Thursday, April 27, 2017

Strokes notes: Thinking outside the Box

If you've ever taken an introductory kayaking course, you've heard of the "Paddler's Box." The Box is one of those classic fundamental rules of kayaking, and it's generally considered critically important for protecting yourself from injury--particularly shoulder injury--while kayaking. Many of the most common errors of paddling technique can be ascribed to doing things outside the Paddler's Box. 

If you've somehow managed to avoid being introduced to the Paddler's Box, here's a link to a short but helpful videoAnd here's how the instructor in that video describes the Paddler's Box for those watching:
"The Paddler's Box is a rectangle that we create between our arms, our paddle, and our shoulders."


OK, so things are a bit clearer if you watch the video. But still, maybe we can find something a little more descriptive. How about this, from Jackson Kayak's paddle education site:
"The Paddler’s Box is the rectangle shape that can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, across the chest and back down the paddle. It is the rectangle that is created by our upper body, arms and paddle shaft."

That's a little better, though we'll see in a moment that it's incomplete. Here's a simple diagram that might help, from the blogger and whitewater kayaker brthomas:

So we can kind of see where the rectangle is there. Its four sides are the shoulders, the two extended arms, and the paddle. Maybe it's more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, but that's ok. And from the video and a number of these websites we get the sense of how to maintain the Paddler's Box. Here, from
"The paddler’s box moves with you as you rotate your torso, and it is generally important to stay within the box as you paddle."

So the box always stays out in front of you, even when you rotate to the left or right. The idea behind the Paddler's Box is that it forces you to think about getting your body in position for a stroke--any stroke--by rotating your torso rather than reaching with your hands and arms. It's supposed to keep you from doing things with your hands that you just shouldn't do, like reaching behind you to place the paddle for a stern rudder. This is, without question, a good thing. So I can appreciate the desire to have a rule that communicates this important principle of good paddling. Unfortunately, I think that the Paddler's Box may not be the best way to achieve that goal. 

I've never been fully comfortable with the idea of the Paddler's Box, for two reasons. First of all, I find the Paddler's Box extremely difficult to visualize. The diagram and descriptions above, though pretty typical, provide me only with a Paddler's Rectangle at best. Here's a more three-dimensional attempt to describe the box, from a site called ThoughtCo:
"When the hands are on the paddle and extended out in front of the paddler, the paddler’s box can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, and including the chest and paddle contained within these constraints. This shape should roughly approximate a square. Now, extend those dimensions and shape down to the boat and that gives you the paddler’s box...Maintaining the paddler’s box simply means not allowing the hands to extend past the shoulders on either side, but they can move up or down within this imaginary box."

So the Paddler's Rectangle gets projected down to the deck of the boat, and this forms the Paddler's Box. It's a rectangular cube, and I'm supposed to keep my hands inside of it. That's actually not bad, I can see what the box is and how I'm supposed to use it. But it wasn't particularly easy to get to this point. And it brings me to the second reason that I don't like the Paddler's Box: For many skills, even demonstration-quality skills, the kind that you'd want your students or fellow paddlers to emulate, I'm pretty hard pressed to say whether or not my hands are inside my Paddler's Box. In other words, even when I think I can visualize the Box, I'm still not really sure what I'm allowed to do with my hands. Think of a good sculling draw, for example. Here's an image of someone demonstrating the stroke from the Necky Kayaks paddling skills website:

Where's the Box? Is his upper (left) hand outside of it? It's certainly above his shoulder; it seems to be level with his forehead. What about his right hand, which appears to have moved outside the box to the right? Or has it? I'm at a loss to explain to someone whether or not this paddler has maintained his Paddler's Box. But I don't think he's clearly doing anything wrong. 

In short, I find the Paddler's Box complicated to explain, difficult to visualize, and nearly impossible to apply to many skills. So what's the alternative? Here's my proposal for a rule to replace the Paddler's Box:

Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, allow your elbow to go either above or behind your shoulder. 

I believe that this rule covers every possible violation of shoulder safety that the Paddler's Box is meant to cover, and I think that it's also simpler to understand and simpler to implement. Here are a few examples of things paddlers do that I think should never be done:

  • Finishing the forward stroke with the arms instead of using good rotation
  • Reaching above the head for a high brace
  • Reaching behind the back for a stern rudder instead of rotating
  • Reaching across the body for a draw stroke instead of rotating

In every single case, I think that following the rule above would prevent the paddler from committing these errors. A good efficient forward stroke should eliminate the pull-through with the arms that causes your elbow to go behind your shoulder. If your elbow goes above your shoulder for a high brace, you're asking for injury. The only way you can get the paddle placed for a stern rudder without putting your elbow behind your shoulder is to rotate aggressively toward the paddle. And the guy above demonstrating the sculling draw is just fine; he's rotated so that he can keep is right elbow in front of his right shoulder and his left elbow at or below his other shoulder. 

Unlike the Paddler's Box, which is so challenging to communicate that in five minutes of googling I managed to find at least four variations, this rule has the great benefit of simplicity. And, even better, to implement the rule I get to refer to things that actually exist. So instead of trying to figure out if the stroke keeps my hands inside some imaginary box, the limits of which are baffling to describe and literally impossible to see, I just have to look at where my elbows are in relation to my shoulders. 

The big remaining question is whether or not this rule does all the work that I want it to do. Can you think of an instance in which you'd feel justified in breaking the rule? Can you think of a movement that would put your shoulder at risk that wouldn't be prevented by applying it? If you can, I'd be interested to hear about it. If you can't, then maybe it's time we stopped worrying about the Paddler's Box, and started paying more attention to our elbows.  

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