No Roots

Timing is Everything

Is Somebody trying to tell me something?

I went to dragon boat practice yesterday with the Breast Cancer Survivors team. I've paddled with them a few times as a supporter.

At the beginning of practice the coach shouted out the dragon boater's motto: Timing is Everything.

You eventually learn that timing is not EVERYTHING because as soon as you get your timing right, they want you to improve on something else… But in any case, it's the first and most important thing.

It is more important that everyone paddles in unison than for everyone to paddle with strength at their own pace. Those struggling should always sacrifice effort for timing. The boat will go much faster with everyone together at 50% effort than everyone apart at 100%.

Getting 22 people to all have their oars hit the water at the same moment takes some skill. Each paddler has to watch the pace setters at the front of the boat and stay in time with THOSE TWO individuals (one on each side and those two are watching each other).

You can have the most beautiful stroke in the world - slicing the water without splash, pulling through with the depth force and speed to maximise the volume moved, exiting and returning to the entry point quickly - but it is not the BEST stroke in the world if you are not pulling as part of a team. It is the ensemble which is all important.

The two people at the front of the boat setting the pace will sometimes count out to assist the others with timing. However, as they are facing forward, people more than 5 rows back are unlikely to hear them.

This is were irony creeps in.

At practice yesterday I was there at the front calling out the timing. Another member of the boat, Angie about five rows back, called out in unison with me in order that the people behind her could hear as well. What happened next is a common occurrence.

She stopped counting with me and started simply counting. Her counting took on a momentum of its own. In fact when the coach asked me to stop, she carried on counting and the back half of the boat paddled along to the count until a few seconds later when she realised what had happened.

Maestro Lim said in choir practice once "You can count in your head, but do not count for the people around you - because no matter how accurate your counting is, it is not MY counting."

When Angie was counting she should have simply been calling out what she saw of my paddle going up and down. But rhythm has a way of spawning mutations which take on lives of their own. It takes a certain amount of practice to sacrifice your individual rhythm for that of the group.

The irony for me, if you can't be bothered to read "Luke Warm" below, is that on this point, there is little to distinguish a choir from a dragon boat team. At times on Friday, it was difficult to hear the orchestra. At that point we needed to take our timing cue from the Maestro… or even from the bows of the violinist moving in unison like a team of paddlers.

For most of the concert we kept it together. But in the excitement of the last movement, the choir ended up with their own timing which was slightly off that of the orchestra.

Without the musical accompaniment, we would no doubt have sounded fine. Our timing was OK in itself - but it was not the timing of the ensemble.

Angie later came up with an excellent solution to her timing challenge: she only counted out every 3rd and 4th beat leaving the 1st & 2nd beats unspoken. Both she and the other paddlers were therefore forced to take their cue on the first two beats from the front of the boat as a visual cue. I don't know if she realised what an eloquent solution that was to a common timing problem in a dragon boat.

It is important to develop good paddling technique. But ultimately, what makes a stroke great is the relationship between the paddler and the group. It is the quality of the relationship and not simply the quality of the indivdual which determines greatness.

Tonight I went for a night ride (cycling). I haven't done a night ride in several years. We started out at MacRitchie reservoir and did a big loop around to Yishun, Woodlands and then back to Bukit Timah. It was about 40km. Parts of the ride were though heavy traffic.

As a group, we are much more visible than as individual cyclists. A half dozen flashing lights are a lot easy to see than the one lone blinking one. So for a night ride, the safety of the individuals are enhanced by sticking with the group.

This means that the fitter cyclists might have to sacrifice some pace in order to keep the group together.

It was a very uncomfortable ride for me. While there were some individuals who were sensitive to the need to keep the pack together, there were others who were not. George, the leader, did what he could but it wasn't actually possible to tie people together.

It's one thing for a prima donna to below out her choir part in double volume vibrato and thus destroy the unison of voices. I don't enjoy it, but I can live through a disappointing choir performance (for the record, this has not happened but as I'm carrying on this theme of analogies, I'm using it).

I cannot, however, live through getting hit by a car because the group is spread 1km wide and I'm left on my own in heavy traffic.

So having got the message three times this weekend, I'm really wondering what is going on. Does Somebody think I've missed the point. If I have please explain it to me. I think the point is clear and I got it.


This weekend has left a very strong impression on me. And that is that quality is not a thing in itself but is a function of relationship.

Maybe I've answered my own question below. I asked, "how often do we get a chance to not be mediocre?" Relationships with objects, ideas and people are presented to us in every instant. If we can give our full attention to the present moment in which they occur, then surely quality will be a constant.

Won't it?

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