The key to learning any complex physical maneuver like a sweep roll is to repeat the required motions a large number of times with correct form until "muscle memory" for the maneuver has been solidly developed. Of course, repetitions of bad form also create muscle memory and make it more difficult to eventually learn the correct form. Unlike most methods I know about the method below minimizes the possibility of students learning bad form. That means they will learn to roll faster. The method also provides a way to overcome bad habits that students pick up later.
The steps below assume that the student already has the following skills:
1. Forward sweep stroke on both sides.
By this I mean the classic full sweep stroke from bow to stern while rotating the torso.
2. Hip snap.
By this I mean that the student can hip snap the boat to an upright position from the pool side, or the instructor's hands, or the bow of another boat.
It is also assumed that the roll will be initially taught onside (right hand forward). The offside roll can be taught in the same way.
Repeat each of the following steps a substantial number of times. Remember the major goal is to create muscle memory. Muscle memory is created by repetition. Do not go on to the next step just because the student has done the current step successfully once or twice. Short cutting the repetition process will just make subsequent steps more difficult.
Step 1 Skimming Sweep Stroke.
Begin by having the student execute a forward sweep stroke in an upright boat with the paddle face flat on the water at a slight climbing angle. Have them repeat this until they can do it smoothly using torso rotation with no leaning back and finishing by taking the paddle out over the stern. Emphasize following the paddle with the eyes.
Then add moderate hip snap pressure to the sweep. That is, right
after the sweep starts raise the right knee and relax the left leg all
through the sweep. The point is to teach coordination of the hip
snap with the sweep motion so it is not necessary at this point that the
hip snap pressure be strong.
Step 2 Support the Boat at 90 Degrees.
It is probably a good idea for the student to use nose plugs from this point on. This step requires that the instructor hold the boat on its edge, perpendicular to the water. You will stand next to the bottom of the boat on the side away from where the paddle will sweep. Use the "hand of god" rescue hold with the right hand in the coaming well and the left on the bottom edge of the boat on the down side. The student does exactly what they did at the end of step 1. That is, they place the paddle face on the water near the bow; sweep around using torso rotation, being sure the paddle is skimming the surface; and hip snapping throughout the sweep. At the setup the student will have to support themselves with their left knee. As soon as the paddle starts to skim they should start the hip snap. Be sure they rotate all the way around, keep the paddle on the surface the entire time, and take the paddle out over the stern. You should release the boat just as soon as the student starts the sweep. They should have little or no trouble righting the boat from this position. What is important is correct form.
Step 3 Support the Boat at 45 Degrees.
Repeat step 2 but with the boat more nearly upside down. Continue until the student can right the boat every time. It is important that the paddle always skim the surface (never dive) and that they rotate fully, taking the paddle out over the stern. Even at 45 degrees they should be able to see the paddle at setup and watch it as it skims. At this angle the amount that their wrist is cocked will begin to change as they sweep.
Step 4 Support at Lower Angles.
Repeat step 3 at a lower angle, say, 10 to 20 degrees. This step is a critical one because the student's head will be under the water for the first time. It is very important to emphasize doing exactly what they have done at the easier angles -- skim sweep with full rotation to the stern and continuous hip snap. If they pull down on the paddle, go back briefly to a higher angle. When they can right the boat every time with good form go on to the final step.
Repeat step 4 with the boat completely upside down. Try to start the final step just after a successful attempt at step 4. Chances are very good they will complete their first unassisted roll on the first try. Be ready with cheers and clapping. Also expect some failures. Diagnose them without being critical. If necessary, alternate between step 4 (or step 3) and the final step.
Problems that may Develop
Sweeping using the arms. The sweep must be controlled entirely by torso rotation, which means the arms must be led by the body. Some students will tend to move the arms to carry out the sweep and that will almost always doom the roll because it reduces torso rotation and causes the paddle to dive. It may help to go back briefly to sweeping with the boat upright.
Habit transfer from paddling planing hulled boats. Paddling style for planing hulled boats, especially playboats, significantly involves looking where the boat is going or where you want the boat to go. For example, a turning sweep stroke involves little or no torso rotation and paddlers are suppose to look where the bow is turning to, rather than at the paddle. And that is the way it should be done. However, carryover of that habit will lead to a sweep roll with no torso rotation. It may be necessary to spend more time with the boat flat or at 90 degrees.
Sweeping too fast. For most people the sweep should be done at a moderate pace. In fact the pace should be similar for all steps in the learning sequence. Sweeping too fast leads to a variety of problems, including reduced torso rotation (see above). It is even possible to strain the wrists by sweeping to strongly with bad form.
Clothing and equipment. Rolling in a warm pool with minimal clothing is easier than rolling in cold water with a wet suit and PFD. Cold water causes some paddlers to rush the setup and the roll, and a PFD (and other clothing) reduces flexibility. It is a good idea to practice in the equipment you will be wearing on the river.
Problems with the head. Raising the head can be both a cause and a consequence of roll failure. You often hear people say or shout to rolling students, "keep your head down". This is irrelevant advice if raising the head is a consequence of some previous fault, as it often is. For example, if a paddler stops or slows the sweep/rotation before reaching the stern they will not come up. Period. They will, however, raise their head to try to come up after the rotation stops. It doesn't matter. Head up or head down they won't roll. Telling them to keep their head down is not advice that will enable them to do or improve the roll. However, telling them to complete the rotation will enable them to do the roll. If the paddler does the roll with a skimming sweep all the way to the stern and a strong continuous hip snap then the head is naturally in the right place. There is no need to think about it or have attention called to it.
On the other hand raising the head at the beginning of the sweep will also doom the roll. In my experience this is not as common as raising the head after a previous fault. But in any event careful diagnosis is necessary to prevent overlooking the real cause of the problem.
Punching with the off arm. This is cured by keeping the off elbow close to the body during the sweep. It is important to develop muscle memory for this. Find an angle where the student does not punch. Do repetitions there and then gradually reduce the angle.
Chris Joosse's Sweep Roll Article
Ebook Instructions for the Sweep Roll
Kayakers Edge has good footage of the sweep roll.
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