The Importance of a Pep Talk in Dragon Boat Racing

Watching the high level of competition at the Olympics last month started me thinking about how the athletes prepare for their respective events. Not physically, but mentally. The competitors have an amazing ability to focus amidst all the chaos of the crowd and other distractions. What do their coaches tell them right before they go out to the starting block, the ring, the court, on the water, or wherever they will compete? What do they hold in their minds as they go into battle?

At our races, Chris L., one of the more experienced paddlers on my team, has stepped up and given a pep talk before each heat. Her talks caused me to ponder how significant a pre-race chat can be. I’m not talking about a “rah rah rah, we can do this!” type of speech, but rather a focus on what the team did well in the last heat, what needs to be accomplished in the next heat, and a bit of self-reflection. The teams needs a motivational message meant to convey pertinent information as well as inspire.

paddlechica Nationals 2016 Jeff Holubeshen 2

Canadian Nationals 2016. Photo: Jeff Holubeshen

The dictionary’s definition of a pep talk is “a vigorous, emotional talk, as to a person or group, intended to arouse enthusiasm and increase determination to succeed.”  This doesn’t really come close to explaining the importance, intricacy, or value of a good pre-race pep talk. Designed to focus, galvanize and spark tenacity in the paddlers, a pep talk is crucial.

An effective pep talk will contain both a strategy for the race and a plan to manage race anxiety. Tweet it!

But whose job is it to step up to the task?

Because most dragon boat teams are adult paddlers who are peer-coached, the thought of a pep talk can possibly be a bit daunting. We think of high school or college coaches giving pre-game talks to their athletes who are significantly younger than themselves, bolstering morale and, often dictating the plays and strategies. But how, exactly, does it work when we are giving these talks to our own peer group? And does it always have to be the coach who delivers the pep talk?

Aside from the coach, leaders within the team naturally emerge. Typically these are paddlers who are more experienced, either in paddling or perhaps in other competitive sports. Those who have experience in dealing with the emotions, desire, and physical pain involved in competition are clearly best suited to take on this role. If your coach is not on the boat during races (as in the case of a male coach of a women’s team, for example), it is especially important that you have a paddler who can serve as this leader.

Photo: Shirleen Ho

So what exactly should be contained in this message to the team?

An effective pep talk will provide a feeling of controlled confidence, yet ignite a desire to give it your all from the moment you set foot in the boat. It will contain both a strategy for the race and a plan to manage race anxiety. It’s important for the team to know what type of heat they are racing in. For example, is the heat for time or placement? Racing for time requires discipline to challenge yourselves and race your own race, despite the speed or lack of of surrounding teams. Teams find this more difficult, especially when they are significantly faster or slower than others in the heat. Additionally, knowing the distance of the race seems like a given, but you’d be surprised at how many paddlers aren’t sure how far they’ll be paddling as they head to a race.

Beyond the logistics of the race, a team needs to have an approach to competing and stoking the fire in its athletes. I love it when I’m reminded to consider the paddler in the same seat on the adversary’s boat and make sure that I’m paddling smarter and stronger than that person. This is a common technique used in racing. As coach Chris Edwards often says, “Let’s get all we can out of each stroke, because we can’t get the strokes back that we miss.” Each team should work to develop their own methods that function well to incite the team.

Overall, the pep talk needs to establish a state of mind that the team should hold onto throughout the race, such as controlled aggression matched with pain management, both of which are obviously crucial for paddlers. An effective pep talk gives the team a picture of success that will direct and bolster the paddlers throughout the race. If done well, paddlers will be able to hold on to this picture to keep them focused and composed throughout the race.

What do you say to your team before a race?

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