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There are good and bad teachers. But there are also good and bad pupils. Peter Hart, with a few thousand coaching hours under his belt, offers much advice on how to get the most out of tuition.

Words Peter Hart  //  Photos  Hart Photography, Radical Sports Tobago & John Carter

Originally published within the July ’19 edition.

Everyone who went to school will have something to say about their teachers. Interviews with high achievers often reveal a familiar storyline. The headmaster’s report read something like: “Tracey is disruptive, rude, stupid and will amount to nothing in future life.” But somewhere along the line, a quirky English teacher saw something in her, sparked and nurtured a desire to write and now she’s a ‘Man Booker Prize’ winner.

“She taught me all I know” is often how you praise a treasured mentor. She almost certainly didn’t – she just taught you how to learn. Yes you might have had a natural affinity for the subject, but the game changer was that you felt she had a genuine interest in you – she ‘got’ you. You liked her for that, wanted to please her and hence listened and radiated enthusiasm. But in the other classes, in a ‘cutting nose off to spite face’ situation, you were deliberately distant and inattentive to punish the poor teacher for being old and boring. You can blame them for your failure – but you had a hand in it too. Admit it – in that class, you were a rubbish student.

Windsurfing tuition is a long way from the high school classroom. You’ve actively sought it out, so at least you start up for it and keen to improve. However, what you get out of it, depends on your basic understanding as to what coaching is, your role in the affair, your preparation and your expectations.

Practice, feedback, tweak  technique, practice, repeat – that’s the ideal coaching sequence. Don’t just plug away blindly. So as the improver, choose a spot where immediate feedback is possible – i.e. where the wind blows all the way to the shore and where you can stop for a chat – and make sure you are part of the conversation.

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Harty offering counselling in the lagoon at Tobago – if Carlsberg did coaching spots… Photo Graham White.

Your experience of coaching may well be on holiday, where a lot of sessions involve a simulator. The jury is out over the true efficacy of the good old sim as a teaching aid. However, these sessions, often during the light wind mornings, are a good opportunity to form a relationship with the instructor, share former experiences, strengths and weaknesses, let them know what you don’t ‘get,’ and how you personally like to be coached – i.e. ‘leave me alone’ or ‘push me relentlessly and be as cruel as you like!’

A morning simulator sess at Neilson’s Vassiliki centre – being silent should not be an option. Photo Hart Photography.


The right coach (beware the guru!)
I know it’s meant as a compliment, but the label I mistrust is that of ‘guru.’ It evokes an image of an untouchable, all-knowing figure, who descends from a higher place and preaches in hushed tones before a group of flawed mortals who know nothing. It’s a one way information street. As a young gymnast I once attended a camp hosted by a ‘Grand Master’ from Japan. He was an amazing and inspirational performer. But over the three days he never once addressed me individually and knew nothing nothing of my personal weaknesses and fears – he didn’t even ask my name. The final impression was the same you might get from one of today’s celebratory life coaches who in a one hour show promises a vulnerable audience health, wealth and personal enlightenment (and probably ripped abs), leaving them momentarily entertained and yet strangely empty.

The relationship
Coaching is all about forming a relationship. Andy Murray’s breakthrough to the very top of the tennis ladder was to a great part down to the unique bond he had with his coach Ivan Lendl. They’re both what you might call ‘tricky’ characters, so Ivan could definitely empathise with Andy’s volcanic outbursts. There was mutual respect and hence a power balance. It’s clear too that they had the same dry sense of humour. In the end, whatever the prize, it’s sport, not brain surgery. So if it isn’t fun, what’s the point? Being advised by someone who makes you smile, not stress, is key and opens the path for a two way dialogue. And what was interesting in the above case was that they both knew when enough was enough and when it was time for a new voice and a new message. As you move up the levels, the coach’s job becomes less technical and more psychological, providing strategies, quelling anxiety, instilling belief. He or she can’t do that unless there’s a certain level of intimacy, trust and mutual knowledge. You’re not going to open up to someone you don’t like or who is haughty and distant.

Billy-Jean King, iconic tennis player and multi Grand Slam winner, quite recently started coaching. She said of the first encounters with her charges: “They would expect me to lay my hands on them and offer some life-changing tip – and all they got was a pile of questions. I told them, I can’t coach you unless I know you.”

As Mark Twain famously said: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen we would have two mouths and one ear.” It’s a tip that applies more to the coach than the student. If you can’t get a word in, you’re probably with the wrong guy.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen we would have two mouths and one ear.” Mark Twain

Someone like you
Back in 2016 I tackled the weighty topic of big men and the special challenges they face on the water. My absolute favourite quote was from my chosen model, 110 kg John Issit who in flowing prose decried the effort of his 50 kg, 19 year old instructor (planing with 4.7 in 15 knots) to empathise with and resolve any of his issues. He said he got more out of a ten minute chat in the bar with the similarly proportioned Dave White. If you have the choice, go with the instructor/coach who sails in a way and with the sort of kit that you can relate to.

