Q&A with Jonathan Males

Date: Nov 18, 2022 by Cecilia
"Paddlesports are a wonderful vehicle for learning about yourself and life."

What inspired you to write In the Flow?

I’ve been kayaking for more than 45 years and it’s been core to my personal and professional life. I’ve learned so much both as a paddler, and as a sport psychologist working with top performers in sprint, slalom and freestyle, and I wanted to make this knowledge accessible for anyone. The book also draws on research I completed for my PhD, and I wanted this to reach a wider audience too.

How would you summarise the key message you want people to take from the book?

Paddlesports are a wonderful vehicle for learning about yourself and life. If you want to compete, then get the psychological fundamentals in place and you’ll perform better, enjoy yourself more and stay involved for longer. Same if you want to explore whitewater or the sea. The key fundamental is mastery motivation – seeking to be the best you can be, rather than comparing yourself to other people. Developing this attitude makes it easier to stay focused and calm, make good decisions, and commit to taking the right level of risk

It is eight years since In the Flow was first published, is there anything you would add to it with the knowledge and experience you have gained since then?

I’ve become really interested in the role vision plays in performance – where and how we look at what’s happening. There’s some fascinating research that suggests that we can use our visual focus to shift into a flow state, and I’ve been bringing this into work with slalom paddlers to good effect. We tend to think that concentrating means having ‘tunnel vision’ but in fact the opposite is true. We can be much more “in the moment” when we hold a broader, bigger gaze. But this is hard, because under pressure we naturally go back to tunnel vision!

What do you think attracts people to extreme sports like white water kayaking? What do people gain from participating in extreme sports/kayaking?

Some people are primed to seek out excitement because it’s fun and satisfying. This is not true for everyone, and some people hate the thought of being scared or taking a risk. But if your personality is wired that way, and you’ve had the right sort of experiences and developed appropriate skills to give you confidence, then fear is simply the price worth paying for excitement – the adrenaline kick. The trick is to stay tuned into to your confidence and the environment, and take enough, but not too much, risk. And beyond the immediate buzz is the satisfaction of learning, of getting better, of pushing yourself in new situations.

What is your proudest coaching achievement?

I worked with British slalom paddler Huw Swetnam in 2015 to help him prepare for Olympic Selection. At that stage he’d been dropped from the funded slalom programme and was considered ‘over the hill’ because he was in his mid 30’s. Yet he raced superbly in the selection trials, and over three races was less than a second behind Joe Clarke, who went on to win Gold in the Rio Games. Huw made the reserve Olympic spot and proved what’s possible when you’re committed, and we applied every psychological principle and tool that’s in the book.

Do you have a kayaking inspiration? Someone you look up to or can always go to for advice?

I’ve been inspired by many paddlers and coaches over the years. Richard Fox in the 1980’s, when he was in his prime and I was able to train and race with him. Bill Endicott, the US slalom coach of the same era who worked with Jon Lugbill, Cathy and Davey Hearn and all those great American boaters. Bill came to Australia several times and was really supportive. Now I love watching Ottie Robinson-Shaw who is pushing the boundaries in freestyle and challenging the men in three different disciplines. But I get most inspiration now from my slalom training mates at Lee Valley, who are out on the water nearly every day while still in their 50’s and 60’s.

What is your favourite kayaking memory/favourite place you have kayaked?

That’s tough to offer a single answer. The Franklin River in my home state Tasmania will always remain a special place for me. This is a wilderness river, with substantial gorges and whitewater that takes about 5 days to complete. I first paddled it in 1979, when it was still considered a big achievement (we were about the 5th ever kayak trip). There were five of us aged between 15 and 20, and I’m staggered now to think that my parents waved us off so casually!  We explored other wilderness rivers in the same period, including a first kayak descent of the Jane River.

Jonathan's Book "In the Flow" is available now in audiobook format on Audible, and in paperback \and ebook via our website.

  • In The Flow