Afterburn Fitness – What I Learned (Part 2 of 2)

Andrew Liew, Level 2 Canadian Dragon Boat Competitive coach, Competitive Dragon Boat Athlete, and owner of Afterburn Fitness was very welcoming upon my arrival.

Toronto is home to some of the most competitive dragon boating that you’ll find in North America. Scarborough, a borough of the city, is home to Toronto’s only paddle pool facility, Afterburn Fitness. This facility doubles as a strength and conditioning gym for paddlers and non-paddlers alike, and not only helps legitimatize the sport via proper strength and conditioning, but also builds a dragon boating community that trains better athletes and individuals as a whole.

The paddling community in the San Francisco Bay Area shares many similarities, yet differences with Toronto’s, after all dragon boating is still dragon boating. But different coaches, climates, and cultures will often breed much different results and philosophies. I was fortunate enough to ask him a few questions that I believed to be pertinent to the sport of dragon boating, and to the development of our sport in California.

Below is Part 2 of a 2 part series on that discusses What I Asked, and What I Learned

What I learned

We had more similarities than differences to our Canadian counterparts, which was a refreshing revelation. Despite their reputation, performance, and international success, it was eye-opening to realize that many of the problems that we face in our community are the same that they face in Toronto. I had assumed that most of the problems were sorted out, and thus they were able to perform better on average that the USA. I assumed that all teams paddled 4-5 times a week, had world class coaches, and access to all the strength and conditioning equipments. What I found was that teams practice 3 times/week just like we do, and have only recently made a commitment to change and develop into actual systems of coaching and training. These recent changes to systematically address paddler education and training is helping teams perform better on the water and develop the sport of dragon boat.

In both California and Toronto, it is clear that the desire to get better and that the passion for dragon boating is the same. In Toronto, many paddlers are drawn from Universities and other water sports. It is not uncommon for a University to have more than one team, the University of Toronto alone has 7. In the Bay Area, there are only a couple of colleges – SF State, SJSU, Stanford, and Cal that have teams. It is a rarer occurrence that adult paddlers come from other water sports. Many paddlers come from friend of friends, or people who want to try a new sport. Unlike Toronto, high schoolers make up a good majority of CDBA’s membership. However, the most crucial difference isn’t perhaps the potential/talent pool, but the coach’s commitment to educating athletes and building a successful culture. While the technical aspects of the stroke is similar between San Francisco and Toronto, our Bay Area athletes lack guidance in strength and conditioning.

Most teams in the Bay Area still need a clear leader/voice that can actually guide paddlers in strength and conditioning. Also, much like Toronto before, and I’m sure still to a degree today, many of our teams in Northern California in the CDBA (California Dragon Boat Association) operate on their own, and there is a lack of cohesiveness in the community. Facebook pages such as the Nor Cal Dragon Boat Connection, social events between teams, volunteering at events, and being on board of CDBA are really the only way to intermingle with other teams right now. With such minimal shared knowledge, we lack growth and an overall level of competition in the Bay, compared to the much more open forum model in Toronto. Having paddled and co-founding a team in Southern California, I can attest that the paddling scene there is the same. It is even more spread out than Nor Cal paddling, and thus makes it even more difficult to connect. While Dr. Chen (Head of SCDBC) has his dragon boat facility, it is rarely used to the degree that it should or can be.

Afternburn Fitness attempts to pioneer this shift to teaching the athlete the whys, and to look pass the hows. When an athlete understands the why, they will inevitably grow and develop into smarter and better paddlers. . One of the first things I noticed in their paddling pool was a white board that broke down the various components of their stroke – always visible for members to reference. In addition, there are actual paddling clinics for all levels of athletes, and dragon boat teams commit to off-season training session in the pool. There is a real commitment to excellence and dissemination of knowledge to paddlers, a real commitment to understanding the movement behind paddling, and commitment to individual technique work in the pool during the off-season. There is a general higher level of athlete competence when it comes to understanding dragonboating and the stroke. As a result, it is very easy to see how a novice paddler would be quickly brought up to speed during the season, because the foundation of each paddler in Toronto is that much more technical.

