Happy new year. In looking forward to the new possibilities of the coming year, this fresh start provides a moment to take pause and reflect on some important lessons I’ve learned that I want to keep in the front of my mind this year.
Lots of us in the sailing world are recovering from the 2015 Orange Bowl International Youth Regatta, a marathon event that is often so much more than just the regatta, but includes several days before of training. This year was my 16th Orange Bowl, combing my years as both a sailor and a coach. This end of year event was special to me, particularly this year.
THE TEACHER BECOMES THE STUDENT
This year I had the pleasure of working with some great young athletes from Key Biscayne YC as well as a team from my Colorado program. Our group fared well and learned a ton throughout the week but we were reminded at the award’s ceremony of the importance of hard-work, dedication, and commitment that culminates into the satisfaction of a job well done, which at this particular regatta translates into a holding silver bowl of oranges.
I feel a special amount of pride in having worked with, in different capacities, many of the winners of this year’s event: Optimist RWB, C420 & Laser Radial fleets. Disclaimer: I do not assume to take any credit for these young athletes’ success in this event. They all share an exemplary level of commitment to the sport and train with great coaches and fellow athletes who they work with to attain their goals.
But I have been lucky enough to share some part of their journey with them. Looking back on those moments, I have reflected on some of the lessons these particular sailors taught me over the years and how their role as students and sailors have shaped mine as coach.
THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY- Bella Casaretto 1st Optimist RWB
Amazing to see this young lady, who I met as a smiley and tiny Opti green fleeter, develop into the powerhouse of a racer she has become. And no doubt Bella’s own fiery ambition has been stoked by, among others, talented coaches and sailors like bronze medalist Lucas Calabrese and Dartmouth athlete and leukemia survivor Christopher Williford (woot!).
Many moons ago, I met Bella in the beginning of her sailing career, her sister Ariel and she sailed on my green fleet team. Green fleet is what it is and that’s not what I want to talk about. Fast forward to white fleet where Bella sprouted up to show a lot of promise after logging countless hours learning to hike and surf during ocean practice off Fort Lauderdale beach. Bella moved up the ranks, even at 10 years old, and worked her way on to one of our competitive team race team.
The event is the Team Race Midwinters in Jensen Beach, Bella is the youngest, by a few years on a team of five. She is our designated “rabbit.” Fast as either a pin end started or a boat end “tack and go right” boat. Our strategy for her is something like “she’s small and fast so let’s keep her away from traffic.”
We had been working on passbacks and hooks at mark 2 for a few weeks leading up to the event. Bella had become proficient but when it came game time, I had not intended to coach her to strike offensively but rather slip through the cracks or up the side and secure a 1,2, or 3 finish. Throughout the event Bella proved she could hold her own with the big boys. Upsetting many top sailors with her mark 2 hooks, specifically in two tough races that took our mid pack team to the top of the silver fleet standings.
We used this newly discovered strategy later that season at the USODA Nationals and beat our the top team from our club, which was very motivating for our young bunch.
At the end of the Jensen Beach event Bella proved something amazing to her competitors, don’t underestimate anyone- even the smallest and smiliest sailor can flip the dynamic of a race on its head with same impact as Goliath’s head hitting the dirt. Respect the small and mighty.
Bella taught me to push sailors beyond their capacities. Not outer space beyond, but far enough that they can create and discover new depth within. Far enough that you allow them to surprise you and more importantly to surprise themselves. That space is where progress is found.
BRING YOUR A GAME, JACK- Eduardo Mintzias (skipper) 1st Club420
I regret not having snapped a photo of Eduardo on the morning of the last day of racing at OB this year. I walked one of the sailors on my team over to the end of the dock, opposite of Eddie at the Shake-A-Leg boat ramp to use him as an example of how hungry for success one needs to be to succeed. Eddie was sitting alone, cross legged and staring out at the Bay. Calm, collected, hyper-focused. I imagine visualizing his future win and sizing up the challenge he had ahead. I was inspired looking at him and hoping to inspire my athlete by pointing him out.
Before I continue, I first need to set the stage and give some more context to really tie this anecdote together. Early on in my tenure at LYC our team participated at a USODA East Coast Champs held in Marco Island, FL. This event delivered all the qualities one wants in a regatta: full days of racing with steady breeze and swelly chop, perfect gulf coast sailing. We had a sizable team fleet this event (nearly 30 sailors if I remember) and brought three coaches to assist the athletes on the water.
It seems to be standard operating procedure these days, especially for larger club teams, to fleet a big group of sailors who are across the spectrum in skill level. This regatta was no exception, we had a few sailors elbowing their way around the top 10 positions, about 60% of the group scattered throughout the middle of the pack, and a sailor or two trailing the back of the fleet. The big breeze and waves on the second day of racing were tough for our younger sailors, which makes a tough day for coaching when you have to switch gears between motivational speaker and tactical offensive coordinator. I was on clean up duty and spent lots of time talking the tears out of the eyes of our frustrated sailors.
I should tell you that Eddie is the type of kid I love to coach. He is headstrong and smart. He challenges everything you say and weighs it mentally against both his experience and his gut. At this event Eduardo was not in the back. But fighting for a top position in the regatta. He came to my boat after a tough second race and wanted a plan for the next one. He was emotional: pissed off and frustrated.
Like I said, I had been working with some teary eyed sailors in the flight before his and hadn’t seen much of his race. He came to me with questions and wanted a plan. Handing Eddie some water, I spat out a line of coaching I thought would suffice, something like “get off the line with clear air and take that first shift right, make sure to hit the top left side on your final approach to the mark.”
