For the last 4 to 5 years, a college team (or two) has made it to the Competitive A final in the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival (SFIDBF), the biggest race in California. This year, UCSD came in first overall at the San Diego Dragon Boat Race, a local regatta. None of the other adult teams even came close, with the second place team finishing 5 seconds behind. Can you imagine a time when collegiate dragon boat teams were not seen as competitive, not only compared to adult teams, but to high school teams as well? As a freshman, I remember deciding whether or not to join the UCLA team, because I knew it wouldn’t be as competitive as my experience with the Lowell High School team. Presently, collegiate teams are so good that it’s becoming a part of high school paddlers’ decisions as to what school to attend. Crazy.
Not only were college teams less competitive several years ago, they were not supposed to be as competitive, with odds seemingly stacked against them. Turnover is rapid, because veteran paddlers will eventually graduate. They often have brand new paddlers who will only have at most four years to master the sport. Colleges also lack dedicated, seasoned coaches with vast competition experience. Practice on water during the week is circumstantially impossible. When I was in college, I heard so many of my peers complain that adult teams had all the advantages. Adult teams have highly qualified coaches, can recruit anyone, and practices three times a week on water. “Can you imagine if college teams had that? If only we had these perks, then we would be competitive.” However, that was the mindset of the past.
Not only were college teams less competitive, they were not supposed to be as competitive.
Currently however, the script has turned. Now, I often hear adult teams envious of college teams. “It seems so much easier to organize practices when everyone’s on the same campus. Getting everyone to the gym together must be a breeze, because it’s so close. Attendance is probably never an issue, as college students don’t have outside responsibilities, and everyone hangs out together anyways. More importantly, those darn college kids have all the energy in the world. It’s no wonder they perform so well!” Of course, those assumptions are all untrue. Running a college team has its own difficulties, just like running an adult team.
There are two truths here: (1) the grass is always greener on the other side and (2) our own grass is the only one we can tend to, so tend to it.
One of the defining characteristics of mastery is that a master makes his craft look effortless. So, when we look at a great team, the default assumption is that everything came together effortlessly. Most people will just gloss over the details and overlook all the obstacles that even great teams once faced. Most people don’t take the time to think about the years it must’ve taken for those teams to construct the correct team culture. Here lies one of the biggest fallacies to which we fall prey: The grass always seems greener on the other side, because we don’t look close enough. If we did, we will realize that adult paddlers all have full-time jobs and other responsibilities that put dragon boating on a lower priority. We will realize that college teams are always on the whim of recruiting and building good leaders from scratch every year. Things are never easy, no matter how easy they look from the outside. This shift in mindset gives you a real appreciation of those great teams. This isn’t just recognition of greatness, it’s the understanding of greatness. It’s knowing the how and the process to succeed. How exactly did teams like UCLA, Space Dragons, and Ripple Effect build up their teams from such humble beginnings? What kind of work must they have done? What are they doing right? Shifting your mind to ask these questions also affords you agency to work on your own situation. When you think about and understand how others have worked through their obstacles, it could offer you ideas on how to work through your own as well. This has given me a sense of control over my situation, instead of always thinking that nothing could be done about the cards I was dealt. Through hard work and innovation, I can get through whatever circumstances I am in, because I have seen others get through theirs already.
This isn’t just recognition of greatness, it’s the understanding of greatness.
This idea comes in 3 layers, each getting closer to the truth:
– Champions win not because they don’t experience adversity.
– Champions win despite their adversity. Champions are the ones willing to work around them.
– Champions win because of their adversity. Champions learn from their adversity and turn them into opportunities.
When I think back, it’s really amazing how each time I had an innovation I am proud of, it was in response to a constraint. Because having weekend practices weren’t enough to teach proper technique, I started pushing pool practices at UCLA. The results weren’t as good as having weekday water practices. They were better. Pool practices gave me a place to slow down and discuss mechanics with paddlers, so paddlers can ask questions if they were confused. Veteran paddlers weren’t buying into the new stroke until they fully understood the details at pool practice. In another example, when people weren’t going to the gym because they didn’t know how to lift weights, I took every person on the team to the gym and taught them how. Instead of having a team of individuals already going to the gym independently, we encouraged people to go together, do similar workouts together, and bond with one another. Again, better than if the constraint wasn’t there to begin with.
Recently, I have tried to actively change my thinking. Each time I see an obstacle or a constraint, instead of seeing it as a nuisance, I see it as an opportunity to grow and innovate. For example, last year, when our head coach discovered he had to move away for work, the leadership of the team found itself in a huge bind. Ever since our last leadership team, a singular head coach led the team, ran the show. It was a huge loss to be missing his leadership. With this constraint, however, came the chance to grow and innovate. It was perhaps only because we had this obstacle, that we were pushed to build a system that no longer relied on a single person to coach the whole team. Now, our team has a growing coaching staff of eight, who can run practice regardless of whether the head coach is there or not. Not only did we figure out a way to overcome these unfortunate circumstances, we took the constraint as an opportunity to build something even better than before.
Here’s another quick example. When we were facing extreme attendance woes and lack of motivation, we were pushed to ask “How do we get people to want to go to practice?” Instead of seeing this as a pain, we saw this as an opportunity to innovate. How do we give people value at practice, so they can feel like it was worth it to come out? Now, we have a structure and programming for practices that people enjoy. I am grateful for our lack of attendance and motivation from before. Because of it, we pushed to make practices better – way better than if we never had these initial issues to overcome.
Instead of seeing adversities as a pain, we saw this as an opportunity to innovate.
So, no matter how much easier it seems that other teams have it, no matter how many obstacles your team faces, have a positive and open mindset to learn from others, and have a can-do attitude to turn your adversities into opportunities. Innovate and make your new situation better than your last. Finally, be excited about your difficulties ahead, because they will be the stepping stones to the next level!