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The Crimson Tide

Many dragon boat paddlers, from both sides of the border, have been selected to attend various training camps in early April as part of the selection process for their National teams. These athletes have been tested physically, have had their technique videoed and critiqued, and have been weighed and measured. Coaches have a large body of physical information about the athletes.

These athletes are now going to be put into a situation where they are going to be tested mentally, and evaluated against a prism of how they fit in with team chemistry. Over the years I hear that term thrown around a lot in the selection process – “the team will be selected with consideration to team chemistry and blend.”

To understand team chemistry you must first understand the concept of affiliation. I recently came across this quote from Mark Zuckerberg:

“Thanks to Coach K and Coach (Roy) Williams for teaching me how you set values for your organizations – from making sure everyone feels ownership of the team to making sure the team feels like a family. As Coach K said, the players each “need to have the courage to lead the moment their leadership is needed.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one of the wealthiest people in the world, visited Duke and North Carolina to study teamwork. He said:

“We all need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves – whether that’s a team or a community of people.”

I think that those two quotes sum up team chemistry and affiliation perfectly.

Affiliation – joining something we believe to be bigger than ourselves – is why people join sports teams, gangs, religious groups, political movements, the military, and universities. It is the most important aspect of team dynamics. Affiliation and team chemistry are concepts that merit exploration in more depth. Let’s use war canoe as an example.

War canoe is very similar to dragon boat, fourteen paddlers plus the coach racing in one boat. Different spots require different skill sets. Team chemistry is vitally important, because it is very easy for all fourteen paddlers to ease off just a tiny bit, and if that happens, you can be defeated pretty badly – we call it being “washed out”. Sometimes people can believe they are giving 100%, but they aren’t. That can be magnified in a war canoe, in the same way it can be magnified in a dragon boat.

Banook in the 1970’s had been very successful in Juvenile (Under 18) men’s war canoe, training like a basketball or hockey team, twice a day, with the only goal being to win the National Championship. By 1976, Banook had won the previous three National Championships in the event, and the pressure on each successive crew intensified. No one wanted to be in the crew that broke the streak. Each successive crew gave themselves a team name. The 1976 crew was called “The Crimson Tide”.

For 15 year old me, making the crew was a stretch goal. I had participated in the Junior Olympics in 1975 as an Under 16, and I was eligible by age to go to Junior Olympics again in 1976, but I desperately wanted to go to the big show – the Canadian Championships (back then the Canadian Championships were only held for Juvenile age class and above). If I were to make the crew, I would be the youngest, and one of the only paddlers who had not won the race previously. At that time, Banook probably could have put out two teams and come first and second at Nationals, that’s how deep the talent pool was.

Fortunately for me, the team had Paul Barry coaching, and two very different, but equally superb, leaders - John Regan and David Jones. Paul gave me every chance to make that team, he was very fair and always very positive. David was a vocal, in your face type leader who would accept nothing but your best effort at all times. He was extremely popular with the guys, and had already had a great deal of success at previous Nationals. John was a down to earth guy who related equally well to everyone in the crew. He was an outstanding all around athlete who everyone respected. He was the kind of guy you could go to if you needed help or advice.

My strategy to make the crew was to make it very difficult for Paul to cut me. I was a very good runner, so when we ran I made sure I contributed by pushing the pace. John taught me not to break away from the group, to just make sure I took my turn in setting the pace. I kept quiet, did what I was told, didn’t bother Paul, made sure I was low maintenance. I did not miss a practice, no matter what. I didn’t want Paul to think I wasn’t 100% committed. Sometimes the best way to contribute to team chemistry is by knowing your role, not trying to do too much, manning your post reliably. I focused on making sure I could do the job and help the crew win by doing everything I could. Of course, being a long shot to make the crew, I had no choice.

As a team with very good chemistry, we had a lot of crew functions. But I was an issue. In those days, it was much easier for underage kids to obtain alcohol – a mature 17 year old could easily walk into the liquor store and buy a case of beer. Teenagers were rarely asked for ID in restaurants. Drinking alcohol was a large part of the social scene with my teammates, some of whom were months away from the legal drinking age of 19. Group activities that did not include alcohol were considered lame. Most team functions were held at private residences or, believe it or not, at Banook, where those who wanted to could drink alcohol if they chose to. It would be hard for today's athlete's and parents to understand. We did things on our own, you had to grow up fast, you made your own way, parents were not involved.

