We get a very wide range of students in our classes, old/young, fit or over the hill, super strong and many less so.  Fortunately, kayaking is a sport everyone can enjoy at their own pace.  As an instructor, you should enjoy challenges like these and overcoming them.  SWR classes are often more strenuous than typical river kayak skills classes.  To compensate, you may need more breaks and will often need to keep a very close eye out for exhaustion and hypothermia.

Physical Characteristics

You will sometimes encounter students with physical challenges.  Let's take rolling for instance.  Many older individuals and some younger ones as well are physically inflexible.  We can help to some extent with special stretching exercises like the flipper drill but sometimes even that isn't enough.  A traditional C2C roll requires a very strong hip snap and a fair amount of flexibility.  Perhaps a traditional sweep roll makes more sense.  Very short paddlers might have too long of a paddle which makes paddling smoothly more challenging.  If you have some shorter paddles, like the 191 CM size - perhaps they can borrow for the class.  You may encounter a student that is pretty out of shape and tires easily.  Kindly offer a hand on portages.  They will often be very greateful for the offer and it can save class time.  Most importantly, they will have more energy to concentrate on your paddling exercises.  All it takes is a bit of attention on your students and perhaps a little bit of imagination.  If you want some very interesting and rewarding challenges like this, volunteer to help out Team River Runner.


I paddle with many generations on a fairly frequent basis.  Many younger paddlers are fearless.  As we age, we usually become more cautious.  Children often look to older persons as authority figures.  Pay special attention to your talk on judgement - emphasize they really need to make their own decisions.  If something doesn't feel right or looks too scary - have faith in your inner judgement.  Many at middle age forget that they are not as strong as they used to be.  The Clint Eastwood line "Man's got to know his limitations" is excellent wisdom.  Stress the need for more exercise as you get older to maintain stamina and reduce chances of injury.  Older persons typically like to learn via reading.  They enjoy analyzing technique and asking excellent questions.  Younger students can't wait to jump in the boat and paddle.  They have may shorter attention spans.  Young children really get a kick out of acting like adults.  If I have a father and a young child, I often use them to demonstrate how effective bracing in throw rope exercises.  I have my helper set up the child in a great bracing position and then have him rescue dad floating downstream.  It really hammers home everyone can do this with the right technique and the two really enjoy the challenge as well.


Take a few notes during the introductions.  Find out why people are taking your class.  I get a fair amount of repeat business because I can find new ways to challenge these students.  If a student is really seasoned in a specific skill, perhaps they can assist you in teaching to some extent.  Some of your students may be significant others that are there simply to please their spouse/friend.  They might have other hobbies that are quite compatible like photography.  Let them take pictures where it makes sense and share with others.  I sometimes split children from their parents so they can express their independence.  Many classes have someone that on the surface doesn't look like a peak performer but really shocks you with their skill.  These stars (ringers) can really motivate others in the class.  As an example, I had a middle aged mom try take the beginners class in a sit-on-top kayak.  She never paddled before but was amazing in the whitewater exercises.  When everyone else saw how well she did, their fears simply evaporated.


Fear can be useful in whitewater boating and should not be discounted.  Irrational fear on the other hand leads to mistakes which often compound.  A better way to look at this is lack of confidence in oneself.  Eric Jackson has a real nice video on teaching the whitewater roll.  He builds the students confidence very gradually ensuring no failures along the way.  Patience is a crucial skill for most instructors as well.  Always remember, this is a new and challenging skill for your students.  If you are calm and on top of small setbacks, you will help your students build confidence as well.  One fear that is also quite common is fear of drowning because a student can't swim.  Even though PFDs do a great job in keep a person's head above water, non-swimmers typically have a very tough time feeling confident upside down or floating downstream outside their boat.  I don't typically recommend this sport for non-swimmers - our goal is to make this sport enjoyable.  If you do encounter a student that can't swim, be very careful and take your time.  Pay close attention to the initial water entry, demonstrate that you can right them quickly via a hands of god when practicing the wet release.  Try a skirt less wet release first so they can see how easy it is to simply fall out.

Environmental Concerns

Beginner kayakers are often fair weather paddlers.  Don't be surprised to see a few no shows if it is raining.  Many old-timers find this hard to believe, heck we are going to get wet anyway.  We have set-up tent cities as a class for the lecture portion when it rains.  On the water, rain isn't as big a deal unless it turns a bit chilly.  I bring an extra NRS hood just in case and often an extra jacket as well.  When it is scorching hot, take more breaks and have people immerse themselves in the water to cool off.  Try to find shade if possible.  Try to avoid classes in the colder months of the year.  Let's face it, swimming is a key lesson in beginners classes and we don't want anyone getting hypothermia.  If thunder strikes, you have a great chance for a teachable moment.  A key lesson in my class is trip planning.  I have the students research the next day's weather, river level, ... and quiz them the next day.

Intellectual Development

We strive to teach our students to think for themselves.  A great example is river reading skills.  Far too many paddlers these days simply play follow the leader through rapids mimicking the guy in front of them.  They follow really closely as well.  This often leads to mishaps.  On my Lower Yough for First-Timers trips, I pick a few of the easier rapids and make the First-Timers lead and I ask them to make it challenging.  This forces them to think for themselves.  Scenarios are another great teaching tool that places students in unpredictable and challenging circumstances they need to work through.  There are often a number of trade-offs, no solution is 100% correct.  The debrief after the scenario helps people express alternate solutions that can be evaluated.  Here is a good article on this topic with far more detail: Intellectual Development.


Some students are outgoing/expressive, others are more inward.  It is all too easy to let the outgoing students dominate your class - avoid this trap.  You will often need to call on the shy students to build their confidence and engage them.  Doing so in a playful encouraging manner will make the class much more fun for them.


They say good communication is an art form - it sure seems that way.  There are a number of forms of communication, not just verbal.  Pay attention to your students facial expressions and body language.  Are the tired, bored, excited, etc.  Perhaps a break is in order.  Try mixing things up throughout the class.  Sometimes the devilish "wild-eyed" Charlie sneaks out and I come up with a new challenge for my students - they love it.  I have lots of helpers in my class and they can provide an extra set of eyes and provide their observations during a break so I can adjust tactics.  Thorough study and lesson planning enable me to concentrate on teaching rather than reciting rote facts.