Eddie’s retort put a halt to my quippy reply. Throwing his bottle back in my direction he shouted “I JUST DID THAT AND IT DIDN’T WORK.” Whatever I was selling, he wasn’t buying. This sailor was challenging me on the advice I was giving. I should have known better.
This moment taught me a few important things; 1) that coaching a big group means giving 100% to each kid, from the winner to the last boat across the finish line. Everyone deserves their fair shake. 2) know your shit, man and work harder. If you’re going to assume to speak from a position of authority, make sure you collect all the data and are attentive. 3) “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t watching” is not an acceptable answer. This is pretty much a reprise of #2 but important enough to say twice. Do you think Phil Jackson missed watching one of Michael Jordan’s blocked drives or Pippen’s picked off passes? I doubt it. You want to be a pro, then be a pro.
I remember this nearly every time I see Eddie. And I use this experience as a reminder to better myself and my coaching. Watching him work to victory this year was amazing. And he did it because his drive and hunger calls him toward perfection.
ASK MORE QUESTIONS, DON’T JUST GIVE ANSWERS- Leo Boucher 1st Laser Radial
I met Leo this last summer at the US Sailing Youth Championships in Bristol Rhode Island. I was hired by US Sailing to coach the laser radial “fleet” at this event. I put “fleet” in quotes because the majority of the sailors at this event come with their own coaches. It turned out that about 16 radial sailors came without coaches, Leo was among the group.
Event coaching is strange and a brings a series of challenges. The first day holds all the pressures of a job interview or a blind date. First impressions are paramount to setting the right tone and rapport with the athletes immediately. Trust is established through investment and coaches build this over time. We didn’t have time. So I did my best to open up and make myself approachable to the sailors with a series of Taylor Swift references followed by a discussion of the forecast and environmental factors like current and water depth.
This event is chock full talented athletes. Sailors have to apply to get in. And rightfully so as it’s the qualifier for the ISAF Youth World Championship. My approach to best support the athletes on my team during this event was to use our on water talks between races to pull information out of them. This process helps me figure out what their strengths, weaknesses, habits, and how deep their experience base is. This is my own sort of coaching algorithm. From that process I know what information they need, be it technical, motivational, or what have you. I didn’t show up with this method in mind.
I realized quickly during the first day of racing, that this event was not the right time to “teach” Leo, or any of the other athletes something new. Practice is over when the game is on. So as we talked on the boat I asked myself what could I offer this crew to enhance their performance and race experience to fulfill their own potential during that week? With so many factors to control and overcome in a sailboat race, what could I do in my blow-up boat to lighten his load?
I quickly learned from these conversations and watching him sail how smart and strong Leo is. He was equally in tune with the shifts and current as he was with his rig set up. And Damn!, the kid can hike, the first day in a half of racing brought some big breeze and chop that had everyone’s legs burning. Leo was not afraid of setting himself up to leeward and burning through and upwind hike-a-thon.
I figured out that to help him and the other sailors shut out distractions and externalities uncontrollable to focus on what was important. What’s the most important factor in any competitive atmosphere? Confidence. How do we gain confidence? Experience and knowledge. So I used the rest of the week to explore this new coaching style (for me) of extracting then highlighting information from the athletes. I became a lens, a spotlight, a microscope. Through probing and questioning, I learned to guide these sailors to find the solutions to the problems they faced through reflection.
Coming out of this event, my coaching style was changed. I promised to no longer spoon feed data to sailors. And believe me, sometimes this takes a lot of self-control. But in the long run, it’s better for the athletes to learn to work through their own experience and discover the answers with their own insight. With some helpful guidance, of course. Doing that they’re empowered to become better tacticians, athletes, and meteorogists and to find those qualities within. Working with Leo taught me that, and I can’t thank him enough.
A BIGGER SIDE OF SPORT
A sailor of mine, Jack David, won something prestigious (and often over looked) this past Orange Bowl. Jack, who I have been working with in Colorado for the past (nearly) two years was awarded the Sportsmanship Award for helping a fellow competitor re-unite with his capsized boat, during a race on the first day of the event.
Jack, who had up until this point, only raced sailboats in Colorado was in over his head at Orange Bowl. On the practice day, when we met at Key Biscayne Yacht Club, he was told he would be sailing his Opti across the bay to Coral Reef YC and couldn’t believe it. He had never sailed on a body of water that expansive before, and in consistent breeze upwards of 20 mph—no way, jose’.
But he did, and throughout the week he developed new skills within himself that he never knew were there. He finished the regatta by putting 30 boats behind his transom, 30 boats who steadily passed him on the first day of the event. This event put hair on his chest.
Back to that first harrowing day of racing, as Jack rounded the course nearly a minute behind the second to last boat he overcame a powerful urge. The urge we all feel when we see someone stranded on the side of the road, looking helplessly at their cell phone with their hazards on. The urge that says, “they’ll be fine.” Jack stopped to help.
Even though he was struggling in his own right to keep his boat in control, Jack picked up the stranded competitor in the water and sailed the guy back to his half-capsized, half-drifting downwind Opti. I say all this from second hand accounts. I was unfortunately on another course at the time and didn’t witness this act of kindness, of sportsmanship, something so spirited and Corinthian it makes us all stand a little taller.
This is not an argument against competitiveness but rather a statement that the worth of sport is measured against the standards of decency and mutual respect. I am so proud of Jack and the example he gave us all who are involved in sport this year. Thanks Jack, for showing us that sailing is about something more.