In Northern California, the education that a novice paddler gets in paddling is sporadic and different from team to team. The paddler’s education in strength & conditioning, I suspect, is even lesser and non-existent on many teams. It is clear to me that while many athletes that paddle do care about their fitness, and land training for the season, very few, if any has implemented actual training to supplement both their dragon boat season and off-season. This is where Afterburn has it right. Having strength coaches, and having a work out facility, encourages sound and thoughtful programming – not just random Crossfit style workouts or powerlifting regimens. Can you imagine if a soccer player did nothing but trained their squat, bench, and deadlift during the season? There is no doubt in my mind that the athlete will be “stronger”, yet a drop in their endurance and aerobic capacities/conditioning would be certainly guaranteed.

In summary, coaching and culture play a vital role on a team, and on a greater scale, an area and country’s success. To help with the coaching mentality, a few things must be first sorted out. Whether a coach should continue to paddle or not as they lead a team may seem to be a subject of debate to some, but I posit that having a set coaching staff (a head technique coach, a programming coach, a strength and conditioning coach, and assistants) is the future of building a team and is the future of the sport. And, yes – none of them should paddle while holding a coaching position. Some of the coaches shouldn’t even be on the actual boat. They can be used on the shore filming, guiding film sessions and discussion with callers on the boat. This statement should stay true for any team, whether it be on a recreational, university, or competitive level. The idea may seem foreign for now, but it is not as bizarre as one may think. I ask you to look at every other professional sport you know, and to think carefully about the role that these coaches play on their respective teams. Are any of those coaches players on their respective teams?

 

Where to go from here

There is much to learn for the Bay Area Community, and for USA as a whole. We could get some ideas from looking at how our sister country deal with some of the same issues we struggle with. I strongly believe that modeling our systems after other sports, and copying the infrastructure of professional sports is our future, and it starts with leadership from within. There should not be just one or two coaches. Rather, there should be a staff of coaches and assistants.

If we start to think critically about how teams are coached, how athletes are trained, and how information is passed down to each paddler, challenge the norm, and shift the priorities from “winning” to “culture”, from “now” to “process”,  the tide towards a building a championship culture and team will begin to be made. Culture and process aside, the talent in the Bay Area is already there. Look no further than to the competitive times that our high school teams turn in year after year, and how teams like BANG and Northwind became competitive almost immediately after their conceptions. However, it is clear that there is a stark drop off when it comes to most adult/college paddling in California, and that is because of the lack of proper direction from our teams. We can not make up for the fact that other countries may benefit from drawing athletes from other water-sports as they are more prevalent in those regions – But we can definitely do something about culture.

Letting It Ride – Pressure

PAYR released a podcast on Race Day Pressure (Episode 1). Today, Bryan writes a companion piece in our series – Letting it Ride.

In ‘Letting it Ride’, we discuss one or a couple of points that we believe are important takeaways for our audience. Whether as a reader, you agree with the content of each piece or not, we believe these are important issues to address in our community.


The pressure that comes with competition and race day is often contingent upon the narrative that athletes tell themselves. Are you underdogs that often deflect pressure, stating that the pressure is on Goliath, for they are expected to win? While I do not believe that there is necessarily a right or wrong way to look at pressure, there is a right and wrong type of pressure to have. Therefore, an important point of contention is what does an athlete do to assure that it comes from a right place? As a paddler, asking yourself why that other team is better, and what are they doing differently, are important, yet secondary questions to ask. They are also often followed with the misplaced afterthought: how can you improve to beat the other team. It was evident in the podcast, that many (of at least our) athlete’s pressures come from these overly consuming fears of needing to show the other teams that we are deserving of being classified amongst the best in the Bay, and fears of what other paddlers from other teams may think.

