Elite coaching with Vaughn Harrison

Published on February 16th, 2022

Vaughn Harrison

Originally from Stony Lake Yacht Club (Juniper Island, Ontario), Vaughn Harrison was a top sailor that qualified for the Canadian National Team but success with coaching jobs turned his focus toward working with others.

Inspired to become a top ranked career coach, he founded the International Sailing Academy, located just outside of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, and has been a center coach there for 13 years.

His coaching highlights include athletes at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, a 5th and a 6th at the World Championships and most recently Sarah Douglas’ inspiring 6th place result in Tokyo 2020.

In this interview conducted by Mark Lammens, Harrison shares his thoughts on a variety of issues:

What is your coaching philosophy?
Originally it was all about superior boat speed. I have studied the fundamentals of sailing and have crafted some unique ways of framing boat speed for upwind and downwind. I have lots of experience in how to set up the boat to go fast.

I am also focused on mental strength the mindset advantage, having strong core values and work ethic combined with top skills makes the difference. Strong core values during hard days reminds you that the challenge is bigger than a sailing race. You are practicing becoming resilient and building strong character traits.

What do you do or say before a day of racing?
We set up daily objectives and expectations for the weather. Usually a 5-10 minute conversation about expectations, wave angles, wind shifts or wind bends. We can arrive on course to see wind tendencies and bias for the race plan. Having confidence in your plan is reassuring and the positivity flows into body language and boat speed.

What are you looking at during a race?
I try my hardest to find my sailors; I track them like a night owl. I like to watch the first 3 minutes below the line to get a sense of the side and bias. During the beat I have a good eye for when boats are lifted or in more or less wind pressure for suggestions after the race. I also look for leverage to the side of the course, how far the sailor went to the side of the beat and what were the winning lanes.

Downwind I look at body and rig movement, sailing angles, which techniques were fast and was the distance traveled influenced by tactical decisions.

I will never have as good of a grasp on “what happened” as the sailor but I try to see enough to raise good questions to help lead the debrief. I also try to reinforce things I think may be important for the next race that the sailor may not realize they were doing such as sheeting often upwind or moving their body a certain way downwind.

What is your biggest influence?
My sailors! They have motivated me to become the best version of myself and to continue my personal growth.

What is missing in sailing?
Good media coverage. The SailGP really helps add a layer of professional sailing showing a potential career path but good media coverage could expose heroes for the youth sailors just starting out.

What are you focused on now?
I recently developed new online learning platform: https://learn.internationalsailingacademy.com

I will also continue to work with ILCA 6 sailor Sarah Douglas towards the 2022 ILCA 6 World Championship and ultimately a medal at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Comments from Tokyo 2020 Olympian Sarah Douglas:
I have been working with Vaughn for six years. What sets him apart is his holistic approach and adaptability. We hold each other to a high standard which pushes us to the next level and this results in a great partnership. Vaughn stays very calm in high pressure situations which gives me the ability to focus and the reassurance that he is supportive no matter what.

He is able to explain concepts in multiple ways for the athlete. We are developing skills in tracking and data analytics to ensure we are making progress. Vaughn works with various experts in the Performance Enhancement Team including strength and conditioning, mental performance, nutrition etc to ensure we have a well-rounded program.

He has lots of knowledge that has been implemented into our program. Vaughn sees skills that sailors are performing at training or racing and we look if we can incorporate it into our technical skills and get faster. He has a great growth mindset.

I am so proud of what we have accomplished so far. Vaughn is the best coach I have worked with. It is a privilege to work with him. I am motivated of what’s still to come from our team as we set our eyes on Gold in Paris 2024.

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