Promoting a lifelong sailing relationship

Published on September 24th, 2019

Anyone that has traveled the USA, and witnessed the diversity of the country, can appreciate how these differences make governance a challenge. Then when you include a sport as diverse as sailing, with its massive range of boats, venues, and participation objectives, herding cats would be an easier mission.

As the National Governing Body for the sport of sailing, US Sailing is the cat herder whose mission is to provide leadership for the sport of sailing in the United States. And given the current climate, with the sport shrinking and the Olympic team stinking, it’s open season on questioning their leadership.

Rich Jepsen, as Vice President of the US Sailing Board of Directors, accepts that, but he is no defeatist. Here he pulls back the curtains on what’s going on at 1 Roger Williams University Way:

As the leader of the sport in the US, US Sailing deserves scrutiny. After all, the buck does stop at the leader’s desk. However, here are some assertions to consider:

1. US Sailing is the National Governing Body of Sailing, under the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. As a result, US Sailing has a legal obligation to support Olympic Excellence in sailing, but it is also responsible for the grass roots and health of sailing.

2. US Sailing has myriad initiatives, products and programs to grow sailing, to introduce people to non-competitive sailing and spends a ton of money on those programs to grow sailing and get more citizens to enjoy the special rewards of sailing, cruising, or just messing about in boats.

3. I ran a public access adult sailing program for 35 years, with racing a minute percentage of the course and activity offerings. Many of my early members are still sailing, the latest an alumnus I ran into on Bora Bora, during his South Pacific cruise. He’d learned from us 30 years ago.

There are many commercial operations, under the aegis of US Sailing, doing just that for thousands of new sailors every year. There are 1500 not for profit community sailing centers doing this for youth and adults, again, with support and guidance from US Sailing. Most of these programs exemplify the motto: Sailing as a Lifelong Activity.

4. As a long time US Sailing volunteer in public access sailing, I’m familiar with the vibrancy of our grassroots efforts. I see that Community Sailing is supported enthusiastically by US Sailing. Best practices, promotion of sailing, instructor certification, diversifying sailing, Science through Sailing (REACH), et al.

5. I do agree that many youth programs are too focused on competition, especially in early stages of youth development and that sailing is broader and more interesting than that. But, I believe these three factors are mostly responsible:

a. Coaches and youth directors were raised in this competitive system themselves. Often, they are just repeating what they learned as junior sailors. Whether they put pressure on themselves or it is applied by local parents or leadership, they often see ‘success’ as trophies and podiums.

b. Many parents, understandably worried about how competitive it is to get ahead in life nowadays, can create a high pressure atmosphere that only energizes some kids but leaves many others cold.

c. Youth sailing is somewhat affected by the trend in all youth sports – youth soccer, swimming, football, baseball, softball, etc. that “Narrow focus on competition and competitive skills turns out ‘winners’.” This manifests in a small percentage of kids succeeding early and, perhaps, catching fire but leaving many more of the kids losing interest early.

6. While this issue has developed over a long period of time, I believe we at US Sailing could have been quicker to recognize our role and our responsibility to lead. Now, we are putting our shoulders to that boulder.

For now, I urge all leaders of youth sailing to ask this question: “What is our most important goal in youth sailing?”

If, first, we accept the premise that lifelong sailing is extremely advantageous to the lives of most people; and, second, to make it a lifelong activity kids need to ‘fall in love’ with it, then what can we do to curate that experience throughout their childhoods to ensure they so love it they can’t be pulled away from sailing as they become adults?

At US Sailing, we are working to uncover and provide detailed answers to that question – certainly being deliberate about which kids thrive with high intensity coaching and weekly travel regattas is an obvious first step.

Being deliberate means being REALLY perceptive about which kids are drawn to racing early on, recognizing that the majority of kids only will race because it allows them to sail and be with friends (not the other way around).

Otherwise, it is about ensuring how summer camp has a good balance of fun, play time and sail training, and letting kids self-select for formal competition rather than leave it as the default path.

If the prime objective is the creation and development of lifelong sailors, the tweaks needed to our programs become clearer. In collaboration with the Youth, Adult, and Education Departments at US Sailing, our volunteer working group – Sailing as a Lifelong Activity – is studying other sports, looking for best practices as well as negative examples.

We are gathering feedback from the front lines and working on a set of guidelines that will help provide direction for coaches, program directors, boards of directors, and parents so they can tweak their programs to introduce their youth to sailing in a way that promotes a lifelong relationship with sailing. Stay Tuned.

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