Talent versus Hard Work

Published on April 3rd, 2016

In the newsletter from www.SailJuice.com, editor Andy Rice shares insights and secrets from the world’s greatest sailors. In this report he offers the first of ten steps to sailing faster.

Think you can’t win without talent? Think again….

What are you good at, what are you bad at? Ever looked out at a mill-pond day and told yourself: “I hate light airs.” Or seen it blowing dogs off chains and muttered nervously: “I’m rubbish in strong winds.” Maybe you’re just not talented enough, you tell yourself. Some are born to greatness, but others….


Put that thought to one side for a moment. First, let’s ask yourself:

What makes a great sailor? Talent or hard work? Probably both. To win an Olympic gold medal though… surely that’s only within the grasp of the truly talented, right?

Well, maybe not, if we’re to believe Tom King, who won an Olympic gold medal racing in the 470 for Australia on home waters in Sydney 2000. King and his crew Mark Turnbull won the gold after a spectacular season in the lead-up to the Games, winning the World Championships and a handful of other big regattas along the way. The gold medal was certainly no fluke, and yet a year earlier, no one would have given King and Turnbull a hope of winning any kind of medal, let alone the gold. Yes, they’d been on the scene for a while, but this world-beating form seemed to come out of nowhere.

It wasn’t just the men either. The Aussie women, Belinda Stowell and Jenny Armstrong, also took gold on Sydney Harbour. And all this from a nation with a very poor record in the 470 class. Not since Ian Brown and Ian Ruff had won a bronze at the 1976 Games in Montreal had Australia even had a sniff of a medal in the 470. In fact they were so bad that the Aussie selectors refused to even send a team to the Games for one Olympiad, even though the sailors had qualified the nation.

At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the most successful 470 nation was Ukraine, with the men and women’s teams winning gold and bronze respectively. Both had been coached by Victor Kovalenko, a seemingly mild-mannered Ukrainian, yet famed and feared for his fierce work ethic.

The Australian Yachting Federation decided this was the man it needed to turn around Australian fortunes in a class where it was very weak. Actually, fortune had very little to do with it, as history would relate. From a no-hope 470 nation to kings of the 470 in less than four years – and Australia has continued to dominate this Olympic class ever since. The helms and crews come and go, but in Olympic, World and other major regattas, it’s always the Australians who are setting the benchmark.

No wonder Victor Kovalenko has come to be known as the ‘Medal Maker’, the most successful sailing coach in Olympic history.

So, what was – and is – the secret? Sheer, hard work. That’s what Tom King said was the secret.

Relentless tacks, gybes, tuning runs, starts, breaking down every manoeuvre into the tiniest detail and working on each detail and the sailors could execute perfectly. “We trained and trained until talent was no longer an issue,” said King.

“Until talent was no longer an issue.” What could YOU do, to make sure that talent is no longer an issue?

More on the topic of talent vs hard work in the next episode…

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