegraft, 2000)
This study sheds light on the communication breakdown that can happen on the river between men and women. Women like to feel supported when stressed while men take a more individualistic approach to river running. Because the sport of whitewater kayaking has traditionally been male dominated and the paradigm for behavior on the river has been set by men, miscommunication can lead to women doubting their ability. This situation is very unpleasant for women and, in my opinion, is one of the major reasons why there are fewer female enthusiasts in whitewater kayaking.
There were times in my kayaking career when I struggled being the only female kayaker in a group of highly skilled paddlers running difficult rivers. The men in the group seemed to be able to make quick decisions when it came to making the choice to run an intimidating rapid. I often felt inadequate because it took me longer to make the decision, I was less confident and I sought out opinions from others on their choices. I would get really nervous and when I looked around the men seemed very confident and calm. They rarely offered advice and assumed that I was dealing with the situation in the same way that they were.
The most common words of advice from men to women in whitewater kayaking seem to be: ‘just follow me’ and ‘you’ll be fine.’ These words may motivate men, but can actually make women feel unsure of the situation. And, in my experience, when women begin to doubt themselves and feel unsure they don’t perform to their potential. Women are not looking for men to tell them how to kayak or to show them all of the lines. In my experience, what women are looking for is someone who will allow them to take it a bit slower at first, give them encouragement and give them support beyond ‘just follow me.’
Several women who have had bad experiences kayaking with men end up in white water kayaking classes for women because they’re looking for a friendly, supportive and safe environment in which to learn. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that there are times when women need to step up and be more confident and aggressive on the river. Most women are willing to step up when they feel supported and encouraged by the group because the support enhances their self-confidence.
Understanding and respecting each other is the key to positive experiences for both men and women paddling whitewater together. There are times when male paddlers can slow down and offer more support to their female counterparts. Women kayakers can learn to be more physically aggressive and confident about their decisions on the river. When men make a commitment to paddle with women it should be because they actually want to paddle WITH them. Offering to take someone paddling means that you’re agreeing to spend time with and offer support to that paddler, maybe not getting as much out of the session as you could if you were with paddlers of equal or more ability. This is true for both men and women who offer to take friends paddling.
Even though recreational kayaking is a very low-risk outdoor activity, it may still be intimidating to some women. It’s important for women who are feeling nervous about trying kayaking to surround themselves with a supportive group of people who will allow them to learn and explore at their own pace. Women’s workshops and outings can be a great place to start.
The study cites that: “Women in women’s social groups show more affiliative behaviors,
including smiling, disclosure, attention to others and ingratiation.” (Taylor, et al 2000) In
my opinion, this is why kayaking classes for women are so popular with and enjoyable for
the participants. Sharing their experiences with one another, women build a trust in others
as well as in themselves.
I realize that this article was written using generalizations. I know that some women don’t relate to what I’m saying and that some men do. The important thing to take away from this is that there isn’t one paradigm for how paddlers should deal with stress or fear. Everyone is different and the study that I have quoted throughout suggests that there are very obvious gender differences when it comes to stress response. As a woman you may have a different approach to and reaction to kayaking and that’s O.K. Give it some time and find good instructors, classes and trusted friends to start and paddle with. The more you communicate with your paddling partners the more fun you’ll have. And having fun is the whole point!