Preventing Neck/Upper Back Pain: A discussion on coaching cues & interventions

Article Objectives

  • Briefly List/bring awareness to relevant muscles of the back/neck
  • Discuss the cue of keeping your head up/Recognize a common movement pattern
  • Possible Interventions for thoracic mobility/Neck Pain


  1. Intro – “Keep your head up/look forward!”
  2. Anatomy
  3. Movement Faults
  4. Considerations and Conclusion
  5. Interventions

If you wonder why your paddler always keeps their head down and forgets to look forward in the boat, consider looking at their upper backs.


While the spine is a complex beast to comprehend, there are very simple, quick, and applicable ways that we could make immediate changes in our performance, and pain levels.

Today we discuss the cue “keep your head up” and “look up when you paddle”. These cues may come with the right intent, yet may have insidious effects, unbeknownst to the coaches. A coach uses these cues to prompt the athlete to look at the strokers ahead so that they can maintain timing within the boat. But let’s say your athlete has corrected their error thanks to your cue and is now looking up towards the front of the boat, problem solved…right?

Right. and Wrong.

Let’s take a deeper look.


Anatomy Overview (Click here for in depth review of spine) *Skip this section and go to “Movement Faults” if not interested in specific anatomy component*

Your posterior neck/upper back muscles along with the rest of your posterior chain, and its ligaments are responsible for limiting forward flexion in the neck/upper back.

The upper trap (part of the trapezius) is one such muscle. Additionally, one of its main actions is to initiate elevation and upward rotation of your scapula. When you paddle, you need your scapula to be stable, yet free to move so that you can maximize motion at the shoulder and minimize risk of injury.

In a forward posture – rounded upper back/neck, our upper trapezius muscle that traverses our spine, scapula, and the base of our skulls will be inefficiently recruited more as a stabilizer/elevator than an upward rotator of the scapula. Furthermore, your levator scapulae, splenius capitis/cervicis, semispinalis capitis/cervis, and erector spinalis muscles will be forced to contract more than necessary. In this position, the levator scapulae, will further act as a retractor and elevator of our scapula, and downward rotator countering what upper, middle, and lower trapezius should be doing. Thus, our entire scapulothoracic rhythm is compromised and our muscles are overused in such a slouched position.

superficial back
The trapezius muscle as a whole helps with elevation, retration, and upward rotation of the scapula which assits with normal movement in the shoulder. It also helps to extend the skull.
intermediate back
These muscles are deep to the latissimus Dorsi and trapezius muscles. They help with stabilization of the back, and extension of the head/neck.


Your anterior neck consists of muscles such as the sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, and longus colli/capitis. Together, they act to assist with flexion at the head and neck. More specifically however, your deep neck flexors – longus colli/capitis, who’s axis of rotation lies close to the anterior vertebral bodies, works syngeristically with the upper trapezius muscle of the back. They therefore not only assist with craniocervical flexion, but indirectly act to help with the scapulothoracic rhythm mentioned above.

This picture depicts the deep neck flexors – longus capitis/colli. Scalenes are also depicted.







The more forward your neck and upper back is, the more shortened your SCM (sternocleidomastoid) and scalenes become. As they have a role in accessory respiration, respiration patterns may become more shallow and belabored. Lastly, your DNF (deep neck flexors) become underactive and is unable to assist with scapulothoracic rhythm.

With this forward head posture set into motion, our posterior neck muscles – semispinales, splenius, upper trap, suboccipital muscles will have to constantly contract to keep our heads up right, leading to shortened and tigntened muscles in the back of our necks.

upper cross syndrome
This image conceptualizes some of the muscle imbalances/compensations that develop with poor posture.

Movement Faults

In normal upright standing, our anterior muscles and posterior muscles are in a constant tug of war to stabilize our bodies to keep our center of mass around anterior to our S2 vertebrae. When we carry a box, our center of gravity is pulled in front of us, thus our back muscles, posterior neck muscles, and ligaments work harder to keep us from falling flat on our face. Too much of this strain could lead to injury in our low backs. This is a reason why pregnant women often get back pain. Contrary to this, when we wear backpacks at school, our COG (center of gravity) is shifted behind us. To compensate for this, we often slouch forward in our upperbacks.

There are many activities that we partake in our daily lives that put us in such a forward position. When somebody sits and works at a desk all day, all their essentials are placed in front of them. Working and standing at a cash register, you reach forward to distribute change. Overtime, individuals are likely to develop a forward posture in their upper back, known as thoracic hyperkyphosis, as demonstrated in the image below. Think of this position like holding the box, being pregnant, or holding any heavy item in front of you for a long time. Your COG is displaced anteriorly, placing the strain in our posterior chain.

sitting posture

Eventually, our rounded posture becomes the norm. After sitting in this rounded position all day, students will put on their backpacks, further cueing our bodies to lean forward just as they would sitting at a desk.

Spinal Curvature

What doesn’t help our cause is the fact that naturally, our thoracic spine/upper back is shaped in a manner that will reenforce some forward posture.  In addition, the center of mass of our heads already falls anterior to the line of pull as evidenced in Figure A.

flexion moment
Fig. A

The problems begin to compound with excessive thoracic kyphosis in our upper backs as additional strain in our posterior neck is required to keep our head/eyes looking forward. If we do not keep our heads upright, we would always be looking down, and the body undoubtedly decides that that would be an inconvenient position to walk around in. Thus, our excessive thoracic kyphosis is often coupled with excessive cervical lordosis, aka strain in your neck.Untitled


Kyphosis-Normal-vs-Hyperreading posture

When we read a book for example in front of us on a low table, or eat a meal – positions that do not require hinging from the posterior neck, our superficial neck muscles in the front will be grow shortened, and our deeper neck flexors that help us keep a neutral positioning at the head will grow weak. This is especially the case for an individual that sits in this forward-slouched position all day. But now when we stand and hold that book in front of us, instead of standing erect with normal posture, we will be more forward/hunched with our necks hyperextended straining to keep our heads up right.

