Articles - Progressive Whitewater Kayak Coaching - An Interview with Top Whitewater Kayak Coach Simon Westgarth

Whitewater kayak Coach Simon Westgarth, of Gene17, delivering kayak coaching
Whitewater kayak Coach Simon Westgarth, of Gene17, delivering kayak coaching
Canoe & Kayak UK Editorial - Images by Jakub Sedivy, Nick Horwood, - Posted on 27 Feb 2013

"My advice to anyone wishing to become a full time whitewater coach is go and paddle whilst you are young; if you can pick up some paper qualifications along the way, great, but do not become a slave to them.”

The founder and director of coaching and guiding company Gene17, Simon Westgarth is a well-established name in the whitewater paddling world, Simon is very much at the progressive forefront of technical kayak coaching, but also values the ideals of adventure kayaking, going to new places, experiencing new cultures and paddling new rivers. We caught up with Simon to talk a lifetime in coaching, running big whitewater and exploring the world’s great whitewater paddling destinations…

How long have you been involved with delivering coaching?Whitewater Kayaking Coach Simon Westgarth delivering a whitewater kayaking course
I have been coaching from when I was 16, although I did not really wish to do much then: I wanted to paddle, and felt I did not have much in the way of experience to offer people learning to paddle in those days.

Before you coached you were a very successful competition paddler and freestyle kayaker in your own right. Tell us a little about this part of your career?
When I was young I wished to paddle, I found I could travel, work on the river as a raft guide and paddle in new places and really improve my own performance. In the ‘90s Rodeo events were meeting points for whitewater paddlers, so it was kind a cool to get good at playboating and river running. Then time on the road and lots of paddling lead to competition success with a few titles in rodeo and extreme racing.

Do you have any standout memories from that period?
I won the European Rodeo title, Euro Cup series and a sting of rodeo and extreme races, plus I got to develop my understanding of paddling, and built relationships with paddlers from around the world and in the industry, I even got to help shape a few boats at Dagger.

Do you still compete?
I have not competed in freestyle since 2004, at that point it was all big waves, and you needed to be located at those few prime spots around the world, and I had other paddling to be done. Since then I have extreme raced, although because now I’m running these events, it’s not easy to both compete and organise on race day.

You were one of the first UK kayakers to really get out and mix it in with North Americans on serious water, how do you feel that helped your development?
Being exposed to lots of good whitewater, and getting to paddle with other paddlers at the prime destinations, meant you got to learn new ways of river running, improve your technique and push yourself harder everyday.

Your personal paddling has always revolved around serious whitewater, what is it that draws you to that environment?White water kayaker Simon Westgrath - image by Jakub Sedivy
I am a student of kayaking, I love to solve the problems river running present us, and if that involves an adventure into an unknown canyon, or a sundowner run on your current home run, that’s all fine with me. I love top run the river, I have no end of appetite for paddling and just wish to go boating.

Your passion for the whitewater river environment shines through; how do you keep the fires stoked when your ‘play’ time and working environment are so linked?
On my first trip to Valsesia, I recall paddling with Dan Gavere, an iconic paddler to me. And after running a drop, in the pool below Dan would not stop moving the boat around whilst waiting for the other paddlers to come on down, his mind was never bored waiting, he just kept going, playing, trying new things and just enjoying. I suppose I am like that in my own way. In terms of the amount of time working on the river, it’s not far over 100 days a year, if you end up working too much, the sharpness drops a little for both the coaching and my own paddling.

From the very beginning of Gene17 you’ve run courses in Norway, what is it that makes that venue so great for teaching?
Norway is one of the few prime destinations in the world, every year she just keeps on giving, prefect whitewater, lots of it and great coaching locations on every run. There is power in the water, clean drops and great moves; a wonder place to learn tactics for river running, which is too often an underdeveloped area of paddler’s comprehension.

You use various other European destinations too, what makes them special and are they particularly good for delivering certain types of courses?
Gene17’s core locations are the Soca in Slovenia, Piemonte in Italy & Sjoa in Norway. We’ve always run teaching trips and paddling adventures to these destinations, aimed at different levels of paddlers of course, such as qualification training in Slovenia or Steep Creeking in Italy. We’ve added a few other locations like Montenegro in summer, Corsica and Greece at Easter. We tried to avoid offering trips to the traditional destinations, like Briançon or Landeck, as we felt that controlling the outcomes and adding value is difficult on alpine style whitewater: a small mistake and any progression is easily over shadowed by the normally prolonged rescue effort. Pool drop white water lends for far better coaching.

Do you feel it’s important for developing whitewater paddlers to experience different river environments?
Whitewater kayaking is an experience-based sport, you need to make lots of judgements, and the experience needed to make those judgements comes from paddling, preferably in a wide range of river environments. An endemic problem within UK paddling is the small range of rivers a paddler’s experience is based on; and as such paddlers learn the lines on over familiar rivers, but not the tactics to work out why the line down the rapid is as such. When paddlers then head off elsewhere, like the alps, descents tend to be slow and arduous affairs.

