Great Head and Tail: The Importance of Your Steer and Drummer

As paddlers, we often forget how important the front and back ends of our boat are. Sure, the steersman steers the boat straight, the drummer keeps the cadence of the stroke rate, but what else do they do? So much more. Unifiers of the team. Controllers of energy. Conveyors of information. Catastrophe prevention team. Without them, the team wouldn’t function well. But sadly, many teams take these positions for granted.


Team USA Premier Mixed Team wins gold! Drummer: Katie Godfrey, Steer: Billy Heffernan. Photo: Tommy Leonardi

Let’s first consider the drummer. This is a position with very traditional roots in the sport. Often an inexperienced team will grab the nearest lightweight person and throw them up at the front of the boat to sit in the drum seat. This is a practical solution, as the position is considered “dead weight.” However, this position is anything but dead.

A good drummer is worth his or her (light)weight in gold. Why is this tiny person so crucial? Your drummer sets the tone for the entire boat. Common perception is that you want your drummer to pump people up and get them motivated, but what you really need is someone to calm the team down and maintain the team’s focus. There is no lack of excitement on race day, especially with a competitive crew. At the start line, the drummer keeps the team focused during what can often be a chaotic moment of lining up multiple boats.

Once the race is underway, the drummer needs to be flexible in terms of modifying the race plan; to recover from a poor start or take advantage of a good one. Along the course, the drummer’s demeanor can keep the boat in control, calmly emphasizing what the team is doing right and giving important technique reminders (i.e. leg drive, lengthen, etc.). The drummer must be confident. The team needs to feel that the drummer knows what he or she is doing. A good drummer is confident enough to play the team’s own strategy. What does this mean? He or she won’t call for powers simply because the boat next to them does. He or she will know the team and know when to ask for more. He or she needs to understand the capacity of the team and should be able to feel the boat; know when it is sagging and needs more power, or sense when it has locked into a powerful, sustainable rate that is edging out the competition stroke-by-stroke. The drummer is the one that the team can count on to watch the action and relay the position on the race course to the team. This allows the paddlers to focus on their job and not be looking out of the boat to see where they are in the race. The drummer also needs to be prepared to hang on for dear life in some situations, uncomfortably grabbing the drum between his or her knees, while the boat handles choppy water, turns, and even the occasional crash. Overall, the drummer is someone who can remain calm under extreme pressure and should be able to provide both positive and negative feedback after the race.


Grace Genetia, Team USA drummer

And now, let’s look at the steer, also called the steersman, helmsman or sweep. As a newer paddler, one could possibly forget that there is even someone standing at the back of the boat. After all, the paddlers are facing forward and we typically have no reason to look back. In fact, many teams don’t even think about the value of a good steersman. Until something goes wrong. Steers don’t often get praise, but they certainly get a lot of blame if anything bad happens. If the boat goes straight down the lane and the team wins, they might forget to thank the steer. If the boat veers out of the lane, crashes or flips, everyone is quick to make comments about the steer.

A quality steer knows how to read the water, understands currents and pays attention to the wind. A steer recognizes how all of these things affect the boat. They can help balance the boat when the weight distribution is not equal left to right, often either riding the gunwale or contorting themselves into uncomfortable positions in order to make it easier for you to paddle. They can maneuver the boat easily without tiring their crew out by back-paddling, drawing or prying. When lining up the boat at the start line, they can interpret the start-line judge’s calls and know how to bring the boat up to the line just right, keeping their paddlers from doing much in the way of boat movements. Solid steers know how to turn a dragon boat nearly on a dime and can make or break any race with turns such as the 2k, which not only involves crucial turns, but also is loaded with strategy. And, of course, they are ultimately responsible for the safety of the boat.


