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Sailing’s Education System

by Dr Ben Tan, SingaporeSailing on 21 Aug 2012
Colin Cheng (SIN) Singapore sailing.org.sg http://sailing.org.sg
A sailor’s career progresses through different phases, namely at the junior level (Optimist sailing), youth level, and finally senior level.

In 2002, following a disappointing outing at the Busan Asian Games (returning with no gold medals), SingaporeSailing convened a panel, which I had the privilege of chairing, to review our strategies. The Panel came up with the High Performance Sailing Strategic Plan (HPSSP). The HPSSP took a very systematic, clinical and prescriptive approach to fast-track a sailor’s learning curve, cramping in water time and race exposure, and setting fitness benchmarks and selection criteria. Interestingly, when I later came across Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book entitled 'Outliers: The Story of Success,' I noticed that the HPSSP’s prescription of getting our sailors to quickly accumulate racing experience was very much in line with the 10,000 hours of experience that Gladwell postulated was the pre-requisite to the mastery of one’s craft.


The HPSSP bore fruit within two years, leading to a string of world titles at junior and youth levels, and also restoring Singapore’s top billing at the SEA and Asian Games. And it continues to deliver to this day.

As our conquests at the junior and youth levels rolled in, we waited for the first few cohorts from the HPSSP era to deliver world titles at the senior level, as they turned into young adults. We waited, and waited, and waited. But it didn’t materialize. The talented sailors whom we had painstakingly supported financially and in other ways went into the senior sailing realm armed with their junior and youth world titles. At the senior level, they found themselves losing to peers whom they had beaten at the junior and youth events (see chart)! Our sailors were junior world champions, then youth world champions, and instead of going on to become senior world champions, they quit sailing at the ‘ripe old age’ of their early twenties! For the 2008 Olympics, the young champions whom we groomed were placed in the Go-for-Gold 08/12 Programme. Fourteen sailors were accepted into the programme, which was more than any other sport in Singapore. This programme provided practically unlimited funding and support – they could go to any event in the world and as many events as they could handle. The administrators of the Go-for-Gold 08/12 had realistic expectations and did not expect the recipients to deliver at their first Olympics in Beijing. The intention was to invest in them for at least two Olympic cycles, and Singapore was willing to wait till the end of the second Olympic cycle to get its return-on-investment (ROI). At the 2008 Olympics, our sailors finished at the tail end of the fleet, but that was within our expectations – we were happy enough that they managed to qualify, and we wanted them to gain experience so that they could launch a serious medal attempt at their second Olympic campaign – London 2012.

Then came the surprise for the then SingaporeSailing leadership. Soon after the 2008 Olympics, one by one, all fourteen sailors retired from competitive sailing or decided not to go into the second Olympic cycle despite an understanding that they would continue to sail for at least two Olympic cycles. The reasons cited varied from studies to work to other priorities. In The Straits Times article 'Don’t throw sailors into the deep end,' published on 17 August 2012, one such sailor, a Beijing 2008 Olympian, admitted that, 'I would not have made it to the Olympics if not for the tremendous support I received from SingaporeSailing in the areas of coaching, logistics and sports science.' She finished 25th out of 28 boats and sadly, despite the extensive support given, she decided to retire from the sport. We respected her right to make such a decision as an Olympic campaign is indeed a daunting challenge and not everyone is cut out for it. We are obviously disappointed that the 14 young sailors did not have the staying power to maximize the returns from all the resources invested in them and from their own early sacrifices.

If 25% of a group of sailors retire from the sport, that can be considered normal attrition. But when a whole cohort retires after their first exposure to the realities of an Olympic campaign, that points to a systemic problem that we need to fix. At that point in time, the only thing we could be sure about was that the ‘mass dropout’ in this group of sailors was not due to a lack of support or funding as admitted by our young first-time Olympian.

When I took office in June 2010, SingaporeSailing’s derailed Olympic campaign was one of the major challenges I faced, as we had only two years to the 2012 Olympics. I felt somewhat responsible as the HPSSP, which I rolled out in 2002, was delivering unprecedented success at the junior and youth levels, but I suspected that it was also contributing to a systematic failure at the senior level.


Pathway Review - 2008 Performance Comparison Review Process

To analyze what went wrong, I convened the Olympic Pathway Taskforce (OPT) in 2010. The members included Olympic sailing gold medalists, an American sports administrator who is thoroughly familiar with the US Olympic campaigns, and leading sports scientists. After thorough and in-depth analysis, the root-cause analysis pointed to something a man-in-the-street could have told us – that the systematic and well-intended spoon-feeding and sheltering delivered early success but doomed us for the harsh adult world where the rules and realities are different.

In our education system, we go through primary school, secondary school, junior college, university, then we enter the work force. The parallel in sailing is junior sailing (primary and secondary school), youth sailing (junior college), senior sailing (university), and finally professional sailing (working world). In sailing, the Olympic medal is but a passport into the big-money professional sailing circuit like the America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race, Extreme Sailing Series, etc.
The teacher-student spoon-feeding and past-year series method does wonders up to the junior college level. I had a Hwa Chong classmate who could barely speak Mandarin or read the Chinese newspapers, but he scored an A2 in Chinese language at the GCE ‘AO’ levels. When I asked him how he did it, he replied that all he did was to go through loads of past-year series papers. But would the same method prepare him well for university or the working world? Would he be able to conduct business meetings and clinch deals in China? Through rote learning, does he really understand Chinese culture and history? I had an embarrassing P6 in Chinese language in my GCE ‘AO’ levels, but I am now able to give medical lectures in Mandarin, in China, a few times each year.

