Monday, October 11, 2010

The US Sailing Team - Does One Size Fit All?

Sarah Lihan's got game and a great sense of style!

The cover story for this month's Sailing World Magazine, "Stress Test," highlights the changes within the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics for this Olympic cycle. It is an insider's look by reporter Stuart Streuli, who spent time with the team at a physical training camp at the US Olympic training center in Colorado Springs last March, and at the Kiel Week regatta in June. Streuli gives a glowing review of the new direction and philosophy that Olympic Sailing Director, Dean Brenner, and head coach, Kenneth Andreasen, are taking. Stressing team unity and overall fitness are cornerstones of their approach. However, I was dismayed to read that certain sailors on the team were singled out for not being team players, allegedly hurting the US team's chances for medals at the 2012 Olympic Games. The sailors singled out included the very talented young sailor I have been coaching in the Finn, Luke Lawrence. In Luke's case, nothing could be further from the truth. Why would the "Brass" at the Olympic Sailing Committee go public with such an allegation? I believe this sentiment revolves around a management philosophy and mindset akin to the infamous statement "you are either with us, or against us." I believe it highlights a glaring weakness in understanding, and also a lack of desire to understand how to effectively develop an individual's potential within a team environment. In others words, does one size fit all?

Streuli writes that:

"Not everything that Andreasen and Brenner touch turns to gold - literally or figuratively..... A big part of the USSTAG's new culture is intra-squad training; all the U.S. sailors within a specific class working together under a common coach for a large part of the Olympic cycle..... Erin Maxwell and 2004 Olympian Isabelle Kingsolving won the 2008 Women's 470 World Championship. Amanda Clark and Sarah Chin finished 12th in the 2008 Olympics. Together they could form a potent training duo. However to date they haven't trained together. USSTAG officials imply this is due to a personality conflict...."

"The same can be said of Luke Lawrence, a confident Floridian who won the Laser silver medal at the 2008 ISAF Volvo Youth World Championships. In his first Finn regatta, the 2010 Rolex Miami OCR, he finished in the top half of the 37-boat fleet. But, unhappy with the attention he received from Andreasen at the first two European regattas of the 2010 season, he hired 1984 silver medalist John Bertrand as his personal coach, isolating himself from the rest of the U.S. team. It appears to have benefited Lawrence, who won the Finn Junior World Championship in San Francisco in August, in the short term. But will it hurt the U.S. team's medal hopes (and those of Lawrence) in 2012 and further down the road?"

just moments after winning the Finn Junior World Championship
Luke is proud to have represented the United States

The situation that Streuli refers to in the article is Luke Lawrence hiring me to coach him in the European World Cup regattas. Luke, who is the 2009 ISAF Youth Worlds Silver medalist in the Laser class, made his debut in the Finn earlier this year at the Miami Rolex OCR. He is also a member of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 US Sailing Youth Development Teams (USSDT). As a current member of the USSDT, he was offered free shipping of his Finn to Europe, coaching support from the Finn (and head) coach, Kenneth Andreasen, at the World Cup events, and the opportunity to attend team training camps. The USSDT, according to the US Sailing website, is "designed to provide an elite environment designed specifically to prepare the young sailor for the highly competitive world of Olympic Sailing, with knowledge-transfer and experience-sharing that can only come with (their) Olympic coaching staff and athletes." The website also states that the USSDT "is designed for the developing sailor who is highly interested in becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete and who has shown the skills and commitment to such a goal. It is designed for the sailor who is willing to learn to make decisions on his or her own." In this instance, Luke showed initiative and drive by hiring a private coach, myself, to further his development as a sailor, become more competitive, learn the game faster, and get the coaching resources he was lacking from the team.

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. With the prospect of no coaching support at the upcoming Finn European Championships, which Zach Railey and Andreasen were not attending, he decided to hired me to coach him. We spilt the cost of the coach boat with Brian Boyd, and I provided the on-the-water support for all three US Finn sailors at the regatta.

