Dragon Boating the Dutch Way

“There’s water everywhere!”, that’s what they say of The Netherlands, because of the major bodies of water which you can find in and around this gorgeous country, these are: Rhine River, Waal River, Meuse River, Wadden Sea, IJsselmeer Lake, Markermeer Lake, Eastern Scheldt estuary and North Sea.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

In The Netherlands, there are about twelve dragon boat teams who train and compete in the annual major races; and they would compete with each other on a regular basis. In dragon boat festivals, however, there will be occasional ‘fun teams’ that would be formed just for a particular event. Almost all active clubs would have their own boats and storage areas. Amsterdam, The Hague and Alkmaar are the three main areas where the teams are concentrated.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons
Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Let us share with you yet another compelling story of a dragon boat paddler from Vianen, Utrecht, Netherlands who turned into a competitive dragon boat racer and then a beloved coach and trainer of the Dutch youth in 2010, and at the same time of The Dutch dragons. His name is Arjo van Tienhoven.

From 2007 till 2016, he has bagged numerous medals from dragon boat racing at the Dutch National Championships—both as a paddler and as a coach. He began paddling when he was 27 years old, now 42, he has been coaching and training the young generation of paddlers in The Netherlands for the last ten years.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Arjo van Tienhoven with International Race Official Wendy Hermelink

“I was introduced to dragon boat racing by a colleague at the company I worked for.”, Arjo said. “I was only 27 years old when I experienced my first dragon boat session.” He started training with the corporate team called: Concrete Dragons. “A bit of a catchy name because we were working for a construction company.”

He continued to paddle with Concrete Dragons for five years and from 2007 up to the present, he’s been paddling and (on the latter stage) coaching The Dutch Dragons— the most successful Dutch club team. Aside from The Dutch Dragons, Arjo has also coached the National U18 Team crew and the KLM Blue Dragons.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons
Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

“One of my proudest moments as a trainer was in 2014.”, he shared. “At the finals of the National championships, the Dutch dragons had two crews on the water. At that time I was the trainer/coach of our second team and we were up against two of strongest teams at three race distances: 200m, 500m and 2000m. We brought home two silver medals and one bronze. We even beat the strongest team (Dutch Dragons Team 1) in The Netherlands in the 500m.”

The year after, The Dutch Dragons successfully clinched three gold medals in the Standard Open 200m, 500m, and 2000m. It was my first national championship win as a trainer coach. Arjo had other international competitions where he participated as a paddler: 4th Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) 2004 in Capetown, South Africa; European Club Crew Championships 2005, Berlin, Germany; 5th CCWC 2006, in Toronto, Canada.

We had the opportunity to interview Arjo and he shared with us the present status of dragon boat as a competitive sport in The Netherlands and he gave us some amazing coaching tips, too.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Q: How is the sport different now from what it was like then?

A: In general, the sport has not evolved that much in Holland. We don’t have a lot of teams like other European countries. With The Dutch Dragons as one of the exceptions, I personally think that some other teams have been stagnating in terms of membership and participation. Three years ago, The Dutch Dragons ventured into joining the German Dragon Boat Competition and up to now, it is still the lone Dutch team who participates in the competition. We hope that someday there will be more strong Dutch teams who can participate in international races.

From 2013 till 2015, we were promoting the transition from the 4th Liga to the 2nd Liga. Our aim is the 1st Liga in 2017. This will encourage paddlers to paddle with the strongest teams and try to learn as much as possible from each other like techniques, training methods, et cetera. It is easier to grow as a team when your ass gets kicked by the strongest teams in the world as opposed to competing in races where you almost know beforehand that you will win. It’s good to be always up for a challenge.

Liga or League in English is the term used to determine the strength level of teams: 1st Liga to 4th Liga, 1st being the strongest division. It’s a points system practiced in Germany where teams get to accumulate points from the races which they have joined. There are more rules and technicalities on this but that’s going to be a whole new article altogether.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons
Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Q: What’s the main difference in coaching a local club and coaching a national team?

A: The difference is that in a national team, you will have the possibility to paddle with the strongest paddlers available whereas in the clubs there’s a wide range of levels. In the National Team, the paddlers are more or less similar in fitness level and body mass so it’s easier to plan a training program.

Q: In the context of being an experienced dragon boat coach, how do you define the nature and significance of the athlete–coach relationship?

A: There should be respect to both sides; it is important to have fun together, and to have the willingness to work for each other. The trainer is not the boss who tells you what to do, but he is the one who is there to help you to become a better athlete.

Q: How do you manage the recovery window for your athletes?

A: As I now work mostly with my club crew, it is not a big problem. We train together for only three times a week. For the paddlers that do training in the gym or go running between, we try to create a training schedule that fits that specific paddler.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons
Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Q: As a dedicated and a passionate coach, do you envision your athletes to outgrow/surpass the knowledge and skills that you have imparted to them?

A: The best athlete is the athlete who knows what he wants—one who tries to become the best paddler possible. For me it is the greatest fun to work with such athletes, because they also encourage me to become a better trainer and coach. As a coach, I don’t believe I know everything that has to be known about training and coaching; I work with more specialised trainers regarding to power training, video-analyses and so on. If the needs of my paddlers exceed what I can give them, I encourage them to find what they need with more specialized trainers.

Q: Is this a measure of your satisfaction?

A: Yes, definitely. I am a trainer because I want to improve athletes. I am not a trainer for my own satisfaction. The key is to improve the athletes, not to be the one who knows best.

Q: What is your coaching tactic that is unique from other coaches?

A: I try to improve the individuals to get a stronger team. I believe that working on one on one basis with the athletes (we even introduced a day where we train together, not in a boat but this time we focused to improve all paddlers on their own specific weak spots). In a dragon boat, you have to work with 22 individuals. There is no “one size fits all” training that will benefit to all the paddlers at the same level. So I look at the abilities of each individual, and I advice them what individual training they need to improve, like: more power training, technique training on the paddling machine, or running for stamina. I work on a schedule with the paddlers to monitor the improvements.

Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons
Arjo van Tienhoven The Dutch Dragons

Q: Dragon boat is considered to be a less popular sport in Holland, how do you foresee the sport’s growth in the coming, say, 3-5 years?

A: As I look at the sport now, and the past 15 years when I started paddling, there is not much growth. When I started there were about 12 teams and the number is just about the same. You see some new teams making their presence on the water, but you also see teams disappear. It keeps itself in balance. For myself I am always looking for projects to improve the sport, like organise a start to paddle course, or training events for different club crews in The Netherlands.

Q: Outside the dragon boating world, who is the athlete that you admire most and why?

A: I don’t have a specific athlete that inspires me, but I like speed skating very much. It is quite typically a Dutch sport, but I compare it a lot with dragon boating—it’s a very technical sport. In terms of the race distances and what it does with the energy systems of the body, it has a lot of similarities with dragon boating.

Photo Credits: PuurPerspectief, Nederlandse DrakenBoot Federatie, Jeroen Kuiten
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