Mark de Rond spent 200 days with the Cambridge University Boat Club as an organisational ethnographer researching the social dynamics of high performance teams.

Although a particular rower may be sub-optimal in terms of technique, he may optimise crew performance by virtue of his social skills in drawing better performances out of the others, even for a sport reliant on technique, synchronisation and rhythm.

Founded in 1828, the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) has one purpose only: to beat Oxford in the annual Boat Race. This race has always been a thing of sharp contrasts: it remains a private match between two universities but enjoys a following of millions worldwide; it is marked by intensive rivalry yet mutual respect too; it is quintessentially British though clones of it exist everywhere; it is all about taking part and yet the pain of losing is unimaginable.

So what does it really take to earn a seat in the coveted Blue Boat? How does one create a world-class crew from a dysfunctional cohort of 39 hopefuls? And how are relationships affected by ongoing selection pressures? Unsurprisingly, the answers are not straightforward.

Crew selection

The performance of individual rowers is only ever meaningful in the context of the crew. It is easy to establish what rowers are capable of as individuals. However, place them in a crew and they perform differently depending on who else is in the boat and what seat they are assigned. The implication for coaching and team building is twofold: first, crew selection becomes a matter of finding the right combination of rowers; and, second, coaches need to decide whether to cater to someone’s ego (e.g. by giving him a particular seat) or to suppress it in the interest of the team. Moreover, in crew selection it occasionally makes sense to sacrifice technical competence to gain social cohesion. Although a particular rower may be sub-optimal in terms of technique, he may optimise crew performance by virtue of his social skills in drawing better performances out of the others, even for a sport reliant on technique, synchronisation and rhythm.

Pulling together

Those bold enough to compete for a seat in Cambridge’s Blue Boat can only do so effectively by collaborating effortlessly with their rivals. Rowers express individuality in wishing to remain on the coaches’ radar screens, but collectivity in building team spirit. They are expected to adopt a rowing style that is quintessentially Cambridge, but, in so doing, to sacrifice what they know has made them go fast in the past.

In the aftermath of yet another defeat in 2006, Cambridge’s chief coach decided to part with tradition by granting athletes more voice in training, selection and race planning. Given that rowing coaching is almost universally undemocratic, this rather more egalitarian approach is not risk-free. While the athletes welcome more participation, being asked to take responsibility for each other’s development feels unnatural. Even so, their shared commitment to turning the tables on Oxford, to exploiting their superior blade-work, to avoiding division within the crew and to pulling together seamlessly drove Cambridge to take a leap and innovate. It was to become one of their most daring team-management experiments in two centuries of Oxbridge rowing.

After months of anxiety, conflict and rejection – including the controversial decision to drop a veteran coxswain just 14 days before the race – the training season came to a conclusion for the Cambridge crew on 7 April 2007: although Oxford started well, Cambridge recovered to find their rhythm and won by over a length. And in a real sense, it is the unremitting search for rhythm that explains selection choices. It explains why five returning Blues fought to get one socially gifted oarsman selected despite being technically further removed from the Cambridge ideal than the oarsman he would unseat.

It explains why Cambridge won the 2007 Boat Race, and why it almost lost.

For more information, please contact the author Dr Mark de Rond (mejd3@cam.ac.uk) at Judge Business School. Dr de Rond was recently awarded a prestigious Fulbright Distinguished

 


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