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I am Better Than You, Than You, and You…

June 30, 2010

Flash back over a decade. I came to dragon boating after a good friend of mine asked me to give it a try.  My initial response after his first inquiry was,  “No thanks, I’m not into remote control boat racing.”  Clearly, I had no idea what dragon boating was nor was I aware that many years later, I’d be one of the coaches of that very dragon boat team.

After getting over my initial 4 days of soreness and my unrelenting desire to vomit after the workouts, I was on my path to paddling stardom – or so I thought.  In my eye, my technique was getting better, I was getting stronger.  I had figured it all out in less than a year.  How could a team not want me on all of their race boats?

My first real race was the annual Long Beach race.  That year, LARD and the Killer Guppies put together a men’s team.   LARD’s best and KG’s best would combine to put a super team on the water.  Surely, I, the new LARD paddling phenom ,would be on that boat.  Right?  WRONG.

To my utter shock and dismay, I was left on the shore holding my wooden paddle and my festival pfd.  I was angry.  I was hurt.  How could the coaches make such a grave mistake?  In my mind, I sized up the paddlers on that boat.  “I am better than you, than you, and you…I am technically superior and to top it off, I am more fit.” I thought in my head.

I was at a fork in the road.  Here were my options, as I saw them – (1) approach the coaches (only Leon and Jason back then), let them know about my displeasure and my disagreement with their team selection (or lack thereof as it wasn’t until about 5 years later LARD began to test paddlers) and convince them to put me on that or the next boat; (2) quit dragon boating because, clearly, these people had no idea that I was  a paddling super star; or (3) suck it up and use this “slight” as my motivation to get better.

Growing up playing team sports – baseball, basketball, and volleyball.  I was cognizant of the team concept.  I was accustomed to listening to a coach and doing what he told me to do – even when I found my ass sitting on the bench (see my Bishop Amat High School basketball career).  I was taught a coach does what is best for his team, not the best for any one individual.

I was also engaged in individual sports – golf, BMX trick riding to name a few – where performance was the direct result of your actions (or inactions).  There was no one else to blame.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, dragon boating is not an individual sport.

So what did I decide to do?  For me, quitting was not an option.  I’ll quit when I’m dead.  As for #2, I realized that my “benching” was not a personal slight, it was simply a coach doing what he thought was best for the team.  My personal feelings were not the coaches’ or the team’s priority.  So, I chose option #3.  This may not have been the best choice for everyone, but it was the best choice for me and ultimately the best choice for the team I love – the very team that I inked into my arm.  That perceived slight fueled me to become better – both as a paddler and teammate.  It was also another valuable life lesson for me.

Flash forward, now I’m standing in the coaches’ shoes.  Along with the other LARD coaches, I am tasked with making these and other difficult team decisions.  On this side of the fence (the coaching side), the priority is to do what is best for the team.  Just to give you a peek behind the scenes, some of the factors we consider in seating a boat in no particular order – paddling technique, strength and fitness, blending, time trial results, attendance for on water practice, attendance at land training, fairness,the number of total possible races available in a weekend, paddler improvement and team chemistry.  This is just to give you an idea of the various factors involved in seating a boat – by no means is this list exhaustive.

A good coach will always do what he (or she) thinks is best for the team.  These decisions will never make everyone on a team happy.  For those that are sensitive (like me in my early paddling years), feelings will be hurt.  Ultimately, a good teammate will be just as happy for the team  when it crosses the finish line first – whether that paddler is on the boat or cheering from shore.

At this point, my priorities have changed from the days of LARD/KG “super” teams.  Sure, I still want to earn my spot on that top boat but, believe it or not, I will be just as happy when my team does well – regardless if I am on the boat or not.   I have realized if I’m not on that boat, then there must be 20 paddlers better than the greatest paddler in the history of man.

As tournaments drift into history, we don’t remember who was in the boat that finished first, we remember what TEAM finished first.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2010 11:02 pm

    *putting on the wife hat*
    The coaches sacrifice so much for the team..most people have no idea. I just had to point out as someone who knows how many years you’ve dreamed of paddling in a guts and glory race, you sacrificed your spot this year so another paddler could have the experience. The coaches do put the interest of the team first, even at their own expense.
    *putting on the race manager hat*
    Thank you for all you do!

  2. Filosun permalink
    July 1, 2010 9:33 am

    Like Button. Indeed the sacrifices made behind the scenes.

  3. mark permalink
    July 1, 2010 9:40 am

    Very well said, Scott.
    Dragonboat paddling is the ultimate team sport: 22 paddler working as one with one common goal, and we have one of the best “teams” around not just on the water but on land because of the people who are leading our team who understand the importance of the “Team concept”.
    I believe our team continues to evolve and grow because we have team members who put our team ahead of ourselves as individuals.

  4. Chuck permalink
    July 1, 2010 10:04 am

    Here’s my experience as a rookie paddler….
    My first ever race was Long Beach. I had been paddling for about 6 weeks. At that time, nobody explained to me the difference between Black and Red.(or maybe I just didn’t listen) But when I saw all the seemingly fittest paddlers on the team in a different boat, I got the idea. And I was looking at the paddlers on LARD Black and thinking “I’m sure I’m stronger than this guy and this guy, maybe not this guy, but this guy…” Now I didn’t go out and get a tattoo, but it did bother me enough to get me work harder at practice and outside of practice. I wanted to be so strong and so good technically such that the team selection and seating decisions are easy for the decision makers.

