Even if you have the right strategy, the wrong tactics will get you wet.

boatThe exciting part of the Oxford and Cambridge boat races this year was the women’s race.

(Yes that’s right, the section of the old established rowing competition that although it has been taking place alongside the men’s race since 1927, and annually since 1967, has only been televised since 2015).

It was a cox’s competition.  And it was a tactician’s race.

Coxing an eight is a heavy responsibility.  You’re the only person who can see where they’re going for a start, and the only chance of steering in the right direction.  In the race, you’re the only person who can speak to the rowers so you’re effectively the team coach too at this point.

Without a shadow of a doubt the best plan is to get off to a good start.  Oxford failed to do so.  Then, as the commentators made a point of telling the audience on TV, you need to navigate the fastest water from start to finish.

In this year’s boat race sticking to this plan without a change of tactics would have been a big mistake for Oxford’s women.  Although they had a disappointing start, a few seconds behind the competition, they had the advantage of the toss, which meant that they had chosen the side of the river that gave them a slight advantage because the bend of the Thames at that point was in their favour.

This allowed the crew to pull ahead slightly.  The obvious thing to do at this point was to continue to take advantage of the fastest path in the river.  Had cox Morgan Baynham-Williams stuck rigidly to the obvious path, she would have kept the boat in the centre of the river.  She didn’t do this.  She was pragmatic and decisive.  Not purist or textbook.  She steered, counter-intuitively, and to the obvious disparaging surprise of some of the commentators, over to slower water.  This meant a nearly 90 degree turn, in a live competitive race, over to the north bank.

Slower water, calmer water.

Cambridge, who perhaps had no choice in the matter at this point, ploughed on in the fast stream for a bit longer.  It must have seemed like a massive opportunity to get back into the race.  Instead, as any viewers will have seen, they nearly sank. And showed massive courage when the umpire offered to let them abandon the race.  They kept going, shifting over to the slower safer stream too, by which point Oxford had already won.

Oxford women won convincingly and beautifully demonstrated that in any live competitive situation you must always consider whether your tactics should shift in order to win.  And that an agile and decisive approach to this could be the key to the competition.

Baynham-Williams didn’t discuss her tactical shift with her colleagues, she didn’t put it to a research group.  She didn’t stick to the safe, textbook plan, she didn’t consider how popular her decision would be. She had the trust of her teammates and the courage to take a gamble, under enormous pressure, which at the time, according to the experts, was by no means a sure bet.

As well as an inspiration for decisive leadership and tactical agility the race is yet one more piece of proof that women’s sport can be as exciting and dramatic as any equivalent men’s event.  What a pity the coverage in media is still, for most events, a fraction of mens’ sports.


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