I've had a few rare opportunities to say just the right thing at just the right time to capture a moment and inspire myself and others. One of those times was 25 years and 25 pounds ago.
Dan and I sat across from each other, our faces separated by a few feet. And just 6 inches to our left and right, water was drifting past. Our faces said it all to each other. No words necessary. In our minds, our season was floating away.
After 3 races, we had been relegated to our Crew Team's Junior Varsity (JV). Yes, it was University of Pennsylvania, but no, it wasn't the Varsity. For those of us who were seniors or had been in the
Varsity just a week prior, it was heartbreaking.
Seniors had been to practices -- grueling practices -- from the week school started until the week after school ended. Freshman, Sophomore and Junior years. And summers too for a handful of us. For us seniors, the dream of racing in the Varsity was, well, just a dream now.
Even More Challenging
We were starting practice that Monday in what would be the JV boat for our race against Princeton in a few days. Princeton's Lightweight Team wasn't just our arch rival. They were everyone's arch rival, producing year-after-year of fast, champion caliber boats. Psychologically, it's a very tall order to believe you can beat a team that has defeated yours at every level for as long as anyone can remember. And it's an even taller order to cross the line ahead of a team you don't believe you can match.
I was the coxswain, and Dan was sitting in the "stroke" seat. We're the collective brains of the boat. A coxswain is one part Jockey and one part Coach. The coxswain steers a 60 foot long, 2 foot wide boat with a rudder smaller than the palm of your hand. More importantly, the coxswain helps the team get the most out of its combined energy, through individual 'technical coaching' and collective inspiration. The coxswain literally puts the 'foot on the gas' at the right times to win. And never, ever, let's the boat run out of gas.
I noticed something that day that the rowers couldn't quite perceive.
As an experienced coxswain I could see this. Clearly. I believed we were going to beat Princeton! The 8 oarsmen in front of me? Disappointed in their lot, and burdened with the weight of years of losses to that team, they could not see what was so obvious to me.
We all gained confidence that week, having great practices, and the oarsmen hearing from me over and over (and over!) again that we would be the faster boat.
Penn Lightweight Crew 1989 JV -- I'm in the red shirt, facing Dan
As I expected, we tore off the starting line, plowing through the competition during the first 500 meters of our 2000 meter, 6-minute race. During the next 500 meters (the 2nd quarter), heading into the halfway mark, Princeton held on, with our Penn boat maintaining, but not increasing our 2.5 second lead. It was a meaningful lead, but one that could be lost if an opponent made a strong move. At the halfway point, with 1000 meters to go (approximately 3 minutes), and every oarsman feeling the intense pain they all do at that stage, Princeton was still "there," hanging with us. Even moving back a tiny bit.
This was the point in the race where Princeton was known to make their move and speed past the competition.
In my desire to crush this move, without thinking, I shouted with conviction:
"How much are we gonna win by?"
The boat jumped. I felt a jolt of energy and we moved out more. 500 meters later we started our finishing sprint at the same instant Princeton did. And yes, we won.
Why am I telling you this?
During those 2000 meters, those 6 minutes, I did and said a lot of things. I felt us winning, was confident in our speed, and ultimately we did win.
It was only afterwards, as the rowers and I reviewed the race, that I learned just how important that one phrase was. You see, our rowers bore years of losses on their shoulders, and carried vivid images imprinted in their memories of "still being in the race" at the halfway point, only to have Princeton gallop through them with ease, winning by wide margins.
We were ahead, and as a coxswain I made it clear from beginning to end. But every rower... EVERY rower... believed that we were behind. Despite our lead we were losing in our own minds. It's nearly impossible to understand, but it was true.
It was only when they heard, "how much are we gonna to win by?" that they realized as individuals and as a team that they were AHEAD. They could win! No. They WOULD win! And of course, they did. They just needed to believe it was possible. Preparation, technique, power and boat speed were all requirements. But so was belief. Without it we would have folded.
As a leader or teammate, confidence and belief, when grounded in reality and preparation, are contagious.