I just finished reading a thoroughly enjoyable book: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I didn’t love it quite as much as I loved The Perfect Mile, but that may have to do with the fact that I am a runner, not a rower. I first listened to this book on audio but then picked up a paperback version. I am really glad I did, because the paperback had pictures that really helped me understand the scale of the details discussed in the book: the size of the shells, the size of the rowers, the vibe of the times in which they lived.
Mind in Boat
What I really, really loved, from this book was the passage about the team’s mantra that got them through challenging times and, ultimately, to the outcome of their race for an Olympic medal in 1936. This mantra was “mind in boat.” The University of Washington team began using it in 1934 when the inability of individual team members to focus threatened to throw off the unity (and therefore productivity) of the entire team. The coxswain, George Morry, would, according to author Daniel James Brown, shout, “‘M-I-B, M-I-B, M-I-B’ over and over to the rhythm of their stroke. The initialism stood for ‘mind in boat.’ It was meant as a reminder that 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. He must maintain a singular focus on the rower just ahead of him and the voice of the coxswain calling out commands. Nothing outside the boat — not that boat in the next lane over, not the cheering of a crowd of spectators, not last night’s date — can enter the successful oarsman’s mind.”
Why Trusting Your Team Matters
There is a passage in the book when George Yeoman Pocock, who built the shells used by the University of Washington (and a significant number of championship teams) from 1913 until the early 1960s, is speaking with Joe Rantz, one of the team members who has been struggling. Pocock is so much more than a builder of shells; he loves the sport and understands it (and its competitors) intimately. After discussing a few pieces of technical feedback about the way Joe could improve his mechanics, he got to the heart of the matter: he had observed in Joe a tendency to act like he was the only oarsman in the boat. While explaining why this approach was detrimental, as Brown writes, Pocock said: “When a man rowed like that, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row.”
[Note: if you obtain the book, this passage is on pages 234-235. It’s too long to quote in its entirety here, but it’s profound.]
Pocock went on to explain the concept that rowing is like a symphony, with every player having a role. If one player’s volume or tempo is out of sync with the others, even if it would be lovely as a standalone piece, it destroys the beauty of the piece as a whole. He ends the talk with these two gems:
If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.
Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.
One point at which the team’s progress threatened to unravel was when they lost sight of their “MIB” approach. One particular group of rowers, when vying to be the team selected to compete for the national championship (and the eventual opportunity to compete in the Olympics), changed their mantra to “LGB.” When asked, they told people it meant “Let’s Get Better” but in actuality it meant “Let’s go to Berlin.” The problem with that choice is that it took their minds exactly OUT of where they needed to be: in the boat.
Why This Resonated With Me
I have always been a little bit sentimental about boats and nautical themes. Maybe it comes from growing up as a Navy kid. I incorporated a “ship’s wheel” into Wayne Kevin’s baptism banner:
The one post I have written in the almost-year since I left my job had a “boat” theme.
This “boat book” carried messages for me, including the beauty of teamwork and the importance of not relying only on your own talents and strengths to make a project successful, but learning to be in sync with others.
Most of all: the “MIB” image spoke to me. As much as I tried to find my focus in the last few years at Healthy Kids, it eluded me. Although I think everything happens for a reason, I can’t escape the idea that it is possible to find yourself in the totally wrong boat. My body was in one but my head and heart were either back on the dock or in a different boat entirely.
This book is not a suspense novel. The full title basically gives away the ending (from the standpoint of the Olympic outcome). The Perfect Mile, that other book I loved so much, wasn’t a suspense novel either. Who knew hours upon hours of audiobook about men going 4 times around a quarter-mile track could carry so many non-running messages?
For me personally, suspense infiltrates my journey to find a boat my mind and heart can occupy simultaneously, fueled by the gift of a team I can trust while I row toward a power beyond me.
Have you ever experienced a life voyage with “MIB” moments? Tell me about it!