University prepares us for the working world by transitioning us from the teacher-telling-us-all-the-answers system to a model where we learn how to learn, how to seek out sources of information, how to think analytically and even laterally. A university professor does not give you the answers directly. He guides you and leads you to discover the answers for yourself, so that the lessons learnt leave a more lasting impression. My wife Alison, an RGS old girl who is now a managing director in a foreign bank, studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. She revealed that she did a lot of self-learning at the libraries, and the tutorials comprised tea-drinking chats with her Oxford professors.

When I was training with the UK National Laser squad, I had a well-respected coach in Trevor Millar, the then UK National Laser Coach. At a routine post-training session debrief, I asked Trevor what he felt of my upwind tactics. Instead of answering my question, he directed it to one of the British sailors, asking, 'Richard, what do you think?' It dawned upon me that difficult questions are best answered by my peers, who are at the peak of their game and racing against me in close quarters. Richard Stenhouse was and still is a top sailor and he was racing against me on the same course, so wouldn’t he be in a better position to critique my tactics? Needless to say, he gave me a very insightful answer. Trevor was demonstrating to me the power of peer learning. Trevor went even further by assigning Gareth Kelly, the then UK National Champion, to be my sparring partner as we raced the European circuit together – hence, my ‘coach’ was actually a fellow sailor and competitor. When you are a secondary school student, you can get a JC student to give you tuition. When you are a JC student, you can get a university graduate to give you tuition. But when you are a university graduate, who are you going to employ to give you tuition? Likewise, in sailing, as you get closer to the top, your reliance on peer learning from other top sailors become increasingly important. Ben Ainslie is so good, it is impossible to find a coach that is more knowledgeable than him, so he spent a few months in New Zealand to spar with Daniel Slater, a few months in Italy to spar with Francesco Bruni, and so on.

What should we do with our top ‘JC students’ (i.e. our world youth champions)? Should we say, since they have done so well thus far, let’s continue with this strategy and ask them to continue in the ‘JC’ for four more years, then join the ‘workforce’? Or should we ‘graduate’ them and send them to ‘university’? You might say that the answer is obvious, but then why do we have a sailor who did not finish well at the Olympics insisting that we should continue on the same path? It is not surprising to find university students who are not adapting well to university life criticizing the university and wishing that they could stay in the JC where they were the top students. The title of Marshal Goldsmith’s book, 'What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,' serves as an apt reminder for us. Mr Goldsmith is an executive coach who coaches already successful people to become even more successful.

Olympic gold medalists like Ben Ainslie and Tom Slingsby have an ‘unfair’ advantage. They ply the America’s Cup and professional sailing circuit (i.e. the ‘working world’) and yet ‘step down’ to compete in the Olympics (i.e. ‘university’). Likewise, we have Roger Federer and Andy Murray who compete on the ATP tour ‘bullying’ young aspirants at the Olympics. This trend started long ago – in my Laser sailing days, I had to race against Glenn Bourke, three-time Laser World champion, who raced in the America’s Cup. He was sponsored by the Australian America’s Cup syndicate to race against relative amateurs like me in the European circuit. If we want to race against the big boys, we need to face the realities and behave like adults, rather than spend our energies protesting the ‘unfairness’ of it all and perhaps hoping that somebody would ban the professionals from competing in the Olympics.

The HPSSP served us well, and we need to continue to execute it to perfection. With the HPSSP, in the first three quarters of 2012 alone, we achieved absolute domination at the Optimist Worlds and also clinched the 420 Women’s world title. We will keep the HPSSP and its supporting systems fired up, as we need to ensure a high-quality pipeline feeding into the OPT.

But while we acknowledge that the HPSSP has gotten us junior and youth world titles, it will not deliver at the senior level. For that, we need the OPT to transition our sailors from the ‘junior college’ to the ‘university’ of sailing. Implemented in 2010, the OPT has already started showing results. Sailors like Colin Cheng, Elizabeth Yin, Scott Glen Sydney, and Victoria Chan have made breakthroughs under the OPT, as evidenced by their easy qualification, closely-fought selection trials, and our two unprecedented and very respectable finishing positions at the 2012 London Olympics. We applaud them for bravely facing head on the challenges and culture shock of the ‘university’ of sailing. We will continue to support and fund them in their quest for their Olympic dream, while being careful not to spoil them. Not only must we continue to support them, but we must also be discerning in what kind of support we give them. Their ‘university professors’ and ‘university education’ will cost us more than their ‘JC teachers’, but I’m sure the additional expenditure will be worth every penny if they continue to mature into responsible and productive members of our society. If any of them wish for a more gradual transition, we should be flexible, as some will adapt to the ‘university’ of sailing faster than others.

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