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Poppy Field
  • Writer's pictureRebecca Ploener

Whitewater War Stories and Glorifying Trauma

We’ve all witnessed the shuttle rides where someone is telling a story about a time they took a crazy swim or had something really scary happen to them on the river. I want to dive into why we feel compelled to tell these stories, what the positive intention behind them is and what the harmful impacts could be.

I have a few scenarios to talk you through:

  1. You and your friends are about to put on a new to you river. You’re all amped up and psyched to be getting your PFD (personal first descent). You listen to hype music super loud in the car and you ask about the rapids and start mentally rehearsing what you’re about to run. A friend starts telling(yelling) a story about a time where they swam or had a sketchy experience on this rapid. They go on and on in detail describing all of the hazards in this particular section and by the end you have a pretty good visual on where not to go and what not to do. You get on the river, see that rapid and of course you feel scared and nervous because all you can see is yourself swimming and having the same thing happen to you that happened to your friend that one time.

  2. You’re about to put on for your PFD and you get in the shuttle and start talking about the run. Your friends talk you through the rapids and they don’t bring up any scary stories. They talk about the rapids very direct and unbiased. You know the lines and you may know some hazards, but no one dramaticized swimming and overstated the danger. Everything is very matter of fact.

  3. You’re riding up for your PFD of a run you know you are prepared for! You don’t talk about the river on the way up, instead you talk about intentions for the day, listen to calming music, and get to know your crew. You arrive at the first rapid and you feel refreshed and ready to go (hopefully not carsick)! You see the rapids, visualize yourself going down the rapids successfully and you crush it!

Which option would you prefer for a PFD shuttle run?

I know I prefer option B and C or some combination of the two. I want to talk about mental rehearsals and visualization for a minute. A mental rehearsal is where you have a concrete plan and goals in mind and you visualize yourself each step of the way to maximize the experience you want to have. Every detail from the moment you wake up to the moment you get off the river goes perfectly. Professional athletes, dancers, musicians, and other performers all use the mental rehearsal to perform at their highest level. So why the heck do we do the OPPOSITE in kayaking telling war stories??? I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to share a bit more about the mental rehearsal and why it works.

Our brains struggle with new material. We don’t like change. Running a new river is intimidating! When we practice a positive mental rehearsal (something we want to do) we take away some of the unknowns. We can envision ourselves making successful moves and getting off the river excited and happy. It’s less new material for our brain to process in the moment. If we focus on the positive outcomes, they are more likely to happen because we are focusing on finding more positive outcomes (within our limits and skill levels don’t go running things before you’re ready just because you can visualize yourself running it successfully!!). On the other hand if we focus on negative outcomes like your friend’s experience swimming or getting stuck in a hole, we are going to get stuck in that negative thought pattern and visualize that happening along with all of the other negative experiences that come along with it. When we get down like that our brain is searching for more proof that negative outcomes are going to happen and because that’s what we’re searching for - that’s what we’re going to notice. Now you’re spending your day focused on how much every thing is leading you to messing up and making that belief true.

Okay, Becca… so why the heck do so many people talk about these scary swims at times that are not promoting our success? Is there a time where this IS appropriate?

I’ll begin by explaining what a war story is. A war story is someone telling a story about something that had a negative impact on them in a way that glorifies or romanticizes the event. These stories tend to be gruesome, exaggerated, and dramatic. They are filled with emotion and typically there is some sort of social aspect to it.

Why do we do it? Maybe we’re trying to down play the impact that experience had on us because we are coving up our emotions. Maybe we are trying to impress someone. Maybe we are in a comparison match of “oh, my story is worse than yours”. They all have one thing in common - we are avoiding processing the (potentially) traumatic experience we had and instead are reflecting it and dismissing it.

So how can we talk about swimming and dangerous things without telling war stories?

When something scary happens, take time to process it. This may be after the fact. This may include talking with trusted friends or loved ones or a therapist or a coach. This may also be taking a second on the river to breathe before continuing downstream (or let the tears pass). When you are talking about the story afterwards, think before you speak - “What is my intention with telling this story? Could it be harmful for anyone to hear? Am I emotionally charged?” Make sure you are in a setting and situation where you are able to tell the story with facts instead of pure emotion. And make sure there is intention behind the story. If you are simply telling this dangerous story to show off or show up someone, then chances are high that you’re telling a war story.

It’s important to have conversations about things that happen on the river! We can learn so much from our mistakes and past experiences. But when we talk about these experiences full of emotion (which is not inherently bad), we can potentially harm other people’s mindset before putting on a river.

Glorifying trauma is not exclusive to the paddling community. I’ve heard people relate to this from my experiences in therapeutic boarding schools, other mental health programs, nurses, EMS, and other athletes.

Comment below, did you relate to this article? How does it feel when you experience a war story during a shuttle ride? What’s your favorite PFD (personal first decent ritual)?

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