    Now as a coach, I feel typically about 75% of the seating decisions are pretty easy while the remained 25% is fairly tough. I’m hoping one of these days 100% of the seating will be tough because everyone is so good I wouldn’t even know where to start! 😉

  5. Will permalink
    July 1, 2010 10:45 am

    Before K1 can get her grubby hands on the post: Scott, Mark, Chantha, Wileen, Sharon, Tracy (yeah for sure), Kim. I’m guessing … SF ’01. First!

  6. Megan permalink
    July 1, 2010 12:24 pm

    Great read. I was just having these conversations with the team last night at practice. This post now a required read. Expect to see IP addresses from Duluth, MN/ Superior, WI popping up on your tracker.

  7. Ken W. permalink
    July 1, 2010 12:29 pm

    I like what everyone have expressed here, this is a journey as oppose to a destination for all current and future participants of this team to discover the “nuggets” for themselves . LARD do have the frame work for continuous improvement, both as an individual to nurture their own nature and as a team.

    The difficult task of selecting team member for any type of team and to manage all these Indian chiefs are not much different than said running a portfolio or a company, one need to identify these 3 segments they are 1) secular, 2) cyclical and 3) structure views and lather them.

  8. lori permalink
    July 1, 2010 12:37 pm

    Wonderful story, coach. It teaches us about checking the Ego at the door and being a true teammate.

    Thank you for all you do, your lessons and guidance.

    One truly humbled Captain.

  9. July 1, 2010 8:00 pm

    no one will every truly understand how hard the coaching job is until they’ve been in their shoes themselves. i for one consciously think about this at every single practice/workout/race, and i do my best to express that appreciation every once in awhile as well. so on that note, again, a truly heartfelt thank you!

    if i may, however, i’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how these situations are typically handled. ex: a paddler is considered an ‘alternate’ and is not likely to paddle at a race d/t performance at practice or any other factor; can or should that person be made aware of it ahead of time? are scenarios like this typically foreseen by the coaches, or will the paddlers only ever find out the day of when their name isn’t called in the lineup?

    i ask this because, no matter how much a paddler values the “team concept,” the shock factor that comes with unexpectedly sitting out of a race despite his/her efforts in practice is unfortunately and inevitably difficult… and even more so if the race was far away (e.g. Alcan, TI) and significant sacrifices (e.g. money, time, work/school) were made on their part to attend. at that point, it’s no longer just about the ego and personal slights…

  10. paddlesports permalink*
    July 1, 2010 8:49 pm

    Thank you all so much for your comments. I appreciate the time and thought you have invested in commenting.

    AC, there has been only one incident that I’m aware of where a paddler has signed up for a race and didn’t get an opportunity to race the entire weekend. That was a coaches’ mistake and was unintentional. We simply overlooked that paddler. We learned from that mistake and we have implemented safeguards against this ever happening again.

    Excluding the above situation, we (the coaches) try to make sure that every paddler that signs up for a race weekend gets multiple races a day. We understand and appreciate each paddler’s commitment to the race weekend. We do not “spare” our paddlers (putting them on the roster but not racing them the entire weekend). It’s simple. You sign up and invest your time for a race weekend and you will race. Granted, you may not paddle EVERY race, but you will race.

    We have discussed letting paddlers know about the race line ups in advance; however, I believe this opens up a whole new can of worms – from people not showing up for a specific race’s warmup because they aren’t “in”, to coaches’ getting multiple earfuls of “you know I’m the best paddler in the world”, to behavior not conducive to a race environment from disgruntled paddlers.

    Simply put, you are there to race and you will race, so be prepared. If your name isn’t called, there are many other ways you can contribute to the team. There are things that you can see in that race that can make you a better paddler.

    One more thing that I’d like to add. Some of you may think the “final” race is the most important race of the weekend, but, at least in my eyes, that is not always the case. With lane bias prevalent at pretty much every race venue, lane placement becomes critical – critical to the point where a good placement in a semi-final race can greatly increase the chances of success in the final.

    Just some food for thought…

  11. July 2, 2010 9:48 am

    Great post, Scott!

    As someone who has been dragon boat racing for 24 years, as both paddler and coach, and has been on several national teams, I really appreciate and respect what coaches/captains have to wrestle with.

    Your initial reaction to being benched, however, is not without some merit. Coaches/captains are human, afterall, and do make mistakes, and some can be costly.

    I recall competing in a World Championship and our coach had decided to bench two of his middle of he pack paddlers (based on time-trials in a very stellar crew). Both of these guys had beaten the stroke seat paddler by over 20 seconds in a 3 to 3:30 minute test. 20+ SECONDS! yet they sat. and actually the stroker was outside the 3:30 spread of the rest of the team. Yet they sat.
    Well, Team USA just placed out of medals by hundreths of a second and second place by tenths.

    It was the contention of many of the paddlers that even one paddler who can perform to that level in a time trial vs. another, is easily equivalent to hundreths of a second if not tenths in a 500 or 1000M piece.

    I’m not going to get into the reasoning behind the coach’s decision, but in the eyes of many it was motivated more by nepotism than any of the reasons you cite above.

    Best of luck this racing season.


    • paddlesports permalink*
      July 2, 2010 10:49 am

      Thanks for the comment, TW (Tiger Woods?!?!?!? 😉 ).

      Yup, coaches make mistakes, sometimes critical. I have made mistakes that my team paid for dearly. Most know the coach you are referring to. My personal feelings about him aside, and as I’m sure you are aware, the stroke seat is a critical seat in any good boat. Sometimes, concessions in power output from that seat need to be made for the sake of preserving the boat’s rate and technique. Just my opinion, of course.

      That being said, if there was another stronger but just-as-capable paddler with the same intangibles of a seat 1 paddler, the lower scoring stroker should have been sat out. Again, just my humble opinion.


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