Thursday, June 08, 2006


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?


OG said...

Interesting topic...

As a kid, I always felt pressured to win. There was a lot at stake. Sponsorship was one, but with the chance of losing my governement sporting grant, additional pressure was placed on my shoulders. I had to stay at the top.

Then there was Mum and Dad. They spent a lot of money to make sure I had everything I needed to succeed, however you can't buy trohpies. They only come as a reward to bloody hard work.

So there was pressure from every angle.

Even though I am not a parent, I am the manager of a sailing school. We currently get about 40 to 50 kids a weekend, sometimes more in the summer months, all there to learn how to sail.

It's VERY clear to see which ones actually want to be there, and which ones are beign forced by their parents. It's those that chose sailing themselves that excel faster than the forced. And it is ususally the kids that have been forced that cause the most disruption within the group.

Many of my friends are biological protégées of some of Australias most elite and compeitive yachtsman/women. They seem to always be a shadow of their famous parents, regardless of how great their personal achievements have been. This is disappointing to see, however I guess that's just the way things go.

Great topic Tillerman. You have really made me think back to my youth sailing days...

skint writer said...

As a non-sailor I really enjoyed this piece, good writing transcends subject matter; don't you think?

Adrift At Sea said...


Luck doesn't have everything to do with how your kids turned out. The example you set probably has a lot to do with it to. Too many people are focussed on just the winning—on the ends, not the means. When my brother and I used to race, many years ago, the real point of being out there was to be sailing...the winning, or the losing, was just part of being out there, and not the most important part of it at all.

Tim said...

I have 5 kids and none of them are the same. Two are twins and they couldn't be more disimilar and yet they have had the same upbringing.

Sometimes there seems to be no clear reason for the way they turn out.

I have tried to work with them and help them to learn how to read thier own emotions and develope thier own ways of finding contentment and so be able to control of themselves.

Giving them space to screw up and helping them analyse themselves is hard work but then no one ever said parenting would be easy.

lqt said...

As a teenager who loves sailing but unfortunately has parents who strongly discouraged me from sailing, here's my take on the subject:

I've always thought the kids who sailed because their parents signed them on were much luckier than me, because they had parents who appreciated sailing and encouraged them to sail at such a young age, giving them such a headstart. Unlike me, whose parents have always opposed sailing right from the start, and even now they're still quite edgy about me sailing. I signed myself up for a course when I was 11, loved it, but was forced to drop even before I completed the course fully because of my mom's opposition. And so I had to give up on it. Even when I tried to take up sailing again when I was 15, I encountered strong opposition from my Mom and had to give it up, yet again. I am thankful that the third time I took up sailing again, which is this year (when I'm 17), I was persistent enough, and maybe my mom has finally seen that no matter how she opposes I will still find all means to continue sailing.

But now upon reconsideration, I think that perhaps I'm better off (not in terms of skills or experience, but in terms of attitude) than those kids who were signed on by their parents to sail. They've had it easy for them. Sailing is more like any normal sport perhaps? But one they're good in, one they're familiar with, one that they've been doing for so long that it's so natural and easy for them, that they take it for granted. Not me. I had to overcome lots of opposition from my parents to be able to sail. Even the school does not support sailing. But because of all these, I don't think mine is just a mere interest in sailing anymore. It's a passion for sailing, deep inside. The opposition just adds fuel to the fire inside, and makes me appreciate every chance to sail much more keenly.

If I'd very supportive parents and sailed right from a very young age, I'd be much better technically and experience-wise in sailing, no doubt, but would I love sailing as much? Would I be as appreciative of every chance that I get to sail, and try to make the most out of it?

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