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Reach it Out! How Racing a Dragon Boat can
Improve Teamwork

by Sid Smith


I admit it. I'm competitive. I love competition, and I love to win. But, to be honest, what really lights my fire is being part of a collaborative team effort. Oh, sure, winning an individual gold medal might have its rewards, but, when I'm part of a team that gels, I have a much greater time. I'd even go so far to say that the process of building a cohesive, fun-filled team is more important than winning. Why? For one thing, the fun-filled team is more likely to win than a team consisting of Dr. Dimento and his hard-ass drill instructors.

For evidence of this phenomena, you need go no farther than any daily or weekly edition of the sports pages. Most teams lose when they're squabbling, and win when they're enjoying themselves. My home town Portland Trailblazers routinely self-destruct, regardless of having a talent-laden team. Check it out for yourself - the team that smiles the most often wins the most. Give me a team with fun at the top of its list any day.

The same principles that make a sports team win apply to any business team, and that's where Dragon Boat racing comes in. The origins of Dragon Boat racing dates back over 2000 years. Originally a religious practice, it is now purely recreational. It began with the death of the poet Qu Yuan (pronounced "choo wan"), who drowned himself in the third century BC as a protest against a corrupt government. Fishermen raced out in their boats in a futile attempt to save him, thrashing the water with their paddles and throwing bamboo stuffed with cooked rice into the water to prevent the fish from eating his body.

Qu Yuan's sufferings had gained the sympathy of the people of Chu, and his tragic death is commemorated each year on the fifth day of the fifth moon, the day he drowned himself, when the fishermens' attempt to save the poet is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races. Traditionally, one paddler stands in the boat searching for Qu Yuan's body, while a drummer on board and the ferocious-looking dragon designs were added to frighten away evil water spirits. Modern dragon boats are constructed from fiberglass, with wooden benches and detachable fiberglass ornamental heads and tails. They are powered by up to 20 paddlers sitting in pairs on benches, plus a sweep (who stands at the rear of the boat and steers it using a sweep oar) and a drummer seated at the front of the boat.

One might think that by having the biggest, strongest paddlers available, you'd have an easy time winning races. Not so. More than simple physical strength, successful teams have three things going for them:

  • Timing

  • Pacing

  • Form

A business team functions in very much the same way. Put together the best and the brightest, and if they can't work together, your project will probably fail miserably. Business teams also require timing, pacing, and form.


At the start of a race, all paddlers "sit ready", with paddles positioned just above the water. When the race official yells "paddlers prepare to start", we've got our paddles in the water, and we're ready to go. Timing starts with the first stroke, and is extremely important throughout the entire race. Our first stroke is short, hard, and intended to break the surface tension of the water. The next 5 strokes are increasingly longer, harder, and slow. The following 16 strokes are faster, shorter, and about as hard as one can pull. These first 16 strokes can make or break a team: stay in timing with each other, pulling hard together, and you'll get the bow (front of the boat) out of the water first. If even one person's timing is off, you'll find your team riding in the wake of your opponents, playing catch-up for the remainder of the race.

In business, how a project begins often dictates how a project will proceed. Project team members should be chosen as much on their ability to work in synch with other as they are for their individual strengths. Sometimes project starts are rushed, like skimming the surface on the first stroke. Momentum isn't created to break political, economic, or organizational surface tension. Get a team to pull together through the first few days or weeks of a project, and you'll have a much easier time staying with your desired project schedule. Get behind because of poor timing, or a weak kick-off, and you'll find the team members forcing the pace later in the project.


After the first 22 strokes (called 6-16), the drummer, or caller, tells the team to "reach it out", slowing their pace to between 60-66 strokes per minute and simultaneously reaching farther forward to produce a longer stroke. The idea is to keep the paddle in the water for as long as possible, pulling more water than air. Timing remains critical during the rest of the race - any one person out of time can pull everyone behind her or him out of time. The result of an out-of-time boat resembles a caterpillar, which works fine for the caterpillar, but effectively slows down the boat, as if the two sides of the boat are pulling against each other.

Pacing is also critical. Some racers prefer a faster pace, others a slower pace. In my limited experience (one whole season, so far), what's most important is a consistent pace that emphasizes long, strong strokes with all paddlers entering and leaving the water at the same time.

A business project also requires a consistent pace that encourages a thoroughness combined with consistent follow-through and communication. At any time, a team member, the project lead, or management will push for a faster pace, erroneously believing this will create a faster completion of the project. More often than not, the faster pace throws the timing off further, with some members quickening their pace at the cost of quality, and eventually having to wait for the slower team members. The key is to find the pace that allows team members to use their strengths fully, while maintaining consistent timing of each step.

Communication, in both dragon boat racing and business is the critical component of effective pacing and timing. On a dragon boat, the lead paddlers set the pace according to the drummer/caller, and each subsequent paddler stays in time with the paddler immediately in the next row forward. If anyone down the line notices off timing, he calls it out to get everyone back in synch. Correspondingly, the more each team member takes responsibility for the whole project, and communicates to all members a possible difficulty, the more smoothly the entire project will run. It is the responsibility of the leads (management, program and project managers) to set the pace, and give each team member clear guidelines and responsibility for the speed and efficiency of the entire project.


How one paddles determines the volume of water pushed by the paddle, as much as the strength of the paddler. A strong paddler working inefficiently won't have as much pull as a weaker paddler pulling with proper form. The greatest challenge for any dragon boat team is for all paddlers to maintain efficient form throughout the race, especially when fatigued. It's SO easy to slack off on form when your muscles are tired, and you feel as though your lungs are about to burst. The moment form goes, timing will also fail. Each paddler understands his or her position in the boat, and does all they can to maintain proper form throughout the race.

How does this relate to a business environment? Just look at what happens when fatigue and overwhelm set in on any project. There is miscommunication, upsets, disagreement. Some people slack off while others work harder, and the results can be devastating to the project and the company bottom line. It's the job of each individual to maintain their form, and the job of the manager to provide encouragement, guidance, and sufficient conditioning to insure everyone stays with the plan - remaining happy, healthy, and inspired.

Next time you're ready to start a new project, why not hand each member of the team their own paddle, and see if you can start reaching it out with timing, pacing, and form all in place.


The Author


Sid Smith is Coach, Trainer and Speaker from Portland, Oregon, who stops business professionals from swimming upstream. His specialty is Energy Management, and he uses his books, coaching, workshops and consulting to help people "get it done, and have fun". Learn how to work at peak performance with mental toughness, emotional resilience, and physical readiness. Oh, and maybe wear a silly hat just for good measure. Sid Smith 503-287-0246 and visit .

Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2004 by Sid Smith. All rights reserved.

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