Sportsmen and women across the globe will be disappointed by the postponement of the Olympic games. Yet their striving for greatness goes on as Athletes continue to prepare. If you’ve ever wondered how these talented athletes earn their chance to compete on the world stage, this interview is for you.
We’ve been thrilled to follow the progress of our sponsored 49erFX sailing teams, most notably perhaps Annemiek Bekkering and Annette Duetz as they became reigning World Champions in their sport not once, but for two years running …and then qualified for the Olympics. Who helps them to become the best of the best? Is the training all carrot-and-stick?
We spoke to the Netherland’s Head Sailing Coach Jaap Zielhuis to see what we could learn.
Jaap has been sailing all his life. His parents put him in a boat a bit like a Mirror dinghy.
My earliest memories he says were that I was afraid to capsize – but once I lost my fear of that, sailing turned into a life-long passion.
He began sailing with his brother but turned to single-handed boats because it was more convenient. Later, Jaap was to represent the Netherlands at the Athens Olympics in 2004, sailing a Finn. I found it was hard to earn a living from competitive sports so eventually worked in commerce for a time but sport is my passion, and I managed to get work as a coach.
So you’ve got a lot experience from the bottom up, we suggested. I never think of myself as ‘experienced’ – each coaching programme will be different every time …so you start again …you’re continually starting again …you keep trying something new. Of course, you don’t notice changes in your approach over time until one day a colleague says: ‘Hey – you’ve changed!’
What was that change?
I used to ‘Tell’, now I ‘Ask’. The Netherlands is a small country, we don’t have the budget of a large country so we have to come up with new ideas, new ways to train. For example for the 2008 Olympics we started a project in the Yngling class. This boat is sailed with three girls per boat, and we had three boats – so that was nine girls rotating to find the best team. Back then one coach would make all the decisions and that method did win a medal – but these days we’ve learned to motivate sailors through a sense of ‘ownership’.
The sailors are involved in a lot of the decision making. They know that only one boat can go to the Olympics, for example – so how are we going to select the Olympic team? Well, we asked the Windsurfers to come up with their own selection process and were surprised when they suggested a system which takes into account their championship performance over the last three years. But that is what we adopted.
So what’s unique in our coaching is that we try to give ownership to the sailors. It’s like a marriage – in a good marriage both parties have a veto. You can’t have coaches telling the sailors what to do – they are intelligent, well-educated people.
Another change is that we used to pick teams based on skill sets, body weight, height …that sort of thing – but what we found is that the team which is technically optimal is not necessarily the best. So we let everyone sail with everyone else for over a year and then choose their team: 4 crews 4 helm who do you want to sail with – make a list in order of preference. We found that three out of four teams got their first choice, and team-work was improved by this selection process. More than that – we discovered that by holding training sessions from time to time where everyone sails with everyone it raises the standard of the whole group.
Is it difficult to keep coming up with new methods, new enthusiasm? Working with young people motivates. They have more talent than they know – and they want success badly. Their craving for success drives me on to new heights, you keep finding ‘more’ …new ideas. Their energy is contagious.
What about discipline? Giving the sailors so much freedom and power they realise that it comes with a lot of responsibility and we don’t have to worry about a lack of discipline. In any case if you tell someone what to do they just do it – if it goes wrong they say ‘…well, that’s what you told me to do!’.
What lies beyond your control? Weather. We try to get all-round experience but some countries are better than others in different conditions of wind or water. If they get the weather or sea state they are most familiar with during the whole regatta – they get the advantage. Another thing beyond our control is related to the fact that there’s more pressure on Sailors and Committees – resulting in more protests. Sailing is a self-policing sport; there are no referees on the water and in case of an incident you have a small court case on shore (protest). During the Olympics stakes are high and some countries bring rules experts (lawyers). Like any court case the outcome can be surprising and feel really unfair. It can get pretty heated.
The Netherlands focus their sail training on six classes of Olympic sport: Windsurfer (Men and Women), Laser Radial, Finn, 470, 49erFX .
Coronavirus has set the Olympic games back a bit. In the old days of sailing ships whenever a storm was approaching wise mariners used to say: Mackerel skies and Mare’s tails make Tall Ships carry low sails. Once the storm had passed and full-canvas was hoisted once more, it was a jollier, more experienced, more confident crew who crested the ocean waves at full speed.
When the present storm has passed and the Dutch sailors are cresting waves in the Sea of Japan we shall be following the action. In the meantime their preparations continue and we wish them all luck – but with Jaap at the helm, it sounds like they’re in great hands.
We’re grateful to Richard Langdon for the images which feature Jaap Zielhuis.
The image of the Mirror dinghy is in the public domain.
The image of the 49erFX copyright Sailing Energy