You learn a stroke. Then you learn another stroke. Then another, and another, whatever order they come: propulsive strokes, turning strokes, bracing strokes. Along the way you learn how to wet exit, how to be rescued, how to rescue, how to self-rescue.
You go on trips. Short trips, long trips, so-long-you-thought-you'd-die trips, trips where maybe you did almost die or were at least at risk of severe inconvenience. You go with others, you go on your own. You see other people doing other strokes, or doing neat things in their boat, and you try to copy them and figure out what they're doing..
Then one day someone says, "can you teach me that?" And you kinda show them what to do. Then you take a class on how to teach, and you relearn all of your strokes because you don't want a bunch of people out there paddling as bad as you've been paddling. You learn how to introduce a stroke, demonstrate it, explain its purpose and block out time for students to practice. At that point, you're an instructor.
That is, until you see really good instruction in action.
I was fortunate to work with some excellent instructors at the Hudson Valley Paddle Symposium in late July. Organized by Matt Kane at PrimePaddlesports, with John Carmody of Sea Cliff Kayakers and Carl Ladd from Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, along with other coaches I saw some very zen, very effective instruction.
Some coaches will say, they don't teach strokes. They do, but not overtly. They just go on a journey and observe. Oh my, how they observe. I had someone ask me one time if I was holding my right knee too tight against the braces, and I was. They make a mental list of what everyone's doing and give everyone individualized advice.
Then they find an area suitable for practice. Talk about what the boat is doing. Give students a simple exercise and query them on the outcome. Pedagogically, if you give someone an outcome and steps to reproduce it, they'll get anxious if they don't get the desired result. Even worse if they get it right they'll lock in that behavior: "this is what to do, always". If you give them steps, and ask them what happened, they learn for themselves. They put together what works and what doesn't, and you can give them variants; try a little more of this or a little less of that.
And of course, always, both sides, forwards and backwards.
Least said is best.
In the course of the symposium one pairing I had was with a woman who had a lot of casual recreational boat experience, and was in a sea kayak for the first time. After nearly a full day's session, she was still having trouble controlling the boat. It was hot, and she was clearly growing frustrated.
I asked her to watch me and tell me what I was doing wrong. I did everything that she was doing and got the same results she did.
"Look towards me," she said. This got me putting the boat on edge. "With your whole body!"
"Sit up straight.". OK, now I was in a stronger position, with more rotation.
"Extend your arms!" That got me more catch. By now I was edging the boat, paddling strongly, and grabbing as much water as I could. I was achieving the desired outcome.
"See," I said, "you know what to do. Everything you just said, do it."
She did, and was turning on the move and having fun playing with changing directions.
Getting students to own their knowledge is my latest challenge in teaching. I can show strokes, and I can critique strokes, but getting people to understand, in their own brains, what's working and what isn't, that's what I want to be able to do.
After all, the best instructors do.