In the practice days leading up to the Europeans, Luke, Brian and Caleb Paine (the third US Finn sailor at the regatta) trained together. I took video of these practice sessions, which I shared daily with all the US sailors, giving everyone as much insight and help as I could provide. Luke really benefitted from these sessions and I saw tremendous improvement is a very short period of time. He ended up being the top placed US sailor at the Europeans and won a Silver medal as the second-highest scoring youth sailor. Because of his rapid improvement, Luke decided to keep me on as his coach for his next regatta, the Delta Lloyd regatta in Holland.

We were given a shock when Andreasen arrived in Holland and promptly told Luke in a private, two-minute meeting at the boat park that he was not allowed to tune up with the team or attend any of the team's briefings. In fact, Andreasen told Luke he needed to resign from the USSDT. The following day we stressed to Andreasen that we would share any information with him and the team, including photographs and video like we did at the Europeans, and we would also actively participate in the team's scheduled tuning sessions and daily debriefs. However, Andreasen didn't change his position. He said it was not fair to the other sailors that Luke would enjoy the benefits of having a private coach. I was perplexed by his position, given the team's stated emphasis on inter-squad training, openness and sharing of knowledge, and that we would be adding another set of eyes and experience that could be utilized by the entire Finn team. This attitude is not present in other classes. Over the winter, I trained with the US Laser team in a number of US Sailing training camps that included as many as 15 international sailors and as many as five international coaches all working together in daily sailing sessions and video debriefs. It was amazing to see the level of cooperation and willingness of the sailors and coaches to work closely together sharing their observations each day. It is unfortunate that the Finn team could not utilize all the benefits of having another coach on board, a free one at that, not even using the limited US Sailing Team resources.

Effectively, Luke was banned from the team, and he and the two top women's 470 teams are being held out as examples for not being team supporters, supposedly hurting the team's chances for medals at the 2012 Olympics. In Luke's case, he is actively being shunned by OSC Chairman Dean Brenner and head coach Kenneth Andreasen. During Kiel Week, Brenner never approached Luke, and he was excluded from the team barbecue, unlike all the other USSDT members. Is the leadership of the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics correct to force Luke to resign from the team? Could Luke have just accepted the limitations the Finn team provided and waited until the following year to improve his situation? Does Luke deserve this type of treatment from the leaders of the team?

When considering the current crop of the world's top Olympic sailors who, like Luke, are singlehanded-trained sailors, you find the likes of Ben Ainslie (GBR), Paul Goodison (GBR), Tom Slingsby (AUS), Robert Scheidt (BRA), Ian Percy (GBR) and Ed Wright (GBR). Are any of these Gold medalist and world champions entirely products of their national teams, or did they benefit from focused individual support? In the case of the dominant GBR sailors, the answer is that they are not entirely products of their national teams. They may have risen through a system, but they each put together their own programs and have individual coaches giving them full support and pushing their limits. Most top-level sailors, regardless of class, benefit from individual coaching. They may also benefit from significant financial support from their sailing federations. Would Ben Ainslie or Paul Goodison accept a situation they knew limited their opportunity to be the best? I don't think so.

The notion that the best chances for the US to medal in 2012 by strictly adhering to the "new deal" is very limited. Exclusively working within the limited resources of the team, including only working with team coaches, works for some classes, but in other classes it is obviously not working. For example, under Dave Perry's leadership the women's match racing teams are making great progress by working together. However, in the Finn class, I see the opposite happening. After his hard-earned 2008 Silver medal performance, Zach Railey should have had a breakout year. However, as Streuli's article points out, Zach is dissatisfied with his finishes in 2010 and likely the net negative effect it has on his 2011 funding. The Finn team is in tatters with the number two sailor Brian Boyd retiring, and the coach's self-inflicted drama surrounding Luke. It is likely that Zach's performance is suffering from this turmoil and a lack of focused coaching. If you consider that Zach was working singularly with Andreasen as his personal coach in his rise through the Finn ranks and his surprise performance at the Olympics, it would be easy to conclude his struggles this year could be due to the change in his coaching situation as Andreasen's attention is divided.