You should never ask yourself the question, “How can I improve to beat the other team”. You can not control what other teams think, or how other teams perform, and you can not control any other external factor for that matter. The danger of following this treacherous tightrope is the danger of falling in the abyss of “What did they do to beat us that race”, as opposed to forging your own path and knowing that you are not only capable of finding your best, but also capable of punching through those thresholds and becoming the best. In addition to the added pressure that you invite from focusing on external factors, you lose focus and sight of your own team and internal heartbeat/goals. Every second deposited into thinking about what the other team did, is a second of effort and thought withdrawn from your own team that could have been better spent focusing on your next race and areas to improve on in the future. It is never acceptable to keep anything but your team and their stroke at the center of your heart and focus.

A more germane and appropriate thought for an athlete to have should be: “I do not care where we place right now, nor how we fared compared to the other teams, so much as I do care if I had dug from within and performed at my current best. Thus, I am on the way to becoming the best”.  It isn’t until you learn to supplant the pressure from within and let go of any external motivations that you can achieve goals that you only dreamed to be possible. If you never push from within, you will always chase other’s results and compare your success to theirs. How one deals with the internal pressure, rid of external burdens, is another matter entirely – but at least by this point, the pressure and drive to perform is guaranteed to come from within. And still, while I suspect that many will disagree with my philosophy that it is better to have performed focusing on my own efforts, and finishing wherever that may be, rather than it is to have won 1st and have no idea how – the pressure on the latter athlete will be on figuring out how to sustain his allegate success while deflecting and concerning themselves with other’s attempts to overtake them, while the former will already be happy and on the way to sustained success.  


The results will often take care of themselves if the right type of pressure – the type revolving around internal demons, not external, is found. How one chooses to deal with it  from there depends greatly on the individual athlete.

 

Signing off & Letting it ride,

Bryan

Afterburn Fitness – What I Asked (Part 1 of 2)

Bryan K. Wong

Andrew Liew, Level 2 Canadian Dragon Boat Competitive coach, Competitive Dragon Boat Athlete, and owner of Afterburn Fitness was very welcoming upon my arrival.

Toronto is home to some of the most competitive dragon boating that you’ll find in North America. Scarborough, a borough of the city, is home to Toronto’s only paddle pool facility, Afterburn Fitness. This facility doubles as a strength and conditioning gym for paddlers and non-paddlers alike, and not only helps legitimatize the sport via proper strength and conditioning, but also builds a dragon boating community that trains better athletes and individuals as a whole.

The paddling community in the San Francisco Bay Area shares many similarities, yet differences with Toronto’s, after all dragon boating is still dragon boating. But different coaches, climates, and cultures will often breed much different results and philosophies. I was fortunate enough to ask him a few questions that I believed to be pertinent to the sport of dragon boating, and to the development of our sport in California.

Below is Part 1 of a 2 part series that discusses What I Asked, and What I Learned

What I asked

  1. What is the purpose of the Pool/Facility?

Toronto faces a snowy, cold, and frosty winter that renders paddling on the water impossible during a majority of the year. Part of the motivation for Andrew to begin this gym was the recognition that 1. Their community would benefit greatly from having an indoor resource where new paddlers and veteran paddlers could work on their stroke, and 2. the Toronto dragon boating community was very individualistic, and he hoped to help foster the community together. This pool, which is opened to any dragon boat team to rent out time slots in the winter, therefore serves as a hub that 1. Helps drive better paddling during the off-season 2. and provides a centralized place for paddlers to unite and work on strength & conditioning. It is used for technique work because it best mimics the on-water experience without actually being on the water. This is different from a swimming pool as a typical pool, Andrew claims, tends to promote sub-optimal technique.

