Coaching pedagogy in sailing

In the 21st century you wouldn't dream of arriving for a regatta with a set of cotton sails, nor even with a set of 1999 Dacrons. Nor would you arrive wearing a pair of PVC yellow shorts. Sailing is moving rapidly forward and the constancy of change is something we have all learned to live with, even delight in, with high performance sailing.

Coaching high performance sailors is no exception and it is not simply the transmitted knowledge and shared wisdom that has moved on, it is also style and approach - the pedagogy - that is separating winners from losers before they even get into a boat. Not that a ripple in the collective sailors' gene pool has occurred to change the way our brains work, any more than the laws of physics have shifted to change the way wind generates lift, it is simply that the ways we have available to harness sailors learning are beginning to reflect the vast amount of learning research that is simultaneously changing the way that everyone, from doctors to infants learn.

A part of that revolution is an emerging understanding that the old Piaget view of learning (you learn this stage, then progress to that stage..) which was conveniently linear, but always implausible has succumbed to "newer kid on the block" Vygotsky who confirms that we learn by doing points out rather obviously that we storm ahead in different directions at different times in our lives in a much less predictable, and certainly less linear, way. Sometimes indeed we can achieve huge leaps in one direction whilst remaining positively remedial in others. This fits with a commons sense model of learning too: a young Mirror dinghy sailor may be a relatively weak squad member but may know more about fluid dynamics that anyone else on the team, coaches included; an Olympic champion may get into the medals in the last race of the regatta but may struggle with the maths needed to evaluate the possible options for the last beat. Not only that but different sailors embrace different learning styles at different times and in different contexts, although they may be predisposed to one in particular; thus, coaching a group of five sailors one may remember only your diagram, two your words and the rest only the activity you all did together. Understanding this has made schools much more complex places to manage although it has also helped parents to see why the teenage years are so unpredictable. In sailing this means that some rather convenient organisational behaviour is condemned to the same skip the cottons sails and PVC shorts occupy. If youngsters learn in such a scattergun way, dashing off in all directions, sometimes astonishingly successfully, that pretending that their learning is best managed by grouping them according to birth dates is genuinely hopeless, we might as well use star signs or shoe size as age. Much better mixing of ages is a problem schools are now wrestling with, and so too must sailing although it is curious that in sports and music and theatre historically it has been the model of older helping younger whilst the younger chase the role models of older that has maintained continuity traditionally.

Unfortunately, the changes don't stop at organisation. A better understanding of learning also hands us more clarity about the consequences of "doing it wrong". It is useful to contrast two "styles" of coaching and explore the consequences of their use:

The old "barrack room" model, with a full "drill hall" of learners ("stand up, sit down, what's Rule 14c?") produces sailors who know some things with a confident certainty:

  • they know what is the "correct" action in various prescribed circumstances,
  • they do it unquestioningly and
  • they do it automatically.

This learning style is still found in parts of the armed services for example, although it's in retreat there too, but in sailing terms it might suit sail-by-numbers boats in very predictable waters. 420s in Kingston, Canada, for example. In contrast the "new pedagogy" would produce sailors who knew with certainty that they:

  • can discover rapidly what to do in any circumstances,
  • can act analytically and
  • will constantly question, critique and enquire.

That learning outcome might be good for a consultancy, but in sailing terms would also suit less predictable waters in constantly variable boats - a skiff on Sydney Harbour for example. Of course, the lesson is that nothing is simple. Spend enough time on unpredictable waters (like Auckland Bay) and they become relatively predictable but it makes an interesting exercise to reflect on past performances and circumstances in this way and to see successes where national coaches continually challenge their sailors with maximising opportunities in a regime of uncertainty, swapping anything, even crews and boats, at short notice makes for agile, problem solving, unphased sailors. Eventually!

It is worth revisiting one further reflection about learning: exploring our own best learning experiences. Any 100 people are likely to reveal that their best learning happened when they were:

  • doing something,
  • had a sense of progress and esteem,
  • had a positive sense of audience,
  • worked collaboratively,
  • had some expert mediation
  • and enjoyed some passion and even eccentricity in the process.

