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Daddy, I want to quit sailing

Published on February 17th, 2018

Youth sports is experiencing an epiphany. With attrition numbers at a high, sports are realizing the ever increasing focus on competition is not how to make a lifelong connection with young people. Some will like it but most won’t. Desmond Wai, whose family lives in Singapore, learned this when his son had had enough. Here’s his story:

My son loves sea sports, and has always longed to learn sailing. So when we were choosing a primary school (same as elementary school) for him, we picked one with sailing as a co-curricular activity (CCA).

Sailing CCA in his school only starts at the Primary 2 level (ages 7 to 8). And it requires a minimum standard of being an OptiRacer.

My boy went for a series of sailing courses and, by the end of Primary 1 (ages 6 to 7), he and all his sailing friends became OptiRacers. By Primary 2, they joined their senior sailor schoolmates at a sailing club at Tanah Merah and trained twice weekly.

In 2017, the Primary School Sports Council started a new category called the Green Fleet for any new sailors to compete. Though the Primary 2 boys were not as good as their seniors, they could still take part in the inter-school competition, which was held in March 2017.

I was not expecting him to be the future Colin Cheng, the sailing Olympian. I just wanted him to have a good time and be safe, so I was delighted when he completed the race without capsizing.

After the inter-school competition, the boys continued to sail twice a week with the school. But gradually, his enthusiasm in sailing appeared to wane. He started to miss out his sailing gadgets and equipment when he packed his sailing bag. And he no longer looked forward to sailing sessions.

And then it hit. After one session, my boy told me, “Daddy, I want to quit sailing.”

My wife and I were very surprised. We thought something must have happened. It is never easy to communicate with your children. Sometimes, they cannot express what they feel, and sometimes, they do not want to tell you.

I spent lots of time chatting with my son, and concluded that he was never bullied during the CCA. Boys are boys, but sailing is a gentlemen’s sport, after all.

I realised that sailing has a few issues that did not sit well with my boy.

Sailing is an individual sport. The sailors are asked to complete a circuit in the shortest possible time. In the basic course, they just learned rudimentary techniques. But once they became OptiRacers, they learned how to compete and sail ahead during their CCA.

Some coaches pushed them hard, urging them to win and sail past their peers. It is a very competitive sport. In fact, each CCA session is like a mini competition, and each sailor is ranked at the end of it.

There is nothing wrong with ranking. It is just the nature of sailing, as well as many other sports. But my boy, who was only eight years old, found it too competitive. He is literally “kiasu”, or afraid to lose.

I also noticed that coaches tend to focus a lot on how to win, without adequate teaching on how to lose. There can only be one winner in a race, so boys are more likely to lose than win.

My boy also felt his coach left him out. He felt that coaches pay more attention to the better sailors. Perhaps my son is too sensitive. But when I discussed this issue with my colleagues, who are also parents, I realised that in many school CCA teams, there are often two sub-teams: the “professionals” and the “amateurs”.

In sailing, for instance, my boy belongs to the “amateur” team, which follows the school CCA team once to twice a week. The “amateurs” could be reasonably good at the sport, but they are never excellent.

To be excellent, the “professional” sportsman has extra training over weekends. In my boy’s cohort, about half his sailing mates take extra sailing lessons over the weekend. They also take part in regattas about once a month, competing against young sailors from other schools.

Based on their performances at the regatta, all active sailors from all schools are ranked, from one to 86.

Ben Tan, the former Asian sailing champion and current Singapore Sailing Federation President, said in an interview with Red Sports in 2009 that he created a competitive ranking system to make every sailor work hard at all races.

During the inter-school sailing competition, only the positions of the top three sailors from each school are counted. As a result, the school’s coaches would have to ensure their team have at least four or five “star” sailors.

It is understandable that coaches focus their attentions on the better sailors, who usually belong in the previously-mentioned “professional” category, as they are more likely to bring glory to the school during competitions.

This phenomenon apparently happens in almost every school sport. To win a medal, it is better to have team of four or five ”star” players, rather than 20 “amateur” ones. To be a “star”, one must practice harder, and take part in different tournaments to gain racing experience.

Yet some “amateur” players, like my son, perceive this as favouritism.

But being a “professional” sportsman require a lot of logistical support. Following the school team to sail twice a week is easy. I just picked up my son at 6pm from school twice a week after his sailing sessions. But to send him for extra sessions, which are held at either Tanah Merah or Upper East Coast on weekends, would not be possible for me as I work on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Joseph Schooling became a swimming champion partly because his father woke up at 4am daily to take him to swimming lessons. But not every parent has the luxury of time to do that.

Specialisation is also important if one wants to be a “star” sportsman. Sacrifices have to be made, and top sailors would not have time for other hobbies, like cycling, swimming, and playing the piano. Some children, like my son, want to indulge in many different hobbies. He is only eight years old, after all.

I bring this up in light of Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng’s announcement last month that his ministry is reviewing the national inter-primary school sports competitions to reduce the perceived stakes in sports contests, and to increase playing opportunities for all children.

As my son’s experience shows, this is a real issue that bears further study.

So what can be done to help our children enjoy their CCA?

We should de-emphasise the importance of winning. According to MOE, CCAs are to help students cultivate and develop talents and character. Winning is the means to an end, not the end itself, of CCA. We should encourage wider participation in sports among children, no matter their abilities.

Secondly, we ought to focus on how to cope with failure. Yes, in life, there are lots of challenges, and we ought to work hard to win. But adults know there is more losing than winning in life’s long arc.

There is a well-known Chinese saying – “failure is the mother of success”. Coaches and CCA teachers ought to teach our children how to cope with, and learn from, losing.

My son is now in Primary 3 (ages 8 to 9), and has joined the school choir. It practices twice a week, and is now preparing for the Singapore Youth Festival, which will be in April.

He seems to enjoy the choir. He plays the songs on his piano and asks me to sing along with him at home.

His choir director takes time to speak to every member and make every one feel important.

Choir is a very good team activity. To put up a good performance, each member has to help and support each other. A group effort is essential to a good performance. No single soloist, no matter how good he is, can deliver a perfect performance for the group. A choir, like many other team sports, cultivates comradeship and friendship.

This is crucial for the development of children, and will stand them in good stead throughout their adult lives.

The rethink of school sports is therefore timely, in my view. As my son’s experience shows, it is time we decide what values we want school sports to impart to our children, and make that the goal, rather than simply winning for its sake.

Note: The writer, a doctor in private practice, is the father of one boy in Primary 3.


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