4 Ingredients of a Persistent Dragon Boater

A few weeks ago, I steered a race for my Florida-based team. It was a beautiful race venue, but that particular weekend there were several conditions which proved to make the steering challenging; the ever-changing winds, the tippy 10-man boats, and strong currents all played a factor in making the races more interesting, especially from a steer’s perspective. No one was immune to these elements and yes, there were a few incidents throughout the weekend. Steering mishaps during a race are indeed a steer’s worst nightmare.

What inspired me to write this blog post was one steer in particular who had obvious persistence. Despite a few mishaps, she got right back up and steered again, race after race. Her boat even flipped over when another boat veered off course and hit them and yet she still persisted. Her tenacity really impressed me.

It’s not easy to get back up there and steer a boat after any kind of problem. You feel pressure from your crew, the other steers, and even the officials, which is all in addition to the pressure you are already putting on yourself. It’s enough to make anyone want to quit. Those steers who push themselves past any obstacles are sure to come out stronger on the other side, yet getting past the incident is the hardest part.

Many people give up after a few attempts at steering, particularly if things don’t go well, and especially if something happens during a race. Losing control of a boat is a terrifying and nerve-racking feeling. But if you quit at that point, those bad experiences are what will stick in your head.

Photo: Aixa Ramos

It may have been years ago, but I will never forget the second race I ever steered. The race course wasn’t overly clear and I was having a difficult time seeing my lane markers for lane one. I was looking down the wrong lane and thought I needed to head a bit to the right, but then I realized that wasn’t the case. In an attempt to correct the mistake, I oversteered (as is typical of newer steers) and I ended up veering WAY out of my lane and off the course. Thankfully I somehow regained control and we made it down the course in our lane. I got off the boat and apologized to my team, especially rows 9 and 10 who heard me cursing like a sailor while I tried to get the boat back on course.

I didn’t want to steer another race after that incident. Shaken and embarrassed, my steering confidence had dropped to an all-time low. To make matters worse, there were 5 or 6 guys on the crew who were experienced steers; we had decided to use their power on the boat as paddlers instead of using their steering talent. I felt ridiculously ashamed of my mistake and wanted to hand the steering off to one of the more capable guys on the boat. Thankfully, they were all wonderfully supportive and encouraged me to persevere.

Photo: Ed Nguyen

If you stop and think about it, so many aspects of life can relate to steering. Pushing past the tough times is what has the potential to make us even more successful in our endeavors.

And persistence doesn’t just exist for steers. It is clearly evident in paddlers as well. It’s certainly easy to give up when you don’t make your team’s race boat, when you aren’t the fastest on a time trial, when you don’t do well on a fitness test, or even when all those body parts start aching from a hard training session or a race. As a paddler, how do you react to any setbacks or discomfort? When you have a rough day at training, do you give up and convince yourself that you will never get it? Or do you show up at the next session focused and eager to attack the issues you previously experienced? Do you give up easily because you can’t handle a little pain (I’m not referring to actual injury, but rather the pain of pushing yourself to new limits)? Or do you embrace the physical pain with the mindset that it is a sign of growing stronger and is only temporary?  Do you let your mind wander and forget why you are training? Or are you mindful of your objectives in order to keep yourself relentless?

A few weeks ago I wrote about motivation, but it is important to recognize that motivation and persistence are two very different things. Motivation is the drive to pursue an outcome, while persistence is the capacity to continue even when the desired outcome isn’t immediately attainable.

Photo: Ed Nguyen

How is it that some people are able to handle adversity so well while others in the same situation might give up? Persistence is essential to our success as athletes. Four main elements are the key to persistence in our sport:

1) Having a goal in mind and understanding the path to achieve that goal.

Knowing what the end result could or should be helps us to see the course that needs to be taken. When athletes know where they want to be and recognize what they need to improve to get there, they are more likely to persevere.  Anyone can set goals. It’s easy for a paddler or steer to say they want to be on their country’s national team, for example. But the awareness of what needs to be done to get yourself to that goal is what will sustain the determination.

2) Resilience.

The ability to bounce back after any kind of setback helps us to get back on course towards our goals. Athletes who are flexible enough to modify their course given a current situation or circumstance will be far more successful in their tenacity than those who are rigid in their approach. Imagine a newer steer who has only practiced held-tail starts, for example, but upon arriving at the race course, he or she discovers that the race organizers have planned to use nose-cups at the start line, as they use at Worlds. How that steer approaches this minor setback is a good indicator of his or her resilience.

3) Having ambition for excellence while being mindful of the difference between excellence and perfection.

