Life Lessons Rowing Has Taught Me

I was intrigued with rowing the first time I ever saw it. The beauty of the water. The speed of the boats. The technicality. The sweat. The unison. I had never done a team sport, but I was convinced: if there was ever a team sport for me, this was it. 

I started rowing in February 2019. While I’m still a novice, I can easily say that I’ve found something I’m passionate about. I’ve made some observations this year that I believe apply to more than just rowing. You can let me know if they resonate with you – whether you’re a rower or not!

It Takes Humility

It takes humility to learn new things. It takes humility to show up every day and fail. And you have to be willing to fail…again and again…before you master it. Learning something new at any age is challenging. But learning something new as an adult is especially hard! If you’re anything like me, you like to feel good at things. You like to feel competent and in control. But every now and then it’s good to stretch yourself. Remember it’s okay to laugh at yourself. You can give it your best shot without beating yourself up.

No one is naturally good at rowing the moment they pick up an oar. Rowing is not intuitive; it takes years of practice and training. But don’t let that keep you from trying it. It reminds me of the saying: “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” Before rowing, I was in a familiar routine, and I wasn’t doing scary things on a regular basis. Wow, did that change! I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big boat…or something.

In addition to being able to laugh at ourselves, humility empowers us to apologize when we’re wrong. Ironically, it takes a self-assured person to be humble. People with low self-esteem won’t own up to their mistakes. The ability to apologize is a sign of great character. If you mess up, in rowing or in life, own up to it. Then move on.

You Can Only Work On Yourself

“Don’t criticize your teammates.” “There should be no coaching in the boat.” “Focus on you and you only,” I’ve heard coaches say.

The truth is, even if someone needs correction, it’s not your job to give it to them. That’s up to the coach and the coxswain. Your job as a rower is to focus on you.

In life, it’s easy to get distracted from what everyone else around us is doing wrong. So much so, that we forget to look at ourselves. We become self-righteous and overly critical. It’s a miserable way to live.

“They aren’t pulling their own weight!” “Why won’t they change?” “I’m doing all the work!” You may never get the other person to change. The only thing you can do is look at yourself. That’s where the actual change can happen. Focusing too much on anything else is just asking for frustration. And if everyone puts this into practice, and listens to the coach’s feedback, the results can feel magical.

Stay Together

Nothing is more important than staying together. There are so many things to work on in order to make the boat move faster, but you can’t fix any of those smaller things if your timing is off.

This is the first thing we learn. If you’re in the stroke seat, you set the pace. Otherwise, you follow the rhythm set by the stroke seat. No questions asked. No backseat driving. Keep your eyes fixed on the person in front of you. Don’t look around. Don’t be distracted. Keep looking forward. 

In life, this looks like keeping your eyes fixed on the actual goal, not on the flashy, shiny things that will eat up your time and ultimately derail you. This is why it’s a good idea to have a mission statement – a goal to aim toward and be fixed upon when life is distracting. You can’t fix the small things if you’re focused on the wrong thing entirely.

Stay Relaxed

It’s easy to get stressed, especially if you’re racing and your adrenaline is pumping. It’s also easy to stress if things aren’t going well and the boat is tipping to your side. But getting frustrated makes it one hundred times worse! Staying calm and relaxed is the easiest fix for many mistakes on the water. But it is also the one of the hardest things to achieve.

In order to stay relaxed, we have to face whatever is stressing us out. We can’t merely cover it up and act like everything is okay. We have to get to the core of it. In life, this might look like yoga or meditation. It might look like therapy or counseling. Don’t look to unhealthy coping mechanisms when it comes to fighting your stress. Addictive behaviors, excessive alcohol, smoking, shopping, etc, are all covering up the real issue. Learning to manage your stress, release all tension, and breathe are ironically the keys to accomplishing more.


One of the funny things about this sport is that the rowers actually can’t see where they’re going! We’re all sitting backwards in the boat, and the coxswain is steering. As a rower, you have to do your job, and completely trust that everyone else is doing their job too. It’s the ultimate trust fall. You’re just a small piece of the puzzle. You have to trust that whoever is steering will keep you on course, even though you can’t see a thing and you’re going full speed ahead. Your job is to move the boat fast. You trust that they will do their job.

Life is full of things we can’t control. And there are times we need to trust others to do what they say they will do. Yet a lot of us have trust issues – and it’s understandable. We’ve all been let down in the past by someone at some point. But eventually we have to move forward. We can’t go through life as a one-person show. Humans were deigned for teamwork, and no team can function without a base level of trust.

