Canoe slalom is often described as a ‘lifestyle sport’. It’s a slightly absurd term, because at an elite level all sports are a ‘lifestyle’. Decisions are made based on what is best for training, whether that means sleeping in the middle of the day or buying four kilos of mince to make up your protein quota. What makes slalom a true lifestyle sport is that around seventy per cent of it is mindset.
This summer my kayaking partner and I spent almost two months training in Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia. Slovakia is internationally recognised as a dominant nation in canoe slalom, with their senior athletes taking home the majority of medals in world cups, world championships and the Olympic Games. They have hit the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to good mindset in canoe slalom!
Upon arrival in Slovakia, we settled down into what we assumed would be a normal training camp. This is usually a fairly secluded, high-intensity experience, with as much time spent as possible on the world-famous whitewater course.
What we were not prepared for was one of the most welcoming receptions we have ever experienced at a high-performance venue. Teams often operate on an exclusive, coach-led basis, without unnecessary contact with non-team-members. Which is, of course, understandable. A huge amount of money is invested in high-performance sport, and a manager could be forgiven for not wanting to share – or maybe even expected not to share.
The Slovak sporting mindset is something I had begun to learn already, because my coach was from the famous DUKLA training program that supports athletes in Slovakia. It’s about having a clean mind and focussing one hundred percent on the job at hand. It’s an incredibly effective mindset for racing, and life in general.
By turning up at Liptovský Mikuláš and intimating that my wish was to learn more of the Slovak way, we found ourselves in a position where people not only participated in our sessions, but volunteered to coach us and went out of their way to show us parts of their culture very few people are able to access.
Miroslav Maktejka, formerly on the Under-23 (U23) Slovak national team, prepared sessions for us and fixed our equipment. Olympian Jakub Grigar and U23 World Champion Marko Midgorodsky invited us to take part in a full-runs session¹ led by their coach. Alexander Slafkovsky, 2017 European Champion, gave us climbing equipment and showed us his favourite climbs. Elena Kaliska, twice Olympic champion and five-time World Championship medalist, joined in a full-runs session with us and took the time to film our runs and give us feedback. All of this, in the middle of the canoe slalom World Cup season! Living a slalom lifestyle in Slovakia is a team effort. It requires only a willingness to learn, and a passion for the sport, to sit on the water and play with the best in the world. Slovak hospitality was not only alive and kicking, but extended to embrace and welcome two foreign paddlers who were not included in any current senior program.
Slovakia and Britain have some cultural traits that are similar, but many more that are almost polar opposites in terms of linguistic “turn taking” and initiating or exiting a conversation. As a Brit in Slovakia, I would say that it’s hard to let go of perceived politeness in favour of getting to the point at the beginning of your “turn” in the conversation. For Slovaks observing said Brit, on the other hand, it’s extremely amusing to witness the diplomatic squirming that takes place.
One of the most amusing conversations I had was with one of the Slovak senior team during a recovery sauna²:
‘F***ing British, you can’t wear bikini in sauna. It’s unhygienic.’
‘But you’re wearing shorts?’
‘Yes – because you are British, and I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.’
Following this, Oscar and myself used the sauna again a little while later. We adopted the Slovak tradition (common to most European nations) and donned only the thin sauna sheet. Some more people came along and finally the sauna was full. I began a conversation with Oscar in English, and the whole room seemed to freeze:
Older gentleman on top level of sauna: ‘…but you are British?’
Me (on the amateurs’ bottom level of sauna): ‘…yes?’
The older gentleman proceeded to look me up and down, then raised his eyebrows, and the entire sauna erupted into good-natured laughter. Actually, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest, but extremely funny to see the reaction from people who clearly expected us to fulfil cultural expectations.
I think what served us well was being aware of the amusing idiosyncrasies of British behaviour, and playing to them in a way that Slovak culture appreciates; dry humour, mixed with serious attempts at Slovak language and behaviour. Even among non-canoeing people, our attempt at cultural integration were hugely encouraged, eliciting displays of national pride that seemed almost funny to us. Perhaps our surprise at this patriotism was due to the fact that we are not currently so proud of our nation. Perhaps – to apply some brutal honesty – it was also due to the fact that in present-day Britain, patriotism is not necessarily synonymous with inviting foreigners to share and enjoy the experience of our country. Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to see the pleasure that our smallest acts of sharing gave locals; in return, we enjoyed a particularly special and privileged experience of Slovak lifestyle.
¹ A technical slalom term: full runs are multiple runs down the entire slalom course, so through all the gates. Partial runs are repeated runs through a limited number of gates, for practising particular moves.
² Recovery from the stresses of training is critical to athletic excellence. It’s often not mentioned enough. The Slovaks take recovery very seriously, and saunas are a popular way of relaxing exhausted nerves and muscles.