Advice to my Newbie Self in Dragon Boating

Montana Dragon Boat Festival Flathead Lake


Do you ever wish you could go back in time and start your dragon boating career over again? Or that you could at least go back and give yourself some advice along the way? When I think back to my first day on the dragon boat, I recall exactly how I felt. The team I joined did an on-water warmup that lasted exactly two and a half minutes. I thought I was going to die. My arms were killing me (because let’s face it, almost no one knows how to use their core or leg drive to paddle on the very first day). I thought my heart was going to pound right out of my chest. And, on top of the physical pain I was feeling, it was early September in Miami, which means that it wasn’t exactly cool in terms of weather or water. By the end of the warm up, I was sweating buckets, I’d clanked paddles about a million times with the paddlers in front and behind me, and I thought my arms might literally fall off.  My first thought when the warm up ended? People do this for FUN?!? Little did I know that this crazy sport would take me on a wonderful journey of personal and athletic growth, increased confidence, exciting travel, and fabulous friendships.

So, I started wondering if I could go back in time and talk to my newbie self, what would I say? What advice would I give myself when I was just starting out my dragon boating career? Here are some things I came up with, followed by some additional input on the topic from fellow paddlers:

Have patience with yourself.

Don’t expect to master every aspect of the stroke at once. Paddling technique is not as easy as it seems. There are many components to it and as you begin focusing on one thing, all other aspects of the stroke go by the wayside. While this is great advice for my newbie self, I still need it to this day. I rarely have patience with myself; I want to master whatever it is that I’m working on NOW. And trust me, that doesn’t happen often.

Don’t be intimidated.

When I first joined a team, I naturally assumed everyone was better than me. I’m sure they were. But looking back, I would tell myself to not be intimidated by that, but rather to see it as an opportunity for growth. Meet other paddlers, talk to them, observe them, learn from them, aspire to be like them. With some dedication, hard work, and time on the boat, chances are you’ll be as good or better than them.

Be discerning.

I remember getting paddling instruction from everyone on the team. Depending on what kind of team you are on, you might find yourself being coached by anyone and everyone who has been on the boat longer than you. Everyone has good intentions, but unless they are the team’s coach, a barrage of instruction can be overwhelming and confusing. This is a bad habit that I wish teams would discourage. I recall hearing so many different instructions, I couldn’t make sense of much of them, but I tried. If I could go back, I would tell myself to appreciate everyone’s desire to help, but to focus most on the coach’s words.

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Listen to different explanations of the same thing.

So, after telling myself to be discerning in who I listened to, I would definitely tell myself to be open to listening to other explanations. That sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Have you ever noticed that your coach can explain something fifty times and yet someone else comes along and explains the exact same thing in a slightly different way and it suddenly clicks for you? For that reason, it is important to be open to listening to other coaching, while still being discerning. I’m not talking about a vastly different explanation of stroke technique. I’m talking about a particular aspect of the stroke, such as leg drive. Someone might explain it as “bicycling” your legs, while someone else might explain it as “salsa dancing.” They are both aiming for the same goal: to use your legs as a way to initiate the power of your stroke. A cyclist may better understand  the biking analogy while the dancer may relate to the dancing analogy. The best coaches I know try to explain things in a variety of ways to ensure that more people are understanding

Ask questions.

I had a fear of looking stupid, so I didn’t ask questions. I just observed and hoped I would get all the information I needed that way. How silly is that? Inevitably I was in the dark on several occasions and had to figure things out the hard way. Those who have been on a team for a while forget that newbies may need extra information and explanations. We take for granted that everyone knows what marshalling is, for example. Yet when we were new to paddling, we likely had no idea what that was in the context of racing. So, I would tell myself to get over the fear of looking dumb and just ASK whenever I didn’t understand something.

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Additional Ideas

I recently put out a call to fellow paddling friends and asked them what they would tell their newbie selves, if they could go back in time. Some of them reiterated what I mentioned above, and many added some very valuable ideas that I knew I needed to include here.

Learn to paddle on both sides.

This is an invaluable talent. Not only are you a huge asset to your coach as he or she is creating a race boat layout, but you are also increasing your odds of making the race crew because you have just doubled your chances. On a mixed boat, for example, there are 10 spots for female paddlers. Assuming 5 women on the left and 5 on the right, if you are a left-sided paddler you have to be among the top 5 or 6 to make the race crew. However, if you are able to paddle on either side, you can easily be slid into most any spot on the boat where the coach might have a need for you to accurately balance the boat.

