Monday, September 21, 2009

Practice Failure

After coaching another practice where my skill drills were a colossal failure, I have been thinking about the value of failure. It always aggravates me when time gets wasted and it seems nothing is accomplished, at least in terms of the skills we were trying to learn. But the appropriate question in the face of every failure is: “What have we learned here?”

I was trying to do an exercise I called “simultaneous tacking pairs”. The goal was for the boats involved to try to remain in synch with each other while executing efficient, offsetting tacks. Two boats start on opposite tacks at opposite ends of a starting line converging towards the middle. They should be tied when they meet and both should tack away. After sailing divergent courses for a while, they simultaneously tack back toward the middle. They should try to meet in the center, still tied, and they should tack away again. The drill repeats heading upwind. It makes a pretty diagram.

I was mainly trying to reinforce basic tacking skills to quantify the gains that could be made by better tacking. Only one pair had any success in duplicating the diagram. Most others had a clear leader at the first crossing and proceeded to tack up the windward leg practicing Stuart Walker’s axiom, “cross em when you can.” instead of meeting each other in the middle and tacking away. We clearly didn’t learn much about the value of good tacking, but did we learn anything?

First, the teacher learned that he had done some things wrong. I did not explain the drill clearly enough – especially the purpose of it. I over complicated the day by describing for the kids such a long series of things we’d be doing during the afternoon that they forgot most of the details of the first drill when we began it. I set up the course wrong, or more accurately the shifty lake winds changed the course from square to silly. And ultimately, I missed the biggest potential virtue of the drill.

This exercise failed so completely that we couldn’t even conduct the post mortem in the end of practice de-briefing. The kids learned nothing that day from this drill.

We started the next day with a discussion of our failure. I began with a confession of my shortcomings, but then we tried to understand why they couldn’t at least set up the first starboard port encounter correctly. “So and so was not on the starting line on time.” “Okay, slow down and wait.” “The line wasn’t square.” “Okay, the boat at the favored end needs to slow down and wait.” “The boat on the right always got more wind.” “Okay, the boat on the right needs to slow down and wait.”

In the refrain, we began to see the light. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?) Slowing down is the key. Hey this is balancing – a concept key to successful team racing, our favorite kind of racing. The boat ahead has to “balance back” to stay on the same ladder rung as his teammate. This takes skill in both slowing the boat and perceiving the correct relationships between the boats and the ladder rungs. And with every wind shift the ladder rungs change. That causes the relationship between the boats to change. But the goal in this aspect of team racing is to keep the relationship of the boats the same. The speed of one of the boats has to change to keep the system in balance.

So, our drill broke down because the skill that we were working on, tacking, was not the one most required in the shifty conditions. What we should have been focusing on was balancing, perceiving the relationship between boats, and maybe communicating with each other so we could stay in balance. If that were the stated purpose of the drill, maybe it would have worked better, is spite of the very high degree of difficulty of these skills.

Working through this process (or stumbling through it), there is a much bigger, more abstract lesson to learn. Success in this drill required thinking about things in a different way. The whole scenario is a system of relationships between the course, the boats, and the wind. Any change in the wind affects the relationship of the other parts of the system and throws it out of balance. The sailors need to understand it as a system in order to take the correct actions to re-balance it. Both I and the sailors failed to think about the system and a key element in it – the shifting wind. D’oh!!

Thinking about things as a system of complex interrelationships is getting into more heady realms of system theory and ecological thinking. This is the kind of thinking that can understand and solve problems in the complex and interconnected real world. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve climate change and environmental problems. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve all the big problems.

Maybe it’s a stretch (Ya think? Sailing practice to saving the world.), but I like to think of sailing as being a valuable part of education (not just physical education) and in this respect, it is. Thinking about the world as a web of interconnected relationships rarely happens in school, where the world is sliced and diced into disciplines, and problem solving is conceived in terms of higher test scores. As an English teacher, I thought schools vastly undervalued, if not ignored, holistic thinking embodied in the English Romantics, the American Transcendentalists, and Eastern Philosophy. Now ironically, as a sailing coach, it is easier to offer a little bit about seeing the world in a different way.


  1. Woah there Nellie. This is getting very deep.

    I think you are right that in teaching one drill and failing, you do sometimes discover some other skill that needs more work if the drill is to be successful.

    I remember vividly doing a drill at a Gary Bodie clinic years ago where we were supposed to do a rabbit start and then sail upwind on the same tack for several minutes. The drill was supposed to be all about working on upwind speed and holding lanes.

    But the group could not do a clean enough rabbit start for the drill to work properly. Clearly we needed to work on judging laylines and timimg approach to the rabbit.

    As I recall, Gary Bodie did not give us a lecture afterwards on system theory or American Transcendentalists.

  2. Is Walden Pond too small for rabbit starts?

  3. Pat, the wind is too squirrelly for rabbit starts on Walden Pond. I think Mystic Lake, about 10 miles a way and home of Tufts sailing team, is just what you're looking for.

    Recommended reading for Tillerman: The Tao of Sailing, by Ray Greig. Very, very deep. Best understood while undergoing medical marijuana treatments for whatever ailment keeps you from sailing.