Dragonboat, then is not unique in its demands that ask us to lean forward to begin our stroke, but it certainly isn’t forgiving to the individual who fails to correct the movement patterns developed from years of working with a slumped upper back.

compensation thoracic
Fig. B: A paddler with a rounded upper back will crane at their neck to keep their eyes forward in the boat. This leads to pain and overly active upper back/posterior neck muscles.

Figure B demonstrates 2 paddlers (the middle/right images depict the same paddler). The 1st paddler maintains rigidity throughout the spine and hip hinges properly, affording the opportunity to keep his eyes forward with minimum strain to the neck/upper back. Paddler 2 can be described as the same person that we discussed above: always in a forward posture, sitting at a desk all day, unable to attain full thoracic extension. Even if the athlete intiated the stroke with a proper hip hinge, the curvature of his spine and compensated structures leads to a natural downward trajectory and hanging of the head.

The 1st and 3rd paddler present with pretty rounded upper backs during their pull, what do you think would happen if you cued them to keep their heads up?

The furthest right paddler in Figure B is what happens when the posterior neck tightening compensation is made, whether it be the athlete forcing themselves to look up/forward, or whether it be the coach cueing the athlete to do so.

When an athlete is rounded in their upper back(thoracic hyperkyphosis), their back muscles (traps, levator, erector spinae, splenius/semispinalis – anything that attaches from the spine/scapula directly to the head/neck) will have to work harder to counter the forward flexion/flexion moment in our backs during the catch/pull. Rather, if an athlete is able to maintain a more upright positioning, these muscles won’t have to work as hard.

From a body-wellness standpoint, unecessary strain in the posterior neck then leads to the  bouts of neck pain, overused/underused muscles, changes in muscle length, stiffness, and unecessary fatigue that paddlers often complain about during/after practice.  From a biomechanical standpoint, this is inefficient because you begin to habitually use your mid-back segments/muscles as a fulcrum to drive your blades down, rather than focusing on anchoring with your hips to bring your boat forward to the water.

Considerations, Conclusion, & Interventions

By telling an athlete to keep their head up or to look forward, we might be missing the bigger picture that there is another movement dysfunction involved – excessive thoracic kyphosis that leads to craning at the neck. We have not even begun to discuss the implications of limited low back mobility and why this may lead someone to slouch in their upper backs, but at least this is a start.

The most egregious of anomalies (super forward posture in the neck) are typically symptoms of a larger problem that requires digging. Don’t just fix local symptoms, strive to correct global faults.

If the only goal is to correct the error in timing – then sure, maybe the problem is partially corrected. But our job as coaches/athletes should be more involved.  A coach’s job should never be to point at a error and tell an athlete to make a fix. A coach’s job should be to point at a error and ask “Isn’t that strange. Why are they making that error, and what is causing the athlete to do that?” We have an obligation to our team performance, but most importantly an obligation to minimize injury to individuals that make up the team – let’s not lose sight of that fact.

There are two general scenarios for which I could forsee the cue of “looking up/keep your head up” being implemented.

  1. The newer paddler or seasoned athlete that simply does need a quick reminder to not focus so much on their own paddles.
  2.  The athlete with structural compensations, or inadequate motor control/coordination.

While we may luck out when using this cue with the first athlete, regularly implementing the aforementioned cue may reinforce suboptimal positions and performance in the latter athlete. Know when to use what cue.

This concept of excessive rounding in the upper back leading to neck pain/straining is even more relevant when considering the height of your craft in relation to the water and where you are sitting in the boat. The higher off the water you are, the more likely you are to see exaggerations in the poor posture dissected in today’s discussion. Thus, the higher off the water you are, the more pertinent it is that you find a safe and efficient way to approximate your blades to the water for a solid pull without compromising technique.

Below are some basic interventions that you may consider implementing to combat the neck pain/slumped stroke.


Cues/Easy Fixes

  1. “Sit Up Right”, “Lead with your chest” – By using these words instead of “look up/look forward”, you are able to specifically address the movement dysfunction at large. A paddler who leads with his/her chest and sits more up right is likely to have an easier time looking forward at the paddlers in front.
  2. Don’t reach as far forward – Reaching forward allows the paddler to have an earlier catch/longer stroke. However, reaching too far forward will lead to compensations – often a hunched back/craned neck. Telling the athlete to not reach as far forward, and not to take as long a stroke will allow them to work on technique within their means.

Motor Control

1.Chin Nods (Deep Neck Flexors)/Chin Nods w/ Lacrosse Ball – In the anatomy section, we analyzed the relationship of your upper back muscles and muscles of your neck. To better involve your scapulothoracic rhythm with your upper trap properly, to help relax the overly used muscles (levator, SCM, Scalenes, pecs), and to engage the deep neck flexor muscles that help stabilze your head, you might consider using this exercise. Using the lacrosse ball depicted in the  pictures will help add an external cue and allow for a deeper stretch in the back of the neck.

Start with a relatively neutral head. Place ball right at the junction between your neck and head
Gently do a light nod and create a slight “double chin”. Be careful not to tilt your head too far down. Just nod enough to engage your deep neck muscles.












2. Core stabilizing Exercises

Often times, the movement dysfunctions discussed in this article can be from poor core control. This does not mean that someone’s core is weak – rather, the athlete may not know how to engage their core properly when rotating or paddling. It is therefore recommended to begin implementing more core work pre-paddling to wake up the muscles of the core and back! The images below aren’t necessarily the ones I would prescribe to just anyone, but it gives you a general sense of how you could manipulate one exercise to target different things and parts of the stroke.

Core 3

Core 4
These 1st two pictures show how you can use a band to engage top arm drive, lats,  & flexion and extension from the hip while maintaining a flat neutral back.


Core 2
These two pictures demonstrate how holding the band with one arm, instead of two, adds an anti-rotational component to keep your spine/body from shifting.


