Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Connecting the Lulls

I watched my team have some very frustrating races in a fleet racing regatta on Saturday.  The wind built through the day from about 5 knots to 14 knots, but conditions remained shifty and puffy all day.  Everyone had some trouble with the shifts, finding themselves on the wrong side of them way too often, but the best teams seemed to do a good job of finding the puffs.  Sailing in the puffs was routinely 10% faster and occasionally 50% faster than sailing in the lulls.  Although it was difficult to stay in a puff for very long, even downwind, those who connected the puffs the best were consistently ahead of those who didn’t.

As I watched our best skipper and crew have two uncharacteristically bad races, I wondered how they could be in the wrong place at the wrong time so often.  We’ve all had races like that, but twice in a row? – particularly after 4 solid races at the top of the fleet.  Like most bad races, they began with a poor start.  With as little as two feet to as much as a whole boat length off the line at the gun, there was a guarantee of sailing in dirty air for the first minute or two.  With few opportunities to find clear air, our sailors were stuck in disturbed air until those ahead eked out bigger leads or got a puff and took off. 
I always try to be optimistic about eventually getting clear air, but the truth is there is always a lot of work to do after giving the others a head start.  Fortunately, in lake sailing, the shifts and puffs provide opportunities to gain back the distance lost with a poor start.  Unfortunately, those ahead have the best chance to get those shifts and puffs first.  I’m not sure what our sailors were thinking, but they seemed to forget the concept of “connecting the puffs.”  Even the mid-fleet boats were getting some of the puffs while our team seemed to remain in the lighter spots.  At one point, a mid-fleet boat capsized in a big puff, righted the boat, and remained ahead of our team.
I do not always keep my cool in these instances, and in our post-race debriefing, I told the kids they “did a remarkable job of connecting the lulls.”  I added, “With all the puffs out there, it’s hard to believe you avoided so many of them.”  They thought I was mean.  I thought I failed to give the needed encouragement in a difficult situation.  I could have at least offered the clich√©, “Keep your head out of the boat,” but all concerned were just too disappointed to think clearly.
How did it all go wrong?  With a little time to reflect, I think connecting the lulls was caused by a combination of impatience and confusing lulls with headers.  When other boats were sailing higher and faster in the puffs, it was hard to accept that their puffs might soon subside or their wind might shift and remember that the best we could do was sail to the next puff within our own reach.  The lull started to feel like a header (a boat going slowly can’t point as high as a boat going faster), so there was an irresistible temptation to tack.  That subsequent tack in the lull was very laborious and after completing it, the sailors found themselves still going low and slow.  Having completely lost sight of finding a puff, they thought, “It must be another header!” and they desperately tacked again.  Instead of sailing through the lull toward more wind, they ended up spending needless time in the lull.  With a little patience and clarity, they might have spotted the next puff and sailed toward it.  Instead, by doing a couple of lengthy tacks in the lull, they insured that the only puff they would get would be one that found them.  The puffs did not find them.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Varsity Letters in Sailing

Since sailing became a varsity sport, I get to deal  with the absolutely silly notion of varsity letters.  It’s just so high school.  One more thing to establish bragging rights over others.  One more thing for the college resum√©.  One of the benefits of being a grown up is that I shouldn’t have to play high school anymore.  One of my grown up skills is avoidance of uncomfortable situations, so on our sailing team we just award varsity letters to everyone. 
At best, I think about it like awarding Super Bowl rings to everyone associated with the team - everyone contributes in some way to the success of the team.  Making distinctions between degrees of accomplishment or degrees of value to the team seems more often to create bad feelings of inadequacy than good feelings of achievement.  The kids at the top of the pecking order or depth chart know where they are and do not need a varsity letter to feel a sense of accomplishment.  The kids not at the top need encouragement and focus on continued improvement, and do not need an awards banquet that ignores or minimizes them in front of their friends.  They’re teenagers for God’s sake.  Are there any people more vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy than teenagers?

Aside from that sentiment, I can't come up with criteria that are really fair.  First, the different levels are fluid on our team.  Rather than have a so-called varsity sailor sit on the bench for a varsity event, I prefer to give him/her sailing time at the JV level.  (We hold both varsity and JV head to head meets at the same time.)  Some kids sail mostly in JV meets, but do a couple of varsity ones.  Does one varsity event make a varsity sailor?  If not one, how many?  For those who decide to be crews, the pairing up with skippers is more a matter of personalities than skill.  Some pair with a steady varsity skipper and get to sail in varsity events regularly.  Others pair up with a lesser skipper, but the chemistry makes the skipper much better than he or she would otherwise be.  The pairing does not necessarily represent meaningful differences in skill or overall value to the team, especially when considering the long term.  Some freshmen decide to be skippers and almost always sail JV all year.  They are usually more accomplished sailors than the crews who might be sailing in varsity events, but I want them to have that year as a skipper because in their overall development, that extra year at the helm can make a lot of difference by senior year.  For skippers who do events at both levels, who sails at what level depends mostly on the overall talent level of the team, not on the skills of an individual sailor.  We currently have 11 skippers and crews who would have been among the top 4 on the team five years ago.

Our mission as sailing coaches is to help the kids improve their skills and learn about the hard work and sportsmanship associated with sports.  If varsity letters are supposed to be a measure of accomplishment, they miss the mark on every important thing we are doing.  The harm in that is that it sends the wrong message to the kids.  When the measurement is useless, give everyone a prize.  The kids who are stars throughout their high school career are great, but a kid who progresses from just learning how to sail as a freshman to the number one or two sailor on the team by senior year is the bigger success story.  Similarly, the kid who matures into a leader on his team is achieving one of the big picture goals of high school sports, even if he is not the best sailor.  Varsity letters and the lack thereof have nothing to do with the important stuff.  It’s just so high school.