Ringers: The Great Debate
Ringers. A delicate topic full of opinions and emotion. There are at least as many points of view on this issue as there are dragon boat teams. A “ringer” is defined as a highly proficient person brought in to supplement a team or group
In a talk given by Canadian National Team coach Albert McDonald at Jim Farintosh’s Bow Wave camp in April, Albert explained how teams fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum with all-inclusive teams at one extreme end and competitive teams at the other. He discussed the differences between “fair play” or “all-inclusive” teams, which are more recreational in nature, and competitive teams, which are more like a country’s national team.
All-inclusive teams make sure to give every paddler a chance to race, despite experience or ability. Paddlers who have been paddling for more than 10 years may be racing on a boat with paddlers who have been paddling for less than 10 weeks. These teams are considered fair because all paddlers are rotated in and guaranteed to race. The main goal of all-inclusive teams is to ensure that everyone is a part of the race boat, no matter if teammates are “race ready” or not.
In contrast, competitive teams are just that: competitive. Their sole goal is to win. They hold fitness tests and time trials. They set the bar very high for their race boat and if they do not have enough paddlers who meet the criteria, they look elsewhere. This is where “ringers” come in. Although people often use the term “ringers,” in reality they are simply paddlers with the required skills to meet the team’s rigorous criteria. If a team has 25 members, but only 17 of them are “race ready,” the team will recruit 4 or more paddlers from outside the team for race day (assuming at least one spare paddler). They are not worried about being “fair” in the sense of giving all teammates a chance to race. Their focus is on winning.
Paddlers should understand that in a competitive club, paying club dues does not entitle them to be on the race crew. Tweet it!
That may sound cutthroat, and many paddlers may be hurt by a team’s decision to bring in outside paddlers, however, let’s look at it from another perspective. Consider a situation where 17 members of the team are training hard both on and off the boat. They attend every practice, hit the gym 3-4 times per week, work on their cardio by running, swimming, or rowing on the erg, and they stick to a healthy diet. The remaining 8 or more members of their team are new to paddling or perhaps not as diligent about their training. They attend practice once a week, don’t yet have a gym routine, aren’t nutritionally wise, and are fatigued or run out of breath quickly during practice. Is it fair to the 17 teammates who are working their rear ends off to be the best that they can be if they are on a race boat with 3 other paddlers who aren’t pulling their weight? The 3 paddlers who aren’t “race-ready” are lowering the caliber of the boat.
Many teams struggle with where to position themselves along this spectrum that Albert described. Most commonly, I see teams who regard themselves as competitive, but when it comes right down to it, they are still trying to keep everyone on the team happy. They have a plan to hold time trials and/or fitness tests, they talk about beating their competition in upcoming races, but yet they still create a race roster with less experienced or weak paddlers in order to not “rock the boat” and upset their paddlers. Whether the team wants to face it or not, this is not a competitive team, this is an all-inclusive team.
The key is to establish exactly what your team is, make it clear from the start, and stick to the decision regardless of perhaps a few disgruntled paddlers. If you create your team as a recreational one where everyone gets a fair chance to paddle, then your recruitment should include this expectation. Paddlers should know from the minute they join the club that the team’s focus is on giving everyone a chance to race in all races. If, on the other hand, your team’s goal is to head straight for the A-division finals and win a gold medal, then that, too, needs to be disclosed up front. Paddlers should understand that in a competitive club, paying club dues does not entitle them to be on the race crew. Neither does attending every single practice, though it is beneficial to the team as a whole, and to each individual as well.
Issues arise when paddlers are unclear as to what type of team they are on. Less experienced paddlers who might not understand the protocol of a competitive team become upset at the idea of an outsider getting priority on their team’s race crew. Conversely, paddlers on a recreational team who find themselves progressing faster than their teammates, may become frustrated when their team’s race roster includes a paddler who has been to practice only one or twice in the last few months. That is why it is crucial for a club to be clear about their mission. When a team is transparent about their objectives, it is less likely that paddlers will be hurt or discontent. Paddlers looking to practice occasionally and still race with their team should opt for a more recreational team. Paddlers seeking the challenge of a team that sets their bar high and consistently tests their members to ensure that they have the strongest race boat possible should find a more competitive team.
It is counterproductive for someone wanting a fun social experience to be on a competitive team. And similarly, a competitive person will likely be dissatisfied on a more recreational team. As a paddler, it is in your best interest to decide what you want out of the team you join. If you want to have fun, be social, race in fun races, and perhaps be one of the best on your team, then you will likely be happiest on a more recreational or all-inclusive team. If, however, you want to be challenged and pushed beyond your comfort zone, are fine with the possibility of sitting out during races, are looking for ways to learn and grow, and seek out the opportunity to paddle with those who are better than you, then you will likely be happier on a competitive team. And if you are on a competitive team and find yourself sitting out a few races while an outsider paddles on your team’s race boat, cheer on your team as they head to the start line and work a bit harder to ensure that you will be sitting on that race boat next time. It’s up to you to figure out what you want. In order for you to be satisfied with the team you select, determine what your goals are first as a paddler and then choose a team that best supports those goals.
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