1.Thoracic Ext. Against the Wall

The goal of this exercise is to combat poor posture. It helps us open up into extension in the back and external rotation of the shoulders/arms. This allows our shortened pec muscles to open up and helps our back find better positioning in extension. The stretch may be felt in the chest, shoulders, upper back, mid back, and even low back. Adding a paddle or PVC pipe will help you attain a different variation of this stretch.

Start with arms out to your sides and pretend that you are making a snow angel.
As you bring your arms upwards to complete the snow angel, take note of any stiff areas and oscilate in that region to help losen any stiffness.













Keep back lower back flat and butt against the wall. Start with arms at a right angle with paddle behin your head.
Without shrugging, try to extend your arms upwards while maintaining contact with the wall with your back and arms.
Note how my back approximates to the wall. These exercises can also be done with a foam roller placed vertically along the body while laying on it, and is less aggressive than this iteration of the stretch





















2. Hip Hinge

The hip hinge can be a great tool to teach somebody how to “lead with their chest” and hinge from the hips as they go forward in their stroke. By pushing the paddle or pvc pipe into the crease of the hips, you teach the paddler how to sit back into the stroke while bringing their bodies forward. Make sure that you keep good spinal integrity, otherwise it renders this exercise useless!


If the athlete still tends to round at the spine first, use the paddle or PVC pipe along the length of their spine an make them hinge with the external feedback.


















Hope you guys learned something from this article! As always, drop a line if you have any questions.



Neumann, DA. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System. Mosby, St Louis, 2002

Netter, F. H. Atlas of Human Anatomy, Philadelphia, PA: Saunders/Elsevier. Harvard, 5th Ed., 2010

Pawlowsky, S. PT 742 – Thoracic Spine Lecture. Cervical Spine Lecture UCSF/SFSU Physical Therapy, 2018


The Complexity of the Spine

Low back pain, and other such injuries are all too common in the sport of dragonboating. Below is a fairly detailed essay on the spine, its related structures, and relevance to this sport. It is quite dense, but I do my best to make this piece as accessible to as wide an audience as I can.

The piece is broken in 4 sections:

  1. Orientation & Surrounding Structures (anatomy heavy)
  2. Intro to Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar Spine (kinesiology heavy)
  3. Why All This is Relevant and Differences Throughout the Spine (application)
  4. Conclusion (final thoughts)

Lastly, there are 4 “Check-ins:” throughout the piece. Use these as mental breaks, rest stops, thought pieces, and checks for conceptual understanding. Some questions are straightforward, while others are more challenging.


Post Objectives

  • Orientation of the spine
  • Overview of articulating structures, discs, muscles, and nerve roots.
  • Compare and contrast basic components of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine.
  • Demonstrate how structural differences within each vertebrae will influence our movement.
  • Highlight relevance to sport of dragonboating

Orientation & Surrounding Structures


Spinal Segments.JPG
Fig. A

The spine is our “backbone”, which consists of numerous lego pieces called vertebrae, and sits in the pelvis (sitbone). To orient ourselves, let’s first refer to Figure A. From left to right, we have an anterior- frontal view (imagine looking at a person face to face); a sagittal view from anterior to posterior (someone standing sideways, but facing the left); and a posterior-frontal view (standing directly behind someone in line in elementary school, waiting to go out to recess).

There are several named sections of vertebrae grouped by function, structural differences, and embrology – 7 Cervical, 12 Thoracic, 5 Lumbar, 5 “fused” Sacral (essentially one bone), and 3-4 fused Coccygeal segments known as the coccyx.

Within our vertebral column (spine) lies an extension of our brains – the spinal cord. This structure gives way to our nerves for both sensory/motor feedback and control, exiting through various levels of the spine.spinal cord.JPG


In addition, as seen in Figure B below, each part of the spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, etc.) holds a different Anterior to Posterior (front to back) curvature.


Spinal Curvature
Fig. B



The different curves provide rigidity/stability, while giving us mobility to move in different directions. The curves also allow us to better absorb various loads. (For reader’s knowledge/reference: the cervical spine holds a lordodic curve, the thoracic spine – kyphotic, lumbar – lordodic, and sacral/coccyx – kyphotic).

Check-in #1: Why isn’t our spine shaped like a straight rod, would this not give us maximum rigidity? On the contrary, why doesn’t our spine just have one curve to provide flexibility?

Discs, Nerves, Ligaments and Musculoskeletal Structures

This section isn’t necessarily important for the overarching premise of today’s post, but I would be remiss to not mention the clinical and day-to-day relevance of the structures in this section. If you are pressed for time, skip ahead to the “Intro to the Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar Spine”.

If our vertebrae were just stacked one on top of another, that would be very uncomfortable, and we’d live our lives with constant bone on bone articulation, which is definitely less than ideal.

Luckily for us, we have something called intervertebral discs that are wedged inbetween each vertebrae.

nerves and disc
Fig. C

As illustrated in Figure C, discs serve to support the spine, absorb, and redistribute forces. In Figure D, The two cylindrical shapes sandwiching the translucent space represent the two vertebrae, and the middle portion illustrating the buoyancy and function of the discs.

Fig. D


So, how do we sense changes in movement, receive sensory feedback, and things like pain? Introducing, nerves.

nerves comic.jpg

Nerves are essential for both sensory and motor control, and often (thoughtlessly) tied to LBP. The nerves and their roots that innervate and modulate our actions/reactions exit through the spinal cord. Nerve intrapment or impingement therefore could cause a lot of discomfort, loss of sensory/motor function, and pain.

intervertebral foramin
Fig. E

The nerves exit through the Intervertebral foramen shown in Figure E, while the spinal cord traverses the Vertebral canal down the spine.

Certain movements can place additional stress to the discs and nerves, unbeknownst to the everyday joe, athlete, or paddler, and is often on the forefront of differential diagnosis for a clinician.

Last little bit for this section: there are numerous muscles and ligaments that support the spine that I will save for another post. With numerous layers in muscularture providing movement/stability, despite what some people might think, our backs are one of the most protected areas of our body.

