Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Coaching Teenagers: Learning Along the Way


In 2010 when I finished International sailing and an Olympic Campaign in the Laser Radial dinghy, I felt like a young coach at 27 years old. I had started coaching at youth performance level with the Laser Leinster squad and the NI Junior Topper squad, moving on to the NI Youth Laser squad. I wanted to coach as I knew that after all my years sailing, with different coaches, training partners and my experience racing internationally, that I could help young sailors to get to that level and beyond. I had my own weaknesses as a sailor and mistakes that I made along the way. Surely, I can help shortcut their learning (thought every coach ever)?

Laser Radial Youth Europeans, Tallinn Estonia 2016.

I coached these squads with a few of my peers. I was fascinated by the different styles of coaching, seeing where other coaches strengths lay and how to deal with a large group of young teens. In sailing there is so much technical and tactical knowledge that you are constantly learning throughout your life in the sport. While bringing these groups through the essentials at their stage of the sport I was also borrowing ideas from others and trying to improve my knowledge and learn the art of coaching along the way.

The coaching team I was part of had a lot of fun in these groups, we were motivated and excited to be getting on the water in our coaching roles. While we were trying to get the sailors to go faster, learn harder and reach higher goals but there were other factors that I hadn’t much experience dealing with.

Parents. I hadn’t considered that they needed to know so much about what was going on and would take such an interest in what and how their child could improve.

Sailor abilities. The sailors in the squads are at different stages of development, knowledge and learning plus strength and size have a big impact in how fast each boat can go.

Sailor maturity. Not everyone is here for the same reason. I wanted the sailors to win races. Not all of sailors believe they can, some gave 100% and others were there to test your patience!

Teenagers. As I said before. I felt young, however I was not a teen, I am not Gen Z and I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to gel with every group and for them to gel with each other.

When I thought it was going well, I was maybe only seeing it from my own perspective or of a vocal few and not from the individuals throughout the group. I wasn’t aware of how each sailor truly felt at the end of the day, if they weren’t comfortable in talking to me about it, I could only gauge from what I was hearing and seeing. Some people may get lost in the group and although they appear to be engaging you never really know how they feel or what they have taken from each session.

Some of the issues I observed when coaching these groups of teens:

  • Behavioural issues - distraction during sessions, being late.
  • Low motivation - body language in briefings, slow to start the session, keen to finish the session.
  • Poor engagement - not contributing to group learning or sharing own experience, not practicing skills between squad sessions.
  • Underprepared - Equipment missing or needing repair. Poor nutritional choices- garage lunches/no water bottle.

I attended annual coach development courses run by the Royal Yachting Association and spoke regularly with the RYA NI Performance Manager who helped me through these challenges. Over the years I developed my style of coaching and engagement and was continually tweaking my approach and trying to adapt to the sailors needs within the group.

Bringing a group of sailors together to engage as a team when they are a group of individual competitors and working out how to get the best from each of them was the biggest challenge. Each year the group was different, engaged differently, had different skill sets and motivations. The squad foundations needed to be in place early each year otherwise you spent more time chasing your tail. I had limited time with each squad, only 6 squad weekends over the winter/ spring period into competition season. I did the ‘Squad Charters’, ‘Goal Setting’, ‘Sailor Qualities’, ‘Buddy systems’, ‘teamwork activities’ trying to lay the foundations and set the tone for what was to come. I had to carve out the time to implement these ‘non-coaching’ activities and the emphasis could be different each year depending on the needs of the group. They are all great tools to use and each have a place building the coaching environment that you want to create.

I was fortunate to have some really great groups of sailors coming through during my time with the squads. Teens are smart. They are driven, thoughtful and opinionated. I loved watching them interact together, the comradery they showed and lifelong friendships and competitors being developed. At times as a coach, I had to step back, these teens could teach each other, they had thoughts and opinions on tactical situations and their experiences that sharing between peers was so much more valuable and memorable than what I could project. They had ambitions outside of sailing, plans for university, career goals and the sailing goals they had set for their youth sailing career and beyond.

London 2012 Olympic Sailing venue with the RYA NI Youth Squad: Weymouth, UK Laser Qualifier 2016.

If I was to summarise some lessons from my time coaching I would say, get to know your sailors. What are their needs, what makes them tick? Address the group environment and set expectations of the sailors and the coach early on, this will set the tone for future sessions and get the best for everyone. Most of all, have fun. If you are going to have a lifelong involvement in a sport then you have to love what you do. The Olympics isn’t everyone’s end goal, some great performances and character building can be achieved along the way. I hope that the sailors I have coached over that 10-year period will have developed both on and off the water and have good memories of their time training and competing during their youth careers.


By Debbie Hanna, Performance Planner, Sport Northern Ireland

@SportNINet #SportNILearning


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