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What’s The Best Paddling Stroke? You’ll Be Surprised By The Answer

Posted by Kristin Stickels on
What’s The Best Paddling Stroke? You’ll Be Surprised By The Answer

I’ve been asked many times, “What is the best stroke?” This is an excellent question with a simple, easy answer. The best stroke is your team’s stroke. What?


Will and Alan, brothers on the Bristol Empire Dragons. Photo: Ray Harrington

Each team hopefully has its own variation of a strong dragon boat stroke: it has a solid catch up front, a strong press, a quick exit, and a relaxed recovery. The variations exist in the details of the technique: things like the entry (side entry, top entry, or a hybrid), the length of the stroke, the pace of the stroke, and the method of recovery (up-and-over, “D”-around, feathered, etc.), for example.

A team of smaller, lighter paddlers may execute a rapid, short stroke quite well, while a team of larger, more muscular paddlers may work best with a long, patient stroke. A coach must decide what stroke functions best for the team. A paddler must work to synthesize his or her stroke to benefit the team.

No matter how wonderful you feel your stroke might be, if it doesn’t blend with the team you are paddling with, you aren’t benefitting it.Tweet it

If you are married to one particular stoke and yet the team you are paddling with has a different stroke, you are not blending into the team. Your stroke can even be detrimental because of its difference.

Developing bad habits in your stroke, or simply refusing to change it, results in the possibility of being a liability to your team instead of an asset.

No matter how wonderful you think your stroke might be, if it doesn’t blend with the team you are paddling with, you aren’t benefitting it. This is why most competitive teams select their race boats by using a combination of time trials AND coach’s observations. A paddler might be extremely strong, but one with a vastly different stroke will stand out, and might be interfering with the paddler in front of or behind them. Coaches notice this while watching the boat during practices.

Often when paddlers either change teams or are selected to be a part of a more competitive team, such as their country’s national team, they need to adjust their stroke in order to conform. It might not be easy, but it is essential. A national team coach will have a general stroke technique that he or she is aiming for the boat to achieve. The idea is for the paddlers to blend with each other.


Team USA Senior A in the 2k, Hungary, 2013. Photo: Marc Applewhite

This is particularly true for national teams where paddlers come from many different local teams across the country. The paddlers, with the guidance of the coach, will work on synthesizing their stroke to become one cohesive unit. This unity in the team stroke, combined with strength and endurance, is what wins races.

So, how do you learn to adapt your stroke?

If you are lucky enough to paddle with different teams, you have hopefully had some experience with adjusting your stroke to each team. An excellent way to do this is by traveling. The dragon boating community is a great one! If you are visiting a city, look online to see if there is a team nearby. If you find one, contact the team and ask if you can go out for a practice with them. I have been lucky enough to do this in Bristol (Bristol Empire Dragons), Singapore (Singapore American Dragon Boat Team), and Beijing, as well as in many cities throughout the US. A training session or two (or more!) with a team you are visiting is a great way to work on adapting and adjusting your stroke. You also get the benefit of learning the best parts of each team’s stroke as well as drills to help you with the technique.

So, although you may be comfortable with a specific stroke, your job as a paddler is to blend in with whatever team you are paddling with. You may really love a particular stroke, but if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.



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.


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