Paddle Healthy: An Attitude of Gratitude
– Marcus Tullius Cicero
Standup paddling provides a great physical workout, which is beneficial in competition and everyday life. Mental conditioning can provide similar benefits, but few people proactively train themselves.
Just thinking about a stressful situation—from the approaching face of a monster wave to an intrapersonal conflict—can cause anxiety, and the resultant stress can take a toll physically and emotionally.
John Denney, who was part of Laird Hamilton’s Strapped Crew on Maui, and holds a Masters degree in Psychology, teaches a biofeedback method that allows anyone to see how their body reacts to stress and realize that they possess the ability to manage their response. His students include some of SUP’s young guns and seasoned watermen.
Denney’s motivation for teaching his “Paddling from the Heart” system emanates from recognizing the ways that stress impacts us, noting that, “Stress is a huge problem in health and performance, but nowhere in our educational system are we taught any skills to deal with it. When I show someone how simple it can be to shift their response to stress, it can be a life-changer.”
Three-time World Champion Kai Lenny attests to the value that this system has provided him. “I started John’s program when I was real young and impatient,” Lenny says. “The program taught me patience, and gave me the opportunity to tune myself in, hone my skills, control my energy and use it wisely.”
Denney’s system is, “all about the connection between the brain and the heart. We learn to control our physiological and emotional responses through the use of self-regulation skills, focus, breathing, and thinking.” He concentrates primarily on teaching internal awareness and emotional management skills, with some technical assistance. The emWave machine from HeartMath monitors and displays heart rate variability, brain waves, breathing and timing, using a sensor clipped to an ear or finger.
“The display can literally show somebody how their body behaves when they are calm and how they react during stress,” Denney explains. “Heart rhythms can be smooth and wave-like during a positive emotional state, or jagged and irregular, depending on the thoughts and emotions affecting the heart and nervous system. The system teaches skills that can help anyone learn to control their nervous system activity and move from one state to the other.”
This system can boost competitive performance, but doing so requires the right mindset. As Denney relates, “Pro golfer Whit Staples dropped his scoring an average of 2.9 strokes per round. He told me he was having more fun on the golf course and people were enjoying playing with him. When you make the conscious decision to play with an attitude of gratitude, and a love for the game, it makes everyone better for it.”
Brody Welte, of Stand Up Fitness and PaddleFit, experienced similar results recently during a SUP race in Hood River, Ore.: “I was in the lead pack and my board got caught up in the webbing of a turn buoy. Three people passed me, but, once I got to my feet, I took a reset breath and focused on my heart and being thankful for the opportunity. I passed the racers who had passed me, plus two other guys, to take third place in the event. Before I worked with John, I would’ve wasted a ton of energy freaking out, and I wouldn’t have placed as well as I did.”
Denney says a growing number of professional athletes utilize the system and he’s observed that, “It basically blows their mind,” but emphasizes that the program is not only of value to competitors. “These skills can be used by anybody, and they work for all emotions, from worry or anger to sadness and anxiety. They can help improve academic performance, decision-making, emotional management and concentration.” Kai Lenny acknowledged this multifaceted value, adding, “I was able to focus on my school and have a separate focus for my sports.”
Slater Trout, a six-time podium finisher at the Battle of the Paddle, commented on the comprehensive applicability and simplicity of the methods he learned: “This program has affected my life on and off the water. It helps me so much with decision-making and clear thinking, plus it’s easy to do, and no one notices that you’re doing it.”
There are a few main ways that athletes benefit from these skills, as described by Denney: “Decreasing tension is most important, because excess tension leads to decreased performance every time. Quieting the mind puts you in the present. Most stress is caused by looping thoughts about the past or future. This program gets you into the present moment, where all peak performance occurs. It gets you in the zone.”
Hawaiian Waterman and paddle guru Dave Kalama experienced the program’s value beyond competition. “Learning this system has affected more than just my athletic performance. It’s enabled me to help manage my emotions in stress-induced situations.” In addition, Kalama observed that, “It also has a lot of benefits when trying to stay calm and in dealing with raising your children, because we all know how difficult that can be at times.” Welte acknowledged the flip side of Kalama’s parental comment, adding: “This method should be taught in schools so that children can learn early on how to cope with life and become thankful, productive adults.”
Slater Trout wrapped up his experience with the system: “In 2009 it helped me achieve my goal as a top three finisher at the inaugural Battle of the Paddle, when I was 14 years old. I would recommend this method to anyone with a brain and a heart. It has changed my life.” —Tom Fucigna Jr.