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The new year is a common time to set goals. Goals are great motivational tools and show us the final destination, but we also need a road map to help us get there. Effective practice can be an extremely valuable, and often over looked, strategy or guide on this journey.

A month ago, I subbed in to coach a practice for the girls volleyball team at the middle school where I work. It was near the end of the season and a lot of the girls were still struggling with their serves. Therefore, I asked them to show me how they had been practicing.

Girls found a partner, found a ball, went to opposite sides of the gym and started serving. After 5 minutes I blew the whistle and asked them to share how many serves they hit. Answers ranged from 12 to 5 with an average of 7 serves. I took a volleyball, lined up in front of the wall and hit it 7 times in under 20 seconds. At that rate, I would get 105 reps in the time they did 7.

My message is simple. The girls had been taught what to do, but not how to practice efficiently.

Now think of your experience kayaking. Let’s say that you are going on a river run and you spend 2 hours driving, 1 hour loading and changing, and 3 hours on the water. That is 6 hours of “kayaking time.” On that typical day, how long are you crossing an eddy line? At 3 seconds a peel out, you may spend less than 1 minute on edge. How long are you “stuck” in a hole? If your day went well, hopefully 0 seconds. How long are you taking aggressive strokes to make a difficult more? Maybe it takes 30 seconds to make the crux moves in the hardest two rapids.

The point is that many kayakers (or any athletes) don’t spend very much time practice specific skills. If you want to get better at kayaking, you have to identify valuable skills and then spend time, lots of time, practicing them.

Want to get better at river running? Go to the play park or any rapid with eddies and “slalom” kayak for an hour. Just pretend there are gates and go through them over and over. Make this practice deliberate by paying attention to your strokes. Figure out which ones work best in which situations. Try to dial in the moves to be smooth and then try to go fast.

Want to improve you combat roll? Trying it 3 times a year in an “oh shit” situation won’t do it. Go to a deep spot with current. Then peel out, tip over, roll up, repeat. You could practice 20 rolls in the current in 10 minutes. Or just go play boating. Make this practice deliberate. Focus on what you are doing and how it feels.

Want to learn how to loop? You can’t be afraid to try… over and over, session after session, day after day. Make this practice deliberate by focusing on the technique, reflecting on what is working and what is not, asking a friend or fellow paddler for tips, or using a video camera for later later analysis.

Regardless of goal, regardless of the situation, the same principle applies. Practice the technique deliberately (with focus) and efficiently (over and over). And then practice some more.

Now you know how to practice, but if you need to know what to practice, check out