Instructors- How do you deal with stress

This is my first summer giving kayaking lessons and programs, and I can’t dodge an overwhelming feeling of stress before each program. I’ve probably given 7 or 8 programs so far, but each one has felt as stressful as the first. Between the logistics, the gear, and the safety hazards, I feel like I can’t take a breath and actually enjoy what I’m doing. Any tips for making everything seem more manageable?

This is just unique to teaching kayaking for me. I’ve taught plenty of other outdoor programs (school programs, guided hikes, etc) without feeling anything near this level of stress.


It might help
if you provided a bit more information regarding your instructional programs. For instance:

What is the venue? Flat water? Moving water? Both?

What is the typical experience level of your students? Are they complete novices? Beginners or intermediates? A mix of experience levels?

What is the duration of your programs, i.e, how much time do you have available?

What is your typical student group size?

Do you have assistant instructors and/or safety boaters available? Or are you on your own?

Such programs often employ 2 or even 3
instructors, so that they can take turns in the presentation and support one another with critique. It is rare to instruct a group of complete newbies with just one instructor.

If you could share the task, I’ll bet your angst would decrease.

I think I see…

– Last Updated: Jul-23-15 11:36 AM EST –

I think I see where pblanc is going with his questions. If you respond to him; I'm sure you'll get some quality information.

I will go in a different direction...........

Why did you become an instructor in the first place?
Are you getting that "feel good" feeling, and a sense of accomplishment when you successfully complete a class?
Are you having any fun as an instructor?

Good instructors are few and far between, in my opinion.
Some people have the technical ability to become an instructor, but do not have the dedication, and motivation that being an instructor involves.
People get their instructor certification for many different reasons. Unfortunately, many of those reasons seem less & less important over the long haul. Some instructors just finally burn out; for myriad reasons. Some realize that they have made a mistake; instructing was not what they imagined. It can be a grind, and the thank yous can be few & far between. No doubt, stress is part of the job.........

After I retired, I let all my instructor certifications expire. I was tired, and bored with instructing, and all with went with it. If you are tired and bored; you are not going to be very effective instructor. The point in continuing would be what?


increase expertise and safety options
Keep increasing your expertise. The more you know and the more ways you can solve problems that may pop up, the better you should feel. For example, the more ways you know how to get someone back into their boat after they flip, the less you worry about it. And being comfortable paddling yourself in conditions worse than you will see on the water with participants, the easier things seem in those mellower conditions. And the higher level first aid training you have, the easier it seems when those small things pop up.

I have been teaching and guiding for more than 5 years now. I am certified by the ACA as a sea kayak instructor, even though it isn’t required where I teach. My certification is level 3 (flat water), but I will be taking the level 4 (coastal) next chance I have and fully expect to easily pass it. And I regularly paddle in level 5 (open ocean) conditions. Where I teach/guide requires basic first aid and CPR (8 hour class), but I hold Wilderness First responder certification (80 hour class).

Also, have extra gear that improves your chances of solving problems. Examples being some sort of device you can sue for emergencies - something like a VHF for areas with lots of boats, or maybe a SPOT or PLB. And some boats can use stirrups to help people with weaker upper bodies get into the boat - if you are using boats where these can work, have one ready in case a student needs it.

My thought exactly
7-8 students strikes me as the upper limit of what even a relatively experienced and skilled instructor can comfortably handle while giving enough feedback and interaction to provide a valuable learning experience.

Also, I think this ratio only really works (barely) in a flatwater strokes type of class in a controlled environment. Anything involving rescues or open water conditions and I’d definitely want at least one other co-instructor or assistant.

Otherwise, the best advice I can offer is the fairly straightforward stuff: have all of your prep work (gear, etc) done before the students arrive. Also, have a realistic plan for what skills you’re going to teach and how long you’re going to spend on each, but be ready to deviate if necessary.

This is stuff that comes with experience, even for folks that are naturally good teachers. Which is another reason why having another instructor is really useful while learning the ropes. I was lucky in that I had a lot of opportunities to work with other instructors and the ITs who trained me both before and after I got my certs.

I don’t think OP said number of students
I think the 7 to 8 was number of programs he has run so far, not number of people on the program. I don’t think there has been mention of number of participants on each program. Or even if there is a second guide/instructor.

And it isn’t clear if he is mostly doing guiding or teaching. The numbers you could work is very different if you are leading a trip (where you do have some instruction up front) versus an instruction session.

Would be interesting to hear more details from the OP on what they are doing, type of conditions, number of participants, types of boats, etc.

Kayaking background?
Your feeling stressed about the kayak “programs” (meaning classes or tours or ???) could be as simple as having less kayaking experience and skills yourself. Do you have any other watersports background, such as swimming, surfing, sailing? Do you have any formal certs from kayak-specific organizations?

Good catch re: #s
I misread that.

