The Boys in the Boat – A Book Review

Rowing team

The subtitle of this book – not a spoiler alert! – gives a good idea what it’s about and how it ends: “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.” What you will find between the front and back cover are pages of powerful metaphors for building, leading, and inspiring high- performing teams, from a crew team to a corporate team. It’s a true story of a true underdog – a team that is under-resourced, with little to no experience and barely any means, who, in the end, crosses the ultimate finish line.

My favorite character in the book is George Yeoman Pocock, who achieved international recognition by providing the eight-oared racing shells to the University of Washington that won the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In addition to being a great boatbuilder, he influenced rowing techniques and the philosophy of many oarsmen and coaches. Much like the success of a corporate team, Pocock offers, “Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one.” He reminds us that in rowing, and in life, working hard and putting in long hours doesn’t necessarily mean we get the pay-off; success is as much physical as it is mental, spiritual, and emotional.

As a freshman at the University of Washington, Joe Rantz, the leading character of the story, decides to try out for a spot on the crew team. His decision stems more from survival vs. interest in being a part of the team. He has no rowing experience, just years of physical work that has given him a well-suited conditioned body for the sport. He’s trying out for the team because it would guarantee a part-time job on campus – which means avoiding the long lines at the soup kitchen and foraging for food. And here lies much of the context of the story:  Joe’s focus on his own fight for survival, and the team who needs him to be focused on more than just himself.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“….no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength, they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”

This is a great book about perseverance, inspiration, building great teams, and being a part of a high-performing team. Organizations aren’t successful because of smart and talented individuals. They are successful because they build teams of people who work and perform at their best, together.

Great book!

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