Ed Adams, Whisperer of Champions

Hall of Famer Ed Adams is a champion sailor of his own right, but also he's guided many a top sailor to the top.

Ed ­Adams
National Sailing Hall of Fame inductee Ed ­Adams has transitioned from being a top-level sailor to a top-level coach. Paul Todd/ Outside Images

Recent National Sailing Hall of Fame inductee Ed Adams has had more than his share of success, including a slew of championships in Lasers, Snipes, J/24s, Lightnings, Thistles and even Sea Dogs, as well as a Star World Championship and successful stints in a range of offshore boats, from the Chicago to Mackinac Race to the Volvo Ocean Race, and even in the PHRF fleet of his home in Newport, Rhode Island. But over the past several decades, his career has been redefined by coaching, and like his performance on the racecourse, he has been nothing short of stellar. We recently caught up with Adams to talk about his perspectives on coaching. As those who know him will readily attest, he calls it like he sees it.

It’s interesting that I’m talking to you about coaching when, in fact, you came from an era when there really wasn’t any coaching. Have you ever had a coach?

I had a coach for one regatta, when I was sailing Stars, but other than that, I’ve had no coaching whatsoever.

Do you regret not having a coach?

To be honest, learning to coach myself was an essential skill in my era. All the great sailors then were self-taught; they studied books, asked questions, took notes, thought about it really hard, and coached themselves. I think that process made me a better coach because I had to coach myself. I joke that when I drove to a regatta, I could carry on a conversation with myself, in my head, for hours on end, hashing out how to get better. And certainly, when I drove to regattas with crew, we would spend hours talking about how to be better. My philosophy in coaching is just that—helping people coach themselves, not just telling them what to do. The problem I have with some coaches now, like junior racing coaches who are pushed by parents demanding good results from their sailors, is that they’re not teaching them the sport; they’re just telling them what to do. And when the kids get to the Olympic level, they’re not as sharp. They don’t know how to solve problems by themselves.

Were we better off in the era where ­people were teaching themselves, as you did, rather than relying on coaches, as happens so often today?

That’s a good question. I think some of the skills we developed before we had coaches were perhaps a little better, but it obviously makes for a longer learning period. I have some strong opinions about junior coaching. I think our whole junior process, where the kids are parent-driven—parents are trying to get their kids into exclusive colleges and hire coaches who tell the kids what to do instead of how to do it, or how to figure things out for themselves—too often leaves us with kids who lack self-motivation.

And at the pro level, self-motivated people are the ones who succeed, not necessarily those who were parent-motivated. So, to answer your question another way, accepted junior coaching practices, when parent-driven, are not good for our Olympic and pro-sailing development. Coaches need to guide kids carefully, teach them how to problem-solve—it’s a tricky process, but this push to get kids into college rather than make them better problem-solvers is not helpful.

Also, kids who don’t come from much money don’t get as many opportunities as many of the kids who are parent-driven. There are a lot of stories of kids who didn’t come from wealthy backgrounds who are self-motivated and achieve great things. And I think there are more of them out there that we don’t know about because the results and subsequent opportunities are so dominated by parent-driven kids. Victor Diaz de Leon, from Venezuela, comes to mind. He went to St. Mary’s. He was a second-stringer on the team, had to learn to speak English, and when he graduated, spent his time crewing for good people. Over the last year, he’s become the top pro-level tactician in the keelboat fleet, just by working harder than everybody else.

Let’s talk big picture. Describe a typical coach’s role.

Time management is key. A coach tries to figure out what you should be spending time on. I would watch you race in a regatta to see what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. We obviously wouldn’t spend much time on practicing, talking about or doing drills for things you’re good at, but everybody has holes in their game. I do; everybody does. I want to identify the most productive thing to work on. It might be something very specific or very general, but it’s not going to be the whole package. Then you try and work on that particular problem, practice correcting that weakness, and do drills that give you more experience solving that problem. That’s the best use of time. Then we move on to the next weakness, and so on and so on.

On the water, we try to make the training compact and intense. I probably spend less time with straight-line tuning than other coaches because I believe in sharpening the whole package: starting, boathandling, drills, etc.—the way a typical collegiate practice would be run.

Typically, the people I work with have pro sailors or at least pro talent on board. Those pro sailors are essentially onboard coaches as well as sailors. Much of my job is to help the pro sailors improve their game. They’re coaching the driver, and I’m coaching them. If I can take five to 10 points off their score during a regatta, I’ve made a difference. If you’re a midfleet sailor, is it the best use of your money to hire a coach like me? No. You’re far better off hiring an onboard pro sailor to sail with you.

What’s your average coaching day like, and how has it changed over the years?

I started coaching before the Atlanta Olympics, in 1994, and then for a number of years after that, I mixed pro sailing with coaching. When I was around 50, I transitioned into full-time coaching. One difference is that the days now are much longer than they used to be. When I first started, I took my travel bike to each regatta, and I’d ride every day to stay in shape. Those were eight-hour days. We had primitive cameras, slow dial-up modems, no smartphones, and sailors didn’t travel with laptops; we relied on printed paper tools. Today, we have a lot more data to work with, which means that a coach has to do a lot more work. My workday has expanded from eight to 12 to 14 hours.

