Turning Adversities into Opportunities

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!


My Motivation

There are only so many top tier teams in California. Every other team is, by definition, not a top-tier team. What makes the top tier teams great? I’ve heard so many different answers, but most of them vague. Leadership, personnel, momentum, or even “being at the right place at the right time”. So what really made the difference? Why does it seem sometimes ONE person can carry a whole team to greatness, but at other times, a team can still fail with the best talent around? These were the questions I was battling with my whole career.

Recently, I have been diverted to answer another set of questions. Answering these new questions have given me insight into the older ones. Is being a Champion a teachable skill? Does everyone have the potential to become a champion? Or is there some innate trait that only some people have? The answer boils down to control and influence. Do you think you have control over the situation? Do you think you can influence those around you?

I have seen many talented paddlers give up because they “don’t see a point”. Why work hard when my teammates don’t care? Why show up when others aren’t going to try as hard? How are we going to succeed when I’m the only one? On the flip side, I’ve also seen many newer paddlers exhibit a case of “I’ll never be that good”. Why keep trying when he’s always on the A crew, and I’ll never get a spot? Why should we keep pushing when it’s always those two teams fighting for first and second?

I have definitely fallen prey to these thoughts before. There has been times, as the captain of my team, when I thought about disbanding the team. The team was on a downward spiral and seemed to hang by a thin thread. Can I improve these paddlers anymore? How long will it take us to get better? Why keep trying at this? What’s the point? There were so many nay-sayers, so many haters who said it can’t be done, who said I couldn’t get it done. But it turned out that my biggest nay-sayer, the only one that mattered, was myself.

It turned out that my biggest nay-sayer, the only one that mattered, was myself.

However, the answers to all of my questions came from this one simple thought: I am good enough. The reason I can’t disband my team is because I have a vision, and I can offer something that no one else can. My vision is grand; my vision is magnificent; my vision is awesome! Perhaps I am a stubborn person, but I wasn’t going to start something and not finish it, even if it’s only been started in my head.

If believing in myself was the ignition, then believing in my teammates was like stepping on the gas. Without a champion’s mindset yourself, your journey will not even begin. Without believing in the potential of others, your journey will not go very far. I’ve always believed in myself and what I can do, but things didn’t really start changing until I made a commitment to believe in others. I started investing my time and energy in others. I started sharing my plans and thoughts with people. I started treating everyone as they are an important piece of the puzzle. My model changed from “How do I get value from this team?” to “How can we as a team be of value?” 

Without a champion’s mindset yourself, your journey will not even begin. Without believing in the potential of others, your journey will not go very far.

Time and time again, I am surprised by people’s motivation, their competency, and their ability to be leaders, provided that I know why they are on the team, what they want to do, and what they are good at. Then, all I have to do is to enable them to be their best selves and each of them will give value to the team in his/her own unique way.


So, here are the answers that I’ve come to.

  1. You do have influence on others. It’s not easy, it takes hard work, but it’s possible. Learn how to give positive and constructive feedback. Take the time and energy to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for each person, because each person is different. Start from people’s strengths and motivation, because changing someone is hard but getting someone to be better at something they already enjoy is easy.
  2. You can teach everyone what a champion does and inspire them to achieve it. However, you won’t be able to achieve this unless you believe that everyone has the potential of a champion. You can’t pick and choose who you invest your time and energy in, because you never know who’s going to surprise you.
  3. Great teams are not great because they have great talent. Great teams are great because they grow talent. They invest in their paddlers, make everyone better, and foster champions. Of course, great leaders are important. But, what leaders do is even more important. Great leaders believe in others, teach the process to succeed, and collaborate with others to make things happen.

In the words of the co-founder of UCLA Dragon Boat:

“Dragon boat breeds good people.”

Through the tough times of my paddling and coaching career, this statement has kept me going. When I’ve had to ask myself “What’s the point?”, I know the point is that I am part of a generation of great people who’s been bred by this sport to be strong athletes, caring friends, and compassionate leaders. Now, I have the responsibility to help carry this on to the next generation.