Experts who work across a lot of different sports, people like physiotherapists and psychologists for example, often comment on how self-reliant sailors tend to be compared with athletes from other sports. This probably comes down to a few factors, one of which is the sheer complexity of what we do to go sailing. The logistics of getting organised to go away for a competition are pretty complicated before you even get to the venue. Making sure the trailer works, that the lights on the lighting board are functioning, double-checking you’ve packed your boots, your buoyancy aid, your trapeze harness, the spare shackle for the main halyard, the list goes on.
Then there’s the field of play…
How many variables can you get on an athletics track? It can be dry or rainy, windless or windy, warm or cold, but how much more? And a swimming pool? It’s either wet or… well, wet! OK, so our field of play is always wet too, but then it can be flat, choppy or wavy; there can be current or tidal effects; the wind is never the same and the course is often different too. Sailing requires massive adaptability and self-reliance, knowing that at any moment your power supply could suddenly become unmanageable (too windy) or disappear altogether (no wind). You could literally be up the creek without a paddle.
So, why do some parents insist on doing all the rigging on their kids’ boats? Isn’t that detracting from the whole experience of teaching kids how to think for themselves? There was a recent example of some sailors who won the national qualification to represent their nation at the World Sailing Youth World Championships, having raced brilliantly. But all the equipment provided at the Youth Worlds is brand-new, straight-out-of-the-packet so, when presented with their shiny new boat, the kids had not the first clue how to put it together for themselves. Because their parents had always done it for them, and their parents weren’t there….
Getting kids to succeed
So, how do you help your kids succeed without actually getting in their way? It’s a tough one, but there is an answer, and there are few people better qualified to address this than Mark Nicholls, the RYA’s youth manager. Mark emphasises that to give your child the best chance of performing at the highest level, you need to try to become a ‘performance parent’. He explains: “We want the parents to help the child make decisions for themselves, to be non-dependent. For example, even when they’ve forgotten their life jacket, there needs to be some sort of consequence, which is hard for the parents, because they’ve spent a lot of money, they got the kid there, they got up first thing in the morning. ‘Hey, you’ve forgotten your life jacket’, but I’ve remembered it anyway, so it’s fine’. That’s no good, because there’s no consequence.”
Instead Mark suggests: “If they do things like say ‘Well, you’ve forgotten your life jacket, so what are you going to do about it?’ – ‘Well I don’t know’ – ‘Well who can you borrow it from?’ And is there a sailing centre on site? Perhaps you’d like to go over and ask the instructor if you can borrow a life-jacket for the event. Little things like help breed resilience and non-dependence in the sailors.”
Sailing is a brilliant sport for learning self-reliance, but it does need parents to get out of their own children’s way if sailing is going to be allowed to work its magic.
Andy Rice is a successful sailor who started his career in journalism in 1992. He writes write regular columns for Seahorse, ShowBoats International, Yachts & Yachting and Boat International.