Teamwork for the Win: Book Review of “The Boys in the Boat”

book review - boys in the boat

The Boys in the Boat have a lot to teach gifted kids

My book club recently read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and I absolutely loved it. It’s that magical kind of non-fiction that enfold you in the story and doesn’t let go until far after you reluctantly finish it.

It’s the story of the 1936 University of Washington crew team, and I’m here to tell you, they’re pretty fascinating for a bunch of college kids in a narrow boat on cold water.

Those boys have a lot to teach gifted kids.

(Note: this post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a few pennies if you make a purchase using the link, but it doesn’t cost you anything. If I get a few pennies, I’m going to save them to buy more copies of this book.)


What really surprised me about the book was how often I folded corners of pages over (I know, I know. Don’t email me in shocked anger, book purists. I fold pages.) thinking, “I’ve got to share this with gifted kids.”

So many of the ideas in Brown’s book are essential to growing into a healthy human, and their organic, authentic treatment in the context of the story makes the book a must-read for gifted teens. (There’s a young reader edition for the younger crowd, and PBS also did a documentary about the crew.)

Work as a team

To me, the strongest message in the book for gifted kids is the message that teams work well when they embrace different strengths and weaknesses of the team members.

Brown writes, “Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced bends of both physical abilities and personality types” (179).

I’ve written about this using the metaphor of sled dogs, and I think Brown just captures this beautifully.

“In physical terms, for instance,” he writes, “one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat” (179).

He doesn’t just address the physicality of the rowers. “Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow this all must mesh” (179).

This is just the most beautiful explanation of how we need to be able to work together with those who are different in order to achieve the best result that I have ever read. It is far better than all of the “it takes all kinds” lectures I’ve given students over the years.

There’s more amazing language on that page, but I’m not sure how much I can quote without getting sued.

Impostor Syndrome

One of the things Brown alludes to, though not by name, is Impostor Syndrome. Towards the end of the book, he writes, “all along Joe Rantz had figured out that he was the weak link in the crew” (326), but he discovers that all of the rowers felt that way about themselves.

They all doubted themselves. They all, the best in the world, thought they were weaker than the others.

What a great, real-life example of how we all feel like impostors sometimes.

The role of practice

The third wonderful lesson for our gifted kiddos in this book is the role of practice. Lots of it. Un-fun practice in freezing weather. Working hard and working hard and working hard and then working hard some more. None of the boys in the boat just casually sauntered down to the water, climbed in the boat and rowed away to glory.

Brown explains that, “In four years of college rowing, each of them had rowed approximately 4,344 miles…along the way each had taken roughly 469,000 strokes with his oar, all in preparation for only 28 miles of actual collegiate racing” (359).


I was shocked by the privation so many of the boys experienced. The focus of the book is on Joe Rantz, and you could curl your hair with the stories of his challenging youth. They had no money. I mean, no money.

The sacrifices they made were incredible, and they seemed to accept them as part of life. It was humbling, truly humbling.

The Verdict

One of my favorite non-fiction books of all time, this book is in my top ten must-own books, and I highly recommend it to everyone. If I ever meet anyone who read and didn’t like this book, I will be stunned into silence (which those of you who know me know what a shock that would be).

You can watch the trailer, but I promise you, it doesn’t do justice to the power of this book.

Worth Reading Rating: 5

You can learn more about my Worth Reading Rating System here.

Go get this book. Now. Put it on your Amazon wish list, and go nab it.


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