Raising your head or stabbing the water with the paddle each betrays lifting at the core of the mental representation of the roll in one's head. Pull boat and body towards each other instead, then slide the body on top with as little elevation as possible, and these maladies will vanish without a trace.
There is a third common suspect when it comes to failed rolls— Top Hand Punch. Top Hand Punch is charged with at least two cardinal violations:
- It is unsafe and leads to shoulder injury.
- It causes the dreaded diving paddle.
With the approach to rolling advocated in this series, neither safety- nor efficacy-based accusations against punching hold much water.
Safety first! The short of it is that extending your arm and applying pulling or lateral forces on it while in that position will strain the shoulder. The strain becomes more of an issue when the extended arm gets behind the plane of the roller's chest. In this vulnerable position, even weak sideways forces will test the tendons and ligaments that hold the humerus attached to the shallow socket of the shoulder blade. This threat is very real in rolling. If you try to lift the body straight up by pushing off of an extended outboard hand (one closest to active blade) your shoulder will hurt eventually. You may even dislocate it, or worse, tear something this way so don't do it. Chalk it up as yet another reason to migrate the mental model of the roll away from lifting!
Note, however, so far it's the outboard, not the punching hand, that's in danger. What threatens the shoulder on your pulling outboard hand will not affect the inboard hand (farther away from active blade) in the same way. As long as you keep the paddle in front of your chest about as high as the forehead the punching, the inboard hand is safe inside the 'Paddler's Box.' Moreover, punching compresses the humerus into joint socket and the strongest part of the rotator cuff at the back. Minimal lateral forces are present during punching and there is no pulling at all. Just don't try to end of your forward-finishing or layback rolls with the hands way above your head.
That was safety—preventing physical harm to your body. How about efficacy? Will punching make it harder to execute a successful roll? The objections to punching rely on the fact that it will make the blade-to-surface angle less parallel and more perpendicular. One might imagine that the paddle becomes ineffective in this position. And it surely does … if your goal is to lift! The blade angle optimal for pulling the boat and the upper body together is perpendicular to the surface of the water or as far away from parallel as possible. In the end, some upward thrust is needed to bring the body on top of the boat; therefore, the optimal angle for the pulling-style roll is somewhere between parallel and perpendicular. That IS the angle you get when you punch. If you use the paddle blade to pull the boat toward the upper body it is the parallel angle that is totally ineffective. When pulled, the parallel blade merely skips and slides across the surface providing no anchorage for the pulling effort.
So far, it appears that punching is both safe and effective for pull-style rolling. But wait, there's more; you get three for one! Punching also makes our roll more efficient.
When you punch, you engage torso rotation and more muscles to do the work. This happens in rolling much the same way it does with the good ole' forward stroke. If you want your torso to do the bulk of the forward stroke, the paddle shaft has to be kept well away from your chest. Just try to paddle with the shaft touching the sternum and you will immediately know what I mean. Arm extension away from the chest is essential for harnessing the power of the torso! Without it you'll be cruising in the first gear—way too much power and not nearly enough leverage to transfer it into forward movement.
During forward stroke power comes from pulling as well as pushing on the shaft. The ratio between the two is a matter of argument and taste but the fact remains—if you want an efficient stroke, you have to push with the top hand. Rolling is no different. With the paddle shaft close to your chest and with your top hand arrested at the shoulder you all but eliminate the torso twist from the game. That's a lot of power to sacrifice.
The other day I discussed these ideas about rolling with a couple of fellow instructors in the pool. Several of them convinced me to try keeping the inboard hand close to my chest. While doing it, I didn't engage my torso and didn't rotate my body. To my surprise, at the very end of the roll, I quite literally tripped over the active blade hitting the gunwale and went back into the water. When I punch, I get the paddle blade about a foot away from the kayak. That extra wiggle room gives me space to finalize any unfinished rolling business—a safety cushion if you will. With the paddle glued to my chest and pressing against the side of the boat, I felt trapped.
In summary, it seems like it would take a feat of creative self-destruction to endanger the shoulder of the inboard arm during rolling—even when it is fully extended and even if it is pointing straight above your head. According to the British racers, extending the arm to about 120 degrees is the optimal angle to deliver the punching power. At that angle, operating the inboard hand seems quite safe to me.
Second, while arm extension makes for non-parallel blade-to-surface angle, as far as pull-rolling is concerned, such an angle creates a more—not less—effective paddle position. It helps to draw the boat and the body together rather than hinder it. Parallel blade is only good for lifting.
Third, by extending the paddle away from your chest, you encourage and harness the power of the torso rotation for your roll making it more efficient. Combination of punching and pulling is the way to leverage the most power out of this stroke.
Finally, when you punch you end the roll with the blade some distance away from the side of the kayak. This space creates a safety net for cleaning up any sloppiness that may still remain in your rolling technique. Punching is safe, effective, and efficient—what's not to like?