4 Essential Lessons Rowing Can Teach Us About Team-Building

Rowing teams offer a unique depiction of team building. They demonstrate what a team can look like when all members are working as one.

For starters, rowing is one of the most physically demanding sports. Some even refer to rowing as “the sport of masochists.” Unlike many sports, rowing uses nearly every muscle in the body. Rowing requires an unbelievable amount of endurance and considerable strength. It also requires a team to move in perfect stride and rhythm with one another.

Few mediums have depicted the grueling demands, obstacles and required finesse of a rowing team quite like Dan Brown’s “Boys in the Boat: Nine Olympians and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 German Olympics.” The story follows the rowing team of the University of Washington and the high stakes of uniting nine men to become a winning Olympic team. In Brown’s account of the team’s training and competing, you quickly find that the stakes and skills required of a rowing team can rival any sports team. 

As leaders, we also need reminders of how much our teams are capable of and how tightly they can work in sync.

As the story of “Boys in the Boat” shows us, teams don’t just happen. More specifically, winning teams don’t just happen — they are cultivated and built.   

Here are four lessons rowing teaches us about team building:

1. Rowing requires teams to work seamlessly together.

In “Boys in the Boat,” Dan Brown wrote, “All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.” For a rowing team to be successful and make winning strides, they have to work together. No questions asked. Often, employers and leaders allow indifferences and conflict among teams to fester, causing teams to be broken and out of sync. In the rowing game, conflict is not acceptable.

2. The common goal and pursuit of the team must be unified.

In many organizations, individuals are set on different goals or outcomes. But in rowing, there is no room for distractions. Rowing shows us that the most effective teams share the same end goal.

3. Rowers always pull more than their own weight.

Often in the workplace, if a team member has to do more than their fair share, they are quick to complain or throw in the towel. But in rowing, teams know they will be carrying more than just their own weight. They feel and embrace the weight of the entire team.

4. Rowers remain flexible.

Rowers must be ready to yield to and serve the greater goal at hand. Rowers must be both flexible and reliable. They must be prepared for anything. 

The sport of rowing offers a dynamic insight into what a team of several individuals can accomplish when they work as one; they learn to completely trust each other and keep their eyes on the goal. In rowing, there are no real second chances. The moment the race has begun, there can be no mistakes or hiccups.

Thankfully, in most teams there is room for occasional mistakes. But if rowing teams can teach us anything, they show us just how tightly unified, focused and in sync teams are capable of being. While we may not be in the Olympics, winning rowing teams show us that when all team members are fully committed to collaborative success, teams can accomplish more than they would ever think possible.