More “Headers” Needed on Route to the Top

Opinion piece by Mark Lyttle

British Youth Sailing have recognised for some time that sailors need to develop as independent thinkers, both in preparation for competition and in competition itself, where they are faced with difficult race situations in a rapidly changing environment. Youth sailors that rise to elite level sailing will need to plan and execute much of their own training and often compete without dedicated coaches as, at the Olympics for example, there are limited numbers of coaches allowed.

Sailing, like most sports, has identified a pathway framework for junior and youth sailors aspiring to elite level. This is meant to ease a sailors’ journey to the top, removing obstacles on the way. Some sports will have more intensive “talent programmes” that could involve semi-permanent residential programmes. While sailing does not have this, many parents are supporting their children very actively, attempting to ensure that the sailors only have to worry about training and racing and nothing else. Emerging sport science studies suggest that not only is this approach flawed, it may be damage the ultimate prospects of sailors.  In an opinion piece, Rocky Road to the Top1, the authors suggest that traumas are needed. Let’s start at the beginning.

Ericsson put accumulated hours of deliberate practice (extending the 10,000 hour rule of Simon and Chase, 1973) at the forefront for parents, coaches and athletes. Most sports are encouraging their “talented” young athletes to dedicate long hours to their sport at an early age. Putting aside the arguments that this approach may have flaws, the hypotheses is that in order to be successful, you must not be distracted by events in the real world and instead be protected. How else to maximise your training time?

As well as dedication to training, for many years there has been a storyline around some successful athletes over-coming great trauma to achieve their goals. Indeed, research indicates that in some cases, this trauma is the stimulant to dedicate long hours to becoming a champion. On the other hand, it is likely talented athletes with potential have had their hopes dented by trauma and, in any case, foisting trauma on to athletes would hardly be considered appropriate. But adversity, rather than trauma, is another thing.

Mental toughness has always been considered a perquisite of successful athletes, not just in the theatre of competition, but around the commitment to training. Introducing adversity (rather than trauma) in to a training programme can build mental toughness. In fact it is the contention of the authors above that exposure to adversity is needed.

The examples quoted are around repeated non-selection or qualification for teams, failure in competitions to achieve target results, serious injury etc. and also around inability to assimilate surroundings or being distracted by a new environment.

So it is suggested that the developmental programme introduces adversity in a gradual way where it is managed and ensuring that confidence is not damaged. This may include adversity in the environment (not having your parents at any event, no coaches etc), in training (exercises that try to force a loss of focus, excepting it is hard to replicate the pressure of a competition) and finally in competition (using negative events as part of the learning process). It is also likely that this is best individualised so in some ways parents should be best suited to this task.

  1. Collins, D., & MacNamara, Á. (2012). The rocky road to the top.Sports medicine42(11), 907-914.
  2. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

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