In US Sailing's pursuit of their agenda, it appears to me they are willing to make an example out of certain sailors who want to supplement their programs to get better quicker. Wouldn't it be better to have the flexibility to focus on the individual needs of the sailors? In other words, instead of focusing so much on what a sailor is doing to support the team, they would be better off looking at how the team can better support the individual sailor so that each can make progress in the best way possible within the team, together making the team better. I believe this attitude is coming from the top.

Based on my recent experience with the team, I believe their "one size fits all" approach is hurting the team's prospects in the short term and is creating a long term problem that may take years to recover from. There may be a feel-good aspect to what they are doing, but I fear that it will limit the development of our future stars, who tend to be "different" and creative, and who are naturally driven and impatient. By trying to totally control the environment and support only their favorites, the USSDT will discourage the new blood, and this may lead to a drought of good sailors for future Olympics to come. A very strict and controlled system is only successful if resources are available to allow intense competition from a group of many sailors.

Team GBR can take a more strict approach than US Sailing, because they can financially afford to bring in large numbers of sailors to see who rises to the top under their strict system. These sailors are provided with almost everything and can just focus on sailing. The US on the other hand is attempting to adopt the British model, but only a very few top sailors can get along without supplementing their campaigns with their own money. Only the very diehard, stubborn, and / or well-off sailors can commit to the 4, 8, or 12 years it takes to reach the top level of funding under the current system. If a sailor on the USSDT has drive, talent, and funding, US Sailing needs to take advantage of it for the benefit of the team. The current lack of resources can be remedied by an open-minded attitude, willingness to accept help no matter where it comes from, acceptance of limitations, openness of communication, and inclusiveness.

It is a tough dilemma for US Sailing, and they all, including Brenner and Andreasen, genuinely want to improve the system. However, while they struggle to figure it out, I would expect them to treat every sailor who is making a commitment fairly, respectfully, and evenhandedly. Politics, personal fears, and selectivity should take a backseat to openness and inclusiveness.

two of the most naturally gifted and creative sailors I have ever met who are not currently on the US Sailing Team
Luke Lawrence and Brad Funk

Luke touching base with his sailing roots - catamaran sailing


  1. Thanks for letting us know the other side of the story. When I read the article in SW, I felt uneasy about it without really understanding why. Your story here provides some of the answer.

  2. Best revenge for shortsightedness is to continue to perform at a high level with consistency! Good luck in the future

  3. When I attended an open training clinic for the US Development Team (Lasers), the opposite seemed true; the prevailing attitude was that US Sailing was providing some coaching, but the sailors were obligated to supplement that with private coaching. It seems contradictory that when the sailors advance to the more advanced Alphagraphics team they must then dispense with these private coaches who certainly will have had major roles of getting them to that stage... So even within the organization it seems there are conflicting ideas.

  4. We have been sailing 49er for over a year now out of miami. There is no where for us to turn to for support. No teams to sail against, no high performance coach. Everything is out of pocket. We work and sail. It is very difficult to pay for everything and then a coach. There needs to be some sort of support system for up and coming teams. Right now we have formed a 501(c)3 non for profit to organize ourselves in order to receive tax deductible funding. Still, money doesn't grow on trees.

    Check out our website:

    Great blog entry and congrats to Luke!

    Mauricio Galarce

  5. Good job John. You may have them backwatering now and maybe get some cooperation. Just read Wednesday scuttlebut. Or maybe they will just stay mad. I hope not. That won't help anyone.

  6. Still trying to find out where to get a pair of pants like Sarah's.

  7. Years before I finally made the 1988 Olympic team I received 3 negative comments from the 1980/1984 OSC chairman, I remember each one like it was yesterday. It just drove me harder to prove that I could make the team and win a medal as well! It worked out pretty good in the end.