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Practice makes perfect?


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  25 May 2016


Practice makes perfect?

Karl Thorne enjoying reaching in his '7' at the Oxford Blue - RS Aero UK Winter Series  © Tim Olin
There are a lot of us who try to get out on the water whenever we can - be it a club race, a weekend open or a championship. The general feeling is that the more we sail, the better we get, but is that actually the case?

A recent post by Karl Thorne, a friend and fellow sailor, in the RS Aero Class Facebook group highlighted that maybe quality might be a better way to improve than quantity...

'Thoughts after a distinctly average club race last night... something that I've been thinking about for quite a while. Who else can relate to this and how have you addressed making improvements in your own racing?

In the Summer, I race on average three times a week in my RS Aero; this can go up to six times if I go model boating and keelboat sailing. This also comes off the back of an intensive winter programme of racing. So why with so much sailing am I still pretty average? Yes, I can be in the top quarter for any given club race and pull off the occasional win. The problem is as soon as I get to the Open circuit or at National level my results are inconsistent, maybe only a couple of decent ones in a string of duff ones, leaving me chairman of the lower mid-fleet club.

The gulf between club and circuit sailing is large; that is not an excuse but a catalyst to analyse what is different and where changes can be made. After all, my results and inconsistency suggest that something is wrong.

What is going wrong? Is my expectation far outweighing my talent? Have I done enough of these type of open events yet? I'm well into my 40s and been racing for over 30 years and have attended over a dozen major National and International regattas, but mainly as a crew. I know what to expect, should know how to prepare, have experience of busy start lines and mark roundings. I have also read countless books about racing and watched the videos, they all seem to be doing the same stuff as I am, but just clearly executing much better given the various authors' numerous titles.

Nearly 30 RS Aeros at the pre Nationals coaching day - 2015 RS Aero Magic Marine UK National Championships  © Paul Robson

In addition, just because you know and associate with highly successful sailors doesn't mean that their skills automatically rub off. What are they doing different? My experience of sailing with these guys is that it is all about their approach, their raw talent and instinct plus years of hard graft, giving them valuable experience to be successful in different classes at a wide variety of venues.

During a discussion about this topic earlier in the year somebody said to me, “How often do you actually train, instead of just racing?” It sounded a really simple comment but it hit me straight between the eyes, the answer being 'barely ever”.

I liken sailboat racing to a cocaine habit, you can't wait for your next line (start line that is). Perhaps my next fix will be better, I'll get a bigger high, a better result. The real result is that the racing takes priority and you forget to train to race, and you plateau and remain average. What is the right balance to move forwards?

With this in mind, it has dawned on me that there is a danger of taking too much of the racing drug, and perhaps there is merit in cutting back, focussing on only taking to the water when there will be an opportunity to improve your skills or race against the very best in quality competition in order to gauge improvement. It feels like a more targeted approach is required.

Don't get me wrong, our own club racing is really friendly and enjoyable, but doing absolutely nothing to improve my skills. We quite often have a downwind start on a congested river line in a general handicap fleet around a very long course (60-90 minutes) in heavily tidally-biased conditions, more often than not in a dying breeze - if the Nationals were held like this I'd be amongst the first round the mark in every race! But they're not, they're held round short quadrilateral or triangular courses against the same sort of boat with lots of laps and lots of short races and plenty of boats always next to you, which in my opinion is a superb test of boat speed, tactics and rules knowledge; the purest form of our sport.

Heading down the river on day 4 of the Lymington Town SC Perisher Series  Nigel Brooke

I think at club level we are victims of our own success; there are too many boats across 3-5 fleets to put on a short course with multiple laps, it would be tricky for the average club race team to manage, hence the reason why they tend to spread the course and therefore the fleets out. Also a lot of people have time constraints and this level of racing suits them, after all it is perfectly enjoyable.

So, in conclusion, less is more. I'm going to forfeit (some of) my club racing for some decent training, buy some coaching hours, and target more of my racing at local venues where the courses are more akin to what we see on our travels. And if the results don't improve after that, I could take up a sport that really does your head in like golf! See you on the first tee...'

The thread on Facebook has had some excellent replies with many empathising with Karl and suggesting options to improve his sailing. Coaching is an option but can be expensive; going out for a sail with a friend who is a good sailor and getting tips can get round that.

A fellow sailor mentioned that 'practice makes permanent' and that could be the key. Repetition is only useful if you're repeating the right thing - continuing to practice bad habits will only make them more ingrained. Many classes now organise coaching sessions and events at the beginning of the season - attending these and taking away as many new tips as possible could well be the way to a more enjoyable and successful year on the water.

Mark Jardine, Managing Editor

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