  1. Where do the paddlers come from?

While Andrew began paddling in High School, he says that many of the athletes that dragon boat either start in University or come from other Flat water sports (OC, Kayak, etc.). I was impressed to hear that many of the University and Comp Division athletes only began their careers in college, yet they are consistently able to complete races faster than their USA counterparts. When asked where does he see the difference between the level of competition in Canada vs. USA, his answer primarily boiled down to Canada being further along their development of dragon boating of a sport, and the contribution of many coaches and paddlers coming from other paddling sports.

  1. Paid coaching vs. Passionate coaching

The other day, one of our athletes (San Francisco Dragon Warriors) proposed the idea that one day people will be paying for the quality coaching that she believes that our coaching staff provides. Well, what I found was this is closer to a reality than ever before! Many top premier teams, including the one that Andrew paddles for actually compensates their head coaches. Sometimes though, Andrew pointed out, these coaches come from other water sports, and while they have a great understanding of how to move water and move a boat, their passion for dragon boating itself may not always be the same. Thus, it is a fine line between finding individuals who have the know-how, and individuals who have the heart and desire to help the sport and team grow.

  1. Do coaches paddle?

Sometimes coaches face a dilemma where they want to paddle, but are obligated to coach. In doing so, both facets tend to suffer. The more a coach paddles, the less they get to observe and actually see. The more a paddler coaches, the less time they have to paddle and work on their own craft. It so happens that Andrew coaches his own team, and is a member of another, which allows him the balance and flexibility to not only do both, but to continue to learn as a paddler and athlete. He admitted to the difficulty in both paddling and coaching, and that it was only recently that his premier team had hired a separate coach. As an athlete, the best he could do was look at the metrics and tests that were used to determine boat placement, and aim to do well on those. Thus, while there were occasions where he may have suffered in terms of time out on the water, he was able to guarantee competitive times and numbers by working hard on land.

  1. Old School Coach/athlete vs. New School Coach/athlete

One point that encompassed our conversation was the idea of an open mind. The difference between the coach and paddler that gets worn out, and the one that continues to excel is their mind. In the dragon boating world, especially one that is becoming bigger, legitimized, and at times scrutinized, having sound programming, logic, flexibility, and basic understandings of human movement are crucial to being a good coach and athlete. Often, the ridicule met by outsiders is targeted towards poor coaching or a lack of actual strength and conditioning to supplement the paddling. A good coach will recognize these things. There are, however, many veteran paddlers, and coaches from the old school -learning one technique, or used one strategy that got them to an elite point in the past 10 years – but it is the refusal to change, adapt, and realize that there is always more to learn that leads to ultimate failure. Similarly, off the water, he believes that “Everything needs a purpose and getting in overall better shape will indirectly help people become better paddlers,”. He contends that “Sport-specific training is necessary to best satisfy the demands of the sport”. Hence, while paddling technique may be a coach’s expertise, exercise and strength training may not be, and that is where a coaching staff and network comes in hand.

  1. Where does strength and conditioning play in/recommended exercises

Andrew believes that by having an actual strength and conditioning coach and providing a gym for paddlers, they are afforded a space where dragonboaters could safely engage in strength training, and develop techniques/programs that is catered to both the general dragon boat athlete and tailored specifically to the individual. He believes that every great dragon boat team should also have great land training to supplement the water – but this training should have purpose, meaning, and contribution to the stroke.  By allowing another individual who is knowledgeable in strength and conditioning to run this segment of training, it helps better the team to reach better athletic performance, and faster times, contrary to the coach who takes on programming land training on their own. Some common and recommended exercises/metrics that they use include the following:

  • Bulgarian Split Squats (For Leg drive/core)
  • Concept Ski Machine (Top hand drive/ Similar to straight arm pull downs)
  • P-erg/Kayak Pro times
  • Bench (strength/power 3 v 6 reps)
  • Rows (strength/power 3v6 reps)
  • Individualization based on athlete’s imbalances

Lastly, Andrew’s team, and many teams train generally on one side for the majority of the season. To deal with imbalances, proper strength & conditioning programs, and exercises are implemented throughout the year to supplement their rigorous training.

Part 2 in…2 weeks!

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