Editor’s note: This month’s Coop’s Corner was originally published by Sail1Design, “a grassroots organization, by sailors for sailors, dedicated to the youth, high school, college, and one-design sailing communities,” and is reprinted with permission. You’ll find this superb resource at sail1design.com.
With summer not far off, sailing programs around the country are gearing up for their sailing lessons sessions. There will be high school sailors teaching and coaching Opti sailors, college sailors teaching and coaching high school sailors, and adults coaching the college sailors. The interaction between instructor and student is an important one. I am in my twelfth season of coaching The Prout School Sailing Team and have learned quite a lot about how to not only ‘coach’ but also how to mentor high school students in sailing teams. Here are some of the themes I have found to be important.
The first thing is to actually remember the names of your students. This sounds basic but with 20 sailors I see for only two hours a day, three days a week, it can get to be a bit, well entertaining. I once discovered to my embarrassment that I was calling a young lady named Flora “Fiona,” and only found out about it three weeks in when Flora mentioned it to me, rather casually really.
How one addresses the sailors is important. Today’s society is very used to casual language, and “Hey guys, let’s go” encompasses almost everyone. I am old enough to have been taught the courtesy of referring to females as Ladies. When I wish to speak with the group, rather than the common, “Hey guys, listen up” I prefer the possibly old fashioned but more suited to my personality “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention.” If there is a work party or some similar small group of sailors I wish to address or instruct, I use the same phraseology.
Respect is of course a two-way street. Over the years I have made it clear to new team members that if I am speaking, I require their full attention. This includes actually listening to what I am saying, not speaking and NOT using their phones. If I see such inattention I simply stop talking and wait. I do NOT call out the person, but simply wait until either the silence, stage whispers, or an elbow in the ribs brings the attention of all back to what I am saying.
This is very important in sailing for many reasons. Technical concepts, a new language, wind noise and your tone of voice are but a few of the variables a coach needs to be aware of and manage. I tell all my new sailors that they will be a bit confused at first by all these elements. This is made no easier coming from me. Apart from all of the above, I have an Australian accent, I tend to talk fast when excited and, although I am getting better at not doing this, I often use sailing slang when speaking in a hurry. “Crank the vang” may as well be Urdu for “What’s for dinner?” to a new sailor, so use terms novices can understand.
Tone of voice is critical when addressing teenagers and in particular novices. Loudness can easily be confused with anger. Sailing can be trying enough for a 15-year-old, with not much instruction, plunked in a boat, surrounded by an absolute deluge of new inputs all clamoring for responses, people using new and unknown words and, on some days, plenty of wind, cold, wet and once in a while, snow. My particular approach to the combinations of emotions on the new sailor’s face is to smile and say something like, “It’s OK, you’re responding perfectly normally.” I tell them that my voice is loud simply to have them hear me and that volume is not to be considered criticism.
Speaking of which, it is of the utmost importance that a sailor is not berated in front of the team. Actually, they should not be berated at all, and unfortunately I do see this. People do not generally make mistakes on purpose. If I see a team member struggling with something, my approach is to work on the basis that I have not given sufficient, correct instruction to the sailor. Violations of the behavioral standards you set is a different matter, but again not to be conducted in front of other team members
I should note here that for many reasons new sailors, or rather students with no sailing experience who join the Prout Team, are not progressed through a standard sailing instruction program. Rather, I bring them in the RIB for a couple of days, give them a broad overview of how boats work, balance of forces and so on, introduce them to the vocabulary they need to come to grips with, and generally put them in a 420 with a skilled sailor within a couple of hours. I tell them beforehand that I will do this and that: “You will be confused. You will suffer input overload. You will be somewhere from concerned to scared on the fear spectrum. You will get wet and may well be cold. You will end up with wet, stringy hair blowing across your face, and you will have a blast.” Over the course of these twelve seasons I have worked with perhaps 25 or 30 such sailors; they have all come back. Every year, I have several sailors graduate, having come in as novice freshmen and leaving as skilled sailors totally in love with sailing.
