The Three Things That Matter

Published on February 17th, 2021

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan, International Race Officer and PRO for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, shares the secrets to running good races in this US Sailing report:


Here are Three Things That Matter in dealing with people:
• Tell people what you have in mind.
• Listen to what people are telling you.
• Treat people as you would want to be treated.

There you go. No tricks, no secrets, no hacks (my friends will be shocked that I even know what a hack is). This is universal truth. It is appreciated by sailors. It is appreciated by event volunteers. It is appreciated in your workplace.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her three uncles (the original Village People) roam Oz looking for truths that, in the end, they realize they already know. I’ll save you the tornado and the flying monkey attack. You too already know this stuff.

You know how you respond when you are included in a project instead of simply being ordered to do your part. Your sailors are no different. To be successful at collaborating with your fleet, because it is a collaboration, is not you telling people what to do, but is about you making the commitment to do the work necessary to keep up your end of the collaboration. That is where the “Three Things That Matter” come into play.

Sailing is not baseball or football where there are specific lines painted on a specific field with a game starting at a specific time with very specific rules that apply all the time. Each sailing event has its own feel and its own atmosphere, molded by the types of boats being sailed, the format of the racing, the talent and age of the competitors, the level of the event, the structure of the venue and sailing area, the culture and norms of the area of this country or another country where the event is being held.

A race manager needs to develop the people skills necessary to obtain input crucial to understanding what the fleet needs and expects of the race management team. Simply memorizing the rulebook and learning where to anchor bags of air is not enough.

It is so easy to hide behind titles and rules. Sometimes, ‘Because I’m the PRO and I said so’ or ‘Read your sailing instructions’ are the only solutions to an issue. But, a race manager who always leads with those sorts of solutions will never gain the trust of a fleet.

Sometimes a race manager needs to think ‘out of the book’ for the best answer. Always be prepared to listen to suggestions and/or complaints and give an honest effort to consider the sailor’s (client’s) point of view. We all know that sailing can be an inexact sport. Stuff happens.

The rule makers in our sport have done great work over many generations developing rules that cover most situations. But it would be impossible to cover every possible issue that might develop under every possible condition in a rulebook smaller than a Mini Cooper. So, race managers need to use the rulebook the way it is meant to be used, as the biggest tool in the toolbox, but not the only tool. There is room in that toolbox for common sense – so don’t be afraid to use it.

The best race managers talk to sailors and coaches everywhere – on shore and afloat. I walk boat parks and docks to ‘check-in’ and see how the sailors think the regatta is going. I try to stop in at the bar the sailors frequent, not just the bar the race committee frequents. Did I say bar? I meant ‘gathering place’.

I am happy to answer questions afloat. I will also ask questions afloat. Sailors and coaches are treasure troves of information as to what is really happening out on the course. If a race manager is in a good place with her or his fleet, information will flow both ways.

If something goes wrong, excuse making and/or hiding will not solve the problem. It is when a problem has occurred that it is most important to be available to your clients and give them the most honest explanation that you can.

Sailors are (mostly) quite smart. Give them a little credit. They know that stuff happens in sailing that isn’t easily dealt with. You can’t always give them the solution they want, but you can do your best to help them feel that they got the fairest shake you could give them.

In order to facilitate the flow of information, I have found it very helpful to ‘institutionalize’ feedback so that there is a scheduled opportunity to ask questions and give feedback as the event unfolds. I am a big fan of morning competitor, coach, or team leader meetings. This sort of built-in face-to-face helps ensure that issues or problems don’t fester over the length of an event. Also, I get a great chance to ask questions of the people who know how the sailing is really going – the sailors. This type of format helps tremendously to create a ‘We’re all in this together’ atmosphere rather than the ‘Us vs. Them’ thing that sometimes develops.

So, here’s the Reader’s Digest wrap-up:
• Be approachable.
• Pay attention to the input that your fleet members give.
• Remember, when you are talking you are not listening.
• Be firm when you need to be firm, but keep your ego in your pocket.

No one cares how many certifications you hold. No one cares how smart you think you are. I can assure you that no one at my house cares how smart I think I am. Why would sailors? They care about good, fair racing. Keep that goal out front – run the best, fairest event possible. Period.

And should luck deliver you such an event, let any credit flow through you to the members of the team who worked just as hard as you did to make it happen. And most of all, remember The Three Things That Matter.

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