What is dragon boating?
Dragon boating is a fast and furious sport that that involves long, canoe-shaped boats propelled by paddlers who sit in pairs facing forwards. The paddlers paddle to the beat of a drum made by a drummer sitting at the front of the boat, and the boat is steered by a person standing at the back of the boat.
International races are held over distances of 200m, 500m, and 2,000m but local race distances can be quite different.
Races are done using two sizes of boat. ‘Standard’ boats can seat up to 20 paddlers and ‘small’ boats up to 10.
Modern racing boats are made from fibreglass. For race events, boats are ‘dressed’ with a dragon’s head at the front and the dragon’s tail at the rear. These additions recognise the origins of the sport, which were in China over 2,500 years ago, and they add colour and vibrancy to the sport.
Why think about dragon boating for your patients?
Dragon boating offers a range of benefits for people living with impairments. First of all, it offers non-contact physical exercise for the whole body that will particularly help with upper body strength, coordination, and overall flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. Secondly, participation can help improve feelings of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence and will also help with self-discipline. Finally, because it is essentially a social team sport, dragon boating will help people to grow their social circle, improve their inter-personal skills, and bring a lot of fun along the way.
How accessible is it to those living with impairments?
Dragon boating is accessible to virtually anyone. People of all ages can participate. The sport as a whole prides itself on its inclusiveness – it really is a ‘sport for all’. Obviously, some impairments will create greater challenges to participation than others, and not everyone is going to find it easy to join a club. But sometimes a simple phone call from you as a medical practitioner to a club official might be all it takes to get your patient the opportunity to try the sport out.
Some general considerations
The impairments recognised for qualification in the sport of dragon boating as a ‘Paradragon’ are physical, psychological, neurological, sensory, developmental or intellectual. Those living with, or recovered from, cancer are able to access the sport slightly differently. In particular, breast cancer paddlers have their own organisation (https://www.ibcpc.com).
Essentially, provided a person:
- has at least one functioning arm ;
- is able to hear or see instructions ;
- is not suffering from any condition where exercise could be damaging to them or to their recovery; and
- does not have behaviours that would seriously challenge people around them (bearing in mind dragon boat paddlers sit tightly packed in pairs with up to 22 people in a boat)
they should be able to benefit from dragon boating.
Some impairments will of course make it harder for the individual even to travel to and from a club, never mind to actually participate. So the practicalities of getting to training (and racing) must be a factor in any recommendation to try the sport.
IDBF has produced a booklet of tips aimed at dragon boat coaches who have Paradragons in their teams. Although this booklet is not a medical reference, it does provide some insights to the common impairments and some of the consideration when dealing with them. It is probably worth a quick read to complement the material on this page.
Physical impairments can be wide ranging but typically impact on paddling if there is a loss of a limb, or loss of function in a limb.
Dragon boat paddlers deliver power by forcing a paddle downwards into the water. This power is principally generated by the upper body and delivered through the hand holding the handle at the top of the paddle’s shaft. Usually, a paddler will use their other arm to guide and steady the paddle by gripping it towards the lower end of the paddle’s shaft. There are paddles available that can be used by a person with only one functioning arm. Those who have prosthetic arms can usually cope very well provided they have some means of gripping the paddle.
Legs do contribute to a good paddler’s power but, frankly, are not that critical. Provided the paddler is able to stabilise themselves in some way in the boat, they will be fine. Indeed, many paddlers with prosthetic legs will detach them before paddling and leave on the dockside as they are otherwise simply extra weight to be carried by the crew!
Injuries or other issues in the area of the trunk and waist can be more problematic. When paddling, the downward force applied to the paddle can result in the paddler leaning forward. If they are not able to recover to the upright position after each stroke, they will struggle. Mechanical assistance to this recovery is permitted but not easy to implement.
Phycological impairment relates to a wide range of conditions that influence emotions, cognitions and/or behaviours. Conditions include: PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
The key issue for medical practitioners assessing suitability for their patients to participate in dragon boating is behaviour, particularly towards others. If the behaviours are too challenging, it could increase risks to all involved.
The effects of neurological impairments can be varied and multi-faceted. In general, muscle actions, muscle control, and motor skills will present the greatest challenges to participation in dragon boating. But the fierce independence exhibited by some can be very detrimental to teamwork, but also to that person’s ability to conserve energy for when it is needed.
Vision and hearing impairments are the ones that will most commonly present among Paradragons but both are able to be managed with relative ease compared with some other impairments.
Of course, there will be challenges for a vision impaired person when they try to ‘visualise’ an instruction (so the coaching staff in a club in particular will need to be sensitive to this).
For those with hearing impairments, having someone able to use sign language may be an essential requirement for participation.
Intellectual and Developmental impairments
People living with intellectual and developmental impairments often face societal barriers to inclusion in social activities that are not faced by those living with other types of impairment. This can lead to reduced opportunities essential to their social development, health and well-being. In some cases, family members of those affected struggle to provide effective support due to the same societal pressures.
Dragon boating is a sport that can help develop physical fitness and dexterity, while offering a new competitive challenge. More importantly though, because of the numbers of other paddlers in a boat, it will help with social skills, communication, and with developing an understanding of the importance of cooperation and respect for others; they become part of something that goes beyond their previously more limited horizons. These benefits are readily transferable to other arenas such as employment and advocacy work.
Participation can also be transformative for everyone else involved. It will help break down barriers, improve understanding, and promote a more positive attitude to those living with intellectual and developmental impairments.
How to find out more
If you’ve not found the answers yet to your questions about Paradragons and whether or not you can try the sport, then send an email to the Para Athletes Commission.