You’re a great exponent of coaches being able to walk it like they talk in on the river can you explain what lies behind that ethos?Whitewater Kayak Coach Simon Westgarth sharing video feedback with a student on a layaking course
A whitewater coach is, in essence, three things: river guide, safety kayaker and the demonstrator.  Which is a somewhat different role to a competition slalom coach, where the paddling is often done on a low risk site, and better paddlers or video examples give examples to improve the overall performance. The first thing about coaching is being able to give the correct example, where you understand the movement and thus can coach from the platform. If you give mediocre examples, paddlers will copy them believing them to be correct.

Do you still like to get out there and push it hard on difficult water?
I very much enjoy paddling adventures, especially trips. Last summer, we hit Nordland in Northern Norway for two weeks after the summer working season was over. 

Describe your perfect day on the river?
Either a new river or an old run, the key is the adventure, looking for the lines, finding a new move on a rapid you might have run dozens of times, or seeing a line on a new rapid that fires the excitement to get on and go. Sharing this all with friends is of course the best way to have a perfect day on the river.

The levels of skill and difficulty of water that some whitewater kayakers are pushing today is almost beyond what could be imagined just ten years ago. Do you feel this level of development can be maintained?
I am very impressed with the generation that has come on after me, especially in the running of large drops. It appeared that their defining legacy was simply the opening up of larger and taller features, until I paddled with Sam and Jamie Sutton last year, on a very high water Åmot Canyon on the Sjoa. It was at a very serious level, and although the moves are straight forward, the push is considerable and unlike many runs across Europe. Well that day the Sutton brothers were playing on every feature, melt every hole, riding crashing waves within a tight constricted canyon. “Hmm” I thought, here is perhaps the step beyond the mega huckers. Sam went on to run the first descent of “The Untouchables” on Fantasy Falls, which is a paradigm of shifting movement for what is now possible.

How do you feel that this level of paddling translates in to the paddlers you see attending courses? Do they aspire to huck huge falls etc?
You get a lot of paddlers wishing to learn how to run harder whitewater, to grasp the fundamentals of the boat’s movement through steeper whitewater, and finding the energy from the river that is there to use and control Whitewater kayakers and kayak coach Simion Westgrath in action-  image by Jakub Sedivythe boat. Some of the paddlers go on to run amazing whitewater, but when they arrive at my door, they know they need the right experience to build up to bigger drops down the line.

You’ve always striven to work alongside other standout coaches on the river. What makes that so important and how do you maintain the standard?
From my earlier days as professional paddler I got to travel far and wide, and was lucky to paddle with the very best of my generation. Some of these paddlers were part of the expansion on technique that underpinned the bringing to the fore of the modern dynamic style.  Paddlers that understand this style, develop their own take on it and are able to coach it, were and are still not so common, but for Gene17 to succeed I needed to get them on board. Luckily the likes of Deb Pinniger, Dave Carroll and Matt Tidy were there at the beginning of Gene17 and helped shape the company from concept to benchmark. We have added more coaches, with Spyros Barbaresos from Greece taking the leap from student turned staff as well as global hotshot Jakub Sedivy fronting up trips these days. With a team like this, who all enjoy to paddle and try new things, it’s easy to stay in the game.

How does working with such coaches help you to develop further?
In pushing for harder runs or to try new moves on familiar rapids, you get a chance to observe others and have a go yourself, and it’s here, having fun, tha lots of learning goes on. The move away from the hip-thruster boof to a more torso rotation and core strength move that we’ve coached for some time, was through these fun sessions. The concept of flaring the boat to access the water on asymmetric drops, although commonly done, had not been brought to the classroom to develop intermediates when running drops. This again came from running the river with Gene17 coaches and discussing the moves afterwards and featured in the 2004 Genes DVD.

You are also keen to spot and bring on new generations of young top-level coaches. Why is that important to you, and what do you look for in a rising star?
When I was young, I did not have the opportunity to be mentored, the paddling was slalom or the paddle twirling of rodeo then, there was little of that on the Somerset levels. When I finally lived closer to white water, I always wished to learn and learn with others, and I suppose this is often shaped into helping younger paddlers to develop. To spot great potential, the simple test is to find real good paddlers who love to paddle, enjoys to push themselves all the time, learns from their own performance and has a wish to share their enjoyment with others. 

You’re now involved in several committees within the coaching scheme, talk a little about this side of your activities?
I am on the BCU Technical Group for White Water and Safety, representing Canoe England. The different groups are tasked with examining and updating the different syllabi for awards. We meet three or four times a year, and our recommendation go on to the strategic groups to decide how best these changes would work within the overall awards scheme.  We get a lot done, but there is a lot to do…

What are the biggest obstacles that face a whitewater becoming a coach and how do you deal with them?
…as the BCU system is somewhat over grown with awards, and the paper chase to get qualified to far, to involving and with too many short courses and not enough overall grasp of what a professional coach needs. If we were to start a fresh, I am quite sure the awards would not look as they currently are. My advice to anyone wishing to become a full time white water coach is go and paddle whilst you are young, go to the prime destinations, travel for an extended period of time. Whilst on this trip of a life time, be sure meet other developing paddlers, work in the adventure tourism industry guiding or the alike, learn to paddle really well, and what it means to guide people and to have high adventures to draw from that shape you as a person, the paddler and coach. If you can pick up some paper qualifications along the way, whilst you are paddling, great, but do not become a slave to them. What I am really saying is get out and paddle, and then may be you’ll become a good coach as well as a paddler.