Below is a transverse cross-section of our lumbar spine (imagine laying down on your back and taking your hand, and making a horizontal cut across your body and being able to look down from a “birds-eye view”), for reference.

back stabilizers and layers


We will now shift our focus to the intricacies of the Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar spine.

Check-in #2: If somebody has an impinged nerve on the left side of their body, do you expect to see them shift their torso to the left or the right?

Intro to the Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar Spine

cervical thoracic lumbar

While there are many parts of the spine, the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar are responsible for most of our spinal movement. These regions represent the neck/upper back, upper-mid back, and low back respectively.


Remember, there are 7 Cervical vertebrae, 12 Thoracic, and 5 Lumbar. Each vertebrae is named in sequential order. So, C4 in the picture above refers to the 4th Cervical vertebrae – meaning that there are 3 other vertebrae above, and 3 other cervical vertebrae below.

When we talk about motion in the spine, we need to describe what a motion segment is, define how each vertebrae articulate with one another, and delineate the general osteokinematics (different motions available), .

First, let’s look at a single vertebrae.

Single Vertebrae
Fig. F

The vertebrae on the left is drawn from a transverse view, while the one on the right depicts a sagittal view. The pointy prominance in the middle is named the spinous process. It is the inferior-posterior-most aspect of the vertebrae, and could be used to orient yourself whenever you look at the spine. The body is always in front of, or anterior, to the spinous process.

I want to focus your attention to the structures circled in red, called facets. These structures, when articulating with vertebrae above and below are called “Facet Joints” (also, zygapophyseal or apophyseal joint). Each vertebrae has two sets of facet – one set superior, and the other inferior. One set of facet consists of two surfaces, one on each side.

motion segment

The superior facets of one vertebrae, say L3 for example, interact with the inferior facets of the vertebrae above, L2. The inferior facets of the same vertebrae, L3, articulate with the vertebrae below, L4. Thus, two successive vertebrae and its surrounding structures constitute a motion segment – where the respective movement available at that vertebral level is determined by the orientation of the corresponding facets.

Thus, because of these facet joints, the general movements that a motion segment allow are as follows:

osteokinematics of spine

If you don’t follow the table, no sweat. Start by ignoring the middle two columns and focus on the left and right (Common/Other terminology). Essentially, because of your facets, you can move

  1. forwards and backwards (flx/ext) 2. side bend to the L/R (lateral flx) and 3. Rotate left and right (axial rotation)

Check-in # 3: Guess/name one reason why we could rotate so much at our neck and much less so throughout the rest of our back?

Why All This Is Relevant and Differences Throughout the Spine

If you’re sick of all the anatomy and kinesiology up to this point, it’s ok. Imagine doing this for 3 years intensively and subsequently the rest of your life!

If you’re just in love and in awe with the anatomy and kinesiology explained thus far, that’s also ok. Imagine being able to do this for the next 3 years intensively and subsequently the rest of your life!

Hang in there, we’re in the home stretch!

Remember everything you just learned about facet joints and how they are determinants of movement? Well, hopefully this next section helps explain “Check-in #3”, and why desired movement patterns come easier for some paddlers than others!

Cervical v. Thoracic. v. Lumbar

Aside from the change in curvature along the spine that differentiates cervical, thoracic, and lumbar segments, the orientation/angle of the facets at each vertebrae also play a huge role in the function of the respective segments.

In other words, the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine’s facets face different directions. The facets therefore don’t just influence motion, rather they dictate varying types of movement at different parts of the spine.

facet angle and orientation.jpg

It may be hard to tell from the picture above, but the general rule of thumb is that cervical spine facets situate at a 45° angle, like an inclined surface/slide. The thoracic facets incline even greater, at a 15° angle, almost straight up and down. The lumbar spine, angle outwards at 25°, but orient in a inwards direction, facing the spinous process, unlike the cervical and thoracic facets that orient upwards and towards our backs.

Thus, each region of the spine is better at certain movements than others.

Because of the direction of the facets, these are the motions most available at different parts of the spine:

Cervical: Flexion, Extension, Rotation, Side-Bending

Thoracic: Flexion, Extension, Rotation, Side-Bending

Lumbar: Flexion, Extension, Rotation, Side-Bending

*Bolded indicates primary movements at particular spinal level.

Remember, this isn’t to say that you absolutely do not have a certain type of movement at a certain segment of the spine, rather, certain motion is much less available and difficult at certain parts of the spine than at others.

Also, there isn’t a sudden difference in facet orientation at each cervical, thoracic, and lumbar junction, rather there is a gradual change in orientation of the facets that allow for smooth transition of movement from vertebrae to vertebrae.

Relative Motion
This image illustrates that at higher thoracic levels, there is more rotation available than at lower thoracic levels. However, at lower thoracic levels (mid-low back), there is more flexion/extension available. Ability to side-bend (lat. flexion), more or less stays the same.



More On Movement + Compensations

I do not mean to insinuate that motion occurs soley in one plain or direction at a time. In movement, sports, and life, rarely do you just bend forward, or just rotate, or just lean to the side. When a basketball player continuously dribbles a ball between their legs, their spine will often go from a relatively flexed position to a standing position, while their spine goes through some rotation. When you pick something up, you bend from the hips, and sometimes rotate to bring yourself closer to the object.

rotated and flexed.JPG
Coupled motion of the Spine – Flexion + Rotation, Rotation + Side-bending.

This phenomenon, called coupled motion, is particularly evident in dragonboating. In most of the stroke, you are in a forward-flexed position, coupled with spinal rotation. Another example of coupled motion is unintentional side-bending to one side that is accompanied with rotation. This can help explain why an athlete that is asked to not derotate as early during the pull, sometimes can’t help but to collapse and sidebend as a compensation if the rotation can not be held.

Model Paddler
Fig. G, Uncompensated Kinematics, 2016 CDBA College Cup

Looking at Figure G, it is safe to say that overall, his attack position is what we desire to see from our athletes – at least in regards to quality of movement from the spine. Recall, a healthy spine that moves as the facets were meant to move will have the ability to flex forward in the low back (lumbar spine), rotate in the upper thoracic (upper-mid back), and extend his head upwards (cervical spine), so that he could see the strokers ahead. Stability in this position, and the ability to efficiently translate your power throughout the stroke is what helps accelerate the boat.