Depending on the team, the calls for the boat may be made either from the drummer or from the steer. So lastly, let’s examine the importance of the calls. A drummer’s or steer’s voice carries weight. An anxious or agitated drummer or steer conveys that tone to the team and affects the entire tone to the boat. As their voice becomes shrill or piercing, the team becomes tense and begins spinning their wheels. A calm, even-toned voice can convey as much or more information and will keep the boat focused on what it needs to do, rather than distracting it with anxiety.

In addition, from either end of the boat, positive messages are more motivating than negative ones. No one wants to hear, “You suck, you’re losing!” I’m not saying that teams should ever be artificially pumped up and thinking they are wonderful when they are not giving it their all, but finding a positive attribute to point out along the race course while asking the team to give more will motivate a team much more than simply spewing off negativity.

So there you have it. Your drummer and steer are incredibly important to the boat. Always remember to thank them for the wonderful job they do.

Contributing authors: Trish Kosar, Pat Merrithew, Marc Applewhite, and Grace Genetia


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11 Discussion to this post

  1. heiko buetehorn says:

    so true!!

  2. Jeff Hanson says:

    We have a long practice season and mostly practice with coach in drummer’s seat (if the team has a helm) or the seat is empty (if they don’t). Suggestions for recruiting drummers?

    • paddlechica says:

      Thanks for asking a very important question! I wish I knew the answer to that, honestly. Nearly every team I know struggles with recruiting drummers. Most people want to be involved in the action of paddling instead of drumming and the fact that you need a smaller person to be the drummer narrows your choices even more. Add to that the requirements of an assertive, knowledgable person and your search is tough. I certainly welcome any suggestions from other teams, as my own team has trouble with this as well. I wish I could offer more advice in this area, but I haven’t found the magic answer yet!

      • Jeff Hanson says:

        We’ve gotten good drummers with
        – Rotate experience paddlers onto the chair so they aren’t giving up on paddling
        – Helm with back problems post surgery could drum
        – mature 15 year old who agreed to practice for a couple weeks before a race.

        None of where are repeatable in general.

      • paddlechica says:

        Jeff, that all sounds about normal for most teams – we have done the same on my teams. Thankfully we haven’t had any helmsmen with back problems. We have rotated some paddlers into the drum seat, but there is typically resistance to that because paddlers want to paddle. It is quite difficult to retain good drummers and they are certainly worth their weight in gold!

  3. chozzienews says:

    Love your blog paddlechica! Thank you for writing such a great article on a very valuable topic. It is a good reminder to everyone in a team that all roles in a boat have an important and equal part to play.

    I particularly like how you have summed up the roles of the drummer and sweep. “Unifiers of the team. Controllers of energy. Conveyors of information. Catastrophe prevention team.” It should be on a t-shirt and given to all your trainee drummers and sweeps.

    A previous team captain has also described the drummer as encapturing the heart and spirit of the team, with the sweep being the eyes and the mind.

    I am proud to have been a drummer and sweep for my team. Learning to drum and sweep has been one of the most challenging things that I have done and I am all the better paddler for it. They are skills that have given me the highest sense of accomplishment personally and of course there is always more to learn as I’ve only done it for a few seasons.

    I started off writing this reply with the intention to share a few comments and thoughts about the question posted about recruiting and retaining drummers and its turned into a bit of an essay length reply. If you have time for a deep and meaningful waffle then you can read my extended version here >

    Otherwise if you don’t have time because somewhere there is a dragon boat waiting for you to paddle in it, then I attempted at summarizing my thoughts below.

    Some of the following might seem obvious and your team may already be doing it so high five to you. So perhaps this is really more for new or inexperienced teams to read and consider. I just wanted to share my thoughts from my perspective and experiences as a drummer to encourage others to give it a go.

    In my team’s experience, rotating experienced paddlers into the drummers seat has worked the best.

    Support and development – As the team leader, have a plan in place for developing, mentoring and supporting your trainee drummers. Just like the other roles in the boat, there should be an introduction to the basics, then development, experience and refinement. Encourage opportunities for trainee drummers to practice during training, do it in short bursts so that they still get their paddle workout, and definitely practice your race formation in the sessions leading up to race day so that the team get used to what voices they should be hearing from and responding to (and of course setting in the race start / strategy). Invest time and energy into drummer development then in turn drummers will feel more valued for their efforts.

