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Putting fun back into learning to sail keeps kids on track to a lifetime of sailing

2018 June 1

Longtime readers know that I have a few rants that pop up from time to time, so consider yourself warned. This is going to be one of them. One of my rants has been the late, great, America’s Cup, which sadly is the empty shell of a once-epic event that no longer relates to today’s sailors. I don’t beat that dead horse anymore, because I simply don’t care.  

But I care about today’s kids, who seem to be living in a world populated by helicopter parents and a sailing lifestyle best described as a “trophy culture.” Winning is everything. I was at a yacht club recently, watching the junior sailing program with coaches in chase boats yelling at the kids going through drills. It had started before I arrived and was going when I left, and I was saddened by the sheer monotony of it.

I thought back to learning to sail on California’s Alamitos Bay in a community program where the essence of the summer sailing program was to have fun.  There were blackboard talks about both sailing and racing techniques, but then we were turned loose in our 8-footers to go have fun. That meant water fights or piling a bunch of kids in your boat to go to a sandbar or just sailing companionably with others “going nowhere and doing nothing.” 

While the kids I saw recently could bang off perfect roll tacks, there wasn’t much joy.  There were no peals of laughter, no shouts to friends, no splashing.  Just drill, drill, drill. 

As I watched the winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang earlier this year, I was intrigued by two things. First, the Norwegians were kicking butt and, second, they seemed to be having fun doing it. This tiny country, with a population about that of the Detroit metro area, sent 109 athletes, yet they dominated these Games from the start, winning 14 golds in a medal count of 39.

More important, the Norwegians were clearly having a good time, and not just because they were winning. The  team had a unity in a world where competitors remain fierce rivals on or off the field. When interviewed, the Norwegians were clearly friends, and reporters were delighted to find the Norwegian team played cards and charades together before their events.  

And thus I discovered a little secret that Norway knows and, apparently, America doesn’t.  

They don’t let their kids keep score until they are 13. 

According to Tore Ovrebo, a director of Norwegian Olympic Sports, “Our goal is not to have winning 10-year-olds, but to create mature adults.” They don’t want sports to be a culture of winners and losers.
Their three goals are to have fun, make friends and stay involved.  

Says Ovrebo, “We think the biggest motivation for kids to do sports is that they do it with their friends and they have fun while they’re doing it, and we want to keep that feeling throughout their whole career.”

“We want to leave the kids alone,” he adds. “We want the kids to play. We want them to develop and be focused on social skills. They learn a lot from playing.  They learn a lot from not being anxious. They learn a lot from not being counted. And they tend to stay on for longer.”

Norway’s choice of the age 13 is interesting, since a recent sports poll says that 70% of kids in youth sports quit by age 13 with the reason being that it’s just not fun.

When I look back at the now-grown kids from that summer sailing program so many years ago, the vast majority of them are still sailing. Like me, some went on to a lifetime of collecting trophies, while others chose just to sail and cruise. But sailing stuck to us. 

Winning is not a bad thing and, in fact, kids like to win. But when winning becomes more important than being out playing, it sends the wrong message.  

Yes, naysayers can make the argument that Norway did well in the winter Olympics because they have lots of snow. And, yes, they didn’t sweep the summer Olympics, winning only four medals and none in sailing.

But that doesn’t diminish their very thoughtful approach to making children happy, healthy and socially secure. Rather than forcing your kids into a program to win trophies and finish first, perhaps you should encourage them to have fun and make friends. 

And splash some water.