Reflections on my White Water Leader Training with Chris Brain

Practicing leading whilst on a Paddle365 development course.

What is the White Water Leader training all about?

The White Water Leader training is a compulsory part of the British Canoeing White Water Leader qualification. It’s typically 2 days, helping you to understand how to judge the white water environment you’re in to be able to lead a group successfully and safely. The official description can be found on the British Canoeing White Water Leader pages

Ultimately by having your White Water Leader qualification you can lead a group of up to 4 people on ‘moderate’ white water, which is classed as grade 2(3). You need to have completed this training as well as the White Water Safety and Rescue course before being able to be assessed, with 3 years in total to complete your qualification.  This isn’t a coaching qualification although I find the line sometimes gets a little blurred.  Your job is to help someone paddle a river safely and have fun whilst doing it!

Why did I decide to work towards my White Water Leader qualification?

It seems like a pretty bold decision for someone who has confessed to having big confidence issues when it comes to paddling.  And you’re right!  But I’ve progressed so much over the last 8 months so it felt like the right time.  I’m at my most confident when I’m leading and leadership is something I’ve always enjoyed in the corporate world as well as the adventure world. I like to think its a strength of mine. Although I definitely still doubt myself sometimes. And to be honest, my friends were going on the training and I thought it would be fun.

I also decided it was about time I started giving back after 4 years of leaching off of everyone else’s knowledge and experience. My club has given me so much and I’d love to be able to do the same for other new people in the sport. It will also put me in a better place to deliver on my #ShePaddles club champion role where I’m trying to get more women in to paddling.

Why choose Chris Brain as our coach?

There are tonnes of providers out there but I tend to go with people who friends have personally recommended.  A friend had recently completed some training with him and a trusted coach of mine only had good things to say about him too.  Trusting my coach or the people I paddle with is very important to me.  I’ll be posting soon about my ‘trusted circle’.  Chris is very well known in the UK paddling community.  He’s been paddling a long time and has a huge amount of experience.  He’s written a lot of knowledge based articles for well known publications like these top tips to help keep you safe on the water with The Paddler Magazine.  As well as these blogs as one of the Palm ambassadors.  That all helps me have trust that he’ll be able to help me out if for some reason things went wrong!

I do think you need to select a coach based on their own personal style and areas of focus. Some are all about getting down the biggest things you can whilst others are all about the skills progression. From what I had seen of Chris I thought it could work well. And it did! Well, he might disagree about me though. Although he’s agreed to continue coaching me so hopefully that’s a positive sign haha.

How did white water leader training work?

The course is spread over two days and covers off 4 areas:

  1. Personal paddling skills
  2. Rescue skills
  3. Safety, leadership and group skills
  4. Theory

On the first day, we paddled the Leven in the Lake District.  It’s a grade 3 river with a very short grade 4 (in the guidebook) feature called Backbarrow and a grade 5 fall that was a definite must portage for us.  I found it the perfect river for white water leader training.  It’s good a good range of features that allow for different leadership decisions.  The day flowed really nicely. We explored how you would start the day with a group of ‘students’.  And then progressed that as we moved down the river.  At each feature we talked about the different ‘methods’ or ways in which you could lead a group down it successfully.

The second day we paddled the Tees in North Yorkshire where we worked in a very similar way although this time we each took turns leading our group down a section of the river.  I don’t know why, but I always get unnecessarily nervous when I feel like I’m being watched, judged or assessed.  Chris didn’t make it feel like that at all.  He created a relaxed, supportive environment for us to learn.  It was just the limiting beliefs I always have going round in my head, but that’s a whole other blog post for another day.  We also spent a bit of time on the second day looking at boat based rescues.  It’s an area I’ve had less practice in so I was first in there to give it a go when Jon sacrificed himself for the benefit of the group!

How about Chris as a coach on those days?  I really liked Chris’s coaching style.  He has a very relaxed approach which as mentioned creates a really nice environment.  He clearly knows his stuff and responds really well to the different needs of the group.  Whilst we were covering a syllabus as such, it didn’t feel like that.  We naturally flowed though different topics as and when they became apparent so it felt more ‘real’ than being forced because you’re on a course.

I’ve also found Chris to be very supportive following the two days as well.  He gave us some individual feedback at the end of the course.  And then sent us a trip report via email.  We’ve been in touch regularly, planning that further coaching he’s agreed to do (he must be mad being happy to coach me!) and getting my assessment booked in (the date is currently a secret…).  He gave me confidence that I could do this and I knew he’d be there to support me.

Was it what I was expecting?

Yes, it was totally what I was expecting.  I’ve been paddling for 4 years (white water for 3 years) now and so have been on a good number of club trips where I’ve picked up some of the knowledge already.  But even if I didn’t have that, there’s no content in there that you wouldn’t expect.  You need to be able to take people down a river safely ultimately.  And with that comes having good paddling skills yourself, knowing how best to lead a group down and rescue skills (amongst others).

What did I learn from the White Water Leader training?

As mentioned, I already had a good foundation in the basics of white water leading.  But before the course I definitely doubted how much I reeeeeally knew.  I had told Chris that I wasn’t in a hurry to do my assessment because I really wasn’t sure if I would be good enough to do it.  Not just right now, but ever. But going on the training taught me:

  • To have confidence in my own capability – I can do this and will be an amazing leader.  I always feel at my best and most confident when I’m leading others.  I just need to shut that monkey up on my shoulder and get on with it.
  • There’s never a must or an always – there’s so many ways you can lead a river.  And that can vary river to river, group to group and even day to day on the same river depending on the water levels.
  • How I can help facilitate fun – it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started ‘playing’ on a river, surfing and throwing myself in to stoppers or attempting to tailie.  And lots of that has been in features on flat water rivers because of Covid.  Helping others play on the river therefore doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me and I’ve seen a real shift in my behaviour when on a river since then, always looking for play spots.
  • Shuttle logistics are still a pain – No matter how many shuttles you’ve done, it’s still a headache sometimes to juggle seat and boat spaces!
  • You don’t always have to be at the front – As a leader, it’s important to be in the position of most usefulness and that isn’t always at the front.
  • My own personal paddling skills – I always knew I was going to need to work on my personal paddling, that was a certainty.  By working through the syllabus over the couple of days, it helped me make a mental note of the actions I need to take before my assessment. 
  • More about the best equipment for me – This isn’t necessarily part of the formal syllabus (I guess it could come under personal paddling) but Chris was very helpful in guiding me on how I might be able to help my own paddling with different boats and paddles.  I found that super helpful and have since bought a Pyranha Ripper (you can see a cheeky picture of my new boat here in my Instagram post) which I’m finding so much better for me compared to my old boat (which I hated).

What comes next after the White Water Leader training?

What comes next really depends on the individual.  You might choose to do the training but not progress to assessment, be ready for the assessment right now, or you might have a few things to work on and plan to do the assessment in the future.  For me it was:

  • Redo my White Water Safety and Rescue course as it’ll mean more to me now as a leader.
  • Agree a goal date for my assessment. 
  • Create an action plan for my own development – whilst I haven’t written this down yet I have it in my head and have already one loads (like my White Water Safety and Rescue training, weekly Lee Valley trips and a 3 day kayaking development course with Paddle365).  

Would I recommend it to others?

Definitely!  If leading is something that floats your boat that is.  My one plea is don’t let your limiting beliefs tell you you can’t.  It’s totally possible and I’m hoping at some point next year I can be your living proof of that.  And I would highly recommend Chris Brain as a coach. There’s a blog post coming soon with tips to help you pick a paddle sports coach.

For more info on Chris Brain, check out his website, Instagram or Facebook page.

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