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Competitive vs. All-Inclusive: Which Approach is Best for a Smaller Team?

Posted by Kristin Stickels on
Competitive vs. All-Inclusive: Which Approach is Best for a Smaller Team?

If your team has recently become competitive, you are likely still working to grow and expand. On a relatively small team the pool of paddlers is not very deep and therefore can make it difficult to properly fill a race boat. Smaller teams are often faced with a dilemma. Should they use the top 20-22 paddlers available from the team, no matter what their ability? Or should they set the bar to ensure that paddlers on the race boat will have a certain amount of paddling proficiency? Which is best for your team? Perhaps the answer depends on the type of race.

Paddlechica Tarpons San Francisco Brent Kornish

The Florida Tarpons racing in San Francisco. Photo Brent Kornish

There are obvious pros and cons to each approach and what your team decides should be based on your team’s mission and/or a decision made by the team leaders. In addition, it is important to consider what type of race you are entering. Is it a small race with minimal competition? Or is it a larger race with more ambitious teams?

Simply paying membership fees should not entitle a paddler to be on the race boat if your team has decided to be competitive. Tweet it!

Let’s say that your team holds time trials and fitness tests to determine the race boat roster. You are looking for the strongest 22 paddlers for the boat (20 + 2 spares). If your team is small, chances are good that your top 22 may include several paddlers whose time trial and fitness scores are far off from the rest of the pack and are not really “race-ready.” You may have 17-18 paddlers who are strong and race-qualified and then the next 4-5 on the list just aren’t quite there. Perhaps these paddlers are brand new, only come to practice occasionally, don’t train seriously, or don’t participate in any off-the-boat gym workouts. Or maybe these paddlers do attend practice frequently but just haven’t been able to improve their technique enough to put their time trial and fitness scores up there with the rest of the pack. What do you do?

Paddlechica Tarpons in San Fran

San Francisco Race 2015. Photo: Ashley Sustrich

On one hand, it is important to include all eligible paddlers in order to give teammates racing opportunities, but often this is best done at smaller races with less competition. Giving paddlers race experience is crucial, but putting a newer or less competent paddler in a highly competitive race can be risky. A team may strive to include all available paddlers, but this may mean that some of your average and below average paddlers make the race roster simply because your list of available paddlers is short.

On the other hand, when you have the majority of paddlers who are training regularly, pushing themselves to be strong paddlers, it is really fair to those paddlers if you put a teammate on the boat who doesn’t take racing seriously, comes to practice sporadically or hasn’t yet developed their technique properly? The strong paddlers will end up having to pull the weight of the person who is an occasional or inexperienced paddler. Is that equitable? Those who have worked hard to raise the bar should not be dragged down by those who are occasional paddlers, who might not take racing as seriously, or who are lacking the necessary skills simply because the team is small and/or there are no other paddlers available for a race. Based out of frustration or a sense of stagnation, and no longer feeling challenged by their environment, your stronger paddlers might then contemplate a move to a more competitive team.

Paddlechica Tarpons San Francisco Brent Kornish2

San Francisco Race 2015. Photo Brent Kornish

So, what is the right thing to do?

If your team is committed to only using its own paddlers, then your decision is made. Work within the time frame you’ve got and encourage those paddlers who are below the pack to attend practice more frequently and really commit to improvement. Making race practices mandatory is one suggestion, though that still might not be feasible based on individual work schedules. Encouragement and appropriate peer pressure can often go a long way. Assigning a training buddy is another solution. Have an experienced paddler work one-on-one during practices with the paddler who is struggling, or take him or her out on an OC1 or an OC2 for training. Obviously this is only practical to the extent that teammates are available for extra training sessions. On a smaller team that is typically self-coached, not everyone has the free time beyond practices to devote to such improvements. Making time for gym training days is also helpful. Often newer or less experienced paddlers are unfamiliar with gym workouts that target paddling muscles, so having a teammate who knows his or her way around the gym can be beneficial. Do what you can in your specific time frame to help your lower-level paddlers show improvements.

However, if your team has decided to be more competitive and has set the bar at a specific level, this may cause you to eliminate those paddlers who do not meet the criterion. This, in turn, may force you to look for paddlers outside the team to fill the race boat. Doing so can cause a certain amount of discontent among the team, especially if the team’s mission to be more competitive is not shared by everyone. For this reason, your team’s objectives needs to be crystal clear from the beginning. Using outsiders on your team is easily one of the most controversial topics. However, all too often a team is just not big enough to have sufficient paddlers to fill the boat at a competitive level. Simply paying membership fees should not entitle a paddler to be on the race boat if your team has decided to be competitive. You risk losing the highly competitive paddlers to another team if they don’t feel that the team has accepted the challenge of taking it up a notch. Consistently setting the bar at high level and then requiring paddlers to meet the set goals and expectations will keep your team competitive. Paddlers must demonstrate commitment, tenacity and ability by showing up to practice regularly, training with purpose, and demonstrating growth in technique. For this reason, time trials, fitness tests, and video reviews are crucial. They will let paddlers know where they stand in relation to others. Let your team know where the bar will be set so that there are no surprises. And keep in mind that your top paddlers don’t train their hearts out for a race so that they can drag around the extra weight of someone who only comes to practice once a month.

How do you get “outsiders” to join your competitive race boat? Often local teams will combine to make a stronger team that will be able to compete at a higher level. If that is not an option, there are many strong paddlers who are up for racing in as many places as possible. Reach out to them to see if they are available to race with you. How do you meet them? Make contacts with teams when you race, meet as many paddlers on higher-level teams as possible, connect on Facebook. The more people you meet, the larger your network becomes. When you are in need of paddlers, put the word out. Quite often, having a top paddler race on your team inspires your paddlers to want more from their own paddling experiences. This, too, helps raise the competitive bar. Know that while raising the bar can be uncomfortable, when done incrementally your team will likely rise to the challenge and be a stronger team in the long run.


This topic is an ongoing dilemma with no right answer. Your team needs to decide what its own mission is and stick with it. Deciding to be a more competitive team but then having an all-inclusive race boat using any available paddler on the team isn’t following through with your team’s objective. Yes, you will certainly run into some judgement and resentment no matter what your team’s decision is. The main thing to remember is that you cannot make everyone happy all the time. Do what is best for the team as a whole, make sure your decisions are transparent, and keep your mission in mind.




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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