Sweat. Maybe some blood. Maybe some tears.

Dragon boat athletes know that it’s a mental workout, as much as it is a physical one. Overcoming challenges “fortifies your mind,” says Rome Rehman, a third-year student at UTSC and a paddler on UTSC’s Crimson Tide dragon boat team.

Last season, the team won one silver and one bronze medal at the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, but medals aren’t the only fruits of their labour. The work put into this sport prepares athletes for life.

What is it about dragon boat that equips athletes with life skills? What can we learn from them?

The stakes

There are 22 people on the boat: 10 paddling on each side, one drummer in the front, and a steersperson in the back.

In dragon boat, everyone rows in sync, which means that the weakest link sets the pace for the rest of the team, says Rehman.

“You have to stay on top of your stuff to help the team move up instead of even maintaining where you are or even bringing the team down.”

On her first cold morning practice, Rehman described her surprise at having to row a 2,000-metre race in the rough wind and rain.

“I’d never done a 2k anything before,” she laughs.

Aware of the several times that she had stopped, and her small frame and lousy technique, she thought about quitting during those first few practices. “I was mostly just scared that it was going to be tough or that I’d make a fool of myself and end up letting people down.”

The team

In this sport, there are 21 people who are literally in the same boat as you.

“The team is your support and it’s like a mental game,” she says.

Rehman learned that in moments when panic sets in and you’re feeling disappointed by your performance, the best thing to do is to talk to other people.

You may be afraid of letting them down but “that’s when [your teammates] talk you through it and that’s when you keep pushing through, keep working hard.”

Rehman describes her team as friends who became like family. There’s an organic vision of how each team member contributes to the team’s success, and how the team supports the development of each athlete.

Rehman explains that while she’s come to appreciate how the team understands when you miss practices for school, she gets her academic responsibilities and work done well beforehand so that she can be a strong participating member at team practices.

There’s also “something about suffering together but then still achieving your goal at the end,” she says.

“Dragon boat is a cult,” Terrence Yu, coach of UTSC’s dragon boat team, jokes. “Once you become involved, it’s easy to stick around because your friends are all in it.”

The lifestyle

Students appointed by Yu make up the executive team, or the “core.” They’re in charge of leading workout sessions throughout the week and nurturing the winning mentality.

This includes identifying individual-specific goals to improve, especially when you’re having a tough time.

After stopping during the 2k rowing, Rehman recalls Yu telling her, “As long as you get one per cent better next practice.”

By focusing on and implementing each specific piece of advice to improve her rowing technique, she would get through. “You’ll work on hinging more or going forward, or work on shifting your weight out, work on pulling the water through, or something like that. Each time you get one per cent better, so over time you get through it.”

“It’s all within your own ability to prevent that from happening again,” says Yu. “That’s where the self-development comes along.”

In fact, rather than letting the negatives bring you down, Yu describes the challenges themselves as part of the positives. You build upon your strengths.

“That’s the great thing about sport itself,” says Yu. Compared to the long haul of school, it’s putting you in scenarios where you are constantly challenged and constantly receiving results.

Once you have your breakthrough moment, whether it is accomplishing a personal fitness goal in the gym or winning a race with the team in the water, overcoming athletic hurdles gives you the confidence to take on difficulties at school and in the workforce.

“That’s one thing that I know,” says Rehman, “I have this experience now in my arsenal that I know if I push through I can get through.”

Yu encourages students to think of how to use dragon boat opportunities to fuel their personal development.

“At the end of the day, we just want people who are like-minded in making themselves a better person and hopefully improving their fitness and having a great time as a group,” says Yu.

If you think you could use a vehicle to bond and get along with others, to develop leadership skills, and become mentally and physically stronger, try dragon boat.

If it’s not for you, simply take it as a metaphor for overcoming any of life’s challenges.

Keep rowing.

Keep growing.