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What Makes A Successful College Canoe/Kayak Club?

In 2008, I started college in DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology). As a paddler the first thing I did on the clubs and societies day was look for the canoe/kayak club. It took a while but eventually I got in contact and headed down to the first of many weekly pool sessions.

There were 6 or 7 people there that first night. It was a relaxed friendly atmosphere but I was rather disappointed. I expected more. From my perspective the club seemed to be falling apart and sure enough that year at the AGM, the club was nearly disbanded.

Luckily some of us decided the club was worth trying to save and the next September we went on a recruitment drive. 4 weeks in and we had 30+ people! The club now felt like a club but it was far from perfect. So we went about creating a more definite committee and giving more responsibilities to people. This seemed to galvanize us as a club and is the foundation for what our club has become.

The following 3 years we built on the same framework and kept expanding. We added new trips to our calendar, started proper training days and as well as getting involved with charity work and local scouts groups. Some of us suffered academically because we put more time into paddling than college but we didn’t care. Repeat exams were in August which gave us plenty of time to study!

Our membership rocketed as word spread about our “family like” atmosphere and we received awards for “Most Improved Club” and “Club Executive of the Year” from the college two years in a row. This year, 2012/2013 we signed up 180+ people. Not all of them stayed unfortunately but in a way it’s a good thing because we wouldn’t have the equipment or budget for that many anyway!

The larger numbers, better training and other improvements we have made allowed us to be more competitive each year at the Irish Intervarsities which is the equivalent of the National Student Rodeo in England). We have gone from being the second from bottom overall in 2008 to winning silver and bronze medals in (canoe polo and freestyle respectively). Not to mention winning the Inaugural “Ultimate University Award” for our overall contribution to the completion. We entered the Irish Whitewater Racing League and managed a couple of top 5 finishes as well as winning a team event. In the past year our members have traveled to Canada, Slovenia and Scotland for some adventures and to top it all off we now have 3 guys representing Ireland at Freestyle and Slalom.

It’s fair to say that we have come a long way.

Looking back at all of this I tried to figure out what was it that the club leaders did that changed us from being almost disbanded to being so successful.

The first thing I noticed is the attitude of the members. Every club needs to have people that care about the club. Not just about the trips or the training or individuals. They need to care about the club as a whole. The reason our club was failing was because most of the members had more important stuff like final year exams to be worrying about. That’s not a swipe at them, that’s just a fact about being part of a college club. There are other things going on in life that require more of you than the club and your paddling does so you need to have people involved who can give their time.

You need to put time into your club for its success. Time goes into organising events, recruiting new people, training, pool sessions and all that. That’s time that might be taken up by other things like studying, relationships, partying etc. No one person can do all of it and expect it to work out. So you need to know when to delegate and get other people to help out. It’s very easy as a club leader/coordinator to get sucked into doing everything but you’ll suffer in other areas of your life especially with college work and social life.

Developing a good relationship with the college Sports Department is crucial to the success of a college club as they normally are the sole source of finance. It’s vital that your committee keep in constant contact with them. Meet up with them regularly. Submit photos and reports of what you are doing to the college newspaper, upload your videos to the college sports website or Facebook page. If they see you are active, they are more likely to reward you.

These things pointless however if you don’t have the members. The problem isn’t getting interested people, its keeping them. This is a good and a bad thing. Its good because only the people who really want to be involved end up staying. It’s bad because fewer people means less money from membership for the club.

Another aspect of keeping people in the club is the activities and training. Keep the trips and training interesting. Try and get a feel (not literally) of your new recruit’s attitudes and personalities and use this as a way to set the tone of trips/training. For example the girl/guy who only paddles flat water needs to be included just as much the seasoned paddler who loves running grade 4 every weekend. It’s a tough balance to achieve but if you can get it right that type of integration is a huge part of keeping members.

A “social scene” is a great thing to have in a club. Going out for a few beers after a trip is an excellent way of breaking down any barriers to the integration of new paddlers. It allows senior members to talk/debrief with junior members about trips and their paddling in a relaxed atmosphere. It really gives a sense of inclusion to new paddlers within the club as it allows club members to get to know each other outside of the kayaking environment.

