From Sailing World, May 1997

You Will Always Improve If You Learn To Coach Yourself


by Kevin Hall

Sample Practice Drills

  • Goal: Improve ability to hold position on starting line
    Drill: Approach a buoy on starboard, from its leeward side. Stop your bow right at the buoy, and try to keep the bow as close to the buoy as possible. After a set amount of time, accelerate on a beat, bearing off as little as possible.
  • Goal: Improve foot and handwork
    Drill: 720s. Start by breaking each 360 in half: tack and bear away as smoothly as possible, then jibe and head up. Gradually connect the two halves of the turn as hand and footwork improve.
  • Goal: Improve feel
    Drill: Close your eyes while sailing.
  • Goal: Improve balance and sailhandling
    Drill: Start with the board down and the tiller tied on centerline. Then remove the rudder and raise the board halfway. 
  • Goal: Improve endurance
    Drill: Hike as hard as you can for 15 seconds, then rest 15 seconds, increasing each set by 15-second increments until your muscles fail, then decrease by the same increment until back to 15. Always maintain good form.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a coach watch every move you make, in every race? Unfortunately, if you think of a "coach" as an outside observer, this is expensive or impractical. There is only one person in the world who can always be there to help you improve your sailing: you.

Self-coaching can be learned and improved like any other skill. I have found that there are four major aspects: 1. The ability to recognize weaknesses, 2. The ability to identify the cause and design ways to address those weaknesses, 3. The ability to efficiently manage time on the water for maximum productivity in practice, 4. The ability to recall practices and races to examine what went right and wrong.

You have to be careful with step No. 1, weakness identification, to avoid being overwhelmed or discouraged. Better speed would be nice, but so would flawless boathandling, consistent starts and smooth mark roundings. You need to prioritize. I look for the one thing that will most likely yield the largest improvement in my race. If my starts are poor but I’m still rounding the weather mark in the top five, and subsequently getting passed by 15 boats downwind, chances are a better start won’t do as much for me as improving my downwind speed.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect is No. 2, identifying the cause or root of a weakness, and addressing it. When I got back into the Laser after a few years off, it was obvious that I was slow dead downwind. It was difficult to see why. The tendency is to be too broad in your analysis. "I’m slow downwind, especially in waves" doesn’t help much. Instead, I focused in: "Guys are sailing bigger angles than I am. I know I stop my turns with the tiller at the top of the wave. Is this causing me to lose speed down the wave? My turn at the bottom of the wave also seems to lack power." (For more on this Laser technique, see Zig Zag Your Way From Top To Bottom)

I kept asking why and continued to analyze each step in the process of sailing down a wave. Was I stopping my turns with the tiller because I was afraid to capsize, or was I simply turning too hard? That led me to wonder if I was relying too much on the tiller instead of steering with the sails and my weight. Was I easing too much main or not getting back to the middle of the boat as it accelerated down the wave? Or maybe it was just a bad habit. With these concrete questions in mind, I had somewhere to start when I went out on the water to practice.

Here’s what I did to improve my downwind speed. On a warm day, I tried letting the turn go as far as it wanted, without using the tiller, with the goal of finding the threshold beyond which capsize was imminent. The next day I brought a piece of shock cord to tie around my tiller downwind, which only allowed me to use 10 or 20 degrees of rudder. This required me to move in to stop the turn, and to begin experimenting with the effect of the mainsheet on both the beginning and the end of the turn. I aimed to work on one thing at a time, and after several practice sessions my turns on waves were dramatically improved.

Let’s talk about step No. 3, time management on the water. Paul Elvström is said to be focused from the time he leaves his house for a day of sailing until he has finished thinking about the day’s races. This may be a bit much -- it is for me -- but considering how little time we get to practice and race, if improvement is our goal, we need to get the most out of our time on the water. Before even leaving for the race, we could discuss our goals for the day, the weather forecast, and sail choices. On the way to the start, we could look at our jib leads, begin taking compass numbers, and discuss the sea conditions.

On the way out to practice, my college crew and I would often sail rudderless. Not only was it fun and challenging, it was great for our balance. On the other hand, if the concentration wasn’t there, or if our legs were really tired when sailing in, it was far better to take it easy or do something fun than to worsen bad habits by sailing poorly.

That leaves No. 4, analyzing the race. I am usually guilty of getting right into the discussions after a race or practice -- "we could’ve tried. . .what if. . .should we?" -- but I think it’s best to debrief on shore, or at least well after the smoke has cleared and the boat is tidied up. In a team situation, start with some positives -- many more things went right than wrong. I find, after a race, that narrating through the whole race works best for me, as it offers more chance of locating the actual beginning of a situation. For instance, if all we remember is lee bowing a boat and then not laying the weather mark, it may seem like we simply misjudged a layline. But by backing up, we may find the tactician did say the starboard boat was shy of the layline, the skipper felt he was probably crossing, and the bowman called for a lull on the left. Now the decision that should have been made is obvious, and the discussion can turn toward planning farther ahead or improving communication.

I recommend the same narration method in a personal notebook. Only after going all the way through the day’s races will I begin to think about what they mean. The more you use a notebook, the faster you will learn in a lasting way from your experiences.

There are a few things I would like to mention in closing which can really help your sailing. Few people take the time to do these, but they can be very useful tools. The first involves taking a day off from racing your boat -- to watch everyone else race theirs! There is a tremendous amount to be learned from watching a day’s racing or even a whole regatta. Afterward, ask the fast sailors why they set up the way they did, or what the wind seemed to be doing that day. The next possibility is to get some model boats and create tactical situations on a table top, going through the permutations and the discussions that might occur on the boat. Finally, there is a book I strongly recommend: Eric Twiname’s Sail, Race, and Win. He was a consummate self-coach, and a very successful sailor. As your ability to coach yourself improves, your learning curve will, too. And there is more than enough to learn to last a lifetime.

Kevin Hall finished fourth at the Laser Olympic Trials in 1996, and competed aboard the 18-foot skiff Moore with Morgan Larson and Adam Beashel.

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