Tuesday, May 31, 2011

French Training; Taking Care of Business

The pace of training and logistics accelerated during the past few weeks as I finished up a successful training camp in Brest, France, and shipped my rig back across the English Channel to Weymouth in preparation for Sail for Gold, our first Olympic Trials regatta. Training in Brest was highly productive and with the help of a very good French coach, filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge and gave me insight into another very successful sailing program.

The French have one of the most advanced sailing programs on the planet. In Brest, sailing is taught to most residents at a young age, and is integral to the culture, which could go as far back to over hundreds of years. On top of that, they are completely nuts about windsurfing, more so than any other country I've experienced. On any given windy day, you can see 50 recreational windsurfers bombing around, in Brest and its surrounding small villages. From this base, sailing is developed further at the club and national level under some very smart program directors and coaches (all with successful competitive careers). There are a good number of national training facilities, one of which is newly built in Brest. It's very difficult to rise to a level high enough to compete on the French National Team, and sailors competing at this level are extremely talented. Seeing the technically advanced level of their youth sailors gave me a very clear picture of the excellence of their training and coaching. The French have an advantage over almost every other country in the sport of sailing, and just keep pouring more resources into their program.

Bad picture of the Brest harbor stolen from the internet - I've lost my camera!

For all the advantages of the French system, they keep their methods and training guarded. Usually, outside sailors have to be careful not to overstep boundaries when training with their teams. We were not allowed to use their facility, and kept our equipment in our coach's shop. Training with the youth was acceptable as long as we didn't become too many, but I expect that it would be very difficult to secure an invitation to train with their national team. Other than those few rules, the sailors and coaches were happy to see us. It contrasted with my experience with the Polish, who are much more open about their training. However, as the Polish team becomes more prominent and professional with the addition of better resources, they are experiencing some growing pains and may become more closed. Both the French and Polish teams compete at a high level, and while I found the French may be better on a technical level, the Polish have a closer-knit team and support system, which is equally as important.

After sailing in Brest, I was ready for a short break before starting the final taper into the Weymouth Sail for Gold regatta. As with all breaks, time is filled with logistics and trying to accomplish all the things that need to be done off the water in a short time. The journey began with a ferry ride to Portsmouth, where my coach, Britt, and I stayed with a friend. We washed, unloaded and re-loaded equipment, and dropped the boat at the dealer's shop for a servicing. We inventoried items and went shopping, and tried to get some needed sleep. After a stop-and-go commute to Weymouth, (bank holidays!), we were ready to move in and get the equipment sorted.

All the time before Sail for Gold will be spent training lightly and acclimatizing to the conditions in Weymouth. So far we have seen a very windy week - almost 25 knots for days at a time. The weather is changing now, and we're not sure what will be in store for the regatta. I'm looking forward to the event, which should have a really tough fleet. Sail for Gold is the international peak event this season!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Acquiring Building Blocks: Coaching after Palma and the French Olympic Week

After my event in Palma turned out poorly, I finished up a little frustrated. However, one of the keys to getting quickly past frustration is analysis, checking over all the aspects of the regatta to figure out where the weaknesses are.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the major factor that affected my Palma event was recovery. After a really tough training camp in Cadiz, I didn’t get any physical therapy and remained pretty stressed for a few days afterwards with driving, ferries, and getting adjusted to routine in Palma. I didn’t want to go into the event tired, but I was distracted enough to affect my rest, and thus my focus was a little impaired. With this in mind, I set out to create a better training plan for myself, with speedy skill acquisition in mind.

As a science person, I find analysis to be an entertaining challenge. The trick is applying physical skills to meaningful data. My coach and I identified the skills that are most critical to having a good race, and assigned a numerical value to them representing my comparison to the skills of the fleet’s top sailors. We graphed the data simply to visually identify the skills I need to improve upon the most, in a few different conditions. I then created a table depicting every day I worked on each skill in each condition, starting upon my arrival in Hyeres, France, for the French Olympic Week. At the end of the season, I’ll know relatively how long it’s taking to develop a skill, or the number of days I was able to work on a particular item. All in all, a relatively simple way to keep track of learning.

Having a consistent checklist improved the quality of my training before the French Olympic Week. I made significant headway on a number of items in about a week of training before the event. Any new skill is a building block for each race, and the proper assembly of these blocks is what creates a good race and overall event. I can’t say that I put together a great result, but I certainly performed well for a definite number of skills, and sailed much better in this event than Palma.

The French Olympic Week saw mostly light and marginal conditions. We had only one fully-planing race on the first day. The committee did a good job of getting all the races in, and made some good calls on scheduling. Every day had a different start according to how the committee felt the wind would develop that day. In the qualifying series, we had three races on the day with better breeze, and one race on the lightest day. I found that I’m able to put together marginal-planing races together a bit better than light wind races, thanks to a lot of time training in Miami this winter.

In addition to the challenging conditions, the women’s fleet here was very big – 75 boards total, making two fleets. Many teams use this event as an Olympic qualifier, and it’s also a good venue for developmental sailors to compete. In short, this event had the best fleet quality of almost the entire 2012 quadrennium thus far (maybe with the exception of the 2010 Worlds in Denmark). The growing difficulty of the sport makes rapid learning a necessity, and my attempts to organize different systems for training will hopefully create a method that works well for me, and facilitates rapid assembly of skills critical for racing.

I’m now in Brest, France, beginning a training camp with local French sailors and youth men, and two sailor friends from Canada and Hungary. I’m confident that this will be a good week for learning. Afterwards, I go to Weymouth to begin training for the Sail for Gold Regatta, our first Olympic qualifier.