If anthropologists need groups of people to examine for proof that the Human is a social animal, they need look no further than high school students, and high school sailing teams in particular. Sailing is the only activity where, when in competition, there is not a coach jumping up and down on the sidelines bawling instructions at the team. The sailors are allowed to go and make their own decisions, successful or otherwise. This shared experience, of kids together in pairs and in the three boats of a team, breeds strong bonds amongst the sailors. Throw in the environment and technical complexities of sailing and there is a great breadth and depth of shared experience. Keeping this experience moving along is an important aspect of ‘The Team’ from my perspective. I do a couple of things to support the team idea.
Firstly, I dress as I ask them to dress, which in the Northeast in spring and fall means drysuits. This has the added benefit that I can jump into a boat and give a practical demonstration of some point I am trying to convey to a struggling sailor. It has on a couple of occasions allowed me to help recover a turtled boat with me ending up in the water. And in the event something really goes south, I can jump into the 40-degree water and not become a problem myself.
Every time I am out with the team, I think of the young lady who drowned in Annapolis a few years ago and cannot imagine having to make that phone call. I carry with me on the RIB a small bag with light line, some tools, tape, a knife, some of the hand warmers that one shakes to affect a warm glow to the hands, and other items I have found to be useful over the years. I also carry a diving face mast.
The Pinnie is the uniform of sailing. I have our team wear their Pinnies all the time, practice or racing. I wear one, too. I think this sets the tone that we ARE a team joined by like uniform amongst other elements. Being ‘in uniform’ has the added advantage of more easily identifying the Prout boats and when necessary me, from a distance. “Practice like you play” is a refrain in use these days but I first heard it years ago.
In the 1980 America’s Cup, the Australia syndicate brought in a man named Ron Barassi. He was the Vince Lombardi of Australian football and was there to give us pep talks, along the lines of what today would be called sports psychology. We were all given a book he had written and in the beginning paragraphs it described him showing up for practice with his team. He was kitted out in a clean and washed uniform, his football boots (leather in those far-off days) were polished and shiny, the long white laces were spotless, and he was ready to play football. In contrast to the variety of clothing the players were wearing, he was a spotless representation of the Club. At the next practice everyone looked like him. This tale is an important lesson in making a group of individuals a team and is one I try and emulate.
Being huddled in a RIB with a few teenagers, either wet, cold and anxious or doubled over from laughter, is a situation few adults get to share with teenagers. I find that there is ample time to discuss what you are doing, point out the errors a sailor is making, and then highlight the increase in performance from the same sailor after a little coaching. There are a myriad of skills and disciplines used in sailing, apart from the sciences that make a sailboat go. This time in the RIB offers me a perfect opportunity to find out what makes these young men and women tick.
The sailors must rig and un-rig their boats. It drives me balmy to see parents rigging and un-rigging boats for their kids. There are so many reasons why this is a bad habit, it would be its own essay.
Early in the season, I allocate the novices and less experienced members to a group led by an experienced sailor. These sub-teams allow the skilled sailors the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills and the new sailors to become a part of the team from the beginning. Boats of course need to be rigged and un-rigged and put away in some kind of organized process. Any damage or failure of some kind needs to be noted and addressed. Making sure the procedure for both ends of the sailing day is clearly articulated and enforced is another critical aspect of the day. If something is not done according to ‘the rules’ then the members or leader of the sub-team is brought back to make it right. Politeness and courtesy is key to this discipline. I refer to this “not being your bedroom at home and your mum is not here to clean up for you” in a jocular fashion (here is where my Aussie accent is an advantage).
Coaching young people in sailing is a great way for those of us who have experienced the wonderful (and the less so…) adventures sailing offers to pass on to the next generation. It is also, in my case, a wonderful way to spend some time with a great collection of young men and women. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.