I assume that the reference to “lessons” means that the OP is doing more than simply guiding. I agree that all else being equal, its generally easier to accommodate a higher ratio of instructors/participants in the case of a less instruction-intensive event. Ultimately, though, the right answer depends on the skill level of the instructor, the participants and the paddling environment.

It gets easier
I take it you have a max of 5 students , which is the ACA standard.

Teaching on water is not the same as school programs or guided hikes. You have a new set of skills to employ including a critical eye. Its not easy at first. You feel like you need eyes all around you, for safety reasons.

As you gain time and experience it gets easier. In our canoe instruction circle we often pair up new instructors with experienced ones to gain a little mentoring.

If its not fun for you , the students will feel that and I am sure that is not what you want.


– Last Updated: Jul-23-15 1:31 PM EST –

Here's more info:

I'm ACA certified level 2 for open water kayaking, but just got it a couple months ago. The classes are generally for complete newbies, and I hold them on a slow-moving river that leads out to a larger bay. This is the "easiest'" spot nearby. Our max group size is 8, and I'm the only instructor in our program. My boss used to be the instructor, but got a promotion and can no longer lead trips. We did do a couple trips together at the start of the season, though. I would say most of the programs are more instruction and skills-based than just a guided tour.

I also forgot to mention that I do teach basic rescues (paddle float and tx).

Thanks for the feedback so far!

Response below
I answered some of your questions in a later response. Thanks!

have a shot of vodka or two.

get some help
Eight students to one instructor is a very high ratio. Even 5:1 can be difficult if you are the sole instructor. In the event someone swims, you are on your own when it comes to a rescue and you can only hope that the others stay out of trouble until the rescue is complete.

Even making sure that 5-8 heads remain above water can be very distracting when you are trying to teach. The larger group sizes also greatly increase the chances that you will have a disparate group when it comes to skill level or natural ability.

See if you can solicit some help. This need not necessarily be another instructor or even assistant instructor. A friend who is willing to act as a safety boater/sweep/head counter can take a lot of stress off of you.

I think just talking about the stress

– Last Updated: Jul-23-15 4:04 PM EST –

on this message board helps. Sometimes we just need to vent. For me the "what ifs" are worse prior to the event rather than during the event. Now a days I find myself in the organizational end of bigger groups and rely heavily on other people to provide the instruction.

I try to say a little prayer and have even asked for prayers on the message board on occasion. I tell "my people" my fears and I'm quick to compliment. I think you have to be 100% honest with both folks helping or instructing and with the participants. My two cents, if you're out on the water and you still don't feel good about what you're doing then you need to make some changes. More support, less intimidating environment, improve your own skill set. I don't know the exact answer for you but I will say a little prayer.

I think if you feel like you have a little weight inside of you that you'll probably end up being very good at instructing someday. That means your more concerned about others than yourself. You've shown a lot of courage just by acknowledging the stress. You know you should be having fun while instructing but your just not there yet. It may be the circumstances in which you are placed. Listen to that little voice inside of you and do what it tells you.

me too

– Last Updated: Jul-23-15 4:08 PM EST –

But I also have a smoke and a drink when talking about stress, so it could be that.

(just kidding)

its that little voice!
smoke! smoke! smoke!

I shot video for a couple of years for a particularly small rafting co. Keith, the head honcho, was a nicorette chewing tense guy always trying to quit. Tim the river manager was a chain smoker who lit up before every major rapid. A number of the other guides were smokers as well. Never in a hurry. They were a joy to film, stopping to smoke before each major drop. That and they ran bucket boats (even after everyone else had switched to self bailers) and got away with it because they told the guests they “got a better ride”. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for smoking. Usually I just ended up with my Copenhagen all over my face after middle or lower keenys- ahhh the good ol’ days, I ain’t tellin’ ya what other stuff we did on the rocks while video boatin’ or on the gear truck. We weren’t feeling any stress. What happened in the 80s video boatin’ stays on the river. Ahhh the wonders of lugging shoulder mounted vhs cameras in kayaks

I can totally relate to stress
and keeping track of students. But have not lost one yet.

Once I had a group of six. I was supposed to have five. This was in Texas where more is usual. However number six was upside down. This is something instructors have to deal with from now and then. I recounted… one two three four five…six… Six on closer inspection had scales and eyes.

You never know who is watching…

You’d think fewer students would be less stressful… Not . My first private lesson of two hours had one student who wanted to learn something specific. She did… I tried to move on to something related to that skill but she was quite content to just doodle and practice her new canoeing stroke. She was 84 and knew what she wanted.

I find the fewer the students the more I move into Attention deficit instruction. I go too fast. A group allows time for each to digest and watch and relax. People can’t retain more than a few minutes of info .

Less instructor yakking and more doing…Show em something let em go do it for a while, help those who aren’t getting it by giving another approach to the skill.

And have fun… Its all about the journey.

Extra help
This seems like something I could make work. I have a few extra coworkers around that sometimes would be available. They aren’t necessarily skilled kayakers, but they are competent, trustworthy people I could probably get to give me a hand for larger groups. Thanks!