friday night lights

After the Olympics there was a lot of discussion about the reasons behind the  poor showing of US sailing. I contributed to that discussion, and continue to think about how the  US can improve its Olympic results.

But first, despite the fact that we live in France, I follow pretty closely college football and the NFL  via satellite (Go Packers). So what does this have to do with Olympic sailing?

I, like many others, have been pretty amazed at the class of college quarterbacks who have
graduated into the NFL over the past few years. Andrew Luck, RG-III, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Russell  Wilson, Brandon Weedon, Colt McCoy, Ryan Tannehill, and others. They came straight out of  college and into the starting QB position in the pros. Awesome. What was once unheard of now  seems almost the norm.

But, still more interesting is the fact that somewhere around 8 starting QBs, and a total of 17 NFL  QBs, played their high school football in Texas…. So, again, what does this have to do with Olympic class sailing? Two points:

First: Playing QB is a technical position that takes talent and a long time to learn. Yet these
athletes walk right out of university at 22 or 23 years old, and into the most competitive league in  their sport. Compare this to college sailors….

Whereas high school and college football prepares players to continue in the sport at a top level,
college sailors sail simple little boats in a regatta format that isn’t applicable anywhere else. It’s
accepted that a college sailor, who wants to go into Olympic class sailing, will have a 2 or 3 year  intense training program, after graduation, just to become reasonably competitive in an
international fleet. How many good college sailing athletes have the time or resources for that?

Second: Texas high school football coaches are doing something right. And, while I’m not an
expert, I learned a bit from a short piece on ESPN that gave some background. And, I’d ask, is
there something here that might apply to sailing?

Football in Texas is huge (who knew?). Kids start in junior high, some earlier (think Optis). By
High School the QB is running complicated offensive formations, with line of scrimmage option
calls, etc. (think I-420, 29ers, 505s). In addition, coaching and games aren’t just linked to
school. There are 7 on 7 teams that train and play outside the school year in sponsored leagues.  So, it’s a year-round program.

Then these young athletes are off to university where many play on nationally ranked teams
running pro style offenses (think 49ers, 470s, Finns). The college QB, who has come up through
this program, has learned his trade and is ready to shoot for the Super Bowl (think Olympic Gold).

What a difference from sailing.

College sailing got pretty beat up in the previous discussion after the London Olympic results.
I’m not here to pile on. It is what it is, and isn’t likely to change much. I did it, and I liked it.
But, it doesn’t have much to do with racing at an international level.

My interest here is thinking about what the US can do to provide the same high level training for
young sailors that their classmates who play football get. That young sailors in other countries
get. But, maybe we don’t need to look to the rest of the world for ideas. Rather we might learn
something from the organization of high school football in Texas.

Start simple. Start local. Isn’t there a region in the US where a “Texas model” would work for
youth sailing? The Boston area, around Annapolis, SF Bay area, Puget Sound, the Inland Lakes
region, (although it would have to include ice boating!) Around Tampa Bay? ( I leave out Miami, as
earlier posts were critical of it’s generally light winds and lack of waves).

The main requirement is a region with a relatively dense population of sailing clubs within a few
hours of each other. These clubs need to attract young athletes from the general population.
Yacht clubs could / might provide some of this support if they would adopt an open, welcoming
membership policy for youth. Then there needs to be an orientation to Olympic class boats, or
at least other high performance dinghies. Team coaching with year round training, clinics and
regattas are fundamental program elements. Regional poles of excellence could be established
by class. Links to local high school and college programs would be ok, but a separate regatta
format and schedule necessary. Give the high school and college kids something else /
additional to do, in more interesting boats.

Some programs could be linked with boarding schools set up to support the kids who can’t
commute. Thinking out of the box required.

Think of all the other Olympic sports. Kids in their teens are present. Track & field. Gymnastics.
Tennis. Soccer. Swimming & water polo. Cycling. Skiing. Hockey. And, yes, sailing (from other
countries). While some athletes carry their careers into their 30s and beyond, most of them
start their international competitions in their teens or early 20s.

Someplace in the US should be able to re-orient it’s junior sailing into a comprehensive regional
program so as to offer young sailors the opportunity to compete internationally with success. At
22 or 23 years old, they should be already shooting for top 10 finishes in the ISAF World Cup
regattas. And medals down the line. – Glen Bishop