Sailing Your Way Through Sports Coaching

Sailing Your Way Through Sports Coaching

Maybe you’ve got a sporting passion and want to coach people into becoming Olympians?


Maybe you're starting out as a sport’s intern and want to know what it's like outside the locker room?


If you’ve ever wondered what it is like day-to-day training athletes to achieve their best, then carry on scrolling because we’ve enlisted Strength & Conditioning Coach (and now Associate Lecturer in Sports Coaching at Southampton Solent University), Jon Cooper, to share with you his journey and the lessons he’s learnt.


Have the Passion & the Knowledge

Quite often you’ll develop a passion for a sport from an early age. A teenage Jon was hooked with the sailing bug, being first encouraged to try it by his grandpa & dad, he found that it was something he could do well. He competed in the National sailing circuit & began to instruct beginner sailors in racing, steering round the course and tactics, analysing how his experience can be used to coach others.


Did Jon’s passion for sailing dictate where he studied a BSc in Applied Sports Science & later and MSc in Athletic Development & Peak Performance? You betcha!


Jon studied his undergraduate degree at Southampton Solent so he could continue to sail in a yacht racing crew. As well as getting to grips with the course, learning about biomechanics, physiology, psychology of sport, talent identification and strength & conditioning (S&C), Jon learnt how important it was to keep training in the boat you want to compete in and to do as many races he could around his uni schedule. This is something all athletes, regardless of their sport can relate to.


Knowing what it is specifically that drives your passion is another lesson learnt by Jon. As an individual sailing, he enjoyed fleet racing (ie. the olympic set up) more than team racing events as he could push himself to make as few mistakes as possible with each race course or sailing decision. Within team racing, it was more about tactics than boat speed, which for Jon, the self discipline element of sailing and analysing how he could get better was more fascinating. It made clear sense for him to move into sports coaching (and to get one of the most coveted ‘psychology of sport’ bookshelves I’ve seen).

Kicking It with Crystal Palace FC - The Life of an Intern

“I really wanted to have experience in applying high performance coaching and S&C to the test. My lecturers at uni had a wealth of contacts in professional sports and helped me to become a Sports Science and S&C Intern for Crystal Palace Football Club in their championship 2012/13 season, under the gaffers Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway”, said Jon.


“Interning gave me a great introduction to what professional coaching could be like in sport, around full-time athletes, where every day mattered. I was learning that playing a sport and coaching a sport are completely different. It can be a high-pressure environment, especially in a 3-4 game losing streak, meaning that the information I was analysing became more relevant to the football coaches and managers decisions”.


Football Interns like Jon can help to make big decisions for athletes in terms of their training plans, based on heart-rate monitoring, osmolality testing, pre-habilitation routines and cardiovascular fitness monitoring. They can be involved in pre-game warm ups (and contend with 8,000 footie fans shouting every time they kick a ball). A typical training day involved:


  • Have water bottles, training plans, protein shakes & hydration drinks ready for each player.

  • Set up the players’ heart rate monitors and conduct pre-habilitation routines to prevent injury.

  • Watch individual technical proficiency in the gym, delivering individualised S&C sessions with the 1st Team, U21 & U18 squads focusing on strength, plyometrics, cardiovascular fitness & injury rehabilitation.

  • Train players with pitch drills (be the one who feeds in balls, collects ones that have been skyed & collect cones etc), pacing for runs and fitness tests.

  • Upload all fitness data and prepare a report for managers showing ‘here what's your athletes did today' / this week, how it compares to last week, this is their training load, the minutes they've played, what you’d expect to see from a fatigue rating, how their readiness to training status is being affected & their hydration scores etc.


“Working closely in the gym with footballers such as Danny Gabbidon, Aaron Wilbraham, Yannick Bolasie taught me a lot about putting the player first and how important it is in coaching to ‘read’ your athlete, something I developed further as a Strength & Conditioning coach for Sail Coach”.

Sailing into Rio 2016

“I moved into coaching professional Laser sailors from countries such as Moldova, Seychelles, Estonia, Bahrain, Ireland, Egypt and South Africa (who didn’t have national governing bodies for sailing) who were aiming for the Rio 2016 Olympic games. Moving around the European Sailing circuit as a S&C coach, I prepared the sailors for competitions, monitored athletes’ training & physiological tests and provided individualised strength & conditioning sessions with them. Improving the fitness of the sailors and helping them to be as fast as possible on the water was my aim”.


