Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You're Fired!

It had to happen.

When the best group of athletes you can assemble fails dismally, what else can you do? Fire the coach.

And so that's what has just happened to the head coach of the US Olympic Sailing Team who failed to win a single medal at this year's Olympic Games.

A statement from US Sailing this week, makes it clear that Kenneth Andreasen (High Performance Director/ Head Coach) is toast, gone... fired.

And buried in the corporate boiler-plate that always accompanies such announcements is a clue to what this might mean for the future direction of US Olympic sailing.

After careful consideration, it is clear that we need to take a new direction on the performance side of the Olympic and Paralympic Sailing Program. That direction will include a sharper focus on the performance development of sailors and classes, boatspeed, and being a technically superior team.

Ouch. Boatspeed! You ain't going to win many Olympic sailing medals without boatspeed for sure.

The statement goes on...
Kenneth has been committed and dedicated to U.S. Olympic Sailing. He deserves credit for, among other things, his emphasis on class teamwork and fitness, positives in our program that we will continue to build on.


Andreasan was the one with the emphasis on "class teamwork" and "fitness" was he?

These two planks of the program have certainly been well publicized in US Sailing press releases and individual sailors' blog in the last few years. Boot camps in the Rockies. Lots of team building exercises. Training together as a team.

I have to say I've had my doubts about the focus on these two issues - especially if they were at the expense of other important stuff. Like being technically superior. Or boatspeed.

Don't get me wrong, fitness is certainly important in all the Olympic classes. At my mediocre level, getting fitter is probably the best thing I could do to improve my sailing performance. But beyond a certain level I suspect there is a law of diminishing returns for elite sailors. Once you can hike or trapeze all day at maximum effort, what do you really gain by being able to bench press another 10 lbs or run 100 yards a tenth of a second faster?

The emphasis on "class teamwork" has troubled me even more. Sure it must be helpful and even reassuring for Olympic hopefuls to have the support of fellow team members. But is there a downside too? Don't Olympic sailors need to be totally single-minded and ruthless in the pursuit of first a place at the Olympics and then an Olympic medal? Aren't the other team members actually your competition when you are trying to win Olympic selection? If you are the best sailor in the US in your class, do you really want to train with the other team members trying to knock you off your perch?  Won't you do better by training with the top sailors from other nations?

Of course I am no expert on these matters. But when did this ever stop me from opining on any topic on this blog?

But don't take my word for it. Read this post - The US Sailing Team - Does One Size Fit All? by John Bertrand (who is an Olympic sailing medallist himself and a highly respected coach.) Bertrand's post is about a talented young Finn sailor, Luke Lawrence, who made the US Sailing Development Team but became frustrated at the lack of coaching support he was receiving.

Luke was not satisfied with his results after his first two World Cup regattas. Luke, being the newbie in the four-boat team, was frustrated with the lack of on-the-water support he was receiving and how he was being treated by the coach. At times he was hard pressed to get access to the coach boat to get food and water, let alone access to Andreasen for post-race observations, because the priority was Zach Railey and Brian Boyd, the number one and two US team sailors. Luke, as a committed, motivated sailor, needed Andreasen's knowledge and experience, but simply wasn't getting it.

So Luke hired John Bertrand as his personal coach to supplement the support he was receiving from the US Sailing coaches. And then he was accused by the US Sailing powers-that-be of not being a team player and effectively banned from the team! Read the full post. Bertrand has some insightful observations on the relative merits of team and individual coaching, and what has made sailors from other nations (GBR - yeah!) so good, and even on why Zach Railey's performance was not up to his expectations under this US Sailing "team" philosophy.

I wish US Sailing well in their search for a new Head Coach and in developing an improved focus for the Olympic program in the next 4 years.



Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

"Class teamwork" and "fitness"? Boot camps in the Rockies? Yes, that has all of the earmarks of the training facilities in Colorado Springs, CO. That's my home town (where I will never return. I never learned sailing much there. Maybe because the sailing season is short? US Olympians should go where they can sail 52 weeks a year. You can hammer out track & field and soccer players in front of Pikes Peak. But sailors aren't nails, are they?

torrid said...

Sounded more like an effort to appeal to sponsors than focus on the sport at hand. You can sell "fitness" and "teamwork" much easier than "boat speed" or "roll tacks". It just won't necessarily put you up on the podium.

Tillerman said...

Yes Doc, the sailing team did train in Colorado. I expect it was a refreshing change from all those other weeks they spent at salty locations.

Interesting point torrid. I never thought of that. Certainly fitness and teamwork are concepts that are well understood by the general populace and apply to most sports. Maybe these aspects were lacking in the sailing program some years back. They certainly have their place. Or maybe working as a team was partly to compensate for the fact that US Sailing couldn't afford to allocate individual coaches to every sailor so it was an attempt to share the resources they had as best they could?

