What Motivates Dragon Boat Paddlers?

I have been pondering motivation quite a bit lately and contemplating its effect on us as paddlers. Some days I feel like I am much more motivated than other days in the gym, paddle pool, or even out on the water. Each of my teammates seems to have a different level of motivation as well, but more importantly it appears that each has a different source for his or her motivation. So, I started wondering: what exactly is motivation? And what motivates us?

In basic terms, motivation is the desire to do things, and in our case, as paddlers, it is the desire to persist at doing these things. Sure, we all “fall off the wagon” once in a while in our training or healthy eating, but why do we commit ourselves to our team? What is it that gets us out on the water and hitting the gym multiple times a week? What makes us choose the healthy food over the junk food? What keeps us training and pushing ourselves to be our best? From what I have seen, it appears that some of us are extrinsically motivated (motivated by external things) and others are intrinsically motivated (motivated by internal things).


Some paddlers, or teams, tend to be motivated by medals alone. They simply want to win. It doesn’t matter if there is no competition at all, they just want the hardware and the bragging rights of saying that they are the champs of whatever race they paid to attend, despite the fact that there may have only been a few teams at the race. These teams or paddlers are content with just being “enough” and have no real drive to improve much, as long as they are collecting their medals. This motivation is extrinsic.


Note: These paddlers are on their country’s national team and most certainly are not in it solely for the hardware, however, this photo of the selfie-with-bling was all too perfect for the topic. Photo: Ed Nguyen


Other paddlers seem to be motivated by personal standards such as improving their own fitness test scores, erg scores, time trial scores, etc. These paddlers see their individual results as a yardstick and strive to improve. Although most of us don’t enjoy testing, these paddlers at least make the best of it by seeing it as a way to mark their progress. This motivation is intrinsic, meaning that it comes from within the individual.


Photo provided by Alice Tran


Other paddlers are motivated by their position on the team relative to their teammates. They like the (hopefully) friendly competition and enjoy the challenge of testing alongside their teammates which helps push them to new levels. They seek out opportunities to train with paddlers who are faster, better, fitter, etc. in order to experience the rivalry. This motivation is also intrinsic.

Photo: Chris Silvester

Photo: Chris Silvester

So, let’s take a look at the intrinsically motivated paddlers. They can be classified as self-motivated or challenge-motivated.

Not sure which category you fall into? Consider this: when you are alone at the gym, what goes through your mind? This is what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. I identified what motivates me while working out at the gym. I’m not going to lie to you. I can be a slacker when I train by myself. When I am alone, I tend to be more passive and consider whatever I have done “good enough.” But, when I am with a training partner or a group such as my teammates or especially in a fitness class like a bootcamp class or CrossFit, I tend to thrive on the challenge of keeping up with those who are better than me. When the trainer or coach says something along the lines of, “If you want to take it up a notch and make this a little tougher, you can do it this way…” I’m all for it and think to myself, “Heck yeah! Bring it on! I can do that!” But if I were alone I might think to myself, “Yeah, maybe next time…that’s probably good for today…”

I never, ever want to let down my team or my coach. Tweet it!

I have found two main things that will motivate me when I am training alone. The first is making myself focus on a long-term goal, such as doing well on a time trial or making the national team. I literally have to remind myself, “How bad do you want it?” the entire time I’m training. I know, it sounds silly, but at least I’ve found what works for me. So, on those days I find myself training on the erg, in the gym, or in the pool alone, I keep that thought in my head, “How bad do you want it?” The other thing that motivates me when I’m alone is thinking about my team. I never, ever want to let down my team or my coach. If I’m not doing my part to make the team better and stronger, I need to adjust my priorities and perhaps give up the idea of a team sport in favor of an individual sport.

Photo: Jeff Holubeshen

How does identifying what motivates you help? Knowing how you are motivated can help you plan your training. Since I know, for example, that I don’t do as well in the gym by myself, I try to plan gym time around class schedules or my friends’ availability, when possible. If you know that benchmarks are your motivating factor, make sure you keep a training log (which you should be doing anyhow) so that you can see your progress if you are lifting more, erging faster, or otherwise surpassing your weights/scores/times from last week or month. Use that motivation to help focus your training and keep yourself from having those apathetic training days.