The next step is teaching these new members. Not just paddling skills. Teach them the communication and leadership skills the club will need in the future. One thing we forget when we are in college is that we only have 4 or 5 years where we are everyday members who can be take part actively in the club. After that we get jobs (hopefully) and others have to take up the reins at the club. It’s important then to introduce those new recruits to the Sports Department reps, get them involved in gear checks and give them some role on the weekends/trips away. This gives them people skills as well as making them feel part of the club. It fosters a real sense of inclusion and friendship.

Clubs can become stale if it’s the same core members doing the same jobs each year. That’s not to say that the older members should be shunted off as soon as they have done their turn on the committee, but it’s important to make sure that new people are blooded each year on the committee of the club. Again, it is a case of striking that balance between the experience of older members and the enthusiasm of the newer ones.

A sense of openness is the key to using the experience experiences and enthusiasm of new members. College is a melting pot of different cultures, lifestyles and personalities. Use these things to the benefit of the club. Open the floor to all members not just the leaders/committee, to ideas for trips, training, competitions, gear etc. Some of the best ideas can come from people who are new to the sport and have other skills from other sports which paddlers may not have. If the idea is possible and there is the time to do it, go for it. It will give the club another direction and you never know what it could lead to.

One of the biggest aspects of a club is friendships. We all have our “paddle buddies”. It’s almost like some mythical society that we all know can’t really explain. The bonds you make with your paddling friends are different than with other friends. They always seem to be a little closer. This is a great thing as you are all on the same level and it can make the decision making process far easier. But you need to be careful. Sometimes, when making decisions it is easy to forget you are a club and not just a group of friends. Every now and then when decisions are being made, it’s important that friendships are put to one side and a more structured approach to decision making is used. It may be difficult to tell your friend who is the club captain that he/she is making a mistake that will impact the long term success of the club but sometimes it is necessary.

This is my final year as a “student” with DITCC and I am immensely proud to have been there for this regeneration of the club. It has given me a much greater appreciation of what it means to be, not just a part of a club, but, to be genuinely involved.

I hope the insights I have given about our club will be of benefits to other clubs, not just college clubs, which may be struggling to find their feet or are in a state of transition.

Neil Tilley


  1. Anne Raper

    thanks for sharing the link and article.It was an interesting read and some food for thought. I am the secretary of the Scarborough and District Canoe Club and i think you may know of me as i am the mum of Jason who died on the river in Norway last year. It has been a difficult year for me and has taken me a while to get back to club business as i wasn’t sure how i would feel about kayaking and canoeing after the tragedy .How ever i decided to stick with the club and sport as it made my son’s life very happy even though short and I hope other club members will go on to achieve what Jason did and get the pleasure he did too. I do paddle a little myself but just getting back into open boats at present as still recovering from 2 spine operations.

    I certainly can relate to many issues raised in your article. Our club needs some restructuring and the committee needs some serious sorting out, but you have given me a bit of motivation and i am going to put a lot of time and energy into improving the club.As i have been unwell with my spine problem and suffering severe depression since Jason’s accident i am no longer able to work so at least i have the time to invest in the club. thanks again Anne

  2. Gate_49

    Excellent article Neil, lots of food for thought in it that applies to any club, not just Uni or college.
    Hi Anne, I’ve just been watching the River Militia video, inspiring and also so very, very sad. Well done for sticking with the club and with paddling, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you, stay strong.

  3. Bryse Bugger

    What things would you tell a current student trying to start their own club/organization?
    I am currently thinking about starting a kayaking club at Murray State University

  4. Unsponsored

    Is there interest for a club? Do you have gear for the club or will this need to be purchased? How will funds be raised? Will your student union support the creation of a new club? Insurance? Qualified instructors – do you have any?

  5. Bryse Bugger

    I myself and two other people are interested in starting the club.

    As far as experience goes, none of us have White Waters training. We only go kayaking on our local rivers and there our several kentucky lakes we go on.

    We do have our own personal kayaks and paddles for recreation use. No helmets or advanced gear. So we would need to figure out a way to supply things for the rest of the club assuming we get 10 other members.

    We are still in the debate process about how to get things rolling. When i found this article I thought it was very helpful and that maybe you could give my hopeful officers and I some advice on running a kayaking club, whether it be competitive or just for fun.

    We will most likely require semester dues.

    Our student involvement center has given us permission to start a new club.

    As far as insurance, I would have to ask my university about that.

    We are required to have an adviser for the club. But if we were to compete, as of right now, we have no instructor or knowledge of any instructors in our area.

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