Book Review: The Boys In The Boat

The Boys In The Boat is an account of the US rowing team’s victory at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin; nothing to do with running, but certainly an inspirational story for any athlete, regardless of sports background.

TheBoysintheBoat

One of those “hard-to-put-down” reads, this book effortlessly captures the reader, provoking an instant sense of connection with both the characters and the setting. Much like Laura Hillenbrand did in her books, Seabiscuit and UnbrokenDaniel James Brown also delivers a triumphant story of hope against all odds, only this time the odds are overcome by a team of boys, who once introduced, you can’t help but root for.

Interspersed throughout the story are background snippets of a dark and grim reality going on behind the scenes, in Berlin, Germany. Brown provides just enough details to paint a clear picture of the level of grand deception orchestrated by Hitler, and his close associate Joseph Goebells (Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945). While the boys (from Washington State) were busy working hard to earn the coveted privilege of representing the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler and Goebbels were also hard at work – attempting to conceal all traces of evidence that might later expose their persecution of the Jews.

At the core of the story, is Joe Rantz, one of the members of the 1936 US Olympic rowing team. His strong resolve and humble demeanor make him a true hero. But as the story evolves, it becomes clear that his teammates are equally heroic, each possessing similarly unique attributes and an extraordinary will to overcome extreme odds.

The story cleverly climaxes, with Brown recounting the dramatic events leading up to the final race and then describing in vivid detail the race itself. It really is a remarkable story, backed by extensive research that makes it well worth the read; I encourage you to check it out and read it for yourself!

A few key points however (without giving the story away), include what I feel are valuable lessons for those of us who strive daily to succeed in both physical training and life pursuits:

1. The boys trained through the harshest of weather conditions, understanding that extreme discomfort was at times necessary if there was to be any hope at all of making it to the Olympics. A missed day of training meant an extra day of training for a competing team.

“They rowed six days a week, rain or shine. It rained, and they rowed. They rowed through cutting wind, bitter sleet, and occasional snow, well into the dark of night every evening.”

2. Some of the boys came from particularly challenging backgrounds, yet they approached life – in general – with optimism and hope. Joe Rantz, for example, had an uncanny knack for finding four-leaf clovers (it’s much easier to find the more common three-leaf clover). He told his girlfriend, 

“The only time you don’t find a four-leaf clover, is when you stop looking for one.” 

That attitude carried over to the training obstacles they faced, and equipped them with the mental tenacity required to endure many months of grueling workouts.

3. George Pocock, designer and builder of racing shells, played a pivotal role in leading the team to victory. He taught the boys many things, but paramount to their success was his insistence that once they entered their racing shell, they were to leave everything else behind. These boys were taught how to be fully in the moment during races; able to keep their minds one hundred percent focused on the task at hand.

“…..from the time an oarsman steps into a racing shell until the moment that the boat crosses the finish line, he must keep his mind focused on what is happening inside the boat. His whole world must shrink down to the small space within the gunwales.” 

4. The boys followed strict rules imposed upon them by their coach, Al Ulbrickson. They were tempted at times to break those rules, and on a few occasions they did, but for the most part they respected the necessary disciplines required of them.

“You will eat no fried meats, “ he began abruptly. “You will eat no pastries, but you will eat plenty of vegetables. You will eat good, substantial, wholesome food…..You will go to bed at 10 o’clock and arise punctually at seven o’clock. You will not smoke or drink or chew. And you will follow this regimen all year round, for as long as you row for me. A man cannot abuse his body for six months and then expect to row the other six months. He must be a total abstainer all year.” 

5. Finally, in the days leading up to the biggest race of their careers, the boys were understandably nervous and on some level, all dealing with fear and self-doubt. They each had their own coping strategies however, and intentionally implemented these in an effort to align their mental strength with that of their physical strength. 

The take-away lessons:

  • Train consistently, and train when you don’t feel like training (getting outside your comfort zone regularly is necessary for growth).
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts, and train yourself to respond to adversity in ways that help you to favorably interpret situations.
  • When the starter gun goes, it’s time to narrow your focus! Get your eyes, thoughts, and expectations off your competitors, and focus instead on executing your “ideal” performance (one that you know is supported by weeks and months of carefully planned and progressive training).
  • Optimal performance requires optimal nutrition, sleep, and lifestyle habits – not just some of the time, but all of the time.
  • Tapering is a necessary part of pre-race preparation – and while the body is purposely rested – the mind on the other hand should be vigorously exercised and fed with generous doses of positive self-talk and affirmations.

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