How to Survive Your First Year of College Sailing
How to Survive Your First Year of College Sailing
As a part of our May issue's 2011 Guide to College Sailing, presented by Sperry Top Sider, we asked current and former college sailors for their best advice on navigating freshman year. We received two dozen entries, the best of which, by Tufts sailor Amelia Quinn, is featured in the magazine. But we couldn't let all this great advice remain hidden, so we've published the five other finalists online.
By Melissa Pumphrey, St. Mary’s ’07
Sailing in college can be a wonderful opportunity to compete at a high level, travel, and make friends from across the country. I knew I wanted to crew in college, and I arrived at St. Mary’s College of Maryland with mediocre skills and a strong desire to improve. I started sailing relatively late in the high school program at Annapolis YC. At St. Mary’s, I was part of a freshman class of eighteen sailors and I needed to stand out right away. Your freshman year plays a major role in determining your level of success in college sailing. In order to make the most of your first year, I will share the lessons that took my teammates and me four years to learn.
On The Water
Practice is the primary venue where you can both improve and show those improvements to your coaches. It is easy to sit back and relax once you have made your college team. But if you are on a competitive team and want to succeed, you need to be working to improve all the time. Going through the motions on each drill is not enough. An efficient way to get better during each drill is by watching the best one or two boats at that drill. Try to identify what makes those boats best and ask them about it after practice or during a long van ride.
It’s common to sail with a lot of different teammates at the beginning of your freshman year as coaches are trying to determine which skipper and crew pairings work best. So it is important that you learn the most you can from each teammate. Hilary Wiech, a three-time All-American crew, says that this approach was a key to her success: “I was able to take a tip from every person I sailed with and combine them to make my own style. This gave me confidence in my boat handling no matter whom I was sailing with."
Teammates are your most valuable resource. An average college team might have 25 sailors and two coaches. If you wait for your coaches’ comments, you are not doing the most you can to improve. Be receptive to constructive criticism; the person in the boat with you can tune you in to your weaknesses. Once you have identified your weaker areas, it is important to work to turn them into strengths for them. In the long run, these limitations generally catch up to you.
At The Boathouse
Success your freshman year also depends on your attitude at the boathouse: before practice, in team meetings, and with coaches. Many freshmen fall into the trap of simply hanging out at the boathouse. Instead, treat it like an office because you’re there to get things done. Push yourself to rig and get dressed quickly and get on the water. Getting on the water 10 minutes earlier each day is like gaining an extra week of practice over the course of your freshman year.
It’s important to be an active participant in team meetings. First, it is apparent to the coaches who is not paying attention and who is enthusiastic about getting better. Also, they are usually commenting on the team weaknesses they have noticed at recent practices. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand, or politely contribute your viewpoint if you disagree.
Don’t be afraid to meet with coaches occasionally to discuss progress and goals, usually once or twice a semester. If there is an event you particularly want to sail, let them know. If you’re struggling with academics, you should tell them. However, too many meetings can be counterproductive. Once you have identified your goals and weaknesses with your coaches, you improve through action.
Freshmen generally can make huge gains in their sailing by improving their fitness level. Some college teams have group workouts, which generally combine cardiovascular, weight lifting, and core exercises. If you work harder than the other freshmen in the gym, you can expect larger gains. While sailing in practice every day may feel like enough of a workout, any additional endurance you can build will pay huge dividends at the end of a long regatta. Increased endurance allows you to continue to think tactically while other sailors are just thinking about how much their muscles hurt.
Because practice, regattas, workouts, and team functions take up a lot of time, it is easy to prioritize sailing over schoolwork. That is a huge mistake. Your coach will not be excited if you perform well at fall regattas, but are academically ineligible (or close to it) for the spring. You can ask your upperclassmen teammates who the best professors in your major are, and how to succeed in those classes. Do not announce to your professor on the first day of class that you are an athlete. It seems as though you think you’re worthy of special attention, and professors generally don’t respond well to that. Remember you are a student-athlete.
Competition at college regattas is at a higher level than high school racing or youth racing. The main difference for skippers relative to high school is that the fleets are generally more balanced. Almost everyone at a college regatta was the fastest skipper at his or her high school. Success at any given regatta is a combination of speed, tactics, and luck. College crews are more explosive athletically than high school crews. Excellent college crews can discuss things like boat tuning, boat handling, and tactics as well.
It is rare in college sports that your competitors can also be your good friends. While away at regattas, there are opportunities to hang out with other teams. Enjoy it, but be careful to avoid situations where the result might be your coach angrily asking you to rate the Tufts Toga Party on a scale from one to 10.
Pause and Enjoy
College sailing is unique in that it is the one time in your life when you can devote so much of your time to sailing. If you find a college and a sailing program where you can thrive and stay motivated, competing in college sailing can improve your skills immensely. When Adam Werblow, my college coach, told us my freshman fall that we would be surprised how quickly the semesters pass, I had no idea how true it was. Remember to pause along the way and appreciate your college sailing experience.