Tip of the Week: Top Secret Brain Hacks for Better Beta and Cleaner, Safer Lines

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Jackson Kayak Tip of the Week

By Jake Ament

Solid beta is an absolutely priceless commodity. Bad beta, however, is unforgivable. There is one very common mistake that I hear all the time when people are explaining how to safely navigate a rapid. The good news is that one simple fix can keep you safe and prevent a life or death situation. The trick?…use fundamental human psychology when speaking to your fellow paddlers about the safe lines.

Believe it or not, giving good beta is easy.

Rule #1 (aka DUH!): If you aren’t sure, keep your mouth shut!

This isn’t exactly the topic of this article, but is definitely worth mentioning. If you aren’t 100 percent confident that you know a safe line through any particular rapid, then keep quiet. This applies to everyone, even if you are the “guide” for the day on that river. Nobody sure? The solution is simple…scout it…still not sure?…walk it. Have the confidence to say, “I don’t know.”

Rule #2 (brain hack secret): When giving beta always speak in the affirmative (or positive).

I am going to start my explanation with an example of what I mean:

The right way: Always tell people what to do. “Take the line on your right.”

The wrong way: Never tell people what not to do. “Don’t go left up ahead.”

Jake Ament running blind with the help of some imperative beta.  Photo by Scott Baker
Jake Ament running blind with the help of some imperative beta. Photo by Scott Baker

See what I did there? Both statements say essentially the same thing. However, the first one is speaking in the affirmative voice and the other in the negative. Those of you familiar with the Law of Attraction understand why this is so important. The Law is simple: we gravitate toward what we fixate on.

When we are in distress, say, halfway through a challenging rapid, it is much harder for our brain to process higher level ideas than when we are in a calm state of mind. So if you repeat “don’t go left” to yourself a hundred times in the eddy, don’t be surprised when you paddle into the rapid and all you can remember is “left”.

Why? Basic human psychology.

When I give you a command in the negative voice there are two critical things your brain has to process (with affirmative voice there is only one). The first thing your brain processes is “go left.” Next, your brain must go into a higher level of cognition to recognize that “don’t” really means do the opposite of the first thing, namely “go right.” So go easy on your dome and keep it affirmative.

The question arises, “What if there is a hazard that they need to know about?” I usually like to leave this up to the listener. Most of the time the hazards are not in play (assuming you follow the beta) and thus mentioning them only causes unnecessary fear. Personally though, I like to be in the know, and sometimes mentioning hazards really is necessary. However, if you choose your words carefully you can avoid the negative beta entirely. For example, “There is an undercut rock about halfway down this one so you can take the center line, or the left line.” Easy isn’t it? I never even verbalized the word “right” and they still know that is where the undercut is located. This way even if they panic the only words they need to remember are “center” or “left.”

In summary my advice is to K.I.S.S. with your friends (whoa, slow down there bro-migo, it’s an acronym: Keep It Simple, Stupid). Keep it simple, and always speak in the affirmative/positive voice. Do this and you are sure to eliminate the much dreaded “beta brain block” from your whitewater experience. Until next time…

Keep Your Paddle Wet,
Jake // Jackson Kayak Regional Team

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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