Wednesday, September 21, 2011

21st Century Chalk Talks in High School Sailing

When there is no longer enough time in the sailing day to teach sailing in the preferred format, what is the best alternative? Can you take a little time from each part of the universally accepted “best practices” structure – direct instruction (chalk talks), rigging, sailing, de-rigging, and debriefing – and make it work? Call me skeptical, but after years of trying, I don’t think I can make kids rig or de-rig noticeably faster. I also don’t think I can take much time from my 5 – 10 minute debrief. If I could explain any of the things I cover in chalk talks any quicker, I would have done it by now. That leaves shortening the sailing time…. Really? To shorten the sailing time significantly seems tantamount to giving up on the idea of a quality program.

How did I get into this mess? A little background……..

I have been coaching high school sailing for a number of years now and have always enjoyed the freedom to structure our schedule of practices and events in whatever way seems to work best. There has always been a need to strike a balance between how much time (and fun) we are allowed to have sailing and the academic and other demands of students’ schedules. Until now, the coaches, students and parents have been able to work out a schedule that works well for the overwhelming majority of those involved. No more.

Now, the principal has imposed limits on the amount of time devoted to sports. Two years ago, he and a certain faction of the school community succeeded in changing the schedule of the school day, pushing the start and finish times almost an hour later. The idea is that the late schedule may be more in sync with natural teenage circadian rhythms (sleep cycles), thus getting them more sleep. Dinner time has not changed in most households, so after school time has been the part of the day that has been truncated. While those involved in sports could see the writing on the wall and voiced their concerns, the late start faction promised cooperation in making things work. Turns out, year one worked well enough for sports programs shortened by 0 - 20 minutes but other after school/before sports activities were hit harder. In year two, the pendulum (axe) is swinging the other way and time for sports is getting cut even more, with the same mandatory time constraints being imposed across the board for all sports. Doesn’t matter what happens to the sports programs. Doesn’t matter how the kids feel about it.

Why does modern life so often come down to choices between the lesser of evils?

After thinking carefully about the specifics of our program and our collection of kids, my approach is to eliminate the standard chalk talk from our standard sailing day. That should allow the other parts of the day to remain intact. But I can’t really live without the content covered in the talks, so I have to provide it in a variety of other ways.

The first thing I have done is explain the schedule restrictions, and my adjustments to them, to the team, and ask for their cooperation in reducing the usual chaos that comes from dealing with a group of 30 teenagers. In lieu of daily verbal explanations to the group, boat assignments and the day’s activities are posted before practice begins. Three minutes after report time, boat and crew assignments are adjusted for any unexpected absentees. There is no more waiting for late comers, and those who are tardy may lose their boat or crew or both.

Sailors are expected to handle rigging and getting out on the water on their own. Boats are assigned to the same skipper every day and hardware issues are dealt with after the previous day’s practice, not during rigging time. Freeing myself from the boat mechanic role allows me to communicate with individual sailors about the drills or other special concerns. We do this as we rig.

We are lucky that we have a good balance between skippers who were on the team last year and new freshman (most with some sailing experience) who can crew for them. Experienced skippers give me confidence that each boat can be handled with enough skill to ensure safety in all but the most severe conditions. The experienced skippers can also serve as teachers and mentors for their freshmen crews. Another advantage of veteran skippers is that they have done most of our drills before and therefore require little or no explanation.

For teaching new skills, I have two options. On days with no wind or too much wind and there is little or no sailing time, I will do a long chalk talk. Hopefully kids can connect that talk to the sailing despite the separation in time and space. The other option is to communicate electronically with whatever material I can produce or find. So far I have used Youtube videos, US Sailing videos, documents scanned from books and other paper handouts, sailing websites, original text, original Powerpoints, and photos. I would love to use some of the CD ROM and DVD material I personally use in a classroom setting, but I think there are copyright laws to discourage this. I also haven’t quite mastered the technology required to do it. I feel like I’m teaching at Phoenix University.

I have several first impressions of this methodology. I am very impressed that the kids have embraced the demand for more personal responsibility. Tardiness has all but vanished and they have been very good at advance notification of absences. (It seems that telling them they absolutely cannot practice before a certain time causes them to show up early and start rigging.) Kids are doing a better job of taking care of their boats and fixing things before they break. I have relinquished the job of crowd controller and cat herder and focus far more on giving individual attention to those who follow all the instructions and work at developing the skills. The vast majority of the kids are taking advantage of this.

On the other hand, I still worry that the freshmen are not getting enough basic instruction. This methodology would never work with a preponderance of new sailors. I worry that many people do not absorb the material as well when presented this way. I worry that questions aren’t being asked. I worry that some may simply ignore the electronic presentations and therefore, that I have little sense of what they know and don’t know. And lastly, I worry that the “go go, hurry up” version of sailing reduces the social connections between sailors.

Much of the time we used to “waste” was spent making friends, and that, after all, is what keeps most of us sailing.



  1. Hi! Thanx for posting that. I worry too. Over here (Europe) we have that same issue - all over. In schools, universities and in sailing classes, it is speed over quality. Doing many things poorly is in. This is probably hard to fight, but really... Some things are too complex to be boiled down to a three line email. Well, maybe not, if you ask a CEO, and that's maybe key. Everything is being professionalized these days. Sailing is too. My Yacht Club is run more and more like a business, - not like a club. That moves the executive focus from fun to expenses. Fact of the matter is, that you just can't enjoy a three course meal in 3 minutes. New knowledge has to be digested, and the time "wasted" on socializing in sailing is very much part of that digesting process. So thanx again for posting this. It is an important discussion. Can schools be looked upon - and optimized as if they are car production plants.

  2. Amazing post! I initially found your blog a week or so ago, and I want to subscribe to your RSS feed.

    Yatching News

  3. One question. Is your program a varsity sport or a club? You beat the schools control by making it an outside club. More fundraising, but you probably know their next season.
    Excellent blog