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. Some teams use them, other teams are staunchly opposed. Whether your team uses so-called “ringers” or not, it is important to understand the rationale for using them.

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.

Hungarian team A-HiDragons. Photo provided by Tom.

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!

paddlechica Ed nguyen Worlds Win

Hungarian National Team. Photo: Ed Nguyen

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.

paddlechica Fast & Furious Fort Langley BC Cindy 3

Fast and Furious from Fort Langley, BC, Canada. Photo provided by Cindy

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.

paddlechica RiverSpirit Carole

River Spirit Dragon Boat Team, Campbell River, BC, Canada. Photo provided by Carole Dodds

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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18 Discussion to this post

  1. Shanghai says:

    This clarification is perfect. I have been on both types of teams and I have been frustrated with recreational paddlers. There is nothing wrong with being a recreational paddler but it’s frustrating when I am looking to improve as a competitive paddler!
    Thank you!

    • Paddlechica says:

      Indeed that can be frustrating! Thanks for reading!

    • Mike says:

      What’s frustrating is when you are in a town that only offers recreational teams and you want to push yourself harder than they do, but there’s no alternative to choose from.

      • Paddlechica says:

        Good point, Mike. So many of us assume that there are both type of teams to choose from, but all too often there is only one single team in a particular area. This certainly poses a challenge. My best advice would be to work to recruit and develop the team to a point at which you might have enough paddlers to have two teams within your one club: a competitive and a recreational team. However, this will obviously not happen overnight. And in the meantime, perhaps there is a more competitive team nearby that you might be able to travel to once in a while for practices and join as an out-of-town member? Good luck, and thanks for reading!

  2. Mary says:

    Great article. Helped me to understand what is happening on the team I joined.

  3. Norma says:

    What about ringers substituted in for the final race on race day? If a boat is in a low division and posting slow times, then brings on four paddlers from a higher division for the final race, should that be treated differently?

    • Paddlechica says:

      That sounds like a whole new blog post right there. That is a team that seems to want to win but not put in the effort to do so. So, they end up in a lower division and then do what they can to ensure their success in that division just to win a medal? At most competitive races that wouldn’t even be allowed because, for example, a mixed division paddler cannot paddle on another mixed division team, even if it is a paddler from the A division racing in the C division. However, I know that some race organizers are not as diligent about checking race rosters as they should be.

  4. Craig Lincoln says:

    Yes, it’s important for team members to understand team goals and find crews that they fit into. But I don’t agree with some of what you’ve suggested here. Bringing in competitive paddlers on race day to reach team goals would be violating IDBF/USDBF roster rules. It’s allowed a lot of competitions not operating under those rules, to be sure, so it happens.

    Personally, I think coaches should try to comply with those rules even when not required because that’s the spirit of dragon boat crew races: put a team together and keep it together. National teams are different.

    We all combine rosters to at some races, but when it happens it should be to get a crew together and give paddlers more racing experience because a crew couldn’t get enough paddlers out of its own roster. That doesn’t bother me as much because it’s to give paddlers more experience, not to increase the odds of winning. The solution to the dilemma you pose is to recruit the right people and inspire them.

    • Paddlechica says:


      Thanks for your comments. You are right that at some races IDBF rules would be in effect and therefore adding outside paddlers to your roster would not be allowed. However, those rules are in effect for races such as Worlds, Club Crew, and Nationals, not for smaller regional races, which are more commonly attended by most teams.

      It is likely that a highly competitive paddler would argue your idea of the “spirit of dragon boat crew races.” Each person has their own reason for racing, and thankfully there are many different types of teams from recreational to competitive to hopefully satisfy everyone. Some paddlers want to compete at a very high level, and others want the bonding of a team experience. For that reason, it is recommended to establish team goals from the beginning and make them clear to everyone.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Bob Kane says:

    The Warrior Team in the Villages have been in the forefront of this argument for years. We never use borrowed paddlers on our team and never will. Our club has engaged in this practice for years. As far as everyone on the team paddling in a race that is only if they are in the top 24 paddlers registered for a particular race. Our aim is to structure our training to raise the efficiency of all paddlers, however, with a roster of 35 or 40 there will be times the top 16 paddlers will be pushed to excel during drills. Usually teams settle in to three sections, each section must have a training plan unique to their ability. We must set the bar high so that people challenge for a seat position. When teammates see new members join the team who are lighter, stronger or more athletic I would hope it would motivate them to get their Axx in gear. As far as those members in the club who think they are world beaters, the club should have tryouts to form an elite team or two. This may be an open, mixed, or ladies teams. This is a no brainer. Let ethics be the driving force in planning.