Has the standard of paddlers coming on courses risen over recent years?Whitewater Kayaker and kayak coach Simon Westgarth simply loves being on the river - image Nick Horwood
To Italy & Norway, the standard has increased, but with the popularity of these destinations and the increase in numbers, we always get a broad spread of ability within the target group of paddlers the different trips attract.

How do you and your team stay ahead of that curve?
We go and paddle. Often during the trips we talk through what we have seen and what problems we need to solve, to change a paddlers performance.

What, for you, are the most important skills for a whitewater paddler to master and why?
Learn and master river running tactics, this is the ability to recognise where to go and why, technique after all only delivers the tactic.

What about coaching skills?
The ability to observe the paddler’s performance. If you know the correct movement and can recognise it, it’s easy to change that outcome, and if your demonstration is great, then all the better for the coach and the learners.

You’ve produced some classic whitewater coaching films in the past, which continue to be a valuable resource for many paddlers. Do you have any more film making projects in the pipeline?
I have a safety and rescue production as well as a follow up to Genes, but as DVD is no longer a viable distribution method, and small producers are not welcome on itunes, it’s hard to know what to do to ensure the productions at least pay for themselves. Answers on a postcard if you please?

Alongside your coaching and guiding activities you also now organise and run many whitewater events, such as the Val Sesia River Festival in Italy and the Sjoa River Festival in Norway. How did you move in to that area of the sport?
I had been involved with every Sjoa River Festival from it’s start in 1997, so it was easy to take over the running of the event.  And in doing so, I felt Valsesia could benefit with a similar event, so I started the Valsesia River Festival last year. Gene17 has always wished to add substance to the scene, hence the DVDs at the beginning. In terms of events, why not bring paddlers together at two of the prime destinations around, to celebrate those great paddling areas? At these event as well as races, competitions and evening entertainment, we offer coaching clinics which opens up our coaching to a wider and often new audience as well.

What new challenges do these bring to you?
Lessons in Italian politics, the third year of the Valsesia River Festival is next year, and my third lesson awaits! The Sjoa River Festival is easy, because its been going for so long, still we always try to improve it. This year we offered free training for those paddlers leading the guided trips, which was a welcomed addition for the paddlers that bring a great tradition to the event in Norway.

In the UK your annual Adventure Paddlers Weekend has become a popular ‘can’t miss’ event in many whitewater paddlers diaries. What was the idea behind it and why do you think it’s so popular?
Every winter I get to stay at the River Dart Country Park, in their seasonal vacation accommodation. They were looking for a way to attract more paddlers to their venue, and the Saturday Night Freestyle was slowly going off the boil. So I thought we needed an event that did not rely on water levels, but brought paddlers together to celebrate the best of the annual paddling adventures. So now after nine years, we have a pre-Christmas end of year party to celebrate the year’s paddling, and more often than not it rains and we all get to enjoy the rivers of Dartmoor.

Last year saw the inaugural River’s Source Whitewater Gathering event down on Dartmoor, which was received really well. What was the thinking behind the event and what are your plans for this year?
With the Adventure Paddlers Weekend, becoming the de facto party, there was little point in changing this successful event into something else, so we needed a new event, but it needed to be different. The White Water Symposium is a well established event in the USA, so perhaps we could make an event that brought some depth to the scene; after all within paddlesports in the UK we have a huge expanse of information and knowledge that is reflected in the products, but rarely accessible in its raw form to the paddlers. I wished to get some of this expertise out in the open. Also with so much focus on coaching awards, I wished to offer coaching in anything but. Thus use some of the leading coaches real expertise to offer more original workshops and clinics, rather than award training, so I invited all and everyone who wishes to come. Plus in Devon we have a great community of paddlers, so I thought lets get them involved together in something, it started with a river clean up on the Dart, next time we’ll do the Tavy as well, plus raise funds for the Dartmoor Mountain Rescue. In addition to having a paddle for the youth initiative to get the young paddlers exposed to coaching by leading paddlers. More of an event for all whitewater paddlers, with something I hope that will attract them all to the River’s Source.

What does the rest of 2013, and beyond, hold for Simon Westgarth?
Hmmm, a solution to the production distribution issue, paddling on the canyons of Greece, a return to Corsica, fine lines in Valsesia, happy days in Sjoa and a further return to Voss, and perhaps if I am lucky a trip to BC for a mission. I hope to finish my garden at my house in Slovenia, and see another idea go into production at Palm Equipment.

Check out more whitewarer kayaking coaching and how to articles

Useful links -
Val Sesia Festival
Simon's Blog

For more information on Gene17 Coaching, trips and courses go HERE

Some examples of Simon's filmmaking work

For more great instructional whitewater kayaking videos eddy out at Canoe & Kayak UK TV Now!

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