I had just taught my first on-the-water skill and as I sent my students off to practice, I had a moment of panic: How was I going to get the class back together? Am I really going to be the arrogant American coach blowing her whistle every time I need to get my student’s attention to relay information? I soon learned my first Chinese phrase, 集合 (jíhé), meaning to gather or assemble.
Just over a year ago, my good friend and fellow instructor, Laura Zulliger, approached me to help make one of her paddling dreams a reality – she wanted to sea kayak Taiwan. Our plan began with a straightforward circumnavigation attempt, which transformed into a 6-week teaching-paddling-community building adventure. Taiwan has a burgeoning sea kayak community eager for instruction. Our idea was to focus on instruction to better connect with local kayakers and help raise their paddling proficiency. Laura and I teamed up with the Formosa Kayak School to create an instructional series targeting the skills required for open coast kayaking.
Coaching note: Keep lessons clear and concise.
When planning, Laura assured me that most Taiwanese can speak English. In reality, most Taiwanese understand some English. Laura studied Mandarin in college, lived in rural China for two years and could at least get her point across to our students. I landed in Taiwan with exactly zero words of Mandarin and was completely dependent on a local instructor to translate. Translating was a time-consuming necessity. The importance of clear and concise instructions was quickly reinforced. Complex lessons were broken down into bite sized pieces of no more than 3 or 4 main points. This was an important reminder to take home to California for future lessons. Even when we all speak the same language, most students lose interest during long explanations on the water.
Coaching note: Read between the lines and observe non-verbal feedback. Perhaps my favorite aspect of coaching is working one-on-one. I love the challenge of finding that key piece of feedback that brings it all together for a student – the “aha” moment. In Taiwan, providing students with individual feedback resembled an interpretive dance with lots of pointing, miming, head nodding, head shaking, and laughing. Reading their facial expressions became an essential part of determining comprehension. The ability to interpret a student’s body language is not only relevant to coaching in a foreign language, but also to teaching skills that put students outside of their comfort zone. Often if a student is too embarrassed to ask a question, confusion is written all over their face – all I need to do is look.
Coaching note: Have a backup to the backup plan.Taiwan’s coastal conditions provided some unexpected coaching challenges. Laura and I offered an introduction to the surf zone without a clear understanding of the geomorphology of Taiwan’s beaches. We were accustomed to teaching on beaches with gentle slopes and a definable soup zone. The East Coast of Taiwan offers countless rocky beaches with aggressively steep slopes a single wave that pounds right into the shoreline. No big deal. We modified our class to focus on key skills for dumping beaches. Then the day of our class, it was the flattest day of our entire trip – not a ripple on the sea. Once again, we had to modify our class, but this time on the fly. Flexibility and creativity were important not only when developing our curriculum that day, but for adapting all our classes to a new environment. As a coach, always have plan B through Z, and a quiver of activities that are not condition-dependent.
Teaching in Taiwan was one of the most rewarding experiences of my coaching career. I was pushed to step outside of my comfort zone and teach in unfamiliar environments with unique obstacles. Exploring the unknown with my students added a sense of adventure to the same old material. The rush of exploration and adventure continued as Laura and I packed up our kayaks and spent the next four weeks exploring the remote east coast of the island. Be sure to check out our follow up article about the trip on Kokatat’s Blog.
Laura and I are extremely grateful for the opportunity to teach in Taiwan. The Taiwanese paddling community welcomed Laura and I wholeheartedly and were extremely appreciative of the time we took to travel and coach in Taiwan. We owe a special thanks to Kokatat for keeping us safe and dry, to Point 65 Sweden for keeping us afloat in our Whiskey 16 Rockers, and to the Formosa Kayak School for graciously hosting us in Nanfang’ao.