life coach

Kevin Hall concludes his column with us with this look at coaching. Huge thanks to Kevin and Mauri Pro Sailing

The loud team of young American sailors and their coaches wound their way through the cobblestone backstreets of Tavira, Portugal. Navigation duties were passed from the 420 class to the Laser class with appropriate taunting. The best clue we found that we were in the right place for dinner was the table set for fifteen. We sat next to the old town square.

 A new coach brings risk of disruption to an athlete. I thought about exactly that on the way to dinner. The one thing which is almost always a positive, whether at the world championships of youth sailing, or dark lonely nights in a hospital, is humor. (Robin Williams gave the world so much).

The icebreaker with the young athletes I would be coaching in the following days at the ISAF Youth World Championships was taken care of for me. One place remained empty at the table a few minutes after the team had been seated. As the mother of one of the sailors arrived, her eyes lit up when she saw me.

“Oh! I’m so glad I’m not the only parent!” she said.

The group’s laugh echoed through the square. I scrambled for the right response. Fortunately the kids stepped in.

“Mom! Jesus mom! He’s a coach!”

I think I mumbled something to the effect of, “Well, I am a parent but my kids aren’t quite this old yet….”

 The 2014 ISAF Youth World Championship last month was the largest in history. 367 sailors from 67 nations competed.  I coached on the 420 and SL16 (mixed Cat) course. Each team had a maximum of three coaches for the eight classes. One for each course. Just after the sailors left the ramp, we were shuttled out to various coach boats, from Beneteau 32s to a large utility tug. Many thanks to all the volunteers who made our days on the race course possible.

It was moving for me to see old friends, and to be sharing a different involvement in the sport to the one we used to share as competitors. I first met one of the other coaches, Alessandra Sensini, in 1986 at the Youth Worlds in Greece. She went on to win four Olympic medals in as many Olympics. Here she was in Portugal at the Youth Worlds as Team Leader. Belinda Stowell was another Team Leader and Olympic gold medalist. We became friends in 1996, when I was racing on the circuit in the last year of the Grand Prix Aussie 18s in Sydney and she was training there. Far more important than the medals now, at least to the young athletes competing in Portugal, both women are great coaches: extremely knowledgeable and battle hardened, but also attentive to striking a balance between being the water bottle manager and a tyrannical director of tuning and strategy.

 As a US team we had a strong performance. Haddon Hughes sailed very well and lead the regatta at times, finishing with the silver in the Girl’s Radial. Quinn Wilson and Riley Gibbs were tied for the lead in the 29er going into the final race and also won silver.  On my course with the 420s and the SL16, we missed the open catamaran bronze by a general recall. Had the penultimate start been the actual race, Ravi Parent and Nicolas Schultz would have won the bronze by forcing their competitors into an O-flag DSQ. They handled the disappointment in a manner well beyond their years. Our Team Leader was Leandro Spina. Look for his dedication and enthusiasm to lift the US Youth Development program dramatically over the next few years.

 My own sailing, and my life, have benefited from a tremendous amount of magnificent coaching. I’d like to recognize and thank them here. My first CISA clinic with Dave Perry in 1983 opened my eyes to more than I can describe in a quick article. His passionate dedication to the US Youth Champs has left a clear legacy.

Charlie McKee was my coach at the Youth Worlds I won in 1986. I got off to a tough start. Whatever he did at that regatta, he did it just right. Fourteen years later we went head to head at the US 49er trials, as fierce competitors and even stronger friends. Charlie also coached me at the 2004 Olympic Trials in the Finn, one of the best regattas I have ever sailed and maybe ever will.

I also met Tom Kinney at the 1983 CISA clinic. His college-sailing approach to learning and discipline was another eye-opener for me, then aged 13. We gave the 470 a good effort together in 1989 and 1990.

I first met Brad Dellenbaugh when he was coaching the IYRU Women’s World Championship in La Rochelle, France in 1985, where I was living as a foreign exchange student for a year. He successfully recruited me to Brown University, and I learned a lot from him. I wish I had learned to be coachable by then, as I would have learned so much more. Alas, youthful arrogance is a double-edged sword. My tongue was sharp and he must have cringed more than once at my complicated efforts to not hear.

Zack Leonard came to coach at Brown when Brad moved on. In addition to dedicated on the water feedback, he helped me see that there was more to life than sailing. Which was what I desperately needed at the time. My sailing improved when I emerged from this challenge to my existing world view.

Luther Carpenter is one of a kind. Technically, in multiple classes, he has few peers. As a regatta coach, he is a wizard at tailoring his approach to the athlete, often with well-timed wit. On shore, he is just plain fun.

Finally, Rod Davis negotiated the minefield of coaching the afterguard at Team New Zealand between 2004 and 2009 with me, and for a number of years after that. He made a difference for which there is no data but of which I am certain.

What all of my coaches shared was a philosophy which had far more in common with the “teaching a man to fish” side of the old saying than the “give a boy a fish/side of the course/exact tuning setting” side. When they did have strong feelings, they would try to gently lead me to their way of thinking, not tell me what to do. I hope they know I was always listening, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.