(Part 1 of 2) Build something bigger than yourself

Work for your business, not in your business (Part 1)

As I have graduated and stepped into a professional life, I’ve learned so many lessons from work that are applicable to coaching and leading effectively. One of the most important lessons is how to do higher level work to further advance your organization, instead of being overtaken by busy work.

Just 6 years ago, the school that I teach in was a typical low-performing school in the inner city of Richmond. Now, we are a nationally ranked school in a multi-million dollar building. All of this growth and success is made possible by the tremendous leadership of our principal, a quiet woman standing 5’1” on a good day. There are people who are much better at dealing with students, people better at coaching teachers, people who’s been at our school for longer, but yet, she is the one that puts it all together. As little as I have directly worked with her, I have learned so much about leadership precisely by seeing how little she shows of it.

She has really taught me to work for the business, not in the business. Instead of seeing the school as an organization of tasks that needs to be done by people, she sees it as an organization of people who can work on tasks to better the school. There are some important distinctions hidden in that small shift in mindset. 1) The first mindset assumes a fixed set of tasks needed to keep the organization alive, while the second acknowledges that people can often come up with new and exciting ways to make things better. 2) The first one dictates that the role of a leader is to manage tasks. If the task falls short, it is the leader’s fault. The second dictates that the leader manages people. If the task falls short, the leader works with the person to problem solve. 3) The first puts the power on the leader, as the leader manages the tasks and takes ownership of them. The second does not assume where the power lies, as the leader and the people negotiate the tasks and the products together.

This is not to say that the job of the leader is simply to choose people to do things and leave them to their own accords. The job of a leader in this model is invest time and energy on people and not tasks, on skills and not procedures, on systems and not fixes. It is a shift in priorities and focus that will create more return for the leader’s effort:

  1. Think big picture. Look far and wide. Dream big, and come up with big goals.
  2. Think systems. How can organization of people and tasks be formalized?
  3. Think people. Who has the passion, talent, and bandwidth to do this?
  4. Think tasks. What needs to be done?

Notice that tasks are on the lowest priority for the leader. Even “people” is not high on the priority. Of course, levels 3 and 4 are the ONLY ways a leader has connection with anything in reality, but steps 1 and 2 needs to happen in the mind first before anything can happen in reality. When leaders do not have big dreams and hefty goals, they become stagnant. When leaders handle problems with fixes and not systematic changes, results don’t last.

At level 4, you are merely working in your team, not working for it. If you are, on a daily basis, focused on the tasks that needs to be done, you are merely keeping your team alive. In Part 2, you can read about how I’ve learned to spend less time on Level 4, so that I can spend more time on Levels 1 – 3, working to grow my team!


Lessons on professionalism, community, & higher education from Coaching & Physical Therapy – Bryan K. Wong

The following post has been adapted from essays and statements written and submitted for a professional context/setting. Thus, be mindful in its usage, but please also share as an inspiration for others to write about dragonboating and the impact it has made in their lives in their journey, pursuit of professional advancement, and higher education.


It is not until I find common ground in conversation or demonstrate compassion that I am able to penetrate the patient-provider barrier, coach-athlete wall, and galvanize a once uninspired individual to bring about change.

The byproduct of practicing professionalism is the ability to build trust, which is paramount to building relationships with clients and practicing Physical Therapy and as a coach. As a coach, PT aide, and student, I have built the capacity to act as a professional, namely through virtues of excellence, accountability, compassion, and integrity.

As a dragonboat coach, much as I would as a PT, we build trust and gain compliance through a commitment to excellence and integrity. We first offered excellence by creating a 6 week program that drew from research-based studies on optimal sports performance( DUP-Block Methods from Cal Dietz’s Triphasic Training ). In addition, in delineating program specifics to the team, we effectively stymied concerns, and gained our member’s trust. Only when excellence was communicated were we able to gain our athlete’s buy in. Coaching also taught me the value of practicing integrity & accountability; to be aboveboard in promises and expectations of athletes was paramount in building trust through professionalism. For example, efforts to start and end practices on time showed athletes that coaches were mindful of other duties. Executing outlined expectations/workouts for a particular practice further allowed athletes to place trust in the seriousness of my plans for the team.

The importance of these lessons can be applied in coaching any sport. Responsible for most of USPA Powerlifter, Tiffani’s, training – it is my professional duty to her to offer excellence not only by outlining the validity and academic inspirations that the workouts drew from, but also actively educate the ahtlete so that they do not just go through the motions but then become engaged in their training. This not only leads to a better mind-body connection, but often leads to tangible results.

