Freestyle Is Not Dead
I saw a few posts on social media recently in the vein of “Freestyle is dead,” one of which was a comment that hated on someone else’s stoke. For me, it was a really disappointing attitude to see. While I get that competing at an ICF Freestyle World Championship is not what brings many the most joy in a kayak, there are plenty of other reasons to get on the freestyle hustle. Here are a few of my favorites. Try them out and help me prove Freestyle is not DEAD.
1. Bombproof your roll
If I am creeking or running harder, shallower rivers, you better believe that goal number one is not to flip. But if I flip, I want to be able to get myself back upright from any possible position as fast as possible. I can go weeks creeking or river running without flipping over. Freestyle, not so much. I spend half my time upside down or underwater, and there is nothing better for building your comfort just being upside down in a kayak.
2. Increase your edge control
Freestyle is all about edging, counter-edging, and edge control. Whether you are side-surfing a hole, carving on a wave, trying to double-pump, or throwing aerial tricks, knowing how much and when to edge your kayak is a lesson in the art of subtlety. I’ve recently been working on my whoopee (or tailee, or stern squirt), and I realized how much I have been over-edging and edging wrong. Making a tight eddy, nailing a gnarly ferry, or just staying upright after a squirrely landing uses all the same edging muscles and skills as freestyle, it’s just one more way to improve.
3. Develop emergency surf skills
If I accidentally get stuck in a hole, I want to be able to surf myself out with a minimum of effort. Freestyle kayaking, especially hole boating, helps massively with this! You learn to identify the weak and strong spots in a feature and become comfortable moving around in one, from blasting on the green water to working yourself side to side. Being able to feel and respond to a dynamic, powerful feature may literally help save your life.
4. Build a strong core- and increase your torso rotation!
I see a lot of paddlers on the river that hardly use their torso to drive their strokes, from sweep strokes to draw strokes when catching eddies. The dynamic movement patterns of freestyle develop your core muscles and strength like nothing else- and they help force you to open up and rotate, bringing power from your core. If you can figure out how to adapt this to your forward stroke and other essential strokes, you will be a much stronger and more efficient paddler. If there is one drill in a playboat you should try, it is the lean clean. Stephen Wright has a bomber tutorial video on how to do these: Try going for 30 seconds each side. It will destroy you!
5. Expand Your Freestyle Playground
My favorite people to paddle with are those who know how to make the most of the river, whatever river they are on. Freestyle helps open up rivers in an entirely new light and can up your fun factor massively. Try to kickflip, wave wheel, or macho-move over little waves; try stern squirts and splats on eddy lines and rocks or make fancy jet ferries and eddy moves, like rock 360s or ear dips. If you’re really getting fancy, go try a back freewheel or cobra flip off your local drop. To clarify, you do not need a short, modern playboat to fully enjoy the benefits of freestyle. Check out an old school boat, a squirty-stern kayak, or even your favorite creeker.
6. Push yourself safely
I have had plenty of moments over the years where I have lost my confidence or my joy in running hard whitewater. I go through cycles over what style of boating I’m jamming on, but the thing I love the most about freestyle is that it allows me to push and challenge myself without increasing my risk factor. I can work harder, more technical tricks or moves, or I can get in a great workout and feel challenged on a piece of whitewater where I feel completely safe, whether it is a grade three feature, a concrete ditch, or the pool. Besides, there are plenty of terrifying waves out there to try and surf come spring….
Freestyle dead? Not hardly. Don’t be so narrow-minded as to think that the only place for freestyle is competing at the Worlds. And, if that is what others enjoy, why judge? If it gets them on the river and having fun, isn’t that all that really matters?