Blessings in Disguise: How Setbacks Can Actually Be Beneficial

I’m sure it’s happened to you. You’re on track with your training, you’re all set on your path and for some reason, you end up completely off the course that you thought you’d be on. They say “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” yet that is a tough pill to swallow when you are experiencing some type of obstacle in your training. As athletes, we typically view setbacks negatively because they can cause anxiety, depression, frustration, and even a loss of confidence and motivation. Setbacks can be discouraging, but quite often in the long run they turn out to be blessings in disguise. The toughest part is waiting to find out exactly what the positive outcome will be…

Unplanned Setbacks

Unplanned setbacks are exactly that: setbacks that you do not plan for, which often occur at a really inconvenient time. These setbacks might be personal, or they might involve the entire team.

1) Personal Setbacks

The most common unexpected personal setbacks are injury and illness, both of which are disappointing. I first experienced this type of setback within the first 6 months of my paddling career. I hurt my right shoulder bad enough to sideline me for 9 months. At the time, I was devastated. I had just found this awesome sport that got me out on the gorgeous water in Miami with a group of like-minded people who had become my family, and now I had to give that up because I was hurt? I couldn’t believe my bad luck.

However, that injury was what pushed me to learn to steer. I wanted to be on the boat with my team so badly, yet I didn’t want to be dead weight, so I asked my coach at the time to teach me to steer. Thankfully, he agreed. At first I was quite tentative, but little by little I gained the confidence to steer a local race. And from there I started steering bigger races and increasing my confidence and experience. After steering for a while, I decided it was time to try coaching.

Steering a dragon boat

Learning to steer was fun. Learning to balance the boat while steering was challenging! Photo: Aixa Ramos

I often wonder if I would have ever had the courage to learn to steer if I hadn’t been hurt. Quite literally, the only way I could be on the boat if I couldn’t paddle was to be the steersperson. At 5’11” I certainly wasn’t drummer material. So my only option was to learn how to control this giant 40+ foot boat by standing up at the back and hanging an oar into the water. It looked scary to me, but I made myself do it. Pushing past my shyness, I learned to be assertive. Overcoming my insecurities, I learned to command the boat. Conquering my self-doubt, I learned to trust my developing abilities.

Coaching in Florida

Coaching the Paddlers from Paradise in Anna Marie Island, Florida

If I hadn’t learned to steer, I probably would never have started running practices and coaching my own team. If I hadn’t started coaching my team, I doubt I would have started coaching SOS, the breast cancer survivor team in Miami. And if I didn’t coach SOS, I never would have started writing this blog. And if I didn’t write the blog, I never would have had the opportunity to meet so many enthusiastic paddlers and teams from all over the world.

It’s easy to look back now and see how injuring my shoulder was the best thing that could have happened to me. At the time it was awful. I was crushed. But instead of the injury putting an end to my paddling career, it became a wonderful beginning to something that I never would have expected.

Team Setbacks

Some common unexpected team setbacks include turmoil within the team, the loss of a training venue or boat, or the loss of a coach or significant leader within the team. A year or two after my shoulder injury, the team I was on experienced some truly awful internal issues. As is common on a team or in a club, we had members with differing interpretations of the team’s mission. Those whose views did not align with the leadership of the team decided to form a new team and, in doing so, attempted to convince teammates to leave with them. It was an awful time full of turmoil, anger, distrust and hurt feelings.

At the time, it seemed like a horrible thing to have happen to our team. Although it was a relief to say goodbye to those who were the source of the problem, it was difficult knowing that some teammates were being pressured to join the new team. And, just knowing that there was so much hatred surrounding the team and the sport I loved was enough to make me sick to my stomach.

Our team lost many paddlers and had to put a lot of effort towards recruiting and rebuilding that year. We worked to replace administrative positions within the team, and we restructured our leadership and our bylaws. When all was said and done, it was a learning process for all of us and we ended up a much stronger team by retaining those whose goals and objectives aligned with ours. What began as a painful split, turned out to be a a wonderful way to unify our team which led to us celebrating many successes together.

Team photo

Our team actually grew stronger with a more focused mindset. Photo: Aixa Ramos

I saw a quote one time that I try to remember whenever I experience any kind of a setback: “Sometimes, on your way to a dream, you get lost and find another one.” In both of my unexpected setbacks mentioned above, I was clear in my mind how I expected things to go. I thought I was on one specific path. Life, apparently, had other plans for me (and my team). Fighting to maintain the course I had planned would have been unproductive. But it’s hard to keep that in perspective in the moment you are feeling the frustration or disappointment of a setback.

Since then, I’ve certainly had my share of unexpected setbacks, though not necessarily as big as the two mentioned above. Each time, I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself not to get too upset about them, which is obviously easier said than done. Like anyone, I get frustrated.

Planned Setbacks

There are times where you have planned out your own setback. You may not consider it exactly as such, but if you have ever taken a vacation or personal time off in the middle of the season, you have caused your own setback. I did this recently and was honestly quite surprised at how long it took me to get back in the swing of things in terms of training.

Right after Nationals this year, I took a two-week trip back to my hometown of San Diego. Both our mixed and women’s teams had been training extremely hard all summer and I was more than ready to take a break, both mentally and physically. However, the season wasn’t over and so when I returned to practices in late August I was at least two weeks behind the rest of the team.

Hammerheads competing at GWN

Hammerheads Premier Mixed competing at GWN Challenge, Toronto. Photo: Jeff Holubeshen

I had done this to myself. I created my own setback. Certainly, at the time that I booked my ticket to sunny San Diego, with visions of surfing and sun on gorgeous beaches, I wasn’t thinking about what I’d experience when I got back on the boat two weeks later. I didn’t consider that I’d feel like I was behind or had missed out. I never thought about the fact that not paddling with my team for two whole weeks would put me at such a disadvantage.

Finding the silver lining in this setback has been a bit more difficult. As I mourned my lost “mojo”, I worked on getting back into my groove and reintegrating with both of my teams as we got ready for our last regatta of the season. It wasn’t easy, but it definitely made me re-think any time off during the season. Perhaps that simple reconsideration was exactly what I needed to keep myself persistent and focused through the season.

Injuries, illnesses, moving, changing jobs, having children. All of these things and more can certainly be considered setbacks in your paddling career. But be patient. View each setback as a chance to persist and overcome. You never know what kind of blessings may come out of them.


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8 Discussion to this post

  1. Mike Roberts says:

    One of the ‘setbacks’ I had to deal with this year was the fact that, in between last season and this, I changed companies. Where before I could schedule myself off on practice nights, this past season I was at the mercy of the person who now schedule me in.
    What that meant was that I missed several of the practices and in order to make up that deficit in training, I had to commit to off-water training sessions more than I had in the past.
    This meant more road work, both running and cycling as well as paddle-related training in the gym.
    As a result, I found that when the paddling season ended, I haven’t tapered off from training the way I did after last year’s season, because now I’ve already branched out into off-water training and so the transition has already happened.

    • Paddlechica says:

      Thanks for reading Mike, and for your comment. That sounds like a frustrating situation, for sure. Hopefully next year your schedule will be more accommodating to get you out on the water more frequently!

  2. Anthony Scott says:

    A good read as always.

  3. Chibeicat says:

    “A set back is a setup, for come back.” T.D. Jakes
    Great article!

  4. Maireen says:

    I just shared this article to my team as we are currently facing similar issues. We will persevere ;)

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