More often than not, however, paddlers will not be able to hold these positions throughout the stroke. Even when athletes, such as the paddler in Fig. G, are able to find the desired position at the catch, their bodies will find ways to compensate during the pull, much like the paddler in Figure H below.

Compensated Paddler
Fig. H – Compensation, excessive flexion in thoracic spine

Differing athletes, for different reasons will have different capacities and control of the available movement afforded to their spines. Some considerations involving movement dysfunction, changes in range of motion, and strength at the spine include musculoskeletal injury (muscle/ligament sprain/tightness/soreness/fatigue), protection against neurological and discogenic symptoms (nerve/disc pain), restriction of movement in the facet joints, and lack of motor awareness/control.

For example, in Figure H, although her positioning can be attributed to a number of things (inability to associate arm movement with downward movement of spine, etc.), let’s assume that there is a spinal movement dysfunction and that her attack position was the same as the paddler in Figure G. To go from the attack phase to her catch/pull, the athlete could simply bend forward and lower her arms simultaneously from her lumbar spine to help approximate the blade to the water. But, if there is a facet restriction in the lumbar spine, low back movement in flexion and extension will be limited.

Where there is a restriction – there is a way. The body will simply move up and down the chain to the path of least resistance in an attempt to facilitate the desired motion wherever it can be achieved. The result? The blade is successfully buried into the water for the duration of the pull. The cost? An excessively flexed thoracic spine (upper back) that also detracts from the athlete’s ability to maintain rotation.

Before Intervention: Restricted Facet -> Lack of lumbar flexion -> Compensation upstream -> Path of least resistance -> Flexion from cervical and thoracic spine -> Reinforce undesired movement patterns.

After Intervention: Restore motion/mechanics of facet -> Restore healthy lumbar motion -> Path of least resistance -> Flexion from lumbar spine -> Focus on side-bending/rotation in thoracic spine -> Reinforce desired movement patterns.

Earlier, I brought up the example of a paddler who collapses on their side excessively during the pull instead of maintaining the desired rotation. This too, can be attributed to a restricted facet joint, using side-bending as opposed to rotation as the preferred method of motion due to its lack of resistance to movement.

Check-in #4: A paddler who has trouble rotating is not responding well to verbal cues. What tools can you use to help the athlete learn execute the stroke? What are some possible contributing factors to the movement dysfunction?


It can often be frustrating for both the coach and athlete when both parties don’t understand why certain movements come so much easier for some paddlers, while others seem impossible to change. Some of coaching comes from exposure to teaching techniques, some of it from science, and all of it from mutual trust and communication between coach and athlete.

The other thing to be aware of as a coach is, what are you asking of from the individual athlete in front of you? If you are asking them to get their blades deeper into the water, no doubt that eventually they will do so. The question is how. Each athlete will employ different strategies, based on their mobility and control of their bodies to attain the perceived desired results that the coaches request. If you look at their blades in the water  after repeated requests- yes, their blades are now fully buried. But the next question should be, what compensations or movements did the person have to make to get to this position, and why was it so difficult for them to get into the position in question in the first place?

While my last two examples in the section above detailed how facet orientation and restriction in these joints can affect performance outcomes in paddling, I want to reiterate that structural anatomy is just one of many factors that can influence movement and pain. Not everything is as black and white or as clear as it seems. Musculoskeletal injury (muscle/ligament sprain/tightness/soreness/fatigue), protection against neurological and discogenic symptoms (nerve/disc pain), restriction of movement in the facet joints, lack of motor awareness/control, environmental, and psychosocial factors all play a complex role with both movement quality and low back pain.

This post details the structural anatomy of the spine, in hopes of outlining just how involved movement analysis, rehab, and sports performance can be. I also hope that this piece serves as an educational space for those who are interested in the sport of dragonboating + kinesiology, whether you are an athlete, coach, or fellow health care provider.

The goal for everybody should be longevity in their respective fields and sports.

Hopefully this provides one step towards that direction.



Neumann, DA. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System. Mosby, St Louis, 2002

Netter, F. H. Atlas of Human Anatomy, Philadelphia, PA: Saunders/Elsevier. Harvard, 5th Ed., 2010

Pawlowsky, S. PT 742 – Thoracic Spine Lecture. UCSF/SFSU Physical Therapy, 2018

Wanek, L. PT 706 – Structure, Function, Motion of the Spine Lecture. UCSF/SFSU Physical Therapy, 2017

Core Engagement

Dragonboating is a sport that requires not only a great degree of throacic/low back mobility, but also core stability. With the pelvic gurdle relatively glued to the bench while sitting in the boat and 19 other paddlers around you, it is very easy to mask any lack in core engagement through the stroke.

Any paddler can lunge forward, rotate, and “pull their blades through”/”push the boat forward”, but did their power truly generate from their core, or is there a greater dysfunction that can be corrected to produce a more efficient stroke?

This drill, mimicing rotation from a standing position where we can further add a more dynamic movement as shown in the video – as opposed to the normal seated position, can better teach an athlete how to generate power, give us another way to protect/strengthen our backs, and give the coaches another way to work with athletes outside the water.

Look for any shifting of the hips as pulling begins and change in degree of rotation in the spine prior to actual pull as indicators of whether your athlete is possibly leaking power in the boat!