Consistency Pays Off

Just show up, even if you don’t feel like it. Strong, steady consistency goes a long way – much farther than small bursts of intensity alone. Intensity burns out. Consistency pays off. Those movements that once felt so foreign, will engrain themselves in your muscle memory. Doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, until it feels like nothing. That is the goal.

No matter what you’re trying to achieve, consistency will help you get there. Not shopping. Walking instead of driving. Eating meals at home. We build those habits slowly over time, by choosing consistency each and every day. That repetition will eventually stick all on its own. That’s why I do things like Monthly Challenges. Because if you do something consistently for an entire month, you have created a habit. Habits stick because we are used to them. We don’t have to think about them. They have been practiced so many times that they begin to feel effortless. Identify the small habits that you wish to form, and commit to being consistent with them.

We Achieve More When Someone Believes in Us

One of the things that surprised me about rowing was how invaluable a good coxswain is. To someone unfamiliar with the sport, the coxswain may look like they aren’t doing much. They are the person who sits in the boat with a microphone and steers. They aren’t rowing. They aren’t even coaching. They might seem like deadweight at first…but what they are doing really matters. They are the motivator. I don’t know about you, but I push harder when someone is watching. My erg (rowing machine) numbers are different when the coach is watching than when I’m alone. My numbers are different if a teammate is standing beside me, cheering me on. I didn’t magically get stronger. That’s just the power of motivation. On the water, the coxswain has the power to keep the boat energized. A good coxswain will have the technical skills to help the boat move efficiently, as well as the right words at the right time. If someone is watching, asking to give a little more, I’m somehow able to dig a little deeper. It’s incredible. When I feel discouraged and my inner dialogue is telling me to give up, a little encouragement goes a long way.

In life, it’s easy to lose motivation – especially when it feels like we’re doing the same thing everyday. We need people in our lives to occasionally remind us that they see us. That what we’re doing matters. That what feels monotonous on a surface level, has deeper meaning. We need to be told that it’s not pointless. That we’re moving forward. We need to be reminded that we are powerful and capable of victory. 

Sometimes Setbacks Lead to Breakthrough

I signed up for a Learn to Row class because I was injured. Running had always been my sport. My identity as a runner meant a lot to me. I was devastated when I developed plantar fasciitis following an ultramarathon in spring 2018. Before then, I had thought about rowing, but always as a far-off bucket list kind of thing. My injury, as much as I hated it, was the catalyst that made me sign up.

Looking back, I’m confident that I would have kept running as long as my body let me. I wouldn’t have found my love of rowing until much, much later. And now that I’m doing it, I only wish I’d started sooner! 

It’s funny how sometimes the worst things in life can lead us to the very best things. Getting lost can lead to a new discovery. A layoff can lead to a fresh, new career. A terrible heartbreak can lead to finding the love of your life (yes, I’ve been there!) In the moment it sucks, but looking back – it needed to happen. Fill in the blank in your own life: “Had it not been for _________, I never would have _________!”

We’re All in the Same Boat

At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We’re a team and we will fail or succeed together. As someone who has never played a team sport before rowing, this cannot be emphasized enough. I’ve heard it said that rowing isn’t a team sport – rowing is the team sport. Everything depends on how well we work TOGETHER. Strife among teammates is felt in the boat. But if we commit and work together, everything is smooth and powerful.

As a solo runner for so long, this sense of teamwork is both challenging and uplifting. When you’re one of 8 people in the boat rowing, you can rely on your teammates to keep pulling hard if you need to take a couple easier strokes. And vise versa. We fill in the gaps for each other. We are more powerful together than as individuals. At it’s core, I think this what rowing is really about. I also think it’s what community is about.

Community has long been one of the words in my family’s mission statement, but rarely have I ever seen it played out in such a way. We are in this together. You help fill in my shortcomings, and I’ll help fill in yours. We’ll share the victory. 


Can you relate to any of these life lessons? Which ones are true for you? Do you have any you would add from participating in other sports? Thanks for sharing!


Add yours →

  1. I rowed in college, and absolutely loved it. My roommate thought I was insane waking up willingly at 5am to walk to the boathouse each morning. I was able to switch between port and starboard easily, so I often would switch to different seats as needed. I loved being in the bow best, because I could see us all working together as a team—what a feeling! Truly some of my best memories.

    • That’s awesome! I’d like to learn to row starboard someday, but for now I’m working on being the best port I can. I’m typically stroke or 7 seat depending on which boat we’re in. It is an amazing feeling when we’re all moving together and each giving it our all!

  2. Good guidelines when I check our local rowing club out next spring. You’ve actually increased my desire to participate in this sport, with this post. Thank you!

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