Striving for perfection often sets the bar so high that one gets discouraged in attempting to achieve it. Striving for excellence, on the other hand, is recognizing one’s own personal levels of accomplishment. I recognize that I will likely never have a perfect stroke, but I can certainly work on adapting and developing an excellent stroke for my own size, body type, strength, and endurance level.

4) The ability to learn from past mistakes.

Learning from our mistakes or failures helps keep us on the right course. “The sign of a great athlete is that they have a high tolerance for failure . . . and they learn to view failure as feedback,” Alan Goldberg, a sports psychology consultant based in Amherst, Massachusetts says. “It provides valuable information on what they did wrong and what they need to correct.” Unless you plan to be perfect in everything you do, accept that mistakes are part of the learning process and appreciate the lessons they bring.

So, the next time you are dealing with adversity of any kind whether as a paddler, a steer, a coach, a drummer, a captain, or any other role on the team, keep these four elements in mind and remember the story of the tenacious steer who never gave up.


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20 Discussion to this post

  1. Rodney Halbleib says:

    Great blog!!!

  2. Jeff Hanson says:

    Every time I step into the back of a boat I am nervous. Like Rod I steer for people we have never practiced with, have one shot at it, and have to get them confidently to the start line. As well as my own teams. In that I steer in environments where I know the water and somewhere I don’t. Every time I am to be excellent. Not perfect. Just excellent to steer them straight and true and to learn from the mistakes I will make.

    • Paddlechica says:

      You bring up a good point about those who steer for community teams and corporate teams in festivals. It can often be more difficult than steering one’s own team. Thanks for reading. Keep steering!

    • L. Anthony Scott says:

      Jeff, i know that nervous feeling just before steping on the back, it’s gone once i start steering, the thought is now on doing right for the team.

  3. L. Anthony Scott says:

    Thanks again for another good read. I related to some of the points that a steer person experiences.

  4. Al Davis says:

    Your timing is great. I will steer for our team at our first season race. This will be my first race, so I appreciated your words of wisdom.

  5. Victoria says:

    Paddle Chica, this post could not have come at a better time! I had an accident while steering a boat this week during a practice race. I actually caused some damage to another boat…..It was a freak accident. To say the least I was ashamed and scared. BUT, I got back in the dragon saddle and steered the next morning.
    Your post helped reassure me and helped build my confidence again ….Thank you!

  6. Beth says:

    Great post, thank you.

  7. Shanghai says:

    Your blog is very timely… Today I was steering for Pat Bradley at his Breast Cancer Survivor Camp on Key Biscayne, Miami, Florida. I am intimidated with the wind, full 20 person boat, new paddlers, orders coming from 2 coaches – Both Team USA Coaches. And I am a new steer person, especially with multiple boats. I have steered solo, coaching my Jupiter SOS team, Light House Dragons. It is very different racing, riding on the wave of the dragon boats directly next to your boat. There were times, I wanted to cry, give up, scream… But I adore my coach and I was not going to let Pat down. There were times I was fighting that oar. And like you, I am having a full conversation with myself but I also laugh at myself. (I even fell on my butt but popped up hoping nobody saw!). The end result is, I am gaining confidence. I am not dreading tomorrow but looking forward to it. Of course Pat has helped by pushing me, but also giving me great feedback and and encouragement. And the paddlers on the boat were appreciative and supportive, which is very important. I couldn’t believe I came home and opened my email and saw this blog. I watched Kristin steer in Puerto Rico. I saw the race she referred to, and she is my role model. It was spectacular. She is spectacular! Thanks Kristin.

    • Paddlechica says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, Shanghai, and for reading the post. I am glad to hear that you’ve had such persistence – keep it up! Before long you’ll see the wind as a fun challenge.

  8. Hi Kristen, You still standing on the gunnel and sterning? Great post and I really enjoyed the read. In 1984 I started steering on the Schuylkill River. Yesterday, I sterned for Greater Chicago Dragon Boat Club on the Chicago River from North Avenue past Wolf Park and Franklin Bridge before returning. #loveriversteering. Hope you can find an excursion to Chicago to steer the canyons!

    • Paddlechica says:

      Hi John! Thanks for reading and for your kind words. I, too, love steering, though I haven’t had much experience on the rivers – I’ll have to make time to come steer the canyons with you – that sounds like fun!

      • Jeff Hanson says:

        Steering on an active, commercial waterway like the Cuyahoga River can be a challenge. Marine radios are required and knowing the safe zones of the river are vital when a freighter goes by. Come by any time Kristen!

  9. Janice says:

    Great timing with this blog…I just completed my final 2 races to successfully become a level 3 sweep. I struggled to keep a straight line at times but I kept going and ended up sweeping 7 races! Thanks for the great read…love following you!

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