An averagely proficient, nearly gybing freerider told me his overriding aim was to get more comfortable in his stance, and above all, sail better upwind. His endless walks of shame were doing him in. The reason became clear the moment he rigged. He was of average build and about 75 kg but was using fixed 32” lines – very long. It transpired on his last holiday he’d been set up by a freestyler. Very long lines work on a freestyle setup because they offer freedom for hooked in moves – and upwind they allow you to swing forward, sail off the heel of the front foot and use the edge for resistance rather than the tiny fin. But on a freeride setup where you’re using a big fin and sailing more off the back foot to drive upwind, they drop your hips too low, to the point where you’re driving the fin at the wrong angle.

Swapping the 32’s for some adjustables and shortening them to 28” for upwind, cured the issue by allowing him to use his toes to trim the board level (to maximise the lift and resistance of a big fin, the board must be level, not windward edge down) and allowed him to stand taller over the fin to resist the lift. I also swapped his waist harness for a seat harness. He said he used to have a seat harness but the instructor told him no one uses them any more. Well maybe not on the shores of ‘freestyle central’, but elsewhere they do – and they’re a better option for anyone who has a high waist and values power transfer over manoeuvrability. This is not a blame game. There was just a lack of communication. Our friend had effectively gone to a plumber to get some electrical work done. Having a fruitful coaching day/week takes preparation on your part.

Most windy coaches are honourable folk who want to offer good value for money, which in some instances can mean sticking to you like a limpet and blathering constantly. In dynamic situations, words should be used sparingly so in the nicest possible way let them know when you’ve had enough and would like to be left alone to practice.

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The omni-present coach can be both a blessing and a curse – let them know when it’s the latter! Photo Graham White.

The wish list
in search of the next generation of superstars, the talent scouts for football/rugby/NFL clubs subject the juniors to all manner of mental and physical testing. But the quality that turns out to be one of the most valuable and yet is the hardest to test for, is the ability to self-analyse. It’s the guy or girl who is acutely aware of their own shortcomings and who, with the coach, can concoct specific drills to overcome them – rather than just follow everyone else on a ten lap run. And because of that they reach levels way beyond their apparent potential.

Before a course I ask everyone to reveal their past, their kit choices and their wish lists. Any information is useful, but the more detailed their self analysis the better. On a recent week a guy pinpointed his port side gybe as a weak spot. He’d never planed out of one (his starboard ones by contrast were whizzy). At transition time he felt cramped and blocked by the rig – to the point where he always messed up the foot change and disrupted the board trim. By happy coincidence on day one we had just 10 knots of wind on flat water with big boards. His port side non-planing gybes revealed the same discomfort. Before the foot change, he would push his inside hip back towards the sail (the wrong way) rather than outboard, thereby closing the space down between himself and the rig and leaving himself blocked over the centreline. After a couple of light wind exercises, the problem was cured. However, without that initial information, I wouldn’t have been looking for that particular issue and we could have wasted the early opportunity to cure it.

You’re heading out on a coaching week and have targeted a certain move – say it’s the forward loop. The best possible preparation is to explore the move (for example purchase the stunning DVD “We learnt to loop” by Peter Somebodyorother), to see what it actually entails and decide therefore whether it’s a realistic proposition given your current level. Research will reveal that to have half a chance you have to be 100% in control of all stages of a big jump. That knowledge alone might save you a lot of time, heart and buttock ache, and persuade you to divert your energies elsewhere.

The assumed similarity
Coaches, even the touchy-feely ones, tend to be gung-ho!, sporty types who may assume everyone who joins a course is like them – ambitious and always pushing for the next level. But I know from bitter experience that’s not always the case. I’ve had clients who’ve made it very clear that a course for them is all about the group dynamic and the joy of sailing in good company with somebody looking over them. If they pick up a tip along the way, great, but cracking moves is not a priority. Staying safe within their comfort zone is.

Change – but not too much?
One of the great coaching stories is of squash player Nick Matthew. He had a trial for the national squad at the end of which the analyst Stafford Murray and coach David Pearson told him his technique was full of flaws and that he basically wasn’t very good! That was tough news to take for an 18 year old who has already being training fanatically for 10 years. But they saw something in him, took him on and the teary ending is that he ended up winning gold at the Commonwealth Games. However, the process of deconstruction and reconstruction took 6 years. It also involved reconstructing his brain as well so all his automated responses had to change. As a result during pressure points he was a basket case. But his unusual persistence paid off.

The lesson for all is that you have to be realistic about what you can, or want to, change. So you’ve been windsurfing a few decades. A buoyant young coach sees your short lines, seat harness, tight footstraps and back foot gybing style and tells you ‘it’s time to mend your ways Grandad.’ Of course change is possible at any age – but only if you have the time and inclination to the put in the endless repetition and accept that you may well get worse before you get better.

