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10 Tips For Coaching Newbies: Ways to Help Your Rookies

Posted by Kristin Stickels on
10 Tips For Coaching Newbies: Ways to Help Your Rookies

Think back to your first day on the dragon boat. Chances are, you were given a paddle, a life vest, and a whole boatload of directions. Do you remember much of what was said to you? Probably not. If you were anything like me, your whole focus was on NOT clanking paddles with the people around you. It’s a wonder I even came back for more. Forget about technique. Just getting my timing down was a bonus.

How can you help a new paddler through those times when the pain and desperation of paddling make a person want to quit altogether?

As a coach, every word you say boosts morale or breaks confidence. Choose your words wisely.Tweet it!

Paddlechica Dragon Divas Training 2

Photo: Courtesy of Dragon Divas in St. Paul, Minnesota

From my experience, people rarely join a dragon boat team and immediately paddle like a rock star. More likely, they struggle with every single aspect of the technique as well as synchronization. Rookies need a little more support and reassurance. Encouraging words are helpful to everyone, but more so for newer paddlers. As a coach, every word you say boosts morale or breaks confidence. Choose your words wisely.

Although the list below is most helpful to newer paddlers, everyone can benefit from the suggestions.

1) Sandwich the critique between compliments

It is difficult to feel like you suck at something.  So while that new paddler is struggling, finding something positive to compliment them on will go a long way. Help them to see what they are good at, while also giving them something to work on. “I can tell you’ve been working hard. Let’s put some focus on that rotation now that you have improved your timing.”

Paddlechica Coaching Jonathan Ghalmi Ribeiro

Photo Ghalmi Ribeiro

2) Explain the reason WHY

Why is leg drive important for the stroke? Novice paddlers might not understand how leg drive gains them extra power in the stroke. I’m not talking about lengthy explanations that ramble on and on, but a one-sentence reason to back up a request goes a long way in understanding things like the mechanics of the stroke.

Paddlechica Coaching 2 Gani Mariano

Photo provided by Gani Mariano

3) Help set (tangible) goals

Your paddlers want to improve. They want to see gains in their performance and likely need some help in setting goals along the way. Assist paddlers in determining what goals might be attainable to them. Making their country’s premier mixed race boat might not be a tangible goal for them at the moment, but making their club’s race boat this season just might be.

Paddlechica Coaching Ed Nguyen

Photo: Ed Nguyen

4) Use the phrase “THAT’S it!”

It’s easy for a coach to tell a paddler how to change his or her technique, but often paddlers are left wondering, “Am I doing it now?” When you see that positioning or body movement you are looking for, let him or her know it right away so that he or she knows what it FEELS like to be doing it correctly.

Paddlechica Coaching Scott Murray

Photo provided by Scott Murray

5) Be specific in the behaviors you DO want

Telling paddlers NOT to do something often creates an image in their mind of that exact movement and is likely to lead them to doing just that. Instead, tell them what they SHOULD be doing in terms of technique. Use positives instead of negatives. For example: “Keep your top hand up” instead of “Don’t drop your top hand.”

Paddlechica Recreational Team3 Aixa Ramos

Photo: Aixa Ramos

6) Present one aspect of the technique at a time

I’m sure you recognize that as you put your focus on one part of the stroke, all other parts break down. Why? Because we are putting so much focus into that one particular facet of the stroke. When you are working with your paddlers, especially the newer ones, decide what one thing they will be working on at a time. As a coach, I often have a “theme” for the day. One training session might have a theme of “hips” so that we are all working on hip loading for that practice and all drills come back to that main theme. Presenting one concept at a time helps paddlers stay focused on that particular aspect of the technique in order to work towards perfecting it.

Paddlechica Coaching Aimee Edwards

Photo: Aimee Edwards

7) Don’t overwhelm your paddlers

When your paddlers are learning the technique, don’t inundate them with information. Start with the basics or the most necessary parts of the stroke and get more complicated as they are ready. Think of the learning process as a scaffold. You have to lay the foundation first before you can go up to the second level. Then you must lay that next level before you can go up to the third level. And so it goes. You wouldn’t consider trying to teach a paddler about a side-entry recovery on their first day, right? So consider what each paddler’s needs are in terms of their level of paddling and don’t give them more information than they can handle at one time.

Paddlechica Coaching Scott Murray 3

Photo provided by Scott Murray

8) Give adequate breaks

Sometimes while coaching, you have so much information to give to the team that you want to just keep going. Keep in mind that after a certain point, if paddlers are tired or dehydrated, their form is going to break down and they will be “survival paddling” which is counter-productive. You don’t want their muscle memory to be based on poor form. Give frequent breaks to allow paddlers to “reset” and rehydrate. Then they will be able to approach each new drill with the proper focus and energy.

Paddlechica Coaching Photo Joann Fegley

Photo: Raelee Jones

9) Assign a “buddy” to help newer paddlers

Joining a team of veterans can be intimidating for a newbie. Feeling like you are the only one on the boat who doesn’t know what they are doing is difficult and certainly ego-crushing. Give your newer paddlers a buddy on the boat to answer their questions , encourage them, and generally just to be there for them. Simply knowing you’ve got an ally on the boat can help alleviate a rookie’s fears of being the clueless paddler on the boat.


Photo: Megan Kress

10) Discourage peer coaching

Words of encouragement are very different from peer coaching. For newer paddlers especially, it is important to have one clear message from the coach regarding technique. A newer paddler will find themselves confounded by others chiming in and giving what each may consider to be helpful tips. Allowing anyone and everyone to coach others from their seat on the boat often leads to confusion at best, and feelings of resentment at worst.

Paddlechica Dragon Divas Training 3

Photo provided by Dragon Divas

Above all else, don’t neglect your newbies. They are your greatest potential resource. If you team does not actively recruit new paddlers and work diligently to develop the newbies’ talents, you are likely to be left struggling to fill a race boat in a few years. Your new paddlers are an important part of the team, so make sure that they feel that way. Assist them as much as you can and you will find yourself with a team that has healthy growth and a wonderfully bright future.



Kristin Stickels is a three-time Team USA member of the US National Dragon Boat Racing Team. She is the coach of the Miami team Puff, the Florida Tarpons women's team and the local Breast Cancer Survivors' Team (SOS).

She is also an avid outrigger canoe paddler and raced through the Panama Canal on a native cayuco boat from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


Found out more about Hornet paddles at 

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