It's a useful checklist for sailing too, even (perhaps especially) at the highest levels. Mantras to chant, that your own best learning experiences will confirm, include that "standards do not mean standardisation" and that "listening is not participating". Rather less obvious is the spectre of the self fulfilling prophesy that constantly confirms a coach's judgment, even when it is flawed and badly dilutes the pool of talent that our peak squads are drawn from. The self fulfilling prophesy works simply; a coach makes a snap judgment, for whatever reason, that a young sailor is "star quality". As a result, even in a mixed group with other more talented sailors, the coach will ask "stretching" questions that build the esteem of the "star" whilst the truly talented (but unnoticed) feel slighted by less ambitious questions and suffer disengagement. By the end of a year the potentially best sailors have slipped back, or lost interest whilst the ersatz star has progressed and extended. "See", says the coach smugly "I can always spot the stars early on". Self fulfilling prophesy is a bad coach's best friend and a sport's worst enemy. It is almost certain that in any group of talented young sailors you will not be able to distinguish those with the greatest final potential. This knowledge should guide your every judgment and activity.

By the way, don't assume that because a group don't seem to engage in your "compelling" session that the problem lies with them. As one youngster interviewed commented:

"the session started with an introduction to the basics - but the trouble was every one of us there already knew the basics. First we got bored then we got naughty and he told us we'd never be any good if we couldn't even concentrate on the simple stuff"

Great sailors are not necessarily great communicators. Indeed sport in general has a problem that as reaching the top becomes more absorbing and complex, so the great "personalities" that characterised the past begin to disappear. This matters to coaches because in face to face "seminar" situations great oracy skills can become confused with great sailing ability, feeding the self fulfilling prophesy again. Sailors who answer questions, if the seminar becomes competitive, don't necessarily know the most, they just have the most confidence in contributing perhaps because their learning styles are centred around speech. Asking for drawings and illustrations may favour other more kinesthetic sailors. In research at Ultralab in the 1990s, exploring the dynamic of the seminar situation, some real surprises emerged. Mapping the flow of speech around the seminar members revealed that there was little relationship between knowledge and contribution. As a generalisation often the people who spoke most were simply good at speaking rather that knowledgable. In one case a genuine expert in the subject discussed remained silent throughout its discussion. Asked why she held back her memorable response was that "they seemed to know so little I thought it was churlish to intervene"! Coaches should be aware of the dangers, but should consciously mix styles and approaches to allow the best talent to rise to the top, rather than filtering talent inappropriately.

Another tough challenge for coaches is the march of technology into the learning arena. It is too trite to suggest that young learners are unequivocally wired whilst older coaches aren't, but it is clear that younger learners expect not only a wider spectrum of media in their learning, but make judgments about coaches' capability based on their ability to handle it. A faltering unstoppable video, with no indexing and little structure, dismays young learners every bit as much as an inarticulate performance dismays older coaches. If the coach is to be held in any esteem, then demonstrating some capability with simple technology will help. Actually being good at it will help even more because there are such powerful analytical and comparative tools that can be harnessed at very short notice to inject some of the essential diversity into coaching sessions.

By its very nature, coaching is an intermittent activity so that a graph of learning would show peaks and troughs between coaching activity and sessions starting with a wasted "now, where were we...?" section. The wonderful thing about Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is the word in the middle: Communication. By simple emails and other little provocations a coach can keep alive the questioning and discourse that underpins the coaching sessions with the effect that, not only is less time lost at the face to face moments, but the peaks and troughs are ironed out a little, with a clear net gain in learning. Don't mail "knowledge" to your charges, mail questions and uncertainties that engage them in their time away from you. Mail a picture of a top flight fleet arriving at the last leeward rounding and ask questions like "what if you were leading here but with suspect boatspeed?", "what if I was the German boat, but badly wanted to go left?", "what if I needed a fourth to win the regatta but am a very tight seventh here?" and so on. You'll find the responses, with the benefit of some time for reflection and research, lift the next face to face session immeasurably. Technology doesn't recreate familiar situations but it does offer new situations that deliver on our need for diversity, challenge, engagement and agility.

Finally a note for coaches' own development. All this sounds like a load of trouble; why not simply stick to coaching squads for predictable waters in sail-by-numbers boats, annoint a few chosen "stars", encourage them like mad and sit back for a quiet life? One self centred but effective reason not to, might be to understand the value that the economy places those on coaches who can do the opposite. If you can coach for problem solving and agility, can avoid the curse of the self fulfilling prophesy and can yourself demonstrate an awareness and understanding of new learning opportunities, then the economy, and some grand consultancies, will value you greatly and offer you a life after coaching replete with thirsty cars and fluid lunches. Of course if you have a more altruistic perspective it should be enough to know that your country has a much better chance of winning medals as a result of your expertise. Put simply, get it right and we'll waste less talent.

Whatever your motivation, it's time to change and for the rest of your coaching life it won't stop being.

But you knew all that didn't you?

Prof Stephen Heppell

© Ultralab 02/02/02


contents by Prof Stephen Heppell