Be open to coaching and feedback.

You cannot grow in your paddling career without being open to feedback from your coach. While you are paddling, your coach sees what you are doing (or not doing). You may think you are rotating like no one has ever rotated before, but your coach can actually see what you are doing. If your coach calls you out for technical correction, be open to the feedback and trust that he or she is not doing it simply because it’s fun to say your name. Don’t take it personally. Take it as an opportunity to make progress towards mastering the sport.

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Jeff Holubeshen

Canadian Nationals, Welland 2016. Photo: Jeff Holubeshen

Spending money on equipment is worth it.

Having your own inflatable PFD will make your practice sessions and race days far more comfortable. Wearing two pairs of paddling pants or shorts will cut down on the chafing on your rear end that friction from rotating causes. Investing in weather-appropriate clothing will keep you from freezing in early spring or late fall. If you are on a tight budget, prioritize the equipment that you need most and start saving for it. Your paddling career will benefit from it.

Be a sponge.

Seek out opportunities to learn. Watch as many videos as you can. Attend camps and clinics. Visit other teams in cities your travel to. Read books relating to paddling and team dynamics. A highly recommended one is Boys in the Boat, an inspiring true story about nine American rowers from the University of Washington whose teamwork and perseverance earned them gold at the 1936 Olympics. Remember to be discerning, but you can learn a lot from gathering as much information as possible.

Recognize your part.

You are just one person out of twenty, but the sum of all parts is what makes the team a team. The success of the crew doesn’t depend on you entirely, yet you must be willing to do your share to contribute to the team’s success.

Photo: Ed Nguyen

Photo: Ed Nguyen

Fuel yourself.

You will likely find yourself eating a lot more. You are moving more, training more, exercising more. It only makes sense that you will need to eat more. Fuel your muscles properly. Don’t be concerned about gaining weight. You are gaining muscle.

And a few quotes from fellow paddlers that I just had to include:

“Paddling isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.” – Marianne Tai, Canadian National Team Paddler

Enjoy the journey.” – Lisa Champion, Canadian National Team Paddler

“When it stops being fun, stop doing it.” – David Su

A huge thanks to many in the paddling community who contributed their ideas to this post: Lisa Champion, Ann Chan, Chynna Chan, Suzi Cloutier, Belem Del Castillo, Sophie Desjardins, Dave Faulkner, Jennifer Foster, Sho Fujisawa, Alexandra Hennig, Jessica Hirschhorn, Shirleen Ho, Diane Mowat, Scott Roche, Janet Pfost Rutzel, Roberta Schweitzer, Beverly Sorrells, Peggy Steele, David Su, Melinda Tam, Marianne Tai, Paula Turco, Jeff Wasilauski, Charisse Yudin, Richard Yudin.

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2 Discussion to this post

  1. Mike says:

    I think learning to paddle effectively on both sides is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a beginning paddler. Not only does it makes you twice as use-able on the boat, from a racing POV, it also allows you to figure out where you shine as a paddler, as well as areas that need improvement.

    I agree with the comfortable clothes; clothes that are comfy, padded and let you work through your whole range of paddling motion are a priority over the “best” paddles…You’ll be able to appreciate a nice pair of paddling pants and/or a jacket long before you’ll appreciate the benefits of having a $300 paddle versus a $100 dollar paddle..

    The biggest thing I’d tell myself is to compare myself to myself, rather than the best paddlers on the team. It’s easy to see people doing things you can’t yet and think “I’ll never be that fast/powerful/ have that kind of rotation”. The thing is, it’s a stroke by stroke thing to develop.

  2. Mike says:

    “When it stops being fun, stop doing it.” – David Su.

    I would amend this to “When you stop understanding why you are doing it, stop for a while and re-think why you are in the boat.”

    Not every practice or training session is going to be fun; heck, that isn’t even the point of them. They are there to move you closer to your goals, whatever they are. I don’t know very many people who like having to deal with sore arms and backs and legs. Effective training HURTS a little(or a lot) because you are pushing yourself to pull the better part of a ton across the water as fast as you can for as long as you can.

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