Adapting the Right Solution for Your Sailing Program

Published on April 10th, 2016

The state of the sport, and how to encourage young people to continue sailing into adulthood, varies from harbor to harbor. Stu Gilfillen, Training Director at US Sailing, offers his take on the topic…

While Junior Sailing programs deserve some of the blame for a decline in sailboat racing, I think it’s difficult to state that they’re the only root cause.

Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University recently said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that “Seventy percent of kids drop out of youth sports by age 13, and the peak age is 11.” There is significant attrition in all youth sports, so to suggest that the sole reason that a racing fleet is declining is because of ineffective junior programming isn’t completely fair. That’s not to say the decrease in sailors, period, doesn’t raise red flags. Just that this isn’t the only reason.

That said, an important point is that kids need opportunities to explore and enjoy sailing in the same way that the generations before them have. And above all else, we need it to be fun. There are a number of organizations throughout the US that are working to develop programming opportunities that will keep kids engaged while helping to build long term pathways.

Conanciut Yacht Club (RI), for example, offers a Keelboat Crew Training program which seeks to “…create young sailors who are J/22 competent, who can then crew for local sailors.” Treasure Island Sailing Center (CA) offers a Junior Big Boat Program which also introduces kids to keelboats in two separate levels, using the US Sailing program bearing the same name as the template. And over 400 programs in the US are teaching STEM Education through US Sailing’s Reach program.

Systemic change will take time, but there’s progress.

Additionally, I would challenge the notion that we want to further separate parents from kids. While I fully agree about the difficulties associated with helicopter parents, I would also point out that there are just as many parents who are dying to find ways to be involved with their kids.

There are many parents looking for ways to share experiences and connect and, in many cases, they’re looking to pass along their passion for sailing. Additionally, places like Mystic Seaport (CT) are starting to make Family Sailing one of the core programs they offer.

Bottom line, there’s room for both racing and recreational programming, and to grow sailing we need to encourage both. I would also advocate that if a fleet is looking to get more people sailing, simply asking kids to join them is a good place to start. You might be surprised how many say yes.

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