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Keeping Junior Engaged

Take it from those empowering today’s youth sailors: there’s a time to push and a time to let them advance at their own pace. "Jobson Report" from our May 2012 issue.

May 2, 2012
Sailing World

May 2012 Jobson Report

Lauderdale YC’s Hangover Bowl pits parents and juniors, of varying ages and skill levels, against each other in a casual match-race series. John Payne

A bright spot in American sailing is the vitality of our junior sailing. There are hundreds of yacht club-based junior programs packed each summer, more than 500 high school sailing teams, 214 colleges with competitive racing teams, and thriving community boating initiatives. As a result of all this activity, we’ve developed many talented sailors, but still, too many young sailors fade away from the sport during their high school years or earlier, and more stop sailing soon after college. There are as many opinions about the fallout as there are solutions to retaining young sailors.

To get a better sense of retention efforts today, I recently sought out a handful of individuals deeply engaged in youth sailing programs. While their respective best practices varied, they did share a common philosophy: parents, mentors, and instructors must preserve a healthy balance between pushing and enabling.

Most veteran sailors understand that sailing is a lifetime sport that connects generations, provides many levels of great competition, and can be as enjoyable as day sailing or cruising. It’s difficult for young sailors to realize that sailing is a great sport for the long term. To help keep our youngsters engaged in sailing, it’s important that we deliver a mix of education, safety, competition, and play. When new sailors are pushed too hard at a young age, many reject the sport and move on.

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Nicholas Cost oversees Bayview YC’s junior program in Detroit. “We have high expectations for all of our students, to follow safety rules, be good team members, and have fun,” he says. “We focus on the concept of ‘team’ and rotate young beginners through all of our different classes and boats during the summer. By sailing with the advanced group, beginners get to see the possibilities and fun of being competitive. They are treated as full team members and must carry out their share of tasks.”

Carolyn Grant is the sailing director at the Great Harbor YC on Nantucket, and says she focuses on minimizing traumatic experiences. “We do capsize recovery and swimming tests on the first day to overcome the fear factor,” she says.

Philip Muller, at the Lauderdale YC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says that many young sailors wash out because programs are too racing oriented.

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“I have a saying at the club, ‘no sailor left behind,’” says Muller. “Good time management and creativity allows a coach to give both the novice and advanced sailor what’s needed in the same day’s practice. It goes back to knowing each sailor’s threshold. Some practice days need to be more fun-oriented to keep those on the fence interested.”

Veteran sailing director, Jeff Johnson, from the San Diego YC, has an interesting, and somewhat different, take on how some young sailors should be pushed.

“I would say that pushing too hard isn’t the reason kids reject sailing, but rather not being pushed hard enough,” says Johnson. “Each kid responds differently to challenges, instructions, and has different ideas of what is fun or worthwhile.”

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At Nantucket YC, Grant has observed that once young sailors have qualified for the racing level they’ve already made a commitment and are interested in getting better. To keep them engaged, she includes games on the water, not just racing and drills. “We do push the kids in the racing classes,” she says, “because they need to be pushed.”

I know of many parents who live vicariously through their children. These parents become overly immersed in every aspect of their children’s activities. This is not ideal. Being supportive is important, but at some point, kids need to develop on their own. Each will learn at a different pace. Think back to your own developmental years. Were you pushed hard to win? Was there a traumatic experience that made you nervous around the water?

Johnson says he has thought about the parental issue for a long time and suggests that the parent’s job is key in the earliest stages of the development process. “They should discuss what level of involvement the sailor will commit to and not give up when it gets hard,” says Johnson.

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Cost feels parents can be a great support system during events and regattas to help with various functions, but he says that parents must understand that there is a learning process and there will be setbacks, such as bad races, capsizes, frustration, or insecurity.

Muller’s perception is that sailing is a big investment for parents and many want a favorable return. “That often means top results,” he says, “but sailing’s value is about so much more than winning races, which can be an emotional roller coaster ride.”

Cost emphasizes that lessons on the water are invaluable in life: “A student watching their first trophy slip away during a capsize on the last leg of the last race of a regatta can be heartbreaking, and yet filled with a resolve that can’t be taught.”

While young sailors do need to rely on their parents to keep an even keel, parental over-involvement can be devastating. “As soon as the parent’s voice and goals overshadows the child’s or coach’s, the sailors quickly get turned off,” says Muller. “The key to maintaining a child’s interest while pushing to become strong competitors is knowing when to put the pressure on and when to ease up. Each sailor approaches the sport with different goals: some kids are personally driven and hooked on competition. For some, sailing is a fun, social activity and others simply enjoy the independence of sailing their own boat.”

When I asked Johnson if some sailors are pushed harder because they have considerably more potential, he said that it takes a lot of effort to engage each sailor and provide them with individual instruction.

“One really valuable way to push the sailor with more potential is to ask them to work with those that have less experience to help bring them along,” says Johnson. “They are able to communicate in their own language to the other competitors in a beneficial way, which will be a tremendous exercise for all involved.”

Grant says she applies classroom work as an important teaching tool as well, and this helps better connect with the sailor who learns more from such an environment. “There are some kids who learn more because they want to get better,” she says. “These are the kids that will benefit the most from chalk talks and debriefs before and after drills and races.”

Muller also emphasizes the importance of classroom time. “Discussion is just as important as time on the water,” he says. “Each practice’s topic needs to be selected to be most productive for each sailor’s learning curve.”

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