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Inspired by @roydianchan 's post on anti-rotation progressions, I realized that by switching the orientation of the pulley, I could immediately mimic the movement of paddling. This exercise is a good tool for teaching stability through rotation of the stroke, and obligue and lat engagement/synchronization. Basic steps : 1) Align hips and set pulley above shoulder height 2) Start with relatively straightforward arms (like outside arm in DB) 3) Brace core and initiate movement through rotation and maintaining stiffness through trunk Note: start in order of progression as shown in video . In addition, this could be a great device for coaches to not only teach the complex movement and feel of the stroke to a new paddler/athlete but also gives the coach another tool to test/critique an athletes understanding of the stroke! — Try this by yourself or with your team and let me know how this goes! I hope to share more videos like this as I progress on my journey as a DPT student so I could continue to share what I think can be helpful for the community as I become more capable of giving more substantial information and sharing my ideas and what I learn with the public! . . Demo: @bicepbrachibry

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“Unread Speech” by Anonymous

A good friend of ours reached out to use our platform to share an unread speech they wrote to share with their team. Although they ultimately did not have a chance to share it with their team, we hope that you know there are people on your team that might be going through this right now. Perhaps you are going through something similar. Whatever the case, we hope that our friend’s speech can spark a conversation and get more dialogue going about this topic, and that others won’t have to feel they have to keep a speech unread.


(Written Fall 2015)

During our final day at TI this year, Shou opened the floor numerous times for people to speak their thoughts or memories about the team or the season. Since then, I have spent the last few weeks writing this to share with you guys now.

I have told many of you my origins with this team and that I was basically looking to try something new; having no known associations with this sport or team at the time. In fact, it was much more than that. Before I joined this sport and team, I was enduring persistent anxieties that goes beyond memory and in a state of what I now know to be precursory depression. What I recognize now, is that my search for something new was really me seeking a circle of support and encouragement that did not exist in my life.

Throughout my first season, this sport and team had given me so many new experiences: traveling internationally, become a member of an athletic team, and I got to meet all of you. You guys helped me build my strength both mentally and physically. You guys have taught and continue to teach me a lot about myself.

Despite my diligence, however, I was not able to stave off a turn for the worst in my mental health that occurred during my first off season last year. My struggles with anxiety, depression, and hyper-vigilance had overwhelmed me. As a result I had to seek professional help for the first time October last year. Between then and now, I had several episodes of what I could only label as mental breakdowns; a psychiatric crisis. These episodes had brought me to deep states of self-loathing, numbness, dissociation, feeling lost and confused.

While I am in a much better state now, maintenance is a constant endeavor. I can attribute much of the stability and peace I now have to this team. I have come to this moment where I would like to express gratefulness and how much this team has added to my existence and well-being.

I appreciate all the opportunities this team has given me, whether it is racing, traveling, or simply sharing meal with you guys.

I appreciate every practice I am able to attend because not only does it push me physically, more importantly, it reinforces my mental condition.

And I appreciate all those who are here, all those who couldn’t make it today, all those who are associated with this team in anyway. Whether you are someone I interact with on a regular basis or someone I have barely said “Hi” to. Whether you are reserved or outspoken, you have contributed something to this team. And you have contributed something to my life.


“My Experience in Weight Training” by Michelle Chai

Michelle Chai is a current Senior on the Lowell High School dragon boat team. She is heavily involved with the community, as the Head of the CDBA Youth Leadership Board, a veteran of her team, a volunteer at many CDBA races, and now a writer for PAYR. She recently began weight training, and wrote a piece to share what it’s like as a teenage girl embarking on her fitness journey. We hope her experience can inspire young female athletes like herself to try strength training!


When I first heard about weight lifting, I thought “Isn’t this mainly for guys?” and “I don’t want to get freakishly huge like people say.” I remember taking my first step into the gym. Looking around at all the equipment and buff bodies hauling weight in every imaginable direction, it’s a wonder I didn’t turn around to walk back out the doors!

As I walked in, fear was largely written on my forehead. Everyone was staring at me as I slowly walked around soaked with a nervous sweat. After making 3 laps around the gym, a man must have noticed how nervous I was and approached me to ask me what I was doing. He was tanned and enormously muscular. I told him it was my first time coming to a gym and that I wanted to try weight lifting. The guy looked at me up and down, laughed and said, “Little girl, weight lifting isn’t for you. Women like you can’t lift these heavy weights. It’s only for us men as you can see around you. Even so, if women did lift, they aren’t considered women anymore.”I couldn’t believe people really thought that way, if it wasn’t for another man who spoke to me just a few days after. He said, “Women don’t need to lift. All you need is a bit of make-up … maybe lose a couple here and there but what matters most are your boobs and butt.” I grew offended and I vowed to prove these people wrong.

As I approached the bar, I took my aggression into play. Yet I was still intimidated by all the factors that played into my physique and was too scared to even try lifting the bar by itself. My nervousness began to overcome my anger. I looked at myself in the mirror and slowly walked away from the bar. The woman next to me saw the panic and stopped me from packing my things. She said to me, “It’s okay to be scared of the bar at first. But in reality, weight training doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, you should feel the weights calling your name every time you enter the gym.” With her words, weight training has been my calling ever since.

The realization/reason/beginning:

As spring season of my sophomore year came to an end, I gained 15 lbs from stressful binge eating. Weighing in at 155 lbs, my entire physique changed – all the muscle I built up during the season had turned into fat. The self-respect and confidence I had disappeared as I went into a slump. Because of injuries and other factors, I was unable to change my body for the better, even as the new school year started. I continued to struggle and finally confided my struggles to a teacher at school whom I was close with. I told her I wanted to change my body image and regain the confidence I lost but did not know where to start.

To this day, I am still thankful for this person. She motivated me to give weight training another go and gave me pointers to help me reach my goal. She even allowed me to join her weight training class, which had an overflow of students, at my own convenience. Walking into the class, I noticed that it was male dominant with the exception of a few petite female students. Remembering back to what the obnoxiously rude man had said to me, I started to believe that weight training wasn’t for me. Unfamiliar with the people around me, I spent the next few minutes off to the side observing the other students working out while also trying to figure out how to not embarrass myself in front of these athletes. Thankfully, Ryan, a fellow teammate, was also enrolled in the class. With his presence, I overcame my fears and believed that I could prove those men wrong. I began to depend on Ryan to help me achieve my goals. He became my workout partner and one of the key motivators in my transformation.