One day, I was going to practice and for some reason, I stopped just before entering the locker room. The set up was such that you could stand on one side of the door and hear the conversation without being seen. I could hear John, David, and most of the older guys in the crew talking about me.

There was to be a team dinner that night, after practice, at a restaurant called the Steak and Stein. The gist of the conversation was most of the crew didn’t want me to go because “he looks 12 and we’ll never get served (alcohol).” They wanted to make up a story to keep me from going. Looking back I was very immature, but you never realize it at the time.

I heard John and David tell the team, number one – I was going – I was part of the team, and as such, I was going. Number two – if they wanted to be on the team, they were going. They said, “ if you want to drink so badly, go drink after dinner.” No one knew that I heard this conversation.

Needless to say, I felt awful. Forty years later, I still remember going to that dinner and being very self-conscious, as everyone drank soft drinks. However, no one said anything or did anything to make me feel out of place, and they didn’t know I had heard the conversation. I was sure they were just putting in time at the dinner to go to the real party.

After the dinner, as the group stood outside waiting to get into their cars and go to what I was sure was the next party (to which I wasn’t invited), John said, “Hey guys, who wants to go to the movies. There’s a new picture about a boxer I want to see.” Once John said that, David immediately supported him. John and David pretty much cajoled most of the caravan of cars off to the movies. John and David said, “McDonald, you’re in our car, lets go”. The movie – Rocky.

It turned out to be a great night for everyone. The guys loved the movie, and members of the crew were taking turns drinking raw eggs and sneaking up behind people and yelling “Adrian!” for weeks after that. I'm sure for the other guys it was one night of many fun nights, but for me it was the first time I felt like I was really part of the group. It turned out to be just one of many times John Regan and David Jones had my back that summer.

Athletes have told me over the years that one of the things they like about me as a coach is that I always work very hard to include everyone. Now you know why.

Paul Barry took a chance on the immature kid with potential and I made the crew. Up to that point in my life, it was by far my greatest sporting accomplishment. We won Juvenile War Canoe in Toronto in 1976, and with the war canoe points, combined with points obtained by our very strong kayak group – led by Scott Logan and future two time Olympian Don Brien, we won the Juvenile burgee, the one which hangs in the Banook gym to this day. That crew was even featured in the documentary "Paddles Up".

Forty years later, I was asked, along with Coach Paul Barry, to present a donation to Dartmouth High School, where John had been a very popular Vice Principal. The donation was to fund the bleachers in the newly constructed John G. Regan Memorial Gymnasium, dedicated in John's memory after he passed away in 2011. Paul gave an amazing speech – I’ve never heard him better. Paul is a retired teacher and life long coach. He said that over 45 years of coaching, for him, “The Crimson Tide” crew was the standard. That team was his favorite, the group with the best chemistry that he had ever coached. He mentioned me as the youngest member just starting out and John as the oldest and one of the leaders. He said he would never forget that group of athletes. He mentioned the special bond to each other that the crew had.

Our club, the Dragon Beasts, does winter training in the Banook gym, and I coach my team – the Blacks – three times a week at Banook. A banner hangs on the wall, the burgee flag awarded in 1976 for National Champion Juvenile (Under 18) Men - “The Crimson Tide”. Every time I go to training, I look at that 1976 Burgee flag and I look at the names. I can’t help it. That’s still my crew. In many ways, I owe my career to that crew. Every workout I find two names – John Regan and Dave Jones. The judges tower on Lake Banook is named after David, who passed away in 1985. Both John and David passed away far too soon, but when I find their names on the burgee flag, I remember the 1976 version of them, their amazing leadership, what special people they were.

What does amazing team chemistry, where everyone is all in, fully affiliated, look like? It’s me, forty years later, looking at a flag and feeling like it was yesterday- unable to imagine not being a part of that team. It’s me at a ceremony, standing beside my coach, still caring about his praise, prouder to be standing beside him in that moment than I was on the podium forty years before.

Have the courage to lead the moment leadership is needed. Go all in. Have the humility to follow when following is needed. Include everyone in the team effort. Be willing to be part of something bigger than yourself.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

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