    • Paddlechica says:


      Thanks for your comments. It is great that your team has decided on their mission statement and have stuck to your beliefs. Not all teams have the backbone to do that.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Jerry Guy says:

    Hi Kristin. As usual, a very provocative discourse.

    It seems though that you have two issues under discussion here. One, is the “competitive” vs. “recreational” scenario that just about every club I’ve ever been a part of must deal with. From my experience, it is best resolved by entering a number of boats in races with the best paddlers in the first boat, next best paddlers in the second boat, etc. ALL paddlers are expected to compete for seats, which in turn requires that they must be doing extra work out of the boat or they will have their ass handed to them. The coach has the final say in paddler rankings.

    The second issue is the “ringer” situation. I’ve been in both situations where no ringers are allowed, and where ringers are routinely brought in for big races. BOTH teams were world champions! You’re absolutely right in that each club must make it abundantly clear where they reside from the beginning. Only then can you hope to mitigate the internal destruction of the team, as well as avoid all the butt hurt that goes along with being bumped out of a seat.
    Mahalo nui loa for the wonderful post.

    Warmest regards,

    • Paddlechica says:


      It would be wonderful if dragon boat clubs were able to enter multiple boats in a race, however, with 20 paddlers per boat, that is often an unrealistic goal for most teams. In OC races, as I know you are familiar with, it is much easier to field several teams, as you only need 6 paddlers per boat. If an dragon boat team were to have their best paddlers in the first boat, next best paddlers in the second boat, etc. as you suggested, it would require at least 40 paddlers, if not 60. Most teams simply do not have the numbers for that. However, if a club does have that many members, that is definitely an ideal solution!

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Anthony Scott says:

    I hope every paddler reads this, best info so far in understanding what team is the best fit for you and your goals.

  8. Wendy Rose Davison says:

    This is a very interesting article but really is only relevant for the privileged teams who are either in a city with enough paddlers available to be ‘ringers’ or who have some kind of prestige that ‘ringers’ would want to give up their own clubs to paddle with them. Is this reality? Not in regional areas where we have struggles to get the organisations to recognise that we need the categories available to enter teams. I think that a pool of ‘ringers’ should be available to all clubs so that a level playing field occurs. If just the prestigious big clubs put ‘ringers’ in, what is the use of racing against them. We may as well just hang up our paddles and our incredible urge to win in regional areas!

    • Paddlechica says:


      You bring up a good point worth discussing. In most cases, the “ringers” are not giving up their own clubs to paddle with another team, they are simply joining another team for a race that their own team is not entering. Typically, clubs select their race schedule for the season and they do not choose every single race available to them. So, if a team knows they may need a paddler or two for a particular race, then they may put out a call to paddlers whose teams are not entering that race.

      You are right that there is more of a challenge for teams in smaller cities. I would imagine that you aren’t only racing in your city, though. If you are looking to complete your race boat with a few stronger paddlers, make connections with teams in cities nearby. Perhaps two teams can combine to make an A and B boat for more competitive and more recreational paddlers?

      And lastly, rather than hanging up your paddles and your “incredible urge to win in regional areas” because of other teams being stronger than yours, use it as a goal to encourage growth and improvement in your own team. My original team in Miami did not start out as a competitive team. When I joined it years ago we didn’t make the A-division in races. But over time, and with a lot of dedication to making the team a competitive one, we started making (and winning!) A-divisions. It’s always good to have something to work towards.

      As always, thanks for reading!

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