— Brinestorm

Stupidity Under Pressure

“Under pressure, you do not rise to the occasion; rather you sink to your level of training.”

This is apparently written on the wall of the Navy’s “Top Gun” jet fighter school in San Diego. During my ACA Instructor Development Workshop (IDW) in 2013, I found first-hand that this is true.

I was lucky enough to be trained by world-class instructor trainers Bryant Burkhardt and Sean Morley, through California Canoe and Kayak. It was a fantastic experience. But while running through on-the-water scenarios involving trip leadership, navigation, and rescues, all simultaneously, I had some mind-numblingly bad lapses in decision making. I got the left and right direction of drift confused while ranging during a crossing. I forgot to secure a deck hatch prior to launch. Heck, I stood in the soup zone during surf-zone drills with my drysuit’s relief zipper open. And those are just the ones I remember now.

Leadership and responsibility have myriad layers. One must lead by example, keep a group confident in your abilities as an instructor, be patient with slow learners, be patient with overly eager paddlers, watch for boat traffic, keep an eye on the group energy level, and convey information in a compelling and accurate way. All at the same time. All the while being of good humor. I was intellectually aware of all this going into the IDW, but not fully appreciative of the reality of trying to keep this all in mind.

So what happened? I was so distracted by all these new responsibilities and balancing acts that I forgot some of the fundamentals.

Some things that I can do easily and calmly on daily, friendly paddles I just couldn’t keep in RAM or “volatile memory,” to use a computer analogy. However, it’s not like during all this I forgot certain paddle strokes or maneuvering techniques. There was one simple reason for this: I spaced on things that I hadn’t drilled in as instinct, or dialed in as second nature. What I hadn’t used extra effort on during training was lost in under heavy cognitive load of the moment.

NATO, of all groups, has a pretty great paper on the topic of human behavior under extreme stress. There is literally a rehearsal mechanism at play in the human brain when responding to a circumstance. It’s looking for historical pattern matches. The problem is that, under dynamic situations, this system slow to respond with rational action when there is no match. When I found myself spacing on the left-versus-right directional drift when ranging, it was like my neurons had been dropped into molasses. I can even now recall the experience, and it wasn’t even that stressful. Imagine if someone was actually in danger!

So, back to that quote at the top of this essay: The only way around this is to train hard and train broad in order to absorb all that a posteriori knowledge into second nature. You don’t gain insights or become brilliant under stress: You go back to past behavior patterns or become hyper literal when interpreting situations or instructions. Your reptile brain is jonesing for immediate action, and your mammalian brain is searching for answers, leading to gaps in judgement or sluggish decision making. You sink to the level of your training.

The key, then, is to ensure that your level of training is deep and broad enough to make you comfortable taking unusual actions in the situations you find yourself in. That can mean practicing towing just for the heck of it. Or specifically wet-exiting in a tiderace just to practice self-rescue. Or meticulously calculating a perfect float plan, complete with headings, ferry angles, and speed over ground estimates, for a paddle route you’ve done dozens of times without a float plan. Make a game of it! Create silly acronyms and mnemonics! Write songs to sing to remind you of your pre-paddle checklist! Have friends do it too, and compare notes over beers afterwards!

Make every part of your paddling an opportunity for deeper mastery and approach it with vigor and a light heart, and never overlook the details. Under stress, that can make the difference between effective response and poor judgement…or even just having the surprise of seawater tricklin’ down your britches.

1 comment
  1. PeterD says: April 24, 201310:04 am

    We all make mistakes, and that is why we have backups for our backups. We only paddle within conditions we are comfortable with. We train ourselves in self- and group-recoveries, so if we do flip, we can get back in quickly. And we carry a VHF or Spot or similar so could call for help should the situation get bad. So the chances of really needing the dry suit (as opposed to lesser thermal protection) is minimal, yet we always wear it. And we wear clothing under the dry suit that would still keep us warm even if water got in. All these multiple layers of protection are there to cover for the mistakes we inevitably will make.

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