Lastly, through my experiences in and out of a clinic, I have learned to breach the perceived didactic role of teacher and mollify patient vulnerability with compassion by sharing details of my own life, while empathizing with details from theirs. It is not until I find common ground in conversation or demonstrate compassion that I am able to penetrate the patient-provider barrier, coach-athlete wall, and galvanize a once uninspired individual to bring about change. Teaching with integrity, however, in addition to compassion, is as of equal importance in eliciting trust. Allowing for short cuts in performance would inevitably short change the patient’s/athlete’s progression. Thus, when exercises are difficult, it is crucial to ask for their best efforts and relate expectations. Furthermore, the integrity to also be forward with my own shortcomings and seek help when needed, make for a professional and rewarding experience for every party involved.

Community & Edcuation


But why should any athlete listen to my advice, no matter how excellent, compassionate, and professional my coaching may be?

While scholastics in Chinese culture belied the benefits of exercise, participating in sports such as basketball and dragonboating established my sense of duty to not only spread the importance of education, but also the education of health, wellness, and fitness to change the perception of exercise in Chinese-American culture.

In college, I influenced the Chinese-American community on campus as president of the Chinese Student Association and founded a college dragon boat team. The dragon boat community introduced to me the benefits of exercise, & contributed to my mastery of teamwork, leadership, discipline. Unfortunately, I found it was also a community that showed a considerable lack of knowledge in injury prevention. Most of the people who endured injuries had no education for rehabilitation. Through coaching, I realized how little education I received in my life on sports performance & injury prevention. Intrinsically, I sought education from various resources, and learned to rely on research articles from sports journals & videos on mobility created by Physical Therapists, such as Dr. Kelly Starrett. I serendipitously had my first encounter with the profession of Physical Therapy, and saw the knowledge and influence to community he attained through his graduate education.

As a community leader, I can continue to enact conversation in the dragon boat community through the inception of the community’s only podcast, give basic mobility recommendations, and implement scientific studies as coach of a competitive adult team. But why should any athlete listen to my advice, no matter how excellent, compassionate, and professional my coaching may be? After all, there are no certifications or degrees that I have to support my independent studies. Without further education and attaining a Graduate Degree, I have also found it difficult to directly affect the Chinese-American community to change its stance on the importance of the body. Thus, I developed a vision where I could promote wellness to my community by utilizing outreach and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.  

The Role of a Physical Therapist & Coaching

A life guard saves you when you are already drowning, while a swim coach, gives you instruction and gives you the tools to actually swim.

Physical Therapists are charged with roles as healers & coaches. One way we help with immediate rehabilitation, as an aide, is through teaching corrective exercises. In one instance, by having a right-knee patient perform ‘step-downs’, I provided an immediate means to rehabilitation, motor control, strength, and function. In doing so, however, I also served as a coach & teacher. In addition to the physical rehabilitation attained from performing the exercise, I am then given the opportunity to educate the patient on the importance and proper technique of their exercise. Thus, this patient who coincidentally suffered from minor instability in the other knee, was empowered with not only the know-how & why in rehabilitating the original knee, but can now be proactive in strengthening the other. Comparably, the physical therapists that I observe manage needs of patients by first performing manual therapy to facilitate change, dovetailed by educating patients, and prescribing rehabilitation programs, stretches, & exercises to prevent further harm and strengthen supporting parts to the injury.

As a dragonboat coach, I get to participate in the education and the training, but I seldom if at all, engage in an athlete’s immediate recovery, the way a doctor or surgeon would. This phenomenon…is best summarized by Greg Glassman’s, founder of CrossFit, analogy. A life guard saves you when you are already drowning, while a swim coach, gives you instruction and gives you the tools to actually swim. While medical doctors, surgeons, and nurses, just as lifeguards, are there to save lives in emergencies, and give immediate care, they do not teach us how to properly train after surgery, or how to take preventative measures. Nor do coaches and trainers, much like a swim coach, engage in resuscitation and treatment. Physical Therapists get the distinction of being both the lifeguard and swim coach at once – both engaging in the immediate treatment of a patient, and programming of future rehabilitation. As such, the practice of Physical Therapy will allow me to not only treat patients as other health-care providers do, whilst also allowing me to develop my leadership and skills as a coach and practice my love for coaching & educating in the community.

