Of Passion, Togetherness and Rowing

Vintage rowing poster

Vintage rowing poster

Bam! Rowing just happened to me one day. Not just a new sporting activity: an absolute passion.

It started in June 2002. A work friend (eternal gratitude) offered to help me try. Although I’d tested a number of sports before – or they’d tested me, I should say: judo, sailing, ice-skating, jogging, climbing and so forth – nothing had really grabbed me. But here, on the water, in a thin boat, with two oars in hand, I had my rowing epiphany. I fell in love with the sport.

It’s been 12 full years already. I row almost every weekend, on the Saône River in Lyon, France. I sometimes go on long distance rowing tours elsewhere. After hundreds of kilometers traveled, innumerable hours on the water, and countless blisters on my hands, the passion hasn't faded and I am just as passionate as I was 12 years ago. How fortunate. It’s time to pay tribute, by writing a bit about rowing. And to relate it to my other passions: collaborative work, engagement.

The rowing metaphor for teamwork and cooperation is so common in business literature, that I humbly beg you, dear Reader, to forgive me for mentioning this cliché again. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I will make the connection one more time. Because I can’t avoid thinking about how beautiful, engaging and fulfilling work could be, if it was considered and done the way we row.

So, let me share here some of the magic ingredients of rowing addiction. Set back a bit, and you can see ideal work situations. Should they be more common, they might help people and teams find their way out of the DMA (Dark Age of Management).

It’s about passion, and togetherness. What if work could be like this?

I can think of so many things I love in rowing, it’s actually tough to be concise (besides, don't forget – I’m French). So, I will focus on the collective dimension of rowing, which plays an important part in my passion for the sport.

Teamwork is often the main idea brought forward about rowing. “We’re all in the same boat”, obviously, and solidarity is a basic requirement in this activity. Boats are long and heavy, it takes the whole team to take them out of the boathouse to the dock. In the boat, everyone has to row in sync. But there’s much more to the rowing togetherness, and that’s why it’s interesting.

  • One and Together. Before teamwork come the individual capacity and personal accountability. Rowe rs have to first learn how to row. It takes a lot of concentration and exercising. The multiplicity of parameters that rowers have to learn and combine makes mastery very demanding. Body and head posture, hands height, balance, thrust from legs and arms, slide control, dynamics and trajectory of the oars in and out of the water, rhythm, breathing, contraction of the abs… It’s a never-ending learning process. There is always something to improve, even for champions. Coordinating everything makes me think of a Zen exercise. Rowing nurtures the soul as much as it trains the body. I go deep within myself when I’m rowing. Yet, I have to in sync be with the team, so I can’t just think of myself. I have to remain open and keep listening.

Vintage rowing poster

Vintage rowing poster

It’s worth noting that information doesn't just come through explicit communication. Beside what the coxswain or fellow team members may say to motivate or coach, most of the team’s parameters are collected from non-verbal communication. To synchronize, one has to watch the front rower(s)’ blades, to listen to all sounds – of oars catching the water, being feathered in the oarlocks… – and to feel how the boat is gliding by paying attention to body sensations, particularly in the stomach and pelvis area. Most of the time, we row in silence.

  • Together as Equals. There is no boss in this type of boat: different roles, but no hierarchical order, nor status. Contrary to a popular misconception, the coxswain doesn’t give orders to the rowers. S/he doesn’t use a whip nor sets the rhythm on a drum (reserved for Asterix the Gaul’s galley). The coxswain steers the boat by controlling the fin, ensures safety by monitoring potential obstacles, potentially coaches the team by providing advice, and motivates it when needed in a race or when fatigue sets in. The stroke, i.e. the person sitting ahead of others, is not the boss either. S/he sets the pace and can be asked to accelerate or to slow down by other rowers, who also have a specific role: propulsion, balance etc.

In the amateur rowing world, no one is specialized in such or such position. Over a rowing tour, rowers take turns and rotate across all positions. You certainly don’t want to be the coxswain for several hours, and even if you like setting the pace, you can’t be the stroke for too long either because it’s exhausting.

Needless to say, it’s all done on a volunteer basis. No one forces you to row, unless maybe you’re a teenager and your parents have paid for the license fee. This makes a huge difference with work in corporations: after you’ve voluntarily applied for a job, you can forget about freedom of engagement. You will be “selected” or “assigned” to tasks by people who know better than you, because they’re higher in the hierarchy or work in HR.

  • Together for “the perfect stroke”. The perfect stroke is the holy grail of rowers. It is about individually and collectively producing the best possible movement, to push the boat forward in an energetic, smooth and efficient way. It is born from the highest coordination and maximum power. It happens infrequently enough, at least among amateurs, to be relentlessly pursued and to generate absolute thrill when it happens. “The quest for the perfect stroke, like the elusive golf swing, is a powerful addiction” – indeed.

Achieving a series of perfect strokes can lead to the “state of flow” described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

The best performance in athletics often occurs when an athlete is completely connected in mind and body.
It is often referred to rowing on “autopilot”. This is when a rower lets his or her body lead, without any interferences of the mind – a state called “flow”.
Flow feels effortless, even though the rower is pushing hard. Flow is a state of mind or focus in which a rower is completely connected both mentally and physically with the oar(s), the water, and the other rowers in the boat.
— Rowing: Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science, 2009

This quest is really what brings rowers together over time. People who start rowing to merely exercise or just try, either turn into perfect stroke worshippers, or quit.

The power of this common pursuit is all the more fascinating that (amateur) rowing brings together very different people. The passion for rowing unites all age groups, social classes, physical traits and genders. We know we’re all different, and some are technically better rowers than others, yet it creates a sense of oneness and of belonging to the same community. This is an example of fruitful diversity and inclusion – something companies could address much more seriously than they currently do.

While typing this post with a number of blisters on my hands, as a result of several long distance rowing tours recently, I realize I haven’t mentioned all the other reasons why I enjoy rowing. The pleasure of practicing outdoors, of gliding on the water, of watching nature and the seasons change, of seeing graceful herons fly over us, of coming back home with sore muscles, of feeling proud after achieving a great rowing session.

Passion is here to stay for some time, I guess.


Visit my Pinterest board for great pics about rowing.