Having had the pleasure of being involved in the Ladies Paddle Symposium a few weeks ago, the importance of the female paddling community and its affect on our sport has certainly been on my mind. Ive always felt like canoeing and kayaking are sports where women and men can truly be seen simply as paddlers and that there are no real male/female divides and that on the water everyone is simply a "boater". I still believe that this is the case but at the back of my mind something is telling me to look deeper into this and to find out what it really is like to be a female paddler in a male dominated sport.
My sister paddled for only a couple of years when she was aged between 13 and 15 (now aged 25), showing a rapid progression and genuine talent for kayaking. This was certainly helped by a paddling mad Dad and brother who could give her the opportunities to get out on the water and would spend the time teaching skills and helping her to progress. However there were no other girls of a similar age involved in the sport and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before her interest seemed to dwindle. If she had girls of a similar age around her at the time would she still be paddling now? (Im sure if you ask her though she will still tell you she can hand roll!)
For me, paddling is a very social event and I love being on the water with a team, I have no shortage of paddlers I can relate to and aspire to be like. The majority of these paddlers do tend to be men, so the question I ask to myself is would I feel different about the sport if the majority of these peers and role models were to be female? What if Steve Fisher/Rush Sturges/Shaun Baker were women? What if the boats and kit were geared around a male body? What if I was the only lad in a canoe club where the rest of the members were girls? Is this what it feels like to be a female paddler?
Over the past few weeks I have met and paddled with some fantastic female kayakers. These boaters have all proved to be excellent role models for the sport, showing determination, focus and incredible skills all underpinned with a great love for paddling. I was working with a mixed group of paddlers from Manchester University a few weeks ago on the river Kent developing skills and techniques to move them forwards in their paddling. A major highlight was that at Force falls, one of the paddlers went over in their boat and managed to be successful in their first ever roll on the river. This for me is always a big deal for any paddler at any age, however I later found out that the paddler was the first girl to roll on the river from the club in over 4 years! That made this moment even more significant, but did make me question why has this taken 4 years to come about? As coaches are we doing enough to develop these skills for female paddlers?
I have been thinking a lot about whether female paddlers have different needs from male paddlers on the water. Do they need different techniques or different environments in which to learn and develop? Does the kit and equipment hold them back, or do they just need more help in adjusting it to fit their body shape? Seat height is one thing that instantly springs to mind when I look at some female paddlers out there using equipment that was maybe designed with a one size fits all approach. Would it make a difference if there were more female only paddling groups and do women respond better to coaching in ladies groups? With some incredible female paddlers and coaches involved in the sport, it is clear to see that ladies are represented right across the board and to the highest level.
The whole process of evaluating my personal approach to working with female paddlers has certainly been a useful one, and questioning whether using the same approach to male and female paddlers with my coaching can only move me forwards which in turn benefits everyone involved. One thing that is clear is that there are female paddlers who are out there hitting big lines, nailing boofs, putting down awesome freestyle rides, coaching and of course inspiring paddlers everywhere.
Check out my video from last year on the Nile, take note of who is leading who here!