Brian Raney said...

Ahh... Where to begin?

Fitness - Something every member of the team should have. Priority? Absolutely. But for the Olympians themselves? Maybe not.

Teamwork - How is this even defined? Everyone loading the container? Or practicing and sharing info? Isn't this counter-intuitive to the top sailors?

Coaching - Unless you hire your own coach, the coach will be invested in results. Results are easiest to achieve with the boat that's already shown they're the best.

Funding - Only the top team ever seems to get the "big" checks, no matter what else changes. Geez, we can't even provide polo shirts to all of our team members (based on regatta photos)??!?

Boatspeed - Did we really lose that much focus? Ouch.

Three Step Program to get better...

1) Keep the knowledge and push it down.

Top athletes who don't get the spot disappear with their knowledge. After the Olympics, the top sailor disappears with his knowledge, too. We need to capture that. We need to disseminate that. And not just to the privileged few already in the pipeline. It needs to be in shareable media online. It needs to be presented in seminars and clinics.

US Coaches at designated events should work with all of the US competitors at the event.

Drop the "junior" team in favor of making the knowledge more accessible to those who want it. (Self-selection can work in our favor!)

Institute a "Big Brother"-type program where juniors (regardless of "team status") are assigned a veteran sailor for advise. After all, the biggest missing trait among juniors is self-discipline, and that's best shown by example.

Require the team to participate in the premiere North American events. They can't share if they're always in Europe.

The entire base needs to get better. The opportunity for anyone to get better needs to be there.

Sidenote: I think most of this knowledge sharing used to happen at the stateside pre-trials and trials. With those events gone, the need still has to be filled.

2) Get serious. Making the team should have real benefits. Out-of-competition intensive training camps for team members with top notch coaching. Access to serious health, training, nutrition, and sports psych pros. Uniforms (required). A straightforward and meaningful monetary reward program for results (not hidden away on the USSA website). (This might mean that the grand puhba can't go to all the regattas. Sorry.) Mentoring for every member of the team from a seasoned campaigner. Help putting together a full-quad training plan. In lots of other sports, much of this coaching is available ON-LINE!!!!

3) Bring the World's Best to US.

We let ourselves get pushed around at ISAF. The World Cup is nothing more than the Grade 1 battle all over again. Premiere regattas in NA need to be in the WC - not just Miami OCR. North American Championships, CORK, National Championships. We tried to fix this once with the Grading, but then we let them create the WC. USSA needs to be on the same page when they vote for things that continually tilt the playing field in Europe's favor. We need to encourage the top sailors in the world to come play in our backyard, where, more folks can learn from them.

Please note that this does not mean we do stupid things with the Olympic classes (again).

OK, off the soapbox

Tillerman said...

Wow, Brian. Those are all great ideas.

The Imperative Voice said...

Relatively new to Laser sailing but was a college jock and love my sports. My reaction from that perspective is compared to your usual pro franchise this is pretty chatty. I'm used to the cliched, vague "new direction," followed by x is fired and y is his interim replacement. Spelling it all out is a tad surprising.

Maybe they're feeling organizationally defensive? Because usually the new hiree discusses their own plans, even if they are enacting some agreed agenda with the front office. Has the virtue of implying the new boss is in fact in charge. Instead here US Sailing has "the plan."

Whether it should have been aired in public or not, identifying current strengths and weaknesses -- if accurate -- would be a positive sign. However, there is a competing buzzwordiness where you worry they might repeat their apparent mistake last time if they wander off in the wrong direction with their strategic central planning. A "high performance director" fired for insufficient focus on performance?

Surely someone like Tunnicliffe who won a medal in China but not Weymouth could point them in some useful directions. Talk to the talent.

If the lead sailors have their own coaches to the point of potential conflict with US sailing, wouldn't the coaching efforts be better pointed further down the pecking order and/or towards the developmental level, where coaching may be less available/ affordable? Cause layers of coaches for the elites starts to sound like redundancy at best or like organization for organization's sake at worst.

Little pods of athletes training and competing together in preparation, even in individual sports, are actually a good idea. Mo Farah and Galen Rupp in distance running. Only one can win (or in sailing, qualify) but it can be mutually beneficial. However, enforced "teamwork" of a broader nature sounds silly and like buzzwordy fake team building. We only get to send one competitor, what the heck?

Last, they might try matching the team to the venue. Maybe Qingdao was more forgiving of boatspeed limits than Weymouth? In which case, before we fight the last war figure out the likely conditions for Rio and make sure speed and technique are what will be demanded, and not just what we wish we had for Weymouth.

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