    Feedback and positive reinforcement – During training and when your team debriefs after a race, ask the drummer about what they saw and felt, and also provide feedback or praise for the drummer’s performance.

    Mindset – Yes quite often there is a resistance to anything outside of paddling but it needs to be seen as an opportunity to develop a new skill set and contribute to the team. Like paddlechica mentioned in another post, there is no I in team. If drummers are rotated then there are always opportunities to still paddle. Drummers and sweeps are essentially in leadership positions on race day and their roles should be respected. Once you have a core group of experienced drummers, your team culture / perception of drummers will evolve, especially as new team members join.

    If you don’t have any paddlers putting their hand up to give drumming a go, then yes it can be hard to recruit paddlers to drum. Reinforce the character traits that you have identified in them that will make them a good drummer (and not just because of their desirable size). My team have been lucky to have a variety of sizes and adequate numbers to train up several paddlers to be drummers. I am not the lightest in my team and probably closer to the team average in weight.

    Acknowledgment/Reward – End of season awards are a great way to acknowledge the rookies, the new up and comers and the experienced team members. So don’t forget to include your drummer and sweep as award categories.

    I personally love drumming! It mixes up race day for me – most times I get to paddle in one race and drum or sweep in another. When I drum, I get to see the looks of exhaustion and exhilaration on the face of every team member when we cross that finish line together.

    Anyone and everyone can paddle, but not everyone can drum or sweep. So if your coach or team leader asks you to consider drumming, take it as a compliment and see it as an opportunity to step up and contribute to your team. Commit to the role just as wholeheartedly and passionately as you would paddling.

    By Tingles – Melbourne, Australia
    (I’ve been off the water on a break raising my little one – missing it terribly and eager to resume very very soon)

    P.S. When I was pregnant, being able to drum also enabled me to stay connected to my team and continue contributing when I wasn’t comfortable paddling anymore. It was conveniently the off season and my team were gracious in accommodating me and my extra baby weight!

    • paddlechica says:

      Great response – thanks for your input and ideas! We all appreciate the ideas for getting good drummers. And it’s always good to remind everyone how difficult the steersman’s job is. But being on either end of the boat certainly improves your paddling – it’s the best vantage point for what you do and don’t want to do with your technique!

  4. Eddy says:

    There is heaps of pressure and responsibility of a steer but at the same time there is so much reward seeing a team do so well and have some fun. I’ll say being that encouraging voice in the back can leave you speechless and fatigued at the end of the day but those “thank you’s” will keep you going each time.

    Those who steer understand what each other goes through that’s it’s almost like a cliche.
    I encourage others to try it. All of them then know it ain’t an easy role :)

    • Paddlechica says:

      Thanks for your comments and for reading the blog! Your words are certainly true and bear repeating.

  5. Kaylee says:

    Hi! I am putting together a casual work team to participate in a festival this summer, and I am trying to choose my drummer. I am torn between two: they are about the same height, but the one I think is the better fit for the job is closer to the max weight than I would like. However, the second choice suits the job physically (30 pounds lighter), but is quieter and less focused. What do you think is the better route to go here? I’d really appreciate your advice! I have learned a lot about coaching my team from this blog, so thanks a lot!! :)

    • Paddlechica says:

      Thanks for your comment and for reading the blog! You pose a great question here and one that many teams are faced with. Sure, saving 30 pounds is a bonus, but at what cost? Having a great motivator at the front of the boat is invaluable. If you consider 30 pounds distributed evenly among 20 paddlers, you are looking at 1.5 pounds per person. Do you think your paddlers can handle pulling the weight of an extra pound and a half? I would guess that they can, and even more so when they have a wonderful leader at the front of the boat who will push them to find energy they didn’t even know they had in the middle of the race.

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