advice for young athletes, and parents

Sprint kayaker Alexa Irvin says if you make sports enjoyable, kids will stay involved

By Janet Whitman

Photography by Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Alexa Irvin was just as nervous at the start line for her very first kayak race at age 12 as she was lining up for the Tokyo Olympic trials.

She was no stranger to competition as a kid. She started track when she was seven, swimming at eight and kayaking the summer she turned 12.

“I think it’s important for kids to know that. It’s always the same,” the now-30-year-old competitive kayaker says of her race jitters. “Sometimes when you’re an athlete that young, you end up putting a little more pressure on yourself early on that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.”

Parents, guardians and coaches can help, she says. “Yes, kids care about the results, but, ultimately, if you make it about having fun, that’s the best way to keep them involved.”

In that first kayak race, her main goal was just not to tip and stay straight in the skinny sprint boat so she could cross the finish line. 

Her parents, both avid paddlers who grew up in Halifax and Dartmouth, got Irvin and her younger sister into kayaking. The nearest paddling club to their home in Kentville was Pisiquid Canoe Club in Windsor.

“It was a pretty typical canoe club,” says Irvin. “You’d get dropped off in the morning, do your different workouts … from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for the whole summer,” she says.
“I was working hard but also having a ton of fun. I remember the paddling, but I also remember the dock wars and the swimming and all of that. It was a really fun way to spend my summers.” 

The summer she turned 15, she was ready to shift to high-performance paddling and compete at a national level. 

“I had very supportive coaches who encouraged me to join a bigger club in the city,” she says. “My aunt and uncle live very close to Maskwa Aquatic Club in Halifax on Kearney Lake. I was able to spend summers with them.” 

The camaraderie at the club helped Irvin get over the sadness of giving up swimming to focus on paddling. 

“It was a tough couple of years to pick between the sports, but the club atmosphere, and being so welcomed at Maskwa right away — I had a similar experience when I started in Windsor — helped,” she says. “It’s a club and a family first and a competition environment second.”

She narrowly missed out on a chance to join Team Canada at last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics. “It was winner-take-all and my crew was second, so unfortunately, I did not make the Olympic team,” Irvin says. 

The experience motivated her to go back to her paddling roots.

“I knew I didn’t want to finish my paddling career on not making the team, so I decided to train with my squad at Maskwa again and help the younger kids come up through the sport,” she says. “That’s probably been my favourite part of paddling over the past five years.”

Irvin says it’s important to set small goals each day. 

“I remember the first year I was paddling, there was this one racing boat with gold sparkles,” she says. “I made this goal of getting to race in it. When I first got in, I didn’t get off the dock, I just tipped right away. By end of the first week, I could take about 10 strokes, by the end of the second week I could get up the lake. By the end of the summer, I’m pretty sure I raced in that boat.”

Irvin, who’s completing a masters in epidemiology at Dalhousie University and plans to do a PhD, says she always puts the most pressure on herself. 

“Over the years, my parents were very good at taking a step back and letting my coaches coach,” she says. “I remember years where I’d be so nervous, I would miss strokes in the middle of a race just because I was overthinking things.”

Those are times when it’s good to have the support of a club. “No matter what, good race or bad race, if you go back to the tent at a regatta and everyone is smiling and telling you, ‘Good race,’ even if you didn’t think it was that good, it’s probably going to turn it around for you,” says Irvin. “Having that really positive environment helps and is really important for keeping kids motivated.”

As far as figuring out what sport is a good fit, Irvin tried almost everything.

“When I was in Grade 6, I made it my goal to try out for every single sports team,” she says. “Maybe that’s a bit unrealistic. I definitely did not make most of them. I had never played basketball, but I tried out.”

The most important thing for children choosing a sport is to find the one that makes them happiest, she says. “Even if you’re really, really naturally talented at a sport, if you don’t like doing it, what’s the point?” 

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