Written by Blake Hara, Co-Founder of Gushou
It might sound strange to some, but I am a professional dragon boat… “guy.” I would guess there are probably a few dozen of us (i.e. dragon boat professionals) in Canada. The reason I tell you this is because as a professional in the dragon boat industry I get lots of questions from lots of different teams and paddlers that cross a huge range of experience levels and abilities. Compared to some other sports, dragon boating is still quite niche so information spreads pretty fast, whether it’s right or wrong.
Which brings me to three of the most common dragon boat myths out there today.
These three myths seem to permeate all levels of the dragon boat spectrum; age, ability, and experience. With these three beauties the gloves are off and no holds are barred. They’re like brain worms and some dragon slayers just can’t seem to shake them – until now!
Dragon boat myth #1: High stroke rates make you go faster
The notion of more is better has been around since the beginning of time. It’s applied to pretty much everything with varied, often limited, results. Applying the idea to the paddling realm usually doesn’t hold water either – literally.
In theory, more strokes should equal greater distance covered, but even for Olympic canoers or kayakers it’s rare when the greatest number of strokes equals first place. Paddling is technical, and as such a deliberate sequence of movements is required to produce the greatest amount of force in the most efficient manner, and the optimal combination isn’t usually performed at the fastest pace. Recruiting and engaging large, core muscles is a critical first step in this process; when rushed, the result is unimpressive.
Applying this technical concept to dragon boating yields similar results. High rates don’t necessarily equal faster times. I’m not saying dragon boat teams should never race with rates above 1 stroke per second. I am saying that before targeting specific rates, coaches should target good form and recognize the rates where form declines and minimize time spent above these zones. Through consistency and repetition, and sequenced program planning and design, stroke rate thresholds will be pushed upward, and eventually higher rates become sustainable while executing proper form.
This idea of establishing technique fundamentals first, applies across all abilities and experience levels. I’ve coached teams where 63 was the threshold stroke rate and anything above produced ‘spinning’ and ‘disengaged’ stroke cycles. I’ve also coached teams where 78 was the sweet spot and anything below or above kept them off the podium.
So, myth explained, higher stroke rates can produce faster dragon boat teams IF technical fundamentals are sound and in place throughout the boat. Only then should coaches consider moving into a higher stroke rate zone. Be prepared to spend at least 4-6 weeks in lower stroke rate zones where emphasis is on form and aerobic foundation work.
Dragon boat myth #2: Stronger paddlers should be at the front of the boat
While there is merit in positioning stronger and more seasoned paddlers close to the front of the boat, doing so as standard operating procedure goes against the fundamental principle of our sport – TEAMWORK.
New paddlers develop faster if they are strategically positioned throughout the boat, ideally close to veteran paddlers who can answer questions or offer occasional tips (with coach approval of course). This practice will also help integrate newcomers into the crew socially. And while the musical chairs approach is great for all levels and types of crews, there does come a time when front-loading the boat has its place.
Critical races or pre-race practices are the most obvious situations where front-loading is acceptable; mainly because of minimized interference from out of sync newcomers. But remember that the more options coaches have in terms of line-ups the stronger and more versatile the crew becomes, so I encourage coaches to give newcomers a chance near the front of the boat, they might just surprise you!
Dragon boat myth #3: Paddle size matters, bigger is better
Think of your paddle as your weapon and being able to effectively handle and manipulate your weapon is critical. Anything less will produce a vulnerable chink in your team’s dragon armour.
Too long and you risk falling behind. Too short and your stroke becomes circular and disengaged. Get it right and you’re on your way to victory – or at least closer to victory. Feel free to use the five points below if you’re ever in a position where you need to deconstruct the paddle length myth to a fellow teammate; stick to the facts, the truth should eventually prevail.
- Predominant moving parts in dragon boating are above the waist which is why paddle length is relative to the combined length of the torso and arms; and not a person’s height.
- There is a cost to the extra reach born from a paddle that is (too) long; usually it’s a sloppy, delayed finish.
- Longer paddles can produce increased positive angles at the catch but positive angles are only as good as what’s backing them up. I’d take a core-engaged neutral (90°) catch any day over an artificial hyper-positive (135°) catch.
- Weight transfer occurs when the top arm drives down during water phase. If the paddle is too long the top hand stays high during this phase. The result is weight and power that stays inside the boat instead of being transferred to paddle and generating force and propulsion.
- Paddles that are too long place increased stress on top shoulders and can result in injury.
There will always be new information for you to take in as a dragon boater. While it can be a challenge to figure out what’s right and what should be corrected, there are always veterans in the community who can help figure things out.
If you’re looking to connect with the broader dragon boat community, be sure to set up a profile on Gushou! It’s a great place for individual paddlers to connect with prospective teams or for teams to recruit new paddlers.