My experience with CAU at Ravenna for the Club Crew Championships- by Sally Chou

California United disbanded in December of 2014 but I still express my deepest gratitude for my experience until this day. My teammates and I have kept in close contact and I think it’s safe to say that we all agree CAU has been one of the bigger highlights in our paddling careers.

I had the opportunity to compete on Team USA’s u24 team at Welland last year. I must say that racing at worlds multiple times has taught me a lot about holding my composure better this year. As exciting as it is to see my physique and paddling abilities change, I’ve been more humbled over the years as I mature in my mental game and attitude.

California United: Past, Present, Future
October 14, 2014

Road to Ravenna:

In 2011, a very inadequately prepared and hastily thrown together Team USA competed in the IDBF World Championships in Tampa, Florida and walked away not only empty handed but extremely disappointed and embarrassed. Fueled by a desire to fill in the gaping holes of dissatisfaction, a small team of ex-Tampa paddlers began the process of establishing a competitive program to develop collegiate paddlers into athletes by exposing them to the international level of dragon boating.

California United, formally California u23, had a tremendous start to say the least. William Lin and Alexander Yu’s program focused on–to put it plainly- just understanding paddling. They recruited roughly a hundred ignorant college students, broke down the underlying movements of the traditional dragon boat stroke, and taught efficiency – all through a combination of on-water and in-classroom instruction, lecture slides, real time data, and a plethora of Physics analogies.

We were mind blown after the first clinic. I remember how Fred and I went running back to our college team that night, wanting to teach the rest of our teammates everything we had just learned. Little did we know all the other clinic-attendees were doing the same! This triggered a movement in collegiate dragon boat. I saw new leadership rise up, reinvented strokes, the urgency to train on small boats, and thus, much faster competition. For the first time ever, paddlers suddenly became conscientious of their efforts on the water. Leaders didn’t mindlessly coach anymore; exercises and technique work was thought out with purpose. Understanding translated into results. Within one year, collegiate teams became the fastest teams in California.

Within two years, our efforts resulted in an official set roster of 30 paddlers, signed up to compete for a bid and qualify as a crew for the 2014 IDBF Club Crew World Championships held in Ravenna, Italy in August of 2014.

Of course as a newly established team with high ambitions, we ran into many roadblocks on the way to qualifiers. Changing our name from CAu23 to California United and vying for a spot in Premier rather than the u23 category instantly jeopardized any support from organizations because it invalidated our vision for youth development. We were seen no different from any other adult team at this point. Although this was untrue and was not our intention, this unforeseen hurdle hurt our team financially and structurally.

Although I barely remember the races to this day, I’ll never forget the moment the announcement for the final results came out. The happiness of winning the Premier Open bid was quickly overshadowed by the shock of losing the bid for Premier Mixed. We stood together as a team, feeling the weight of disappointment that this could be the end of our program. We asked ourselves a lot of hard questions that day. Do we move forward with only bringing one team? Do we cut out a majority of our women and only race with our top 20 men/women? What will training look like from now on?

A hard decision was made to go forward and train for u24 Mixed and Premier Open but ooverall motivation was low. We constantly juggled multiple college team schedules. Headcounts for practices and race were always below requisite. There was a long struggle of finding a new head coach when Will wasn’t available anymore. Oh, and we had no money. Sending forty collegiate paddlers to an international race for a week seemed a daunting task yet our many supporters along the way somehow made it happen.

One full year of asking for petty donations and hearing every argument possibly made… the best news came just one month shy of Worlds, August of 2014: we had officially been bumped up to Premier Mixed.

Reality at Ravenna:

Nothing could have prepared us for Ravenna besides being at Ravenna itself.

I still remember day one all too well. I remember standing in line for marshaling and being towered by the German, Ukraine, Canadian, and even Chinese teams. We knew that this wasn’t our average local competition anymore and the butterflies flitted my stomach as we stood in unfamiliar territory.

I even remember sitting on the boat for our first practice before the races even started, jet lagged yet executing our pieces. Alex looked around and then backs at us.
“You guys look f*ing good… but so does every other team out here.”
We just nodded. He was right. Worlds was a reality, and we were sitting in a boat in the middle of it. Unbelievable.
I could get into the small technicalities of each race piece, how we did, how we felt, and the outcomes and result – but I won’t.

