The Backpack of Experience

This is a different blog. Please forgive me but it is very relevant to sailing, its just a very personal blog.

Last week my legs stopped working, so I am writing this from a hospital bed, and we thought it may be interesting to hear some of the thoughts that have occurred to me, as I don’t often have time to stop and philosophise. There are a couple of the stories that can be told over a coaching career spanning the best part of three decades as examples, but mainly it’s about life and dreams. I hope it’s both entertaining and somehow informative.

Coaching has evolved a massive amount since 1990. Yes, there were coaching courses of sorts back than, but somehow you’d spend three days on a course and come away with one useful nugget of information that would improve your coaching skills. Now a days information is so readily accessible that you can gain enough information to be a good coach in a very short time. What you can’t get is experience.

I was working as Performance Manager in Denmark about 12 years ago. The CEO of Danish Sailing was a great guy called Michael Staal who had been a senior Exec on Velux Windows – one of those massive Danish companies that few people realise how far they extend. He was, needless to say, very clued up with management techniques and how to resolve them, and I talked a lot to him. Some of the coaches I inherited were too experienced, so their methods were so ground into stone that there was little room for them to get modern or learn new tricks. Michael showed me some drawings on a person wearing a backpack labelled experience. In the first picture the guy was using the backpack as a jet pack and flying. In the last picture he was weighted down by the backpack labelled experience and crawling along the ground. Differentiating experience that you can carry forward to make the load easier, or carrying the negatives and gimmicks, is an art of coaching sustainability that is critical to look for in an older coach.

Talking of experience, I had a very successful relationship with the Danish girls 470. They won a lot of world cups and good medals. They were also the only competitive 470 team in Denmark, and for that reason had to train a lot on their own. Now, training on your own isn’t a big handicap as many would have you think, as long as you’re motivated and demanding. It does mean that when you train with other people you need to choose the ones who want that information highway, the ones who truly believe there’s no harm in exchanging information if you’re all going to improve, because ultimately work and talent will shine through. We found many of these people, the most significant being a Kevin Burnham, the gold medalist who is perhaps one of the best motivators in the sport, and is based in Miami. He knew how to “deal”, did it very fairly, and was undoubtedly the best source of information for differentiation between the distraction of the “tweet of the week” mentality that people get led way from, and what really works. Prioritisation is everything, and you can only truly understand the nature of gain in something if you have both the personal experience and the big picture attitude to evaluate it accurately. Working with incredible people is something I’ve been lucky to do, and it’s for certain that good things DO rub off on you, but only if you have the right mindset. Which brings me to something else……

For three decades ISAF/WS have been telling, what they so patronisingly call, “emerging nations” that if you stick ten or twenty sailors together in a team, fly in expert coaching, and work their asses off, then a champion will pop out of the top. It’s such good logic that everyone believes it, but the evidence is that the squad champion has never “popped out” in international terms. That’s incredible when you think about it – massive investment in emerging nations program, very, very few qualified for the Olympics, and absolutely no medals. From a large budget that really is some failure that should be investigated. Yet the WS roll on, with theories and no obvious sign of progress. It may be about time to give the “Emerging Nations” program to an organisation that will guarantee to bring results, and are prepared to be paid on that basis. Incidentally, I have a visceral reaction to the term emerging, because when the now high and mighty Europeans were living in caves a millennia or so ago, the now Emerging Nations were living in great buildings and organised cities. Patronising them doesn’t hide the entrenched culture. We all learn from each other and there’s some darned important sides to life that can be brought to sport.

In my experience, coaching brings an opportunity not just to create winners, but to encourage personal development which can far exceed that available in conventional education. Sport is hard. It can be heartbreaking. Sometimes dreams die rapidly, and sometimes they die slowly. They always die painfully. More importantly sometimes they are achieved and the dream is reached. What is for certain is this. Young minds dream, and go through all the spectrum of the rollercoaster of emotions in order to achieve those dreams, more often failing at them than achieving them. You become truly alive, experiencing processes and understanding them with heightened stress as few people do. You prepare yourself for whatever life goes on after sport, able to tackle your new life with a clearer vision, structure and understanding than those poor people who only excelled at university. In fact, I’ve coached literally hundreds of people, and only ever known one not to excel in their subsequent professional life. The challenge is the dream, and when you have enough bad experience the strength to dream fails, and you become old. That ability to muscle up the strength to dream varies from individual to individual, so we all know young 70 year olds, and old 25 year olds. This is a part of coaching that I love, and yet live in fear of the ability to dream fading. It is the ultimate privilege to be a part of a talented young person’s dream and to go with them on the journey.

I have travelled to around 130 countries, mainly sailing. It’s a funny thing that wherever we go in the world the first thing we realise is that different cultures produce exactly the same kind of human beings. Happy, sad, ambitious, cautious, with all the other good and bad qualities that we manage to pick up along the way. Making friends is special, anywhere, sharing confidences, especially when to do with sailing, and transcending the “secret” mode that so many people get to, making competition a fair fight between talent and work, and eliminating the advantages that secrets, often pushing legality make, is the true spirit of Olympic sports, and sailing in particular. We have such a complex sport that combining all the ingredients is an art, and very individually based. As far as I’m concerned, people can keep their secrets if they need to, because they probably won’t go into my mix very well! The essential and wonderful aspect to me is that we are rapidly becoming a global society in all aspects. To welcome the benefits of that opens new doors which were not even imagined when I was growing up.

It’s a great world, and hopefully people reading this blog can see that, as the late great Bill Shankly said (referring to football, but I’ll adapt it), “[Sailing] isn’t a matter of life or death. Never be unclear about this. It’s much more important than that”.

We are so lucky to be in a sport with so many facets. At Toplevel Sailing we try to bring our holistic philosophies into our coaching, which not only creates abilities in our athletes to become good sailors, but also happy and successful people.

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