Feedback and Criticism in Kayaking Assessments

In light of the Bob Weitzl’s death on Lake Superior, my mind over the last few days has wandered to the assessment process for paddlers. Not all paddlers get involved with the ACA, Paddle Canada or the BCU. Some just want to paddle on their own and do just fine. Some folks elect to participate in these two systems to begin a cycle of development and assessment.

assessment feedback cycle

The key here is that it is a cycle. Where one develops some skills and concepts and is then assessed, provided feedback. Then the student assimilates that feedback into their paddling, and thinking about their environment. This feedback part, for instructors or instructor trainers is really key to student development. How we provide feedback is so crucial to the student developing, and incorporating feedback. I can say with honesty that I have had some feedback I didn’t want to hear, but in the end I was grateful for it. And this is the second part. The student has to be eager and willing to incorporate the feedback into their training and work towards the goal of a new assessment.

While some paddlers may balk at a system of pass/fail in kayaking, and feel that a less structured skill development is justified. I would argue that the environment we paddle in is by its very nature a pass-fail system. And over the last few months we have all read about the fail conditions of some of our fallen brethren on the Great Lakes. These paddlers had never even entered into a training program.

Robert sought out training, had the right gear, and still managed to lose his life on Lake Superior. For that we are deeply sorry for him and his family. Bob had a great spirit, and from my brief interaction with him, found him engaging and positive. He was a guy we all would have wanted to paddle with and have a pint afterwards. Kayaking is like that, so many great positive people.

For my part, I think it is crucial that we as instructors continue to provide honest feedback to students in an encouraging, yet grave light, so as to ensure that students hear our feedback, and incorporate it into their training. And students, be prepared to approach your skill development as if your life depended on it and train hard.


  1. Well said Keith. Bob’s death has hit me like a ton of f#$king bricks. Last fall he came to me for some tutoring on his skills. Before I got my boat off my car I had to leave to tend to a medical emergency at home. I left him with another very capable instructor, one of the best in my book. Subsequent to this, he came to Milwaukee and paddled with us frequently through the fall and winter and into the spring this year, in all sorts of conditions. I would have paddled with him without reservation. As an ACA instructor trainer I’m doing a lot of introspection on the “soft” skills. Simply being a good paddler and modeler of strokes does not make one an instructor. The “soft” skills are what separates a good paddler from an instructor.

  2. Thank you for the post Keith. As an instructor it is a hard balance in wanting a student/participant to suceed with encouragement while imparting that the ‘inherant risk’ is ever present. I hope we provide the help with judgement and decisions at every level of instruction/activity.