We need both strategy and tactics

We need both strategy and tactics

The most exciting part of the Oxford and Cambridge boat races this year was the women's contest.

(That’s right, the section of the long-established 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 the team are going, for a start, and the team's only chance of steering in the right direction. In the race, you’re the only person who can speak to the others, so you’re effectively the team coach too.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the best plan is to get off to a good start – something that Oxford failed to do. Then, as the commentators explained on TV, you need to navigate the fastest water from start to finish.

In this year’s 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, they had the advantage of the toss, which meant they had chosen the side of the river that gave them a slight advantage due to the bend of the Thames.

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 the 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. She steered, counterintuitively 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.

The Cambridge team, 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 they showed massive courage when they chose to continue after the umpire offered to let them abandon the race. They then shifted over to the slower, safer water – but, by then, Oxford had already won.

The Oxford team 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 could be the key to victory.

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 and 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, according to the experts, was by no means a sure bet.

As well as being an inspiration for decisive leadership and tactical agility, the race is yet more proof that women’s sports can be as exciting and dramatic as any equivalent men’s events. What a pity that their media coverage is still, for the most part, far less than that of mens’ sports.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom