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.