Want to be a College Sailor?

John Pearce, G.W. University sailing coach shares his tips for getting the most out of your college career.

ICSA / APS Team Racing National ChampionshipRob Migliaccio

You’ve made a great decision. For many college sailing alumni, it is the defining experience of their college years. Every school, team, and student are different, but if you invest time and effort into college sailing, you stand to add a huge amount of value and meaning to your undergraduate education. Plus, you’ll graduate as a way better sailor than you were four years before.

Assuming you know what a great opportunity college sailing represents, the question is: How do I go from an eager high school student to a fulfilled and successful collegiate student-athlete? More specifically, how do I navigate the college sailing recruiting process, and get off to a good start once after arriving on campus?

It’s a tricky question, but I’m here to help. Let’s start with the basics:

Academics and campus-life come first

The purpose of attending college is to get a degree that will prepare you for a successful and fulfilling life. Pretty boring right? Isn’t this a sailing magazine? Well, sorry. Make sure you do plenty of research into the academic offerings at every school you are considering. Even if you aren’t close to selecting a major, you probably have some hunches as to what subjects you’d like to study. When you are visiting various campuses, sit-in on classes in those areas and see if it feels right.

Along with classes and professors, finding the right academic environment also means a school with a campus culture that will encourage you to learn and grow. School size, campus location, and the personality of the student-body will play a big role in shaping your college experience. You should feel like you belong there. One of my coaching colleagues has a very direct way of explaining this to recruits: Look at the students here. If you come here, you will most likely be very much like them. Is that what you want? Recruiting comes in many forms

One of the strengths of college sailing is the excellent student leadership involved at all levels, and there are a huge number of very successful student-led teams. Keep in mind that just because a team is un-coached, doesn’t mean they don’t recruit. You can still get tons of information from the student leaders of the team, and you’ll probably find that the student-led teams are the most outgoing, friendly, and passionate. They’ve invested tremendous effort into their team, and they know that its survival, growth, and success is in the hands of the next generation of talented and committed sailors. Make sure to get some quality face-time with the team’s leaders so you learn as much as possible about where the team is and where it is headed. You might find that it is a “diamond in the rough.”

Even with coached teams, you’ll get the best feel for what the team (and school) is really like by interacting with the sailors, rather than the coach. That’s why the campus visit is key; it’s the only way you’ll get an accurate perspective on the realities of student life at each institution.

Develop winning experience

If you want to get a coach’s attention, show them you know how to win. Coaches in any sport know that winning is a learned skill. As Vince Lombardi put it, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” Once you get in the habit of winning, it’s much easier to repeat it again, even if it’s in a different context. If you have experience on a winning hockey team or a championship debate team, that will help you contribute to a winning college sailing team when the time comes. Winning experience in sailing is obviously a plus, but I always like to see a track record of success outside of sailing as well.

Don’t be afraid to show your passion for the school

I often tell recruits and parents that the best team members are the ones who absolutely love the school for a variety of reasons outside from sailing. For them, the school is the “complete package.” These students show up to practice energized and happy after a challenging day on campus, and they leave practice excited to return to their schoolwork and social lives. They bring energy to the team, and they are often the most coachable sailors as well.

So, if you feel like a particular school is the complete package for you, make sure the coach knows that. It might help you stand out from the crowd. On the flip-side, don’t fake it. Genuine passion is pretty easy to spot, and if you try to butter up the coach with false enthusiasm, it won’t come across well. Remember, honesty is the best policy. If a school is your fourth choice, it’s OK to tell the coach that.

When it comes to recruiting “pull,” ask the tough questions

Every team in the ICSA is different. Without the strict NCAA recruiting rules that other sports use, you’ll find that the recruiting systems for sailing teams vary widely. This is especially true when it comes to a coach’s ability to use “pull” with admissions. The best way to approach this is to ask every coach what you should be doing to have the best chance of being admitted. If they have admissions “pull,” ask them if they’ll be able to help your application, and how that process will unfold. By asking good questions, you help avoid misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations. Congratulations! You’re in. Now what…

Imitate, then innovate

From Day 1, make it your first order of business to learn as much as you can from your teammates. Observe the fastest sailors on your team and imitate their boat set-up and technique. Ask smart questions to clarify what isn’t obvious from your observations. You can make a big jump up the learning curve by absorbing the knowledge that is all around you, rather than reinventing it for yourself. Only once you’ve mastered all their tricks and tips is it worth spending time experimenting with new ideas yourself.

This concept applies off the water as well. It’ll be clear very quickly which of your new teammates are doing a good job balancing their academic, athletic, and social lives. Time-management skills are key to surviving and excelling as a student-athlete, so spend time picking up good habits from the upperclassmen on your team.

Take ownership early

Inevitably, some of your fellow freshmen will be passive team members. They’ll show up when and where they’re instructed, and do what they’re told. You should try to be different. The success of your team hinges on players like you taking control and making contributions with a real impact. Think of yourself, your teammates, and your coaches as equal shareholders of the team.

In the business world, this is called “taking ownership.” Act like every boat in your fleet, every practice day, and every regatta belongs to you personally. Keep your eyes out for ways to do things better and more efficiently, and share your ideas with your coach and team leaders. By showing you’re invested, and that you have a sense of urgency, you’ll earn the trust and respect of your teammates and be given more opportunities right from the get-go.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Every college sailing season is a grind, and with two seasons per year, it takes a lot of stamina and resilience to be successful. If you go all-out right from the beginning, you risk frustration, exhaustion, and burnout. So, try to pace yourself. Focus on making small improvements and enjoying the little successes. Have fun with your teammates and make the most of all those regatta road trips. By keeping yourself and your team fresh and motivated, you are much more likely to perform well when the pressure is on at the end of the spring season.