My career in sports coaching future Olympians typically involved:


  • Base camps in locations such as Lake Garda, Valencia & Malta in the off-season (not bad for some eh!), driving sailors & boats to each camp or event.

  • Coaching the athletes on the water 5x a week and providing them with daily S&C sessions in a local gym, or sometimes on the beach!

  • Being accountable for individualised training programmes with each athlete so that their strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness is on point for achieving the best possible result in competitions.

  • Monitoring and analysing fitness testing results such as body mass; resting heart rate; training load; muscular, isometric & aerobic endurance; flexibility etc.

  • Encouraging rest and preventing over training, as full-time athletes (and coaches!) can often plan too much.

Some of the key coaching skills that Jon learnt in his time as a S&C sailing coach were:

Warm up as a team (like a football club do)

Even in an individual sport, getting a group of sailors together for a daily warm up can set the scene for the day. It helps to form a “squad” environment as well as get the metabolism and energy levels going before training. An effective warm up can help to prevent injuries and ensures that everyone's lower back, hamstrings and glutes are activated before they sail, areas that typically are difficult to activate in a boat.



The best way to develop a training program is with each athlete

Sounds simple but actually you’d be surprised by how keen newly qualified coaches are to follow a specific training plan they have devised based on a first guess. This can often lead to the athlete not buying into their programme. Jon found that a way more productive way to communicate his knowledge was to use evidence from fitness testing to show how he came to an idea on how to improve. Asking the athlete for specific feedback on how it feels when they are trying to impact power, endurance or strength in the boat and then suggest exercises to help.


“Different athletes will have individualised preferences for how they want to train in the gym. Some might prefer using free weights or resistance machines, or have experience from previous training programmes / Olympic campaigns or in crossfit or Olympic lifting, so each person's training plan should be personalised through a mutual discussion and be as athlete-centered as possible. They are the ones who could be putting a whole year, if not longer, into this plan, so our jobs as coaches is to be as inclusive as possible with what they have said and what would work best for them”.



Understand how your interactions with athletes are helping them achieve their aims

“Being able to understand your own impact on athletes and their behaviour is vital for training programme success. I’d try to facilitate discussion and allow athletes to take ownership over their programmes by asking them what they personally aim to achieve, map out when their sailing events are and the importance of those events, find out how much time is available for training and ask them if there is anything that could get in the way.


There was also a lot of adapting programs depending on the weather or gym availability and being tactical with recovery sessions, as sailing sessions can be physically and mentally tiring and ensuring that basic core strength movements could be performed safely. So, your coaching plans need to be flexible and you need to check yourself to ensure that you can adjust plans in the moment and tactically train for the events and aims for each athlete”.



Prioritise the aims

There might be a lot of coaching areas you want to address with your athlete, but knowing the individual and the sport can help prioritise what to work on first.


“In Sailing for example, core strength & mobility are big coaching areas. As well as the technical ability to sail, developing boat speed is also about being able to transfer energy from your body's musculature, i.e. legs, back and arms, into the boat. This means that being stronger, having good cardiovascular and muscular endurance and good posture and core stability will help you to effectively transfer energy into the boat and sail faster. So I would use certain exercises to assess specific areas of 'sailing fitness', for instance Inchworms (to see if their hips rotate) and Sit Ups using a sailing position (to see how well they hold their head positions and posture) to assess core stability, and if these areas need addressing in the gym, you can be sure their posture needs some work in the boat".


After foundation work, training maximum strength is an important step, sometimes missed out within training for an endurance sport. If they tire quickly in the boat it suggests that their muscles can’t produce enough force to maintain their power over time, so strength work training should be prioritised before any significant endurance training. Making sure a training programme has a balance of upper and lower body, push and pull exercises, ensures that the outcomes of strength training and the development of technically proficient fundamental movements will help the athlete achieve their best possible result in the boat.
We hope you have enjoyed Jon’s detailed journey and tips into the world of professional coaching.


And don’t miss out on seeing videos of Jon’s top 3 exercises for sailing training here.

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