Coaching to Win

Coaching to Win

We’ve been engaged in several interesting projects lately. We are writing this blog to illustrate the effects of prioritising the right aspects of sailing when coaching, and also to contrast the position of a sailor when subject to a “reactive” coach, when they coach according to conditions and squad behaviour, rather than a proactive coach who coach with certain minimum expectations. We will neither name the class nor the country, because that’s irrelevant. What we will do is tell the story.

At the beginning of June I was asked to coach the final phase of selections for the WS youth worlds, The goals at the beginning of the event was to help the team perform and maintain their lead at the selections. We had assumed that the team would be cohesive, with basic communications and a base level of communication and “trust” in place – otherwise how could they lead a qualification process?

Immediately what we found was a culture of blame in the team. Yes, a team is even two people in a boat, where mutual respect and confidence in each other is essential to succeed. This was both disturbing and indicative of growing up in a system where one of the main priorities of two person sailing was totally ignored – the cornerstone being to make each other’s jobs easier, and to make each other look good in every way possible.

The first 2 days were hard and the team sailed technically poorly. We began by focusing on making the right plan and getting them both to understand risk management in the same terms, along with a touch of technical input. We were fortunate that our experience led to a successful progression in a very short time, and by the 3rd day the team started winning races against their tuning partners – a good boys team – which they haven’t done all season long. When the qualifiers came the following day, the team almost lost their spot in the morning of the last day, but focussed on their recent training processes, regained their lead and won the selection.

Immediately I was asked to prepare the team for the youth worlds in order to maximize their achievements and hopefully contend for a medal.

Knowing the team for a while I knew they had potential, seeing them race I realized how talented and what huge potential they had at a very young age, and also how disorganised they were, with no real psychological training, and little systematic consistency.

We engaged in an intense month of training hoping to achieve as much improvement in the short time we had at hand.

The challenges of the team was immense, technically they had a lack of understanding on how to trim their sails which led to random major speed loss. They were not using bow steering so using a lot of corrective rudder was again costing them a lot of speed.

Tactically they had poor prioritizing and observation skills, some of it for the lack of compass use, they were not considering risk and were simply reacting to the fleet, sometimes sailing with no obvious plan, just waiting for the opposition to make a move they would attempt to counter.

The team had major communication problems and a culture of blame that was never addressed before.

So we had many challenges to deal with in a very short time

The first priority of our program was to improve speed, we spent many hours learning what the boat is telling the sailors and how to address those changes, very quickly the team learned how to balance the boat by controlling the center of effort to maximize speed and minimize corrective rudder movements, We learned how to properly trim the jib which is hugely influential for speed, we worked on bow steering and dynamic sailing and within a very short time due to their real natural talent the team was unrecognisable.

After that initial phase and once we were satisfied with the speed we went on to address the tactical aspects of sailing

First of all was to introduce and perfect their pre race routines and weather observations, they learned what drives the wind and how small changes around the course will affect the behaviour of the wind hence affecting their plan.

We worked on prioritizing skills based on those observations and the team learned the importance of a shift as well as the importance of a gust and realized that in different conditions we have different priorities.

We worked on making the correct race plan both upwind and downwind and how to assess based on outcome and observations.

We discussed risk management and created an understanding how to minimize unnecessary risks during a race.

All along we were working on the teams communication skills, since over a long period of time they developed a culture of blame we had to establish boundaries and roles within the boat. We had to agree that there is a need for objective information flow between the helm and the crew and the need to allow each other to acknowledge receiving the information and reacting to it according to their knowledge and abilities with the understanding that they might get it wrong, when they do get it wrong the team learned that the best thing to do was focus on the next right move rather than dwell on the mistake just made. This was a very tedious and long process but slowly the team began to improve their communication, allow each other to learn from mistakes and help each other improve as a sailor and a person. We are still far from the desired goal but certainly getting there. The communication aspect had the biggest impact on their performance in my opinion and the proof was the end result which was a realistic medal contending at the youth worlds.

For a non experienced and somewhat hopeless team in their first international event to make silver fleet at the worlds was expected, we decided to tackle this event by using it as a training regatta in which the team will work on putting our training in to work during racing, I must say I was very pleased with the team’s ability to focus on our goals and not let their bad results at the worlds get to them, we were all pleased with the improvement of communication and the team started enjoying their time together in the boat.

From the worlds straight to the youth worlds, with practically no training in between.

Our process goals remained the same with the added performance goals of sailing 4 top 5 races during the event.

It was great to see the team stand up to the task, achieving their process goals of improved communication, and strategic thinking as well as their performance goals including winning a race.

With 2 races left for the event they were within 7 points off a silver medal, unfortunately lack of experience and a few bad decisions meant they sailed 2 bad races and ended up 10th which in itself is a huge achievement for one of the youngest teams in the fleet at their first year in the boat in their second international event

Although disappointed with missing on that medal the team was very pleased with the huge improvement we made within a month of work, We are now certain that the team can win a medal in next years youth worlds. A really positive outcome.

Now here comes the big learning point of this story. It doesn’t matter who you have guiding you, coaching you or training you in any sport, business or project. The question we should always ask is “does this make sense, does this training give me a systematic approach where we feel strong and confident to take on a wide variety of challenges using this system”? If the answer is unclear, then no matter how good you feel about your progress, no matter how silver tongued your coach/trainer/manager may be, you need to find another way of progressing. We “win” in life when we are happy and confident in the real world. If you are happy and confident training, but that falls apart consistently during racing, then you’re simply not using the right systems for you. This massively talented young team that we so briefly coached has all the ingredients any coach could dream of working with, yet their own high expectations followed by disappointments had left the team in pieces with very low morale. They didn’t ask themselves the right questions early enough to win that medal. The team that surrounds you as a sailor includes your federation, financial enablers, trainers and coaches. Make sure that you as a sailor understand this, and that you always demand the best surrounding team that you can have.

This summary of processes we went through goes to show that the methodical approach based on objective observations that leads to the correct training priorities is critical to success. The systematic approach that Toplevel Sailing uses leads to very quick improvements. Although it takes time to achieve, good results always follow a good process.

Feel free to contact us if you like winning as much as we do

Eshed Meseritz

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