Yutes: Lessons in Norway's Olympic success for junior sailing
PYEONGCHANG, KOR – Tore Ovrebo [Norway's Olympic sports director] went out of his way to explain he didn’t want to come across as giving anyone, lest the United States, any advice. “I am not a tiny gorilla beating my chest telling you what to do because it’s not my position,” he says. “We do it this way, others do it another way.” He also admits Norway is blessed with many advantages for Winter Olympics dominance, like snow, a history of excellence in sports like biathlon and cross-country skiing, and free health care, which helps keep young athletic talent in good shape. But a distinctly Norweigan rule for their youth sports may strike a particular chord with many Americans. Ovrebo says that in Norway, organized youth sports teams cannot keep score until they are 13. “We want to leave the kids alone,” says Ovrebo. “We want them to play. We want them to develop, and be focused on social skills. They learn a lot from sports. They learn a lot from playing. They learn a lot from not being anxious. They learn a lot from not being counted. They learn a lot from not being judged. And they feel better. And they tend to stay on for longer.” –Sean Gregory, writing for Time Magazine on 23 February, updated yesterday. Read the full article here.
A sailing friend who also saw this article emailed your Ed. this morning, "The Opti mafia will [expletive deleted] themselves."
One suspects, so too will a number of people involved in the youth sailing industry.
The article is timely given the talk that StFYC S/C Kimball Livingston gave at the St Francis Wednesday Yachting Luncheon this past week he called "Junior Program 3.0." Kimball led the recent reformation of the Club's junior sailing program. Many, including the Club's junior coaches, believe it has already produced positive results.
(StFYC is now live-streaming their WYL's each week, as far as we know, the only club in the country if not world to be doing so). You can watch a replay of Kimball's thought-provoking talk on the StFYC Facebook page here.)
This past weekend Peter and Deon Macdonald (Newport Beach, Newport Harbor YC), Denise and Jeffrey Petersen (Newport Beach, Balboa YC) and Jon Turigliatto (Long Beach, Long Beach YC) were in the Bay Area for various reasons, including the big annual high school regatta hosted by the esteemed Treasure Island Sailing Center. All are active leaders in junior sailing, and have strong views on whats works, and irks, junior sailing and our sport generally, including the development of Olympic sailors. All found Kimball's talk compelling, and all had views about junior sailing that were remarkably similar – and consistent with the theme of the foregoing Time Magazine article.
In our various discussions over the weekend, your Ed. made mention of his experience as League Director of the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association for nearly a decade in the 70s. AAAHA has been one of the largest and more successful youth hockey programs in the State of Michigan, if not country, since it was founded in the 1950s. It continues to thrive today. One thing that helped make the AAAHA a magnet for kids of all ages and skills, and was contrary to the thinking of some parents and Board members, was that many kids were simply not interested in, or had the time for, playing on the super-competitive "travel teams" (aka all-star teams). They just wanted to go to the local rinks once or twice a week and play an hour of organized hockey with their friends. Of course we had coaches and a couple refs to keep things fair and safe. (Whenever possible, I hired local high school hockey players as referees, and encouraged the older ones to volunteer as coaches – not unlike Kimball's popular assertion that kids should also serve on the Club's race committee).
But the main point is that we kept things light on coaching with few if any practices and just let the kids scrimmage or play games. No scores were kept for the younger ages (Mites and Mini-Mites), and everyone, regardless of skill, got to play roughly the same number of "shifts" – they all got the same amount of ice time.
No one, least of all your Ed., is saying that the AAAHA, or the Norwegian youth-sports rule, is the precise prescription for what is widely acknowledged as a big problem in youth sailing today – burnout, and that we lose too many kids from sailing during their high school and early adult years. No doubt a big part is that our sport can be expensive and time consuming – we also have to find ways to solve those issues.
Meanwhile, drawing on my own experience growing up in a sailing family with friends whose families were similarly involved, your Ed. firmly believes that we need to stop siloing kids into sailing just Optis, FJs and 420s (or similar), and only with other kids. I learned more from sailing with and against adults than I ever did in a junior program. Maybe that's because the junior program at our little club was not that great, but in fact I think it was pretty good. Over the years our small inland lake turned out many excellent young competitive sailors, and a lot of life-long recreational sailors, too.
How many times have we heard Dennis Conner and other sailing greats talk about going down to the Club docks (and their families were not even Club members) looking for opportunities to sail with adults on Snipes, Lightnings, Flying Scots, Stars, and bigger boats – whatever there was at the Club – because it looked like fun. They usually had to help maintain the boats in return for "a ride."
OK, enough of all this. It was an interesting weekend of discussion coincident to good friends being in the area, and Kimball's provocative talk last Wednesday. But what's the bottom line?
30 years ago a few of us who were yacht racing judges looked at our sport and said, apropos long, late nights of protests at increasingly competitive match racing events, "There has to be a better way." We came up with on-the-water umpiring, and it has now taken hold across the sailing world.
Perhaps we are at a similar inflection point with youth sailing – there has to be a better way, and Commodore Livingston, and Norway, to name two, are helping to show us the way. As always, we value the views of our Dear Readers. Please comment below or wherever this article has been shared.
P.S. For those of you who have asked, or wondered, about the genesis of the word "yute" (try to get your spell-checker to allow that!), and have never seen the 1992 cult classic "My Cousin Vinnie", click here. Perhaps we need a little more "yute" in our youth sailing programs.
Addendum: This insightful (inciteful?) comment to our original post is from our Bay Area friend and fellow StFYC member David James, and I think you should all see it. He writes: When I went through the junior sailing programs in the late 70's/early 80's we learned seamanship, sportsmanship and so forth. We learned basic fiberglass work, outboard engine maintenance, electrical stuff, varnish skills etc. We would play Ultimate Frisbee in our El Toro's which taught us to back down, accelerate, wind up or down and many other skills that we did not realize we were learning since we thought we were playing Frisbee. We would race to the candy store. By the time we were 13 we were effectively decent yachtsmen (yachtspeople?) despite ourselves. It helped that the older folk let us go out and trim the blooper or reaching strut. I suppose that I sound like an old man. My boys are now going through the same programs, but now it is simply Opti starts all day. One Opti start after another. All day long. For weeks in a row.
Tore Ovrebo says that in Norway, organized youth sports teams cannot keep score until they are 13. “We want to leave the kids alone,” says Ovrebo. “We want them to play. We want them to develop, and be focused on social skills. They learn a lot from sports. They learn a lot from playing. They learn a lot from not being anxious. They learn a lot from not being counted. They learn a lot from not being judged. And they feel better. And they tend to stay on for longer.”