Life Lessons Learned from Rowing

1)   You are responsible for your actions

My first rowing coach often quipped, “Now, everyone up and into your stateroom.”   The way he spoke about getting situated and taking care of business in your “stateroom” made rowing sound like a posh balcony room on a cruise ship.

The nickname refers to your seat in the boat and the space around it: the foot stretcher, the rigger, and the oar.   Whatever happens in your space is your responsibility.  If your rigger tips up, it’s your job to press it back down.  If your oar is coming out of the oarlock, you must push it back in.  No one else can fix it for you.

If the boat is wobbling like a teeter-totter, you can’t enter anyone else’s stateroom and make them fix it.   You can only be responsible for the actions within your space.

The same is true about life:  they are plenty of people who make idiotic statements and act immaturely.  They’ll try to rock your boat and make life unsettling.  They may check you, rush you, slow you.  You can’t fix them, but you can only do you.

I’ve preached it countless times to my students. “Why do I have an ‘F’?”  “Did you study for the test?” “Yes?”  “How hard?  What did you do?  How many minutes?” “I read through my notes at lunch.”  “Well—that’s why you have an ‘F’.”

2)   If you don’t give 100%, you are letting everyone else down

Our women’s 8+ coach is notorious for poor puns.  (His latest kick is how many ways he ask the coxswain to “spin it.”)   His new favorite quip of mine isn’t a crappy cliché, but a serious philosophy.   We had a practice where clearly some rowers had died off the pressure, resulting in the rest of us expending extra effort to compensate for their loss.   They were not pulling their weight, but rest of us had to haul their butt down the channel.   At the break, while addressing the issue, he finished with, “Be a mover, not a rider.”

It’s like assigning group work in a classroom—something I actually hate doing.   There’s always one over-achiever who tries to push the group along, and the under-achiever, who sits back and lets them work. The superstar student tries to handle it, but becomes overwhelmed with the work.  When their grade comes back poor, or they end up in trouble, the grouped students bicker, blame, and point fingers.   That one student who sat back for the ride let their whole group down.   The workforce is no different.  When someone says they will take care of something and they don’t, the whole team is let down.

3)   Set a second, and even a third, alarm clock

Scenario:   Dark room, curtains drawn, soft breaths, and quiet.   The phone lights up and vibrates across the dresser.   A floppy-haired mess explodes from the covers and slaps a hand on the dancing phone.   “Crap!” and other expletives string out.

Nothing is worse than a phone call at 6 a.m. asking where you are and realizing you’ve overslept.   Now you’ve held up practice and let down eight other people that managed to crawl out of bed at 5 a.m. and assemble before dawn in the boatyard.    It’s a terrible feeling that you just disappointed eight now sleep-deprived and crabby people.

4)   A boat that moves together, wins together 

You ain’t got a thing if you ain’t got that swing.    A boat that releases the blades clean and straight from the water, hands that move down and away, bodies that swing over at once, slides that follow the speed of the boat—all those movements synced together make a boat dance across the water.   There’s a special gurgle that happens when it’s sliding like a skater on ice across a silken surface.  Some boats hum through the riggers and into your hands.  It’s magical and divine.

And if you’re not all on the same page, it can be knuckle-bruising, finger-nail bursting, back-wrenching disaster.

It’s about being united for a common purpose.  The teams that are synced and smooth, the ones you see on television that make rowing look easy, those are the ones who win.

A workplace that has clearly set its goals and has everyone buying into the plan—those are the successful businesses.   When everyone’s on a different page, it falls apart.    Think of a restaurant.  If the cooks aren’t communicating on the order together, some dishes arrive at the window early and sit.  Other plates may be forgotten.   The kitchen gets backed up, chaos ensues as they push to catch up.  Now the waiters are antsy because their customers are hungry.  Complete communication collapse.

5)   You are only as strong as your mind

Sprint racing hurts.  You take off furiously for 200 or so meters rowing full-out in an anaerobic state.   Lactic acid builds up in the muscles.  Fire sets in the legs.  Then you have to change your rhythm and go aerobic.   That doesn’t change the fact that your legs yelping in pain.   Mentally, you have to survive that switch.  And when it’s time to sprint hard and furious again, you must dig deep and pull it out even though your chest is about to collapse.   You must have the mental fortitude to dig in.

If you say you can’t do it, you can’t.  Simple as that.  One year I was an assistant track coach.  The head coach was stuck on the 800 meters, so I made a suggestion between two girls on who to put in the race.  When the slate was posted, the girl stormed up to me.

“Can you believe coach put me in the 800?” She pouted, curled-out lip and all.

“Coach didn’t do it; I did.” Her jaw dropped.  “I think you can do it,” I said.  “And listen, all we need you to do it break up this pack of Crystal River girls so they don’t get all the points.”

“But—I’m not that fast.”

“Pretend you are,” I said.  “Even if you come in fifth, you’ll help the team, okay? We just have to spilt them up.”

She wasn’t happy about it, but after more appealing to her sense of self-sacrifice and giving one for the team, she gave in.

Before she went out to race, she told me she’d give it her all.  And wouldn’t you know, she came in second?   After the race, she said, “Coach, when I was running, I told myself I wasn’t going to let them beat me.”

6)   Never be satisfied

Rowing is so precise and technical it’s nearly impossible to be perfect.  Oar too late?  Too early?  Power application?   When one issue is fixed, another forms.  I fixed my collapsing problem, but then I wasn’t getting all my swing.   I worked on my swing, but now I need to connect more at the front end with my outside hand.   There is always something to be working on while seeking the perfect stroke.

It’s the same with writing.  My YA draft is currently undergoing its third major revision.  I’ve reworked one character’s backstory probably a dozen times.  I’m never satisfied with the results but each major re-write strengthens the draft.

Teaching?  The lesson can always be more engaging or more rigorous.

Cooking?  Alan picks apart every meal we ever eat. Even the most delicious dishes are fully analyzed for their strengths and weaknesses.

The results?  It always gets better.

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About camckenna

I teach; I write; I row.
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One Response to Life Lessons Learned from Rowing

  1. Reblogged this on Acts of Madness and commented:
    This is what I mean when I say rowing impacts EVERYTHING in my life…and for the better.

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