Whitehorse Daily Star

Flatwater North coach Lynwen Birch returns from Lima

The Lima 2019 Pan-Am Games are nearing their end.

By John Tonin on August 9, 2019

The Lima 2019 Pan-Am Games are nearing their end. The Games began on July 26 and will end this Sunday. The Pan American Games are a major sporting event in the Americas featuring summer sports and thousands of athletes.

The competition is held every four years in the year before the Summer Olympics. Tokyo will be the summer 2020 host.

The Yukon did not have an athlete competing in any of the events in Lima but Lynwen Birch, the head coach of Flatwater North, was there as a coach for the sprint canoe and kayak team.

Lynwen said the governing bodies are making a concerted effort to have teams headed by both female and male coaches.

“I think our governing body, Canoe/Kayak Canada is trying to make an effort to develop women in coaching,” said Birch. “They start at lower levels with younger kids, development athletes then start giving coaches opportunities on international tours.

“It gives us the experience with more developed athletes and all of that filters back to the clubs.”

With the experience of the Pan-Am Games, Birch said she can bring what she learned back to the local club and teach the young paddlers how the top-level athletes prepare for large events.

“The learning was there for me as well even though the athletes aren’t my athletes, their coaches stayed back in Canada to prepare for World Championships,” said Birch. “So they give learning back to guest coaches or touring coaches.

“I was receiving as much as I was trying to support them at the top level. I am so grateful for that. Now it is how do I pass this on to these kids? We’ve had three sessions and I’m already noticing it. It is how do you relate it back to adolescence on a day-to-day basis.”

Birch said how the Canadian team athletes dealt with pressure is one of her biggest takeaways.

“People deal with high-stress situations in completely different ways,” said Birch.

“Some are joking around and present with other athletes. Some have headphones on and are in that space. Some are quiet as, and they aren’t normally that way.

“Then the change is they start to do well in their heats and in semis and you can see the confidence building. It is the understanding of how to remove stress and unneeded use of energy. The tension and the stress before races, how do you dispel that.

“Then it’s the little things like what they are wearing and when they get changed to get on the water. How long they are on the water for their warm-up paddles. Those little rituals. So we are already experimenting with things.”

All athletes will have those rituals to rely on and Birch said another takeaway was how the athletes coped when things were different, which is something Flatwater athletes constantly deal with as their competitions are all outside of the Yukon.

“What are their coping mechanisms and their level of resilience in their practice?” said Birch. “How can they call up those things they know about being adaptable and malleable to a certain point but not lose enough that it’s going to rattle performance.

“You have to practice when you are feeling fatigued and train when you haven’t gotten enough sleep. That is all part of the learning.”

Birch spoke about how those practices were important for her as well as a coach.

“We’ve gone from the Yukon summer to the winter in Peru,” said Birch. “As coaches, you have to be one step ahead of the athletes. Their boats, they are weighed properly, the grip tape for the feet. All those little things are there and if something fails there is a backup ready and waiting.

“A lot of that comes from teamwork. The coaches worked incredibly well together and the athletes are all friends and they’ve been on tour before so it was an incredible vibe.”

Going from a local club in the Yukon to an international event with high-level athletes Birch talked about her role in motivating the Canadian athletes.

“For me, I am not here to step in and throw my weight around and be a guru and showing all my experience in the sport and this is what I can teach you,” said Birch.

“It is about being organized, knowing where all things are so if something goes you can jump onto it and make sure the racing experience for the athletes is as smooth as possible.”

“(Also) I think a lot of it was the debriefs after the racing, talking with the athletes through about how they raced. What did they want to put away and not bring on to the next experience of racing? We say ‘take what you need and leave the rest.’

“It’s just that. It’s little cues to these athletes because they are the experts.”

Birch said the Canadian athletes were not only ambassadors for young Canadian athletes but other nations took notice of them in Lima.

“You had other nations looking to that example and even the spectators in the crowd realized the Canadians were doing really well,” said Birch. “It was so wonderful to be a part of that.”

Birch said she had a great time representing the Yukon while in Lima.

“I talked about it,” said Birch. “Speaking to coaches from places like Jamaica, and athletes from Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba and just talking about I represent Canada but I represent the north end, north of 60.

“I think they just didn’t have a concept of where that is and I’m talking about the temperature in the water and light in the sky, but comparing all those different realities of paddling. We are all one sport, people on water, on boats, trying to move fast with the conditions and the elements.

“We are doing it one way in the north and they are doing it their way in the south. I think there is a fascination, I spent a lot of time talking about the strong paddling community up here. People paddle in the Yukon.”

Her experience in Lima will help her along as the paddlers at Flatwater continue to grow.

“Kids up here they are tough they are gritty, things that would bother people in other places don’t bother them here,” said Birch. “Their learning curve has been so steep. Their learning process has been so fast.

“It’s challenging me. I’ve had to adapt the program quite a bit because they are progressing so quickly.”

Although it is causing her to adapt, Birch said it is wonderful as a coach to see athletes young or high-level progress rapidly.

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