The Importance of Reserve Paddlers: Why Your Team Needs Subs

No one likes to sit on the bench while the rest of the team competes. Everyone wants to be in the race. So, should a racing team only consist of 20 paddlers in order to avoid having paddlers sit out? That doesn’t really make sense. Every team has some paddlers who sit out more often than they compete in races, but does this make them any less of a teammate than the race crew? Definitely not. The role of the reserve paddlers (often called subs or spares) is simply different from the role of those on the boat, but no less important.


Photo: Raquel Riano

Imagine if a team showed up to a race and one of their paddlers got lost on the way to the site. Or someone got sick. Or a paddler was injured the day before the race. Or someone simply didn’t show up to marshalling on time. The strong team of 20 paddlers just became 19. Not only does this deduct from your team’s overall power, it also leaves the boat uncomfortably unbalanced. The powerful team is now scrambling to either rebalance the boat or find another paddler to fill in. Sadly situations like these do happen, even to national teams. I recall a paddler at the World Championships in 2011 in Tampa who ran back to get his butt pad and missed the race. Thankfully the reserve paddler was ready to step in right away. Reserves help fill this gap that can be created by last-minute unfortunate events.

In addition, reserves help support the team in terms of morale, giving encouragement on the way to and from the boat and cheering for the team. Reserves can also support the team by helping out the coach or captain in terms of organization. At a World Championship event, for example, a reserve paddler might help collect the paddlers’ identification badges on the way to the dock while high-fiving the paddlers for good luck. This support should never be underestimated. Whether your team rotates reserves in for various heats, or has them on hand to use in only in the case of an emergency, the role of a reserve paddler is crucial and should not be taken lightly.


Photo: Raquel Riano

Sure, every paddler should aspire to be a starter, but depending on the level of your team, it isn’t always easy. Many paddlers spend months or even years training as hard as they can in an attempt to make the race boat. If your team is highly competitive, chances are good that you will spend quite some time as a reserve paddler before ever racing your first race. Take this time to learn! Learn by watching.  Carefully observe the more experienced paddlers both at practice and at the races. Ask them for help with your technique. Learn about their pre-race warm-ups, their nutrition, their stretching routine, their methods of being “race ready.” Consider this time your apprenticeship and learn from what you observe – both the good and the bad.

If you find yourself as a reserve, value your role and keep your attitude positive. You are an integral part of the team. Uplift the team. Do not engage in drama, or try to second guess why the coach has you as a reserve instead of someone who is a starter. The coach has his or her reasons. Simply being a part of the team does not entitle you to a position in the race boat. But being part of the team does obligate you to work for the greater good of the team.


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6 Discussion to this post

  1. Gerri Emkey says:

    Thanks for the article.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Wendy Rose Davison says:

    I love this piece. It hits home with me as at the Aus Champs in Perth this year I was rotated into the heats and was reserve in some of the finals. I have learned the hard way that this is OK, swallowing my dismay at the choices, jumping in to help out instead of sooking up in the tent, and then when the wonderful, strong paddlers bring in the medals….guess what…the reserves get one as well. We are all part of the team.

  3. Victoria says:

    Paddlechica, thank you for this article. I believe many teams have faced the situation of having more paddlers than seats. We do say this is a good problem.I just hope all will understand the wisdom behind your words.

  4. Thanks for the article! Another good piece of advice. Thank you!
    When you sub a reserve into the team, do you have to reconfigure the seat assignments for the team right away? (eg: left hand, right hand, weight, height etc might play certain role in the race too)

    • paddlechica says:

      Great question!! Yes, the boat typically does need to be reconfigured, unless your sub is the same weight and side-preference as the person they are subbing in for (which is not likely). I usually have a carefully balanced boat layout made for each heat, indicating the reserves/spares/subs at the bottom of the layout so that each person on the reserve rotation knows which heats they are in and which heats they are serving as the support crew.

      Thanks so much for the question and for reading the blog!

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