I typically start just before dawn, 4 to 5 a.m., to write a weather forecast for the team. I’m not saying my forecast is any better than what you might purchase from a real meteorologist, but when I work on it myself, I have a much better understanding of how the wind will behave that day, and I think I can, at least once in a regatta, come up with a strategic recommendation that makes a difference. We then have a morning meeting with the sailors, discuss the weather, and expand on lessons from the previous day. Then I’m on the water all day long. As soon as I come ashore, we try to have a debrief to review the day’s racing. Then we often have another post-race debrief shortly before dinner to review photos, etc. Or if we can’t get together, then I will post the data online. My day ends around 7:30. If you haven’t guessed by now, my bike stays home.

How do you get the most out of the sailors you work with?

I think there are coaches out there better at it than I am. First, I try to do no harm. I rarely push a particular rig tune or race strategy on people. I’ll only do it if I’m absolutely sure I’m right. Some people want coaches to take over everything—sail ­selection, tuning, tactics, strategy. It’s better to teach people how to make better decisions themselves. I think getting the most out of people is tough. I don’t see too many coaches in locker-room moments, inspiring sailors to do great things. You have to tell them that they’re good enough to win, but there’s a danger in being overconfident. Some coaches are always trying to boost confidence. I’m often trying to temper confidence. You need to know you’ve done everything you can to win, you have the tools to win, you have the skills to win, but as soon as you become overconfident, you rationalize bad decisions.

A perfect example is after you’ve had a really good day on the water. Let’s say you’ve had three races and scored a 1-1-2. The next day, you’ll almost invariably have a less-than-great performance. You’ll start the next race overconfident because you had such good races the day before. Then something will happen—you’ll miss a shift, you’ll be over early—and instead of making a rational decision to catch up incrementally, you feel like you deserve to be in first because you did so well the day before. But you’re now midfleet. Instead of slowing picking away and maybe getting a fifth, you’ll take risks and chances, and end up 15th or 20th. So, I think that if in trying to get the most out of people, you boost their confidence to unreasonable levels, you end up in trouble.

You now work with mostly Olympic-level sailors. How do you coach people who are already amazingly talented?

You have to realize that everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time. Everyone has good days and bad days, no matter how good a sailor they are. You’re going to have bad days. Olympic-level sailors are going to make mistakes, and they’re going to get angry and frustrated, like you and I might. The real difference is that an amateur sailor comes ashore and tries to forget about his mistakes. They might head to the post-race beer tent to socialize and try to forget about how the day went. Pro sailors sit down in a debrief, look at their good moments and admit their mistakes, their bad moments. They’ll take notes, try to visualize resailing the race perfectly, and they’ll sleep well because they’ve worked out their mistakes and they are not haunted by them. They haven’t drowned their mistakes in alcohol in the beer tent. Pro sailors also prioritize physical and mental fitness, and they’ll be rested for the next day when everyone else is tired. So, pro sailors are quite different animals altogether.

Goal-setting seems to be the current ­catchphrase in coaching. What does goal-setting mean to you?

At Olympic-level coaching, they talk a lot about having process goals instead of trophy goals. A lot of amateur sailors say, “My goal is to be third in the regatta.” That’s not a good goal. The goal should be to work with a coach and say, “I’m not very good at starting at the pin,” or “I’m not very good at picking the first shift.” And then your goal in the race should be to conquer those weaknesses. If you can do that, you’ll do better. The goal is to fix the things you didn’t do well in the last event.

Do you ever have to tell someone that they’ve really reached the limits of their potential?

I almost never have to tell that to ­someone who’s young. I’m typically working with people who are 20 to 35 years old. For them, success is dependent less on raw talent than it is on their drive, ambition and dedication to hard work. If you’re willing to work harder than the people you’re racing against, you’re going to have success against them. For a young sailor, the potential is almost unlimited. What’s hard is telling an older sailor, someone your age or my age, that they’ve really reached the limit of their performance.

We both know that as you get older, your eyesight is not as good, you’re not as strong, your reflexes are not as good, your flexibility certainly is not as good, and at a certain age, you just aren’t going to get any better because age is a limiting factor. And that’s hard. There are a lot of sailors out there who quit when faced with the reality of old age, and there are ones like me and probably like you who are willing to stick with it and maybe adjust expectations a bit. I think you have to do that when you’re in your 60s and 70s.

You’ve had some fantastic results over the years in a wide range of boats. How has your own sailing affected your coaching?

I think you need to be an active racer to stay sharp as a coach. I currently race my Thistle, a Shields, I have a Sea Dog for frostbiting, and my DN. I think I’ve owned boats from 13 different one-design classes and concluded that what I really enjoy is the challenge of getting into a new boat. I usually don’t stay with a class for more than five or 10 years or so because once I’ve figured it out and I’m able to win trophies, I get a little bored with it and say, “OK, let’s try something else.” When you get involved in a new class and you’re not fast, and you have to figure out why you’re not fast and what you’re doing wrong—that’s what makes sailing fun for me. It makes me a better coach as well.

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