Mentally Preparing for Kayak Rolling

Navy Seal Mental Prep

Mentally Preparing to Roll a Kayak

At a very basic level rolling is an entry level skill that allows a margin of safety for paddlers looking to paddle in textured water. Having an unplanned swim can be life-threatening under the wrong conditions. Cold water is the number one reason for a kayaker to learn to roll. Having a nasty swim in cold water can be the end of you. Hypothermia even when dressed for immersion can debilitate a paddler within a few minutes enough that they cannot perform basic motor functions. In addition to this, there are other obstacles to be wary of when dropped in the drink, breakwalls, rocks. In whitewater add strainers, drops, retentive holes, and so on. In the ocean tide races, or rip currents can really move you into places you do not want to go as well.

Learning to roll a kayak can be very easy. Some can learn in one or two sessions with a gifted instructor. Others may take longer. I learned the physical part of rolling in three or four sessions, but it was over a year before I could mentally hang on underneath the kayak when knocked over in surf and then reliably roll up.

For paddlers interested in moving water rolling is a foregone conclusion. If you head out to paddle on the river, or in the surf, you will have to roll sooner or later on any given day.

When learning to roll, these types of paddlers are preparing for immediate application, where as Sea Kayakers, or flat water paddlers seem to be preparing for an unlikely and unwanted event. This is also true in the case of some traditional style paddlers who may over-prepare flat water practice routines, but fail when in conditions.

What this difference ultimately describes is a delineation in mindset of the two types of paddling. Before anyone brands me as anti sea kayaking I will say one is not better than the other. But what we find is a lack of ability to roll from those that do not mentally prepare for it.

A rather heated post got started by Brian Schultz over at the Qajaq USA forum. Brian has some interesting ideas that he expressed at the forum. What Brian tried to outline that we as coaches might be able to train paddlers to roll mentally as well as physically.The gist of the idea is that learning to roll a kayak is one step in a long process towards being a competent paddler in conditions.

Some at the forum jokingly pointed out that paddlers are not trying out for the Navy SEALS. Well that’s true, but taking a page out of their book for mental toughness couldn’t hurt. How can you prepare for your regulator ceasing to function and your mask filling with water on a dive if you’ve never practiced for it? Kayaking has certain inherent risks involved. Teaching someone to roll on flat water and teaching someone to roll because they will get knocked over really are two different things.

An example of this: In Justine Curgenven’s This is the Sea III, Freya’s Hoffmeister’s swim in the Falls of Lora (a Scottish Tidal Race). Freya who is a Greenland Champion roller swam in a nasty tidal race. She can roll every which way AND Sunday, but failed her roll. Question is why? Broken paddle, no? Ejected from cockpit, no? She was most likely not mentally prepared for the event of a nasty, awkward capsize. I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. I am certainly not picking on Freya, it does happens to all of us.

So the question is what can we do about it as paddlers and coaches? Brian suggested a few interesting drills to practice on flat water at the forum. Keep in mind these are best practiced in the pool where it is warm and well lit.

  1. Play Games in the pool, such as polo. Pushing the limits of your balance and your reach for a polo ball or an opponent will most likely cause a few capsizes and rolling up will seem easier than having to dump and swim. I learned a lot about my ability to hang on from polo.
  2. Capsize in an awkward position with your paddle tucked under your arm or decklines
  3. Toss your paddle a few feet away from you, capsize on the opposite side and then swim to it and roll up.
  4. Have someone standing next to you hold your paddle for you, capsize then setup and bang on the hull when you are ready for them to hand you the paddle, then roll up.
  5. My favorite and this requires willing friends and brave students, have people sit on your kayak and knock you over, see if you can roll them up. I do this with my kids in my surf boat in the pool. Practicing it with and without a paddle is fun too. Make sure to be careful you don’t hit anyone with a paddle.

A few other thoughts are that students have to get it into their heads that rolling is infinitely easier than swimming. They have to hang on, wait for the boat to settle, set up, and then roll up. Most often the biggest reason for failure is a rushed setup.

I love paddling moving water, and rolling has become more or less a non-issue. Being able to focus on what I am doing rather than worrying about survival has been a great boon to my paddling.


  1. This is really a little off topic from the original article but may merit a view.

  2. One exercise that I like to practice is to flip over on purpose and hang upside down beneath my boat until my breath hold capability nears it’s end. For me, that’s about a minute.
    I then attempt my first roll.

    Since I’m almost out of breath, that puts me in the “Do or Die” mode when I’m most likely to make a mistake.

    Be sure to tell your paddling partners what you are doing so they don’t freak out when you do this. Also, I typically do it in a pool or lake where conditions are controlled.

  3. Thanks for the interesting topic and all the great responses. I know this will sound silly … but the best practice I know for rolling is simply to roll. On the lawn, in front of the TV, in the swimming pool, in a shallow eddy, in a deep eddy, in the current, in a rapid, at a play hole or wave, in your mind, or other creative places, with a paddle without a paddle; roll, roll and roll. The key word is to “practice”. Yes rolling can save your life, but just as important, it lets you have more fun on the water! That is what it is all about and there really is no reason to turn it into torture.

  4. It is a hard step. I remember for years being able to roll 70% of the time on flatwater, but never even attempted it in moving water. There was a mental ice block that as soon as I hit that frigid water – “you can’t roll.” So I’d bail and then my friends would have to rescue me.

