How to Be a Good Coach

Quantum pros Scott Nixon and Martin Kullman offer up tips for coaches and team leaders on how to take your team to the next level.

Team meetings - Quantum's Scott Nixon strategizes with his team before the race at a Melges 20 regatta.

A good coach can mean a lot of things: It could be a team leader who takes the time to write up race reports and takes minutes during team debriefs, that one person you can always count on to make sure new crew know what they’re supposed to, or a paid professional brought on board to help a team improve. You don’t have to have won the America’s Cup or the Volvo Ocean Race to be a good coach—indeed, like in many sports, the best athletes don’t necessarily make the best coaches. But there are a few key skills that separate the good coaches from the bad.

As pro tacticians, Quantum’s Scott Nixon and Martin Kullman often find themselves in the role of coach for the boats they sail with. We sat down with them to find out what it takes to be a good coach, and how those skills can be applied to help all levels of professional and Corinthian teams help themselves.

Assess skill level

Whenever you step onto a new boat, the first thing a coach needs to do is assess the skill level of the crew in terms of boat handling, choreography, tactical understanding and local knowledge, and rig tune—in big breeze and light wind. With a Corinthian team, you’re most likely going to work on tacks, gybes, and getting the sails up and down in windy conditions—a task that is easier said than done on sport boats like the Melges 24 or J/70—while with pro teams you’ll likely be focusing on sail updates, recuts, and tuning the rig for the sails.

“With Corinthian teams, you expect the skill level to be a bit lower than with a full professional team, although that’s not always the case. Either way, you need to find out what everyone’s skill level is so that you know what to work on,” says Nixon.

Be flexible and articulate

Most sailors—and coaches—tend to be Type A personalities, which can make the tasking of coaching difficult. “To be a good coach, you have to be very flexible, a good listener, and articulate, and sometimes you also have to be a bit of a psychologist,” says Kullman, who most recently turned a group of teen sailors and turned them into a competitive Corinthian crew in the pro-dominated Melges 32 fleet. 

The reason you’re brought onto a team is to help, so as a coach, you first have to understand what it is the client wants help with, and then you have to be able to articulate how you can help them achieve their goals.

“There are the teams that want to go out and win, and there are the husband and wife teams that just want to go out and do better. Those have a much different approach from a coaching perspective,” says Kullman.

“With the non-professional teams, you have to come in with a softer hand and be able to articulate and look at talents and strengths to get the best out of everybody.”

Practice with purpose makes perfect

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, but practice without a clear purpose is just another day on the water. As a coach, once you access the goals of the crew, you should come up with a step-by-step process to move them from where they are to where they want to be. If better boat handling and more efficient crew work is the goal, start with the basics—getting sails up and down, tacking and gybing efficiently and consistently, and how and when to do a real roll tack (many big boat sailors without dinghy experience do this wrong). 

More advanced teams may want to concentrate on improving their starts. Work with them on creating a repeatable process, determining which end is favored, and learning to start the boat at different places on the line. Serious amateur and professional teams will likely be looking for help with the finer points of trimming, updating their sails, and making sure their rig tune is optimized for their sail setup.

Develop a playbook

The more people you throw into the mix, the more of a challenge it is to focus on individual roles, but the key to all programs is for everyone to do their job—and that starts with making sure everyone knows exactly what their job is.

“A lot of the top teams, whether they’re amateurs or pros, develop a playbook for every task—the set, douse, tack, gybe, prestart. As teams get larger and more more complex, the playbooak gets bigger, and that helps to put ownership to each task,” says Nixon. 

Sit down with your crew off the water and have each person describe their tasks during every maneuver and in between. Back on the water, you’ll be able watch to be sure each of those tasks is getting done or if it might be more efficient to move a task to another crewmember.

Controlling risk

Chaos on sailboats is when you’re doing things that are risky. By teaching a team how to control risk you can help them mitigate chaos. “Even really good teams, well-practiced teams need to throttle back sometimes. When it’s blowing 25, there’s no reason to wait until two boat lengths to the leeward mark to pull the kite down,” says Nixon.

“Get the kite down early, round clean, and use your upwind speed to pass. Chaos happens when teams that are not so polished try to make a big gain by pushing too hard—setting early or dropping late. The best teams calculate risk vs. reward and know when it’s safe to push and when it’s not.”

Make it fun

Last, but certainly not least, all of the above should be done in a way that’s fun and enjoyable for the crew. Hiring a coach is an investment in time and money for a boat owner and crew. Of course it’s an investment that pays dividends, but an investment nonetheless. Don’t be that guy (or girl) who’s always barking orders and shouting when something’s not done quite right. It will be a lot easier to get your point across when you keep a mellow head and an optimistic attitude.

“In sailing there are a lot of good sailors who yell a lot, but as a coach, you don’t want to do that. You want everyone to leave having had a good experience and having learned a lot, but most importantly, having had a lot of fun doing it” says Kullman. “At the end of the day, you want them to step off the boat and say, ‘Darn, that was fun. Let’s do it again tomorrow!’”

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