A big majority of our pieces was a fight between executing too slow of a rate and falling behind versus pushing too high of a rate and losing our catch in the water. When you take three strokes and see that you’re already half a boat behind, the natural response is to panic – and that’s exactly what we did, multiple times.

One of the most frustrating moments from the entire week was the day we raced the Premier Mixed 500m heats. This was our forte and what we had practiced for the past three years. We had made it all the way to semifinals without any eliminations and we sat in the boat at the starting line, knowing it was our race to take. The horn blew and we surged on the start. We were one seat ahead of everyone else. Two ahead, with the others close behind. The boats were so close together you could hear five other drummers screaming jumbled inside your head. We hit the 250m halfway mark, and with one push from the mid-body of the boat, our stroke rate ramped up to something impossible and our piece fell apart. Three boats passed us. It ended so quickly we didn’t even know what happened.

We were 0.5 seconds away from getting into Premier Mixed Grand Finals that day. GRAND FINALS. We could have achieved greatness. We sat in our tent defeated, sitting in deafening silence. Not only were our coaches disappointed in us, we knew it was on ourselves to just race just like how we had practiced it every time and we failed to do so. All we had to do was walk through the open door, yet we shut it on ourselves.

The bottom line wasn’t that we were completely unprepared fitness-wise or paddling-wise for Worlds (although, we had to work on that too) – a lot of it was the lack of emotional skill. The ability to regulate your competitive temperament and your emotional IQ in the middle of a race is critical to staying resilient to the pressure of the other teams. Needless to say, we didn’t fare well when a boat was next to us. It made us nervous… and guess what? We lost the mental game. World competition demands perfection so immaculate, one mistake can make you fall behind in those seemingly small milliseconds.  Lesson learned.

We’ve had a couple good pieces and learned a lot from our bad ones. Every time we got off the boat, we talked about what needed to be fixed and what adjustments had to be made. I loved how we became increasingly aware of ourselves the next piece around.  I think that this ability to assess each part of our stroke by being our own best critic was fundamental in the growth of each paddler and at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important. A lot of the teams came to Worlds to medal, but we came for the experience, and in the process, we learned more about ourselves than we had expected to.

After our last race, we gathered per usual, but this time, we wrapped our arms around each other as my teammates shared how much CAU meant to them along with all the great things we were able to accomplish together. One paddler said it best: “It feels damn good to be paddling with others who only want to be the best.” And it’s true. These were the teammates who inspired me to get out on the water every day after work, drove hundreds of miles to get to clinics and practices up and down California, put in that extra effort to make sure we could win by that extra second, paddled multiple times a day, and sacrificed a lot of money to be at worlds. I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity. Til this day, CAU is home.

Realizations Post-Ravenna:

At the end of the day, California United fulfilled the vision of developing collegiate paddlers into international athletes. The fact that many teams came up to congratulate our efforts showed that we demonstrated ourselves to be a worthy contender on the world stage. CAU may have brought this team together temporarily for the opportunity to experience high level racing, but now these paddlers are permanent examples to their home teams, the coaches of students and adults alike, and most importantly, the organizers, mentors, and the founders of projects and new ideas.

California, now I urge you to take this step forward.
CAU did a lot for the community of California but was only able accomplish so much these past three years. Don’t settle for being mediocre. I want to see individuals challenge each other, fostering a diverse, healthy, and competitive atmosphere for growth in the community of California. I want to see small boats racing each other, people getting faster, coaches collaborating with other coaches, more competitive edge, a network of relationships spanning up and down California and across the country, forums for discussions and ideas, new projects underway…
There are many things to be done and it starts with you.


And now, for some recognition because you guys have NO idea how much work it takes to make a team from scratch. There is so much time spent selecting and testing individual paddlers, planning multiple races and clinics for 40 paddlers spread throughout California, and then figuring out how to bring them all to Italy.

Thank you –
– CDBA, NAC, SCDBC for your continuous support and use of facilities.
– Diane McCabe and Scott Matsunami for being our “program parents” and fighting for us on every level.
– William Lin and Jason Cheng for being the best possible head coaches; you have both taught us dragon boat that literally changed how we see paddling for the rest of our lives.
– And last but not least – our fearless leader Alexander Yu because this guy knew exactly what this team needed each step of the way down to each individual need, and basically put his life on hold for three years to see us succeed. You might not have known this, but you changed the face of paddling in California. Thank you.