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Make Good Use of Your Coach

Everyone, even sailors at the top, can benefit from coaches. From "The Jobson Report" in our September 2008 issue

October 24, 2008
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Rolex/dan Nerney

“Hey coach, what should I do?” This is what I’m hearing more and more frequently around the racing circuit. Sailors of all age and skill levels are using coaches to help with strategy, to observe races, and to find ways to get their charges sailing faster. I know a lot of coaches that even play the role of psychologist.

Thirty years ago few sailors outside of college racing used a coach. Today, coaches are being employed in just about every other amateur sport so it’s not surprising to see more in sailing as well. But I wonder whether this trend is good for the sport; does having a coach give a team an unfair advantage over one that does not? Not necessarily. Hiring a coach doesn’t guarantee instant results, but finding the right coach for your team, and understanding how to best benefit from a coach will make a difference.

I first realized this in 1976 when I was invited to join the U.S. Olympic Yachting Committee. At the time, I was the sailing coach at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and during the committee’s first meeting I made three suggestions that raised a few eyebrows: one of which was to hire coaches to work with our Olympic athletes.
These were tall-order changes for a complacent Olympic committee. “I doubt anyone would be able to coach Buddy Melges,” said one highly skeptical committee member.

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But every sailor, no matter how good, can use advice, and somehow I talked the committee into hosting an Advanced Racing Clinic before a Star regatta in New Orleans in February of 1977. An encouraging thing happened there; two participants, the late Tom Blackaller and Bill Buchan, reported back to the Olympic Committee that the training sessions were extremely helpful.

Later, when Sam Merrick was named the U.S. Sailing Team Leader he made recruiting, training, and coaching a priority. In 1984 Sam’s team won a medal in every class at the Games. Today, almost every Olympic sailing athlete relies on a coach. The same is true of the America’s Cup where coaching was once rare. Lowell North used Bill Cox as a coach in 1977, and Robert Hopkins helped Dennis Conner reclaim the America’s Cup in 1987. Today, every single America’s Cup syndicate operates with a large roster of specialty coaches.

The duties of a coach are broad, and their responsibilities range from studying the opposition to enhancing the synergy of a crew or team. It’s no accident that professional sports teams rely heavily on coaches, but sailing is more challenged because a coach can’t communicate with a competitor during a race. Football coaches often call every play from the sidelines. It’s a good thing we don’t see this on our racecourses; it sure would take the fun out of sailing if tactical decisions were made off the boat.

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Sailing coaches have a long way to go to reach the level of sophistication found in other sports, but there are many great sailors out there making a living by coaching. These professionals work with young sailors in yacht clubs programs, at junior regattas, and at the highly elevated collegiate level. Dozens of coaches assist crews at events such as Key West Race Week and NOOD regattas, and even in strictly amateur classes such as the J/105.
But the hardest working coaches in sailing are found at the college level, and there’s a lot we can learn from them about what we should expect from a coach and what a coach should expect of his or her sailors. While I was covering the college national championship for an ESPNU show, I watched several coaches in action to see what specific things they were working on with their sailors. Jay Kehoe, Stanford University’s head coach, explained to me that his role was to simply keep his team mentally focused and to help them learn from their mistakes so they will not repeat them. I could easily see how such feedback would help even the most seasoned weeknight PHRF racing team step up to a higher level.

Old Dominion University coach Mitch Brindley feels that personal coaching is a good trend. “People invest a lot of time in the sport and they want the best outcome,” he says. “As a result, we are seeing more traveling teams with youth programs that are fully coached.”

There is a tradeoff, however, says Yale’s Zach Leonard, who has coached Olympic-level sailors and countless juniors. “When I was in college we didn’t have a coach, but one of the positive things about this was that we were forced to figure things out ourselves. In coaching, you have to decide how much information to give people and how to use questions to make them figure out how to do better.”

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Leonard admits that times have changed at the collegiate level, however, and uncoached college teams today are at huge disadvantage.

While watching his team, Adam Werblow, of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, whispered to me, “you have to concentrate on the little details and try to get a little bit better each time.” This is the true benefit of a coach: most often they can best see the details because the sailor is preoccupied with the competition and the bigger picture.

Harvard’s Mike O’Connor spent his few moments between races talking to his sailors about current, wind trends, and boat setup. “We try to keep our skippers from getting caught up in boat-to-boat battles so we talk about the big picture.”

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This is just the sort of feedback that would be helpful for any team, especially to keep them focused on the next race.

SUNY Maritime’s Blaine Pedlow had a different take on the coach’s role, he prefers to let his sailors make their own decisions. “I try to be a calming factor. There’s only so many things you can coach at a regatta,” he says. “A lot of what is done is during practice when we lay the ground work.”

U.S. Sailing Team Head Coach Gary Bodie, who echoes Pedlow’s philsophy, says, “A lot of the coaching is done before we get to big events where we work on the speed and the technical things. But once you get to the water, you’re pretty much ready to go.”

Far removed from the collegiate sailing circuit, I had the opportunity to watch several coaches in action at Acura Key West Race Week. One of the best, Ed Adams, was waiting for his Farr 40 crew to return from the racecourse. Things had not gone well, and Adams, was clearly perturbed with what he saw from his coach boat. “We have a lot to go over,” he told me. “This team can do better.”

Immediately after putting the boat away Adams was leading a spirited session in the cockpit. Such an honest debrief with constructive criticism is the ultimate benefit of having a coach. The next day they went out and won a race.

Sailors, however, need to be cautious when using a coach. An amateur class could easily drive competition away if the top teams have coaches and the majority does not. To avoid this scenario, consider the advantage of having the fleet hire a coach to help bring everyone up to speed.

Although I spent five years as a professional coach at Kings Point and the U.S. Naval Academy, in many ways I’ve been a coach on and off the water for 40 years. I have learned that you are most helpful as a coach when you give only a few tips at a time, always deliver your message in a calm manner, and ask questions. It’s also helpful to get sailors on the same boat talking about specific techniques on how to improve. And sailors have to buy into the concept that coaching is helpful and therefore must be receptive to advice and criticism.

Crews can self-coach too. Designate one member of the crew to take notes during the day. After returning to shore, talk over the list. If there is not an easy answer, seek advice. I find that most top sailors are happy to help.
Whether you use a coach at the beginner or advance level, it can be an incredibly useful tool, but sailors must also improve by making their own decisions on the water. Thus, the best use a coach, as far as I’m concerned, is to recognize trends and help you help yourself.

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