From Nothing To World-Class: What Can We Learn From Oxford Brookes Rowing?

There were other major sporting events taking place recently, believe it or not.

As I coxed (no sniggering at the back) at university, and was lucky enough to be in some very good boats, I competed at and still go to Henley Regatta every year for a day or two, to watch the rowing rather than get drunk by the river.

This year in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate – which confusingly is for men’s eights at just below Olympic level - the final was between Oxford Brookes University and … Oxford Brookes University!  (The Grand, for Olympic-level crews, was won by Australia who beat GB in the semi-final and Romania in the final.)

In the Ladies’ it was Oxford Brookes first and second boats competing, and the first boat won, setting a new record to half way and equaling the record to the finish. Meanwhile in the Temple Cup for college eights, Oxford Brookes' third boat just lost out to the University of Washington, which pleased my Spend Matters US colleague and Washington rowing alumni Sheena Smith greatly! (They became the first boat ever in that event to go under 6 minutes for the course too - the final day saw very fast conditions.)

But in terms of Brookes, it is a bit like Chelsea getting to the FA Cup Final and playing against Chelsea reserves who have beaten all the other teams, while Chelsea juniors just lose the League Cup to Man City. But what is really amazing is that Oxford Brookes did not have any sort of rowing club until the end of the 1970s, when it was the humble Oxford Polytechnic. We’re not talking about a hundred years plus of rowing history like Oxford and Cambridge University or indeed the top club crews.

But in the past 20 years Brookes has become probably the top rowing university in the world, with a number-one crew that is faster than the Boat Race crews, one of the very best rowing clubs of any type globally, and a club that now provides a regular flow of rowers into the GB national squads.

They initially shared a boathouse in Oxford, entered Henley for the first time in 1981 and got beaten by Cherwell College. But after legendary head coach Richard Spratley got involved in 1991, Brookes started winning seriously in the 1990s and now their first boat is probably the fastest in the country outside the GB squad. We found this quote in a book titled Advanced Rowing – a book aimed at coaches in the sport.

“The approach at Oxford Brookes taught me a great deal about the importance of creating a team atmosphere conducive to high performance rowing. The quality of the training facilities was far less important than creating the right training atmosphere. Our head coach ... was Richard Spratley, a brilliant motivator and architect of rowing success. Richard knew how to create an effective environment for rowing both in physical terms but even more so in the way he created an atmosphere that was inspirational. It is not easy to identify all the things that he did which gave rise to the right atmosphere but certainly competitiveness was at the heart of everything that we did”.

Brookes now has a superb boathouse but it is interesting that atmosphere and inspiration were so central to the club’s success. To build what they have from scratch is a remarkable achievement.

What’s the message for us, as mere non-rowing mortals? Well, without sounding too cliched, it does show that sometimes if you dream, you can achieve more that you might think possible. No-one 25 years ago could have predicted where Brookes find themselves today. You need inspiration though, and inspirational leadership if you are going to do amazing things, we’d suggest, and those ingredients are more important than your “facilities" - the physical support structure.

Having said that, you suspect that for Brookes to move on as they have in the past couple of years to an even higher level, their snazzy new boathouse has helped. And a combination of both team spirit and competitiveness seems to be at the heart of Brookes’ success; quite a tricky blend to pull off, but very powerful if you can.

So, which procurement function or professional might read this and think “we could do a Brookes here”. Could your organisation be looked at in 10 or 20 years’ time as the best in the world at procurement? Why not? If you can build pretty much the best boat club in the world in a little-known provincial “Polytechnic”, without even its own boathouse, or 100 years of history, then surely anything is possible.

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