I also turned to fellow alumni that I looked up to for guidance. Timur and Benson, ℅ 2015, introduced me to new workouts, shared their gym tricks and routines, and helped spot me at the gym. Thomas, an alumni and coach of my dragon boat team, gave me key tips to improve my technique and also showed me workouts that activated the different muscle groups. Without their guidance, I would not have been able to reach the point I am at now.


Looking back to a semester ago when I first started off, a lot has changed. For starters, there are noticeable changes in my body. My posture has improved from the usual hunch, my shoulders have become broader, my range of flexibility has increased, and the majority of my muscles have become more toned and defined. Starting out with just the bar (45 lbs), my strength has also proven to increase. I am now able to bench 135 lbs (1 plate), deadlift 150 lbs (1 plate + 10) and squat 155 lbs ( 1 plate + 12.5). Though there are still places on my body that need work, I’m still pushing through to reach my goals. I previously mentioned that I was unable to do a proper pull-up … well I’m still unable to do them but I’m almost there. 🙂

I also regained my confidence and my mindset has strengthened. Looking back at the ill-mannered men’s remarks, I first believed that women could not perform half of the things men could do and that society judged us wholly based off of beauty standards. Yes, there are physical differences between men and women but I now realize that we are more than capable of achieving even twice of what men can accomplish with hard work and perseverance. Beauty and size aren’t everything. What matters most is what we think of ourselves and not by what society thinks of us. No matter the size, gender, or strength, nobody should be discouraged from trying weight training.

Now currently weighing in at about 140 lbs, it’s safe to say that I made the right decision by going into weight training, it changed my life for the better. After putting in all the hard work, I’ve come to realize that I am happy with all the changes that have happened. My previous goal was to return to my original weight of 140 lbs and I did. With a new goal in mind, I hope that I can reduce my body fat percentage and slim down to 130 lbs whilst continuing to build muscle and reach a 1 plate and half to 2 plate (180 – 225 lbs) personal record for all 3 weightlifting events.
You never know, the least expected person can show the most results and do the impossible.

– Michelle Chai

The Art of Feedback (Part 2 of 2)

We have all given someone every cue in the books to rotate, and they still do not. But, all of a sudden, we can say that one thing that makes sense to them, and they will rotate! When we think about coaching cues and feedback, we tend to think every athlete is different, so the more coaching strategies we have, the better. Although this is true, are there any rules as to what makes a feedback or cue more effective than others? Here’s what I have learned.

There are two big categories of athletic cues: internal and external. Internal cues are descriptions of how a movement should feel or how an athlete should think about the movement. External cues are descriptions of how an athlete’s body should relate to the outside world. Here are some examples:

Internal feedback:                                                        External feedback:

  • Rotate your hips                                                  – Point bellybutton to your partner
  • Reach forward                                                      – Reach to the front of the boat
  • Drive your legs                                                     – Push the boat forward
  • Apply top arm pressure                                     – Drive tgrip towards the gunwhale

It turns out that in general, external feedback works better. This makes sense. When someone hasn’t figured out how to rotate, they don’t know how it should feel yet. To a novice person, telling them to drive the leg might be getting them to extend the knee, the hip, or the ankles. You might only want one of those, or you might not care which one it is. On the other hand, external cues provide a much more concrete way for athletes to know what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t have to wait for you to tell them whether they have rotated their hips. If their bellybuttons are facing their partners, they know they’ve accomplished what you’ve asked them to do! This gives us a much more objective way of communicating what needs to happen, rather than trying to get them in our heads to know what it should subjectively feel like.

These external cues are much more helpful for a novice athlete, who has not had to navigate their body through space in a sport-specific way. If you are so lucky as to coach athletes who has played other sports or who has done weightlifting, you will find it much easier to communicate with them with whatever cues you have.


Another big difference between novice athletes and seasoned athletes is their need for positive feedback. When someone just joins our team or tries the sport, it is critical that they feel confident that they can continue and that this is the right thing for them. For beginners, it is important that they receive plenty of positive feedback. In fact, I sometimes give only positive feedback for first-day paddlers. However, as a paddler becomes better, the effectiveness of the positive feedback diminishes. Intermediate and advanced paddlers need, and want more constructive feedback. In other words, if they already know they are good, they don’t need to hear it from you. They want to get better. That is not to say you can throw positivity out the window. It simply means they want to know much more critically where they can be better. As a coach, it is very important to recognize this difference. This means that we need to look hard at how a beginner paddler can improve, but we need to look even harder at how a good paddler can overcome his plateau. Otherwise, a good paddler will not become great. Even worse, a great paddler will leave you because he doesn’t feel he’s getting any better.
What are some ways you keep new members learning, but veteran members engaged? Join the conversation!



The Art of Feedback (Part 1 of 2)

The Art of Feedback (Part 1 of 2)

Most coaches have heard about the importance of positive reinforcement. In fact, the most important thing that I took away from the first and only dragon boat coaching clinic I attended was the compliment sandwich. The idea of giving more positive feedback than negative feedback has proven to be an important, time-tested way to build good relationship with my athletes. However, I have since learned that the art of feedback is much more nuanced and not really what I thought it was for years.

The biggest shift in the way that I think about feedback came from the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which highlighted some of the ways that John Wooden coaches. John Wooden is considered one of the best basketball coaches in history, coaching UCLA’s team to a dynasty in the 60’s and 70’s. Before reading about John Wooden, I used to think that the best coaches were the ones who can motivate their team, get everyone on board, and give inspirational speeches. It shocked me to find out that at the first day of practice, Coach Wooden did not spend a lot of time talking to his team about last year’s successes, or this year’s plans, or what needed to be changed. Instead, he welcomed everyone to practice, and started everyone on the courts almost immediately. If motivating speeches weren’t the magic that got his team to win, what was? Well, it turned out, there was no magic. His players were just plain better than any other team’s. That’s why they were winning! So, what did he do to get his players to be so good and to play his system so well?

