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PADDLE CHICA: The “F” Word in Dragon Boating

Posted by Hornet Watersports on
PADDLE CHICA: The “F” Word in Dragon Boating


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Ever since you were young you’ve heard about the “F-word.” You were warned about it, became frustrated by it, tried it out, accused others of its misuse, and then eventually learned the extent of its power. It has upset you, disheartened you, maybe even harassed you. This may surprise you, but I’m talking about the word “fair.” Using the F-word in dragon boating gives some people an inordinate amount of pleasure but strikes absolute dread in others. Depending on the type of team you paddle on, your team might embrace its use or renounce it. Yet whatever your team’s perspective, it needs to align with your club’s mission statement. If your team has declared itself to be an all-inclusive team where everyone gets to paddle regardless of their ability, attendance, or fitness level, then your team likely embraces the F-word. If, however, your club has determined that it is focused on being more competitive, then it is likely that your teammates as well as your coach loathe the F-word and those who use it.


Competitive teams

There is absolutely no way to be “fair” in selecting a race boat, especially a competitive one. Even with fitness tests and time trials, there is no possible way to maintain exact conditions across the board. Why? For many reason. Let’s take a look at a few.



The environment plays a big role in the issues with consistency of testing. It is highly likely that on-water time trials, for example, are affected by wind or currents. And, in cases where paddlers are competing against others in different regions across a country, such as for a national team,  diverse bodies of water (salt water versus fresh water, for instance), and even tides can change results drastically. There is absolutely no way to have the exact same conditions for every single paddler, even within the same day at the same location.




Equipment and Standards

Different boats perform differently and are differently weighted. Different gym equipment, despite being labeled as 50 pounds, for example, can vary slightly in its weight, believe it or not. And different people administering the fitness test have different standards of what constitutes a push up or a chin-up, for example. Unless the exact same equipment is being used by all paddlers at every single test, and there is a set standard for all participants, there is no way to be 100% consistent.

Body Type

A paddler’s physical structure has the potential to either greatly benefit or hinder them on any given assessment. For example, At 5’11”, the rowing erg is much kinder to me than it is to my teammate who is barely 5 feet tall. On the other hand, when I hang on the pull-up bar and contemplate the giant distance between my chin and that bar, I start wishing that I was a foot shorter so that the distance would be significantly decreased! Similarly, on an OC time trial, a 200 pound paddler will have a very different experience than a 120 pound paddler on the same OC (and that isn’t even taking into account other factors such as the paddler’s steering ability or basic talents on an outrigger).

Now I can already hear you saying, “But those two paddlers wouldn’t be competing for the same seat on the boat – they are completely different sizes and would probably sit in very different parts of the boat!” True, but I still hear paddlers complain about the coach’s choice of race crew when the person they are complaining about the most is not even someone they would ever be competing with due to size differences or even a difference in paddling side.

This is part of the reason that a coach can’t simply choose the top 20 paddlers from a time trial, fitness test, erg test, or any other kind of assessment. If he or she did that, the race boat is likely to end up very unbalanced, with no strokers/pacers, all left-sided paddlers or some other equally unproductive problem. You get the idea.Which is why the word “fair” is the bane of most coaches’ existence.


All-inclusive teams

Even when a team aims to be “fair,” can it ever really be 100% impartial? On a “fair play” or all-inclusive team, questions about fairness still arise. If there are 26 members on the team and only three races, what kind of a rotation do you use? Who gets to race all three races? Who only gets to race twice? How does the coach or team leader determine this? Is it determined by attendance at practice? The amount of money donated to the team? Who has been on the team the longest? Who appears the strongest? Who is most well-liked? Who won a coin flip? Sure, some of those sound silly, but how would you select a race boat in an all-inclusive team with more than 20 available paddlers? How would you be “fair”? Even teams whose foundation is based in fairness struggle with how to carry out such equity.



Photo: Ed Nguyen

The discrepancy that is inherent in the concept of “fair”

Everyone’s definition of “fair” is different, and typically centers around what they consider best for themselves or their own situation. What? No one wants to acknowledge it, but a person’s opinion of what is fair routinely changes depending on his or her own perspective. If you are on the race crew sitting at the start line, you are more likely to think the coach’s selection was fair than if you are sitting on the dock watching the boat head out for the race. It’s as simple as that. But, as this is a team sport, it is important to consider what is best for the team. If a team has decided to be competitive, what is fair is for everyone on the club to support their team’s mission and work to build the team up to the competitive level the members want it to be. If, on the other hand, a team has decided to be all-inclusive, what is fair is for everyone in the club to support their team’s mission and work to make the team the equitable and fun experience for all members, regardless of ability.

So, the next time you find yourself tempted to use the F-word, consider whether it would be productive or not. Think about what your version of “fair” might be, and then contemplate whether your own goals align with the team’s mission or not.



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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