The kids gather for the regatta. For many of them it is their first time. This is a big deal for them. They look around at the other kids. Some of them are bigger, have fancier sailing clothes, have all the latest gizmos on their boats. Everyone is nervous. They don't know what to expect.
The races are run. There are wind shifts and gusts and collisions and capsizes. The scores are tallied and trophies are awarded. There is a winner. And there are the rest. For most of the kids it has been a day full of fun, excitement and laughs, meeting old friends and making new ones, making mistakes and learning something new, small triumphs and minor disappointments ...
But one kid is different. She is over there with her parents screaming and shouting and stamping her feet. For some reason she thought she was going to be the winner of the regatta and she isn't. It wasn't her fault of course. It's not fair. Nothing her parents or her coach can say will calm her down. She's red in the face and tears are streaming down her cheeks. She hates sailing. Sailing stinks. She's never going to sail again.
Maybe she'll get over it and be out sailing again next week. Maybe she won't.
As a (former) parent of junior sailors and organizer of junior regattas I've seen this scenario several times over the years. In my teaching of sailing I worked hard to avoid it. I taught my students about sportsmanship and how to behave whether you win a race or whether you don't. Even after our practice races I made sure that the kids encouraged the losers and congratulated the winners. We discussed how just completing the end-of-season long distance race and entering your first regatta are major achievements to be proud of. You don't have to be first across the finish line to be a winner.
But my efforts haven't always succeeded. For some reason, a kid will get the idea in his or her head that they have to win this race or that regatta and that if they don't it will be the worst thing that has ever happened in their lives and when they don't win they break down and make an embarrassing emotional display in front of all their friends.
Where does this pressure come from? Are the parents pushing them too hard? Or is it something that the parents are doing in a very subtle way, creating a culture of expectation of excellence in their kids in everything they do? Or is it something inherent in some kids' personalities?
This expectation that you always have to win may make some sense in other pursuits. If you really are the smartest kid in your class and you work hard you probably will be the valedictorian. If you are the right body type and you train harder than any of the other kids then you probably will win the cross-country race. But, in sailing, nobody racing in tough competition can expect to win all the time; there's just too much luck involved in our sport.
It must be especially hard for the children of sailing champions. I've no idea how the kids of the Gary Jobsons or Dave Dellenbaugh's of this world cope with trying to live up to the achievements of a famous father. I've seen this problem locally too. The son of our local champion has been sailing with his father since he was 3 or 4 years old. They entered some fun races together. The kid's hand was on the tiller but Dad was calling all the shots ... trim, ease, tack now, duck this boat. They won some races. The kid got the idea that sailing is easy and that he's as smart as his Dad. This year Dad bought the kid his own boat and he started racing on his own. He found out in his first race that sailing isn't as easy as he thought and he didn't realize that it took his Dad 30 years of hard work to become as skilled as he is now. The kid had a meltdown and has vowed to give up sailing.
Somehow my own sons managed to avoid all these pitfalls. They sailed throughout their teenage years and, now in their twenties, are still sailing. When they were younger they entered some junior regattas; they each won some and lost in others. Sure they enjoyed their victories but I never saw them being too disappointed when they didn't win. How did they learn to cope with losses? In this particular case I think it was through sheer luck rather than conscious effort on my part as a parent.
The luck in this case is that I am no more than a mediocre sailor myself. Yes, I am passionate about sailing and yes, I know a fair amount about it. But in my own racing, through clumsiness, forgetfulness and sheer bloody incompetence, I almost always finish somewhere back in the fleet. I'm sure my sons noticed this. I hope they noticed that even when I finish in the middle of the pack I'm also having a good time. I hope they learned the right lesson from this observation: sailing is fun no matter where you finish in a race.
I know there are some readers of this blog who sailed as kids and became champion sailors in their countries. I wonder whether you felt pressure to perform as kids. How did your parents support, motivate or challenge you? Some of you readers are parents of kids who sail now. What can parents do to avoid putting so much pressure on their kids that sailing isn't fun any more?