The answer: feedback. Coach Wooden gave his players feedback in a very specific way: “Do this. Don’t do that. Do this.” He would correct players’ mechanics, movements, or rotations by first reminding them what he wanted. Then, he showed his players what they were doing instead, before finally repeating what he wanted. Many coaches do some aspects of this, and it’s easy to see why this works. Simply telling someone what you want has its limits. By showing players how they were not doing what he wanted, he makes it obvious how the players need to fix the issue. Just doing this would make you a better coach, but what made Coach Wooden great? He gave this level of feedback with an average of 7 words! So, let’s breakdown why John Wooden was such a great coach by looking at two aspects of his feedback:

  • Specificity: The reason that Coach Wooden is able to give feedback in such short bursts is that he’s extremely specific. Each one of his feedback is about one small correction that he needs his athletes to make. He does not confuse feedback with evaluation. He does not overwhelm by trying to correct more than one thing at a time. Of course, this requires years of thinking and breaking down the tasks that he tried to teach so he can be that specific.
  • Frequency: Because Coach Wooden gives feedback in such small chunks, he’s able to give feedback with much higher frequency than other coaches. As a result, his players constantly knew if they were doing the right thing or the wrong thing. During the course of a practice, each player would have several things corrected about their game. Over the season, that frequency of feedback per practice becomes the ultimate factor of how few kinks there were in each person’s game. Of course, if you were John Wooden, it’d be an anomaly for one of your players to make a mistake towards the end of the season! (Because you have corrected it so many times over the course of the season.)

Understanding this really helped me understand why my team wasn’t producing good paddlers. I knew the technique, and taught it. People listened, and understood it. Yet, they were not executing. I realized I was just teaching the concepts, and walking paddlers through the drills. I became really good at explaining, and I got people really good at it during the drills. But, I was missing a huge piece to the puzzle: feedback. I started to rethink my job as a coach. Anyone with sufficient knowledge of the stroke can teach it. If paddlers were to actually learn it, I needed to:

  • Give better and more specific feedback
  • Direct feedback towards individual paddlers
  • Give feedback as often as humanly possible
  • Give feedback when it counts the most: when paddlers need to perform (during actual pieces)

Part of this problem was my awareness as a coach. Another part of this problem was the coaching structure on a dragon boat in general. Sometimes, it is simply too much to ask one coach at the front of the boat to provide all the feedback. How has your team gone around this issue? How does your team provide specific, and frequent feedback to your paddlers? Join the conversation below!

In part 2, I will dive a bit deeper what makes feedback more effective.


(Part 2 of 2) Build something bigger than yourself

Work for your business, not in your business (Part 2)

To effectively lead my team, I don’t need to be the person with the most knowledge on mechanics, or the person who gives best individual feedback, or even the person who speaks the most at events. I need to be the person with the clearest vision of where we are headed, and know who can get us there. I need to be the person who can iterate to find the best systems to teach mechanics, give feedback, organize events, etc. And, I need to know who can fit into those systems. If there are nobody on my team better than me at doing specific tasks (coaching, managing membership, fundraising, etc), I shouldn’t be proud, I should be panicking. One person could not be and should not be the best at everything, and if I think I’m best at everything, it means my team is in SERIOUS lack of talent, or I am delusional about my strengths. If my team is lacking talent, then my most important job is to develop that talent.

Implicit in my ability to develop talent within my team is a belief that people can be developed, which I have discussed here in another blog post (My Motivation). Once I believe that I can develop talent in the people on my team, I need to learn how to delegate and teach specific skills to them. Releasing your responsibilities onto others by delegating tasks to them is the only way to help develop their skills. They need to be given ownership of their work to truly grow into the capable people they can be.

When I first stepped in as the President of my team, or when I first became a teacher, I had a very hard time delegating tasks to people and found myself swamped with busy work. One specific idea changed the way I looked at things. This idea is called the Benjamin Franklin Effect, the idea that someone is more likely to like you if you ask them for favors. It is strange, but I find my relationship with students and athletes get better because I ask them for favors. The scientific research suggests some rationale to this, but I also have a couple speculations. By getting people to help you, you are increasing your chances to interact with them, giving you more opportunities to build relationships. By getting people to do something that will have an effect on the team (no matter how small), you are giving that person some ownership of the team; it gets them to contribute. Lastly, by giving thanks and appreciations after someone has helped you, it encourages them to continue to help.

So how do you delegate? Here are a few things I’ve learned from being a teacher:

  1. Over-communicate the goal. As a leader, your job is to create a vision that is motivating for your paddlers. When giving someone a task, the most important, and sometimes only thing you need to communicate, is the end goal. If you can get them to see exactly what they are trying to accomplish, they can most likely do it. Many times, this is much harder than it sounds. For example, when you delegate someone to help coach, what is the goal? “To teach paddlers how to rotate” is not a goal; that is a task. A goal would be “At the end of practice, all paddlers will rotate with pelvis facing partners and de-rotate back to square.” That immediately makes the mere “teaching” seem insignificant.
  2. Clearly set guidelines. Guidelines are not instructions. They are pointers, warnings, or rules of thumbs. For example, when delegating coaching responsibilities, once you have made the goals clear, a guideline could be “whatever you do, paddlers need to be excited at the end of practice.” Another guideline could be “try to use positive reinforcement more than negative feedback.” A guideline doesn’t limit what the person can do for you; it just ensures that whatever they decide to do fits into the bigger picture.
  3. Check in and motivate from a proper distance. Know your members. If someone is helping you with something, do they like reminders? Do they like texting, or email, or phone calls? Does this person like immediate feedback, or do they like to have their reflection time first? Delegation does not stop when you have clearly communicated goals and set proper guidelines. It is a relationship, and it is a continued process.

If this form of delegation sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you do this well, you will notice that the investment you make in people will return twofold. Once you get people to feel invested in the team, they will do amazing things that you could never have done by yourself. The true power of delegation is not to get things done, but to enable more people to take ownership of your team. The true art of delegation is not just to get people to be busy, but to orchestrate a true team effort so that everyone is contributing effectively. It could be really scary to not know exactly what others will do when given a task, but I have found that more often than not, if I delegate well, amazing things get done beyond my wildest imaginations!



(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.