    To be frank I relied on my friends far too much. I got to a point with a round hulled playboat that I could easily roll on flatwater most of the time and then went out with a few surfer friends to an offshore break (500m). With an easterly blowing (offshore). Then when I went over I repeated – “you have to roll.” I rolled 10/10 that day and have pretty much ever since.

    I can now roll easily and comfortably left, right and backdeck. In fact I’m now looking for more roll techniques. (currently working on hand rolling my playboat)

    It did come down to three self talk things for me.
    1) knowing you can roll in your head – “I can roll”
    2) knowing you can hold your breathe for 45sec – 1 min – no need to really rush – I need the boat up, not me up.
    3) Those rocks aren’t coming up half as fast as I think they are. and a C-C roll protects most of the body anyway.

    I’ve seen friends give a roll 8-9 attempts missing each one and didn’t pull the deck. It is just that mental attitude that sez, “I hate swimming” and “I have to roll”

  5. Good points Paul. One other thing is that progressively taking on moving water should never be underestimated. Start with small waves 2-3 feet, or ww class II/III and work up.

    Getting your face wet helps!

  6. Very interesting topic. To me the mental preparation for solid rolling is to think about how interesting and enjoyable it is to roll. But further, we can aim to be as comfortable and in control, as aware of and using the currents and forces around us when we are upside down as when we are right side up.

    For me, when I start wanting to roll up right now to get that air, then my roll deteriorates. Probably because I loose awareness of my body position, of the boat position, of the currents around me. I can develop a panicky tunnel vision, “Roll up! Roll up!” This clouds my awareness of the factors that actually make it possible to roll up.

    One possible mental training is to hang out upside down for long periods and experiment with body position and paddle positions. Have a way so you can easily get air when you need it, then go back down. Paddle around under water as best you can. Have friends drag your boat through the water to simulate currents and such, while you continue to play with your paddle and body positions. Mentally relax and enjoy all the aspects of being upside down.

    Playing in holes and such makes a big difference in my rolling. If I play and get knocked over a lot and deliberately do vertical moves where I go upside down, then my upside down skills improve and my composure improves. If I don’t do that for a long time then my worries go up and my composure goes down.

  7. Lots of great kayakers and military men are gay. I think the photo looks like goofy straight-boys showing off about how straight they are.

  8. To add to the list of drills that really help mentally prepare you to roll is this one which is extremely challenging and really forces you to focus on deliberate movements and actions all while upside down and underwater: not an easy environment to stay focused and preform in.

    Helps if your pool is deep (10ft):
    Roll your kayak over, wet exit from your boat, swim to the bottom of the pool, swim back to your boat and get in it upside down (and most likely half full of water), put your skirt back on, find your paddle and roll up (if you cant find your paddle then hand roll). All of this should be done without coming up for air.
    Its a bit advanced but it you’d be amazed at what it does for you. I think one of the main reasons why people can hit a roll in a pool but not in a real-life situation is that when rolling in a pool you are relaxed and calm and you never learn to roll when your body/mind is in a stressed state(real-life). This drill puts you in a somewhat stressful (but safe and controlled since you’re still in the pool) situation, and really allows you to see how you would preform under pressure (and water)!


  9. Tony:

    I appreciate your comments. I think what the article is inferring is that to mentally prepare for an unexpected capsize where you will have to combat roll is that you should practice some of the exercises mentioned in the pool. The drills mentioned in the numbered list focus on not being able to roll up immediately. You have to work on staying calm until you can get setup and then roll. This is perhaps a development path moving towards real textured water conditions.

    I think your comment is a good in that I did not explicitly state the above until you asked!

    Thanks for reading.


  10. I was looking forward to reading about different ways people mentally prepare for rolling, but was sadly disappointed. You discuss the importance of preparing mentally, but then you only discuss physical exercises for rolling – what’s up with that? Here’s a few ways to prepare mentally: cold showers and boards to the head, tying knots under water while upside down in your kayak (see how many you can do), or like your picture suggests, lock arms and lay in some cold surf. I’ve also read some articles on breathing exercises to increase the amount of time one can hold their breath – I’m sure the navy seals have some good techniques in that department. I’d like to hear some other ideas for mentally preparing to roll.

  11. The NAVY Seals both in San Diego and Norfolk Virginia have to link arms and go into the surf to endure cold water as part of their training. Sometimes it is punishment too for failure to perform a task as a team.

  12. Do you want comments? OK.

    I totally agree with you. Of course I do. As you have seen, I fall over at the drop of a hat. So maybe I just NEED to know how to roll, more than some people with Jedi-like skills, who rarely capsize and have miraculous abilities with a paddle float. Or more than people who only paddle seventeen feet in front of their friends.

    Being totally serious, I just don’t understand any “not learning to roll” argument. How would you feel about learning to ski or snowboard, but not how to stand back up when you fall down? How far would you progress, really? And how would you feel about instructors saying, “being able to stand up is over-rated”?

    For instruction, I appreciate the British idea that rolling is just part of the learning process, a mandatory part. And I love the games/drills idea. But, I don’t have to practice drill #2.

  13. What’s up with those guys in the photo … that looks a bit gay don’t you think?

    Be a little careful with somebody sitting on your kayak and trying to roll. This spring I capsized when I got cut off by a SUP surfer, he tried to help me out by jumping on the back of my kayak and trying to roll me up, but he had not clue what he was doing … just two days before a swimmer had been eaten by a Great White Shark at nearby at Pillbox in Solana Beach and I was sure a GWS had my boat … I kept trying to roll up and nothing was happening I finally did a mighty thrust off the bottom and tore up my shoulder pretty badly.