By Tony Rey
How do you attract the right sailors to build a successful team? Create a team culture that will compel your sailors to take time out of their lives to join you onboard. Aim for these objectives:
- It’s got to be fun.
- There must be a culture of improvement.
- There should be at least a distant shot at winning or being on the podium.
Here are some thoughts on building and keeping successful racing teams:
- “The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts.”
Though not much of a sailor, Aristotle did provide sailors with an aspiration we should strive for when building a winning team. We want to create a team of ordinary sailors who believe they can achieve extraordinary results together.
We all know that victories in our sport don’t come easy. There are so many factors outside our control, so rarely can we guarantee wins or even a podium finish. But if we focus on what we can control and do the small things well, we give ourselves the best chance to achieve the extraordinary. How do we make the whole greater than its parts? Create a culture on the team that is fun and focuses on consistent improvement.
- “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.”
Herb Brooks, the great 1980 USA gold medal winning hockey coach, knew that the right blend of personalities was more important than the specific skills of the team. Think a lot about the personalities of the sailors before you put them on a boat together heading out to the race course. Do you really need to recruit the decorated but hot-headed trimmer from another yacht club when you already have a motivated young teammate in your stable? With a bit of instruction and patience, that kid might become a superstar someday. I’ve had the most success racing with teammates that we nurture who go on to become shooting stars in our sport. Ask around, identify them young and give them a chance to succeed.
Nobody wants to sail on a team full of type A overachievers. We do want sailors who are motivated to excel and leave no stone unturned, but we need one or two who are truly happy to be there, enjoy the day being part of the team and pitch in where they can. That variety in team composition can provide humility for the over-achiever and motivate the otherwise lazy sailor on the crew.
- “Choose teammates WITH character, and who ARE characters.”
John Kilroy makes that this very point about his successful sailing teams and about the work groups in his business. We all want to spend time on the water with good people who share our values and are also great fun to make memories with. It’s helpful to have at least one team member with a bit of outrageous energy. This might be guy or girl with the best stories, the spontaneous impersonations, the witty comment to the competition on the starting line or at the dock. It’s great to have a sailor who is compelled to break the mood when things turn a bit serious on board. Who wouldn’t want to come back next weekend to hear more?
- “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
This one is pure Winston Churchill. Good teams can become great teams when there is structure on board that everyone buys in to. If the dockout time is 9am, make sure it is respected by everyone. Make a checklist/flight plan so that nothing gets forgotten on the dock and everyone knows what’s about to happen. For example, one of the sail trimmers should touch every sail onboard before dockout to be sure one hasn’t been left in the car. “Same people/same jobs” is an important part of a well-planned day. Whether it be the fender and dockline process, who packs the kite, or who skirts the jib in the tacks, knowing that there’s a plan eliminates confusion and chaos.
- “The goal is to make new mistakes.”
Ok, so that quote is mine. I like to say that to new teams I’m sailing with, as a reminder that there is no such thing as a perfect race. We will always make mistakes, but the best we can do as a team is strive to only make new ones. If we make the same old mistakes repeatedly, only then have we let each other down. It’s important to create a culture that includes time for pre-race briefings to recap what was done well, what could be improved from last time, and find time to sit down as a team after racing with a cold beverage so the new mistakes are captured and memorialized, ideally in some notes that get summarized and shared after the race or regatta.
Talented, competitive sailors will jump at the chance to join a team with that attitude.
- “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
When Mike Tyson said this, he was clearly talking about racing sailboats. It’s when you have a plan at the start, and it doesn’t work out. Now, the team is scrambling to recover while the fleet sails away. We want a team that doesn’t panic, that gets back in the race and saves some points by concentrating on moving forward not dwelling on the past. Good teams are capable of settling down and doing the small things well, supporting each other, executing maneuvers well, keeping it close and waiting for the other teams to mess up later in the race. No finger pointing and a positive attitude goes a long way when you get punched in the mouth.
- On a good team, leaders come from throughout the squad.
While it’s important to have a clear voice on board regarding the next maneuver, it is common on successful teams to have multiple leaders depending on the situation. The tactician should decide how to execute the racing plan, but the helmsman should call down the cadence to the jibe. On many boats its better if the pit or bow person calls the time into the kite drop, or the jib trimmer chooses the sail for the first beat. Apportioning responsibility around the crew is a great way for everyone to feel like they are stakeholders in the success of the team.
- “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Harry Truman aptly describes a common roadblock to team progress in the quote above. If the culture is top-down oriented and your sailors don’t feel valued for what they bring on board, then credit grabbing starts and the blame game may begin to infect the team. With a flat leadership structure, everyone has a chance to shine and the sailors are compelled to support each other.
- “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
NASCAR “legend” Ricky Bobby nailed this one. Those same sailors who want to improve and will buy into the New Mistakes mantra would give anything for the win. Of course, we all know that the way to win a regatta is to sail clean, conservatively, and manage risk throughout the series. But, there is nothing wrong with a little swagger thrown in to attract the sailors who will do anything to chase that winning feeling.
About the Author: Tony Rey
A leader in our sport for over 25 years, Tony Rey is a world champion sailor and coach, and a veteran of multiple America’s Cups, OIympic campaigns and some of the world’s premier offshore races. He is a partner at Doyle Sails in Newport and is a board member of US Sailing.