10 Habits to Hone Your Motivation:
  1. Take a class. Paying for a class makes you more likely to attend. When I was paying a ridiculous amount per month for a CrossFit bootcamp class, I wanted to make sure to get my money’s worth, so I attended nearly every class that was available to me. If I didn’t go, I considered it wasted money. Think about this: if a class costs $200 per month and you attend only two classes that month, each class costs you $100. But, if you attend 10 classes that month, your per-class cost is now $20. That is impetus enough for me to attend more classes!
  2. Schedule your mornings. As much as it sucks to get up early, it’s a great time to work out – before your job, kids, spouse, and general exhaustion of the day sets in. Get it done and you will start your day feeling invincible. It’s a whole lot harder to workout in the evening.
  3. Develop a routine. Knowing that your Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, for example, are always “taken” by a workout or training session will allow you to plan the rest of your week around them. Block off specific times and make that a non-negotiable.
  4. Plan with a teammate. Working out with a partner holds you accountable. You are less likely to hit the snooze button and hide under the covers when you know someone else has woken up to meet you at the gym – hopefully you don’t want to leave them hanging. But choose your partner wisely. If your teammate flakes out on you, you are likely to take on his or her habits. If you are motivated by competition, seek out a training partner who is better, stronger, faster, etc. than you so that you work harder to keep up.
  5. Be specific in your planning. Writing “work out” in your agenda does not hold you as accountable as “do pyramids on the erg” or “bootcamp class” or “swim a mile.” Having a definitive plan for your training will actually help you to accomplish it because you know what your expectation is. It’s too easy to cheat yourself with “work out.” What constitutes “working out”? Could you walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes and call that a workout? Sure, but that won’t get you closer to your paddling goals.
  6. Change it up. Alternating your workout means you are not only more likely to stick to it, but you will be working more of a variety of muscles in your body. If your workout is always the same, you will be inclined to be bored. You may have killer pecs from all those pushups and bench presses, but chances are, the rest of your body is dying for some work and sadly, if you don’t strengthen the counter-muscles, you will start to resemble primitive man as your shoulders curve forward.
  7. Be realistic. We all hope to be as strong as a horse after a week or two at the gym. The reality is that training is difficult and results aren’t usually immediate. Set goals, but be realistic about your progress.
  8. Get enough sleep. Don’t wait until your body is screaming for rest. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep on a daily basis. I’m sure right about now you are thinking, “How am I supposed to get enough sleep if I’m waking up at the crack of dawn to hit the gym?” That’s where discipline comes in. Go to bed on time. Do you really need to stay up late cruising Facebook or Instagram or watching TV? Do you need to go to that late dinner with friends on a week night? Evaluate your priorities and make time for sleep. If you want paddling to be a priority, make it so. You will have to make sacrifices in other areas of your life, but that is where motivation comes in. How motivated are you?
  9. Eat healthy. Don’t sabotage your training by eating junk food. Whenever possible, plan your meals like you plan your workouts. Eat frequent, balanced meals. I’m a big advocate of eating food my great-grandmother would recognize. Broccoli? Yes. Pop tart? No.
  10. Reward yourself. I have a friend who carefully tracked her gym attendance. After 10 productive visits to the gym, she rewarded herself with a massage. Another friend puts $1 in a jar for every workout she completes. That money goes towards rewarding herself with something she might not normally splurge on. Rewarding yourself with things that are beneficial to your training (such as a massage, a day of rest, etc.) will help you achieve those goals.

So, take a careful look at what motivates you. Find your motivators and use them to your advantage. Whether you are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated, determining your sources of inspiration will inevitably advance your training throughout the year, resulting in a more successful paddling season.

What motivates you?

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4 Discussion to this post

  1. Anthony Scott says:

    This is a great piece, I like the information.

  2. Stana says:

    Great stuff. Especially the healthy food suggestion :)

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