This is one of the hardest tricks to learn but it is also one of the most impressive. A phonics is defined as a “pirouette initiated by a cross-bow stroke in a front surf position, followed by a front loop in one fluid motion,” and it is worth 140 points (190 with air) which makes it the joint third-highest scoring move you can do under competition, however due to a complicated learning process and the possibility of shoulder/lower back injury it is perhaps not the first trick new paddlers will attempt to learn after a mid-level trick like a Space Godzilla. In this post I will explain how to Phonics while avoiding the same ruts and technical issues that I encountered, how to avoid injuring yourself during those attempts and finally some tips on how to improve once you’ve nailed the basics.

To begin with I will assume that you can already surf around and loop confidently, if you can’t yet loop reliably then it’s going to make learning to Phonics not only very difficult but extremely frustrating so I would advise going away, firming up your technique and then coming back to this post when you’re ready. The very first thing you should do is thoroughly warm up your core and shoulders (in fact pretty much everything). My favourite stretch to do this involves putting your paddle into a cross-bow position like you would for a phonics (left paddle blade across onto right side of your kayak or vice versa) but instead of reaching as far out from your boat as possible, instead place your left paddle blade flat against the right side of your kayak. Straighten and push away with you right (top) hand, look over your right shoulder and you should feel a nice stretch in your lower back, core and shoulders. Switch to your opposite side, even if you’re intending to learn on the right to begin with to ensure an even warm up, complete the rest of your warm up routine and you should be ready to get started…

You can phonics in lots of different types of features (including on a wave, it’s just called a wave monkey instead) but for the purpose of this tutorial I will assume you have a reasonably deep and retentive hole with fairly steep (50+ degrees) green water because even though realistically you can phonics in a feature without these characteristics, it will be a bit harder to learn. For the rest of this post I’ll assume your doing a phonics to your right (left blade over to right side) because that’s how I learned first, however just switch my left and right advice if your a lefty learner; moving on from that we’ll have a look at setting up for a phonics before discussing the actual technique itself, if you look upstream from below the feature you want to be on top of the foam pile on the left side. This is because when you do a cross-bow to the right, your boat will shift towards the right side of the feature which will cause you to flush if you’re too far over. Next, spot an upstream marker, preferably something higher than the feature itself – this gives you something to look round for when finishing the initial pirouette and helps you get more air on your loop because you have a marker to look up to. You want to start the cross-bow stroke just as the tip of your boat hits the green water, too soon and it feels like you’re attempting a flatwater phonics in the foam pile, too late and you end up doing an over-vertical cartwheel/loop while landing on your face. In summary, wait until you have speed towards the green water from the top left of the foam pile, spot your upstream marker and initiate the cross-bow stroke as mentioned before.

So what do you do with your body and boat? Let’s start with the boat: you want the front of your boat to be facing 1 o’clock, as you get better you can slowly move this closer and closer to 12 o’clock but the main reason you shouldn’t do this to start is that if you accidentally kick the wrong way when initiating the cross-bow stroke your boat might end up facing left while you reach right twisting your core with the full force of the water which as i’m sure you can imagine isn’t a good idea. Starting by facing at 1 o’clock eliminates this initial possibility of injury. Second, most people i’ve seen make the mistake of edging far too much at the start of the move. All this does is insure that the boat gets vertical far too quickly and you have no take-off energy for your loop. Think about it like this – the more you put your boat on edge during initiation the faster it will get vertical. Realistically, while you do need some edge I find that in my local feature (top hole of the Lee Valley Legacy course) 10-25 degrees of edge works fine; normally the steeper the green water the more angle you can drop. Third, quite often people do a little hop like they’re going for a plug before the cross-bow stroke, similarly to edging too much this doesn’t help. While you want the tip of the boat to catch the green water, you absolutely don’t want to fully plug like you’re trying a flatwater phonics or a loop. Instead just lean forwards slightly as you’re dropping down the foam pile to get the momentum and forwards tilt required. Finally on “boat position,” you must hold that edge. If you drop the edge at any point during the pirouette then you won’t be able to catch the upstream leading edge as the boat swings round which what gives you that loop spring. It’s easy to drop your edge if you’re uncomfortable with the cross-bow position because it feels really awkward to begin with and that’s natural, you should just bear in mind that the more comfortable the movement becomes the more you should focus on making sure your fundamentals are still correct.

Next is body position. It’s really easy to practice a cross-bow position on dry land in your boat, effectively reach round with your left paddle blade to the right side of your boat. To begin with your core will probably be tight and won’t like this but the more you warm up and practice the easier it will become, eventually you want to be able to really fully out and away from your boat with the blade, the further out from your boat the blade is the more leverage you will get during the pirouette. One key point to make here is that it is not solely in the arms and shoulders, instead focus on rotating the core. During the entire movement your elbows should stay tucked in tight so as to avoid pulling your shoulder, you should be able to get into a cross-bow position simply by holding the paddle out horizontally in front of you (elbows tucked in) and just rotate your core clockwise. Next, on wrist position – this depends a bit on the feather of your paddle and whether you are right or left handed, you want the flat power face of your paddle blade to be as horizontal as possible to upstream when initiating the cross-bow, this allows you to catch more water and pirouette more easily. Think about rolling your wrists away from you, I like to do it and it feels natural, see what you think. You should start reaching across the deck for the cross-bow stroke as soon as you feel the boat falling down the foam pile, if you set up for the stroke took late you’ll rush it and it’ll muck up and if you do it too soon then you might loose your balance and edge too much.

Now that we’ve talked about set up position on the feature and body initiation position we now need to go over what to do during the move itself. You’ve already:

  • Warmed up
  • Got to the top left of the foam pile
  • Spotted the upstream marker
  • You lean forwards and point your bow to 1 o’clock while edging
  • You’re falling down the foam pile and reach across with your blade
  • The tip of the bow catches the green water as you initiate the cross-bow stroke
  • The boat starts to pirouette around the bow…

The most important part of completing a phonics is staying forward during the pirouette. When you stand up early the boat goes over vertical (similarly to edging too much) and you get no pop for the loop. By crunching forward your loop will be much more snappy and more likely to get air. During the pirouette a rather odd tip I found out is that if you lift your chin up away from your chest, not only do you get more height on all of your tricks but they seem to go more easily and this applies especially with a phonics; you also need to look around over your right shoulder. This helps with core rotation and body posture but the two main reasons are that when you look where you want to go, the boat goes that way and second, when you’ve completed approximately 240 degrees of the pirouette you should be able to spot your upstream marker and that is when you need to stand up. With 2/3rds of the rotation finished you can start to push down on the foot block with your feet and the boat will start to become vertical. By timing this with spotting your upstream marker your boat should have reached the fully vertical point just as you begin facing dead upstream which will give you maximum upwards energy. You will already have your chin up and will be looking to the sky, at this point you need to reach up as high as you possibly can with your paddles and then snap round an air loop. The higher you can reach with your arms and the more you keep your chin up the more air time you will get, the faster your loop will be and the less likely it is that you will flush. Even if you can huge super-clean a normal loop, it is well worth finishing a phonics with a loop stroke so that it doesn’t cork out (something i’m still working on), the pirouette is definitely the hardest part but with that said and done, keep at it. Once you’ve done it once it’s just down to perseverance… never give up, never surrender.