If you haven’t, make it clear that you’re happy with your sailing style, so thanks but no thanks to a remodelling. I just want you to help me make the most of what I’ve got. William, who’s been sailing small boards from the 80s, comes on my wave courses and rides with an upright style and with his back foot out of the strap. I’m not going to change that – because he doesn’t like to bend and stretch too much. Technique is only one slice of the windsurfing pie so instead we work on tactics, like drawing different lines on the wave, taking off at different spots etc. Not all change is desirable or beneficial.

“If people believe in their coach then they will believe in themselves and the process they are undertaking together, and when receiving coaching aim to ‘actively’ listen, i.e. repeat what is being said to you in your mind.”  Jem Hall.

Early warnings
You know the situation. There’s someone you see every day for years at the school gates, or at work or in the pub. You’ve never known their name. And of course the longer you leave it, the more embarrassing it is to ask. Similarly with a course, if you have any phobias (scared of water), holes in knowledge (can’t waterstart), make them known on day one. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to fess up – and the easier it is to be swept along by the general ‘up-and-at-‘em’ spirit.

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Video coaching remains the most compulsive coaching tool – again so long as you’re a part of the conversation – even more powerful when delivered semi-naked. Photo Hart Photography.

A similar scenario can arise with language. It wasn’t until the last day that one lady, a good sailor, revealed she had no clue what the clew was. Everyone else obviously knew, so she felt a fool to ask. Furthermore, at the outset make sure you’re clear on directional interpretations. What is ‘forward’? Is that towards the nose or the sail. And ‘inside’ and ‘outside?’ If you’re unsure, get the coach to run through the whole lot before you hit the water.

Knowing you – what ARE you like?
A man goes to the doctor.

“Ah Mr Jones,” says the doctor. “We have your results. Please sit down. I have to ask you if you’re in the right frame of mind to hear some difficult news?”

“Well actually …” said Mr Jones. “I’ve had a terrible day, just lost my job so, er, no … not really.”

“Ok” said the doctor and paused to think … “You’ll be fine!!”

I was forced to tell that joke to Nic, a top bloke but also quite ‘Jekyll and Hydey’ – good hearted, jovial, very smiley most of the time; but at others, strangely dark. When the first time I pointed out his late rig change and straight legs, I might as well have suggested his mother ran a brothel – death mask, defensive posture, no eye contact – just a grunt.

Later on and back to being smiley Mr Hyde, he confided in me that probably due to hellish experiences at a draconian boarding school, he had a visceral reaction to criticism. He accepted that it was my job to put him right – but asked if there was a way of sugaring the pill. From then on the feedback was a study in what the sociologists call ‘mitigated speech’ (getting across what you mean without actually saying it): “That was fine Nic. In fact it was one of the best gybes I’ve ever seen. But just a thought … another way, and by no means better … just different, is to try it with bent knees.”

A good coach can work out from the initial exchanges how people react to critique and how they like to be fed back to – but there’s no harm in giving them a clue beforehand. The complete opposite to the above is where the young, newly qualified instructor, teaching a group of mature adults, has a crisis of confidence and just smothers them with platitudes. If you are a prime minister/rock star/captain of industry, it’s worth letting the ingénue instructor know that you want to be beasted and told how it is, even if it means ritual humiliation in front of the group.

It helps right from the start if you can tell the coach how best you learn and how you like to be coached.

Words – the blessing and the curse
My first windy instructing job was in Switzerland where I regularly had French, Germans and English in the same group. Although I speak passable French and German, my English is considerably better. So it was the English in the group who were given far lengthier and more detailed technical explanations. It took me a while to realise that on the water the non-English often did better, having NOT been burdened with mostly irrelevant science. Words – the right ones at just the right moment – are SO powerful; but too many at the wrong moment – disastrous.

One of the most interesting characters I ever taught was Ed. On day one I was going through the basics of the small board tack. After two sentences Ed shouted out: “Stop! I don’t do words. Show me and then let me get on with it.” Ed was super bright, but as he revealed later, had mild Asperger’s syndrome. He said that too many words scrambled his brain. What he liked was images to work with. Another fortunate symptom of his condition was a lack of social cues and graces. He had no filter and said exactly what he was thinking. Many people fail to speak out for fear of upsetting the proud, sensitive coach. Ed couldn’t give a damn. Every 15 minutes or so he would come in and say “one tip please.” Eager to help I would give 2 and was immediately told to ‘shut up – I just want one!’ He was the easiest bloke to coach because you always knew exactly what he wanted from you. Let the coach know how you are with words and verbal explanations in general. Many struggle to convert words into physical actions and prefer the ‘monkey see monkey do’ approach – notably kids. By contrast, others will only let themselves have a go when they fully comprehend every stage.

“Good coaching is not a torrent of instructions – it’s a conversation.”

Feedback – make yourself available
Now we’re getting to the nub. As Darwin famously said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Those who get least from coaching are those most resistant to change – the ‘uncoachables’ as I call them. What all trainers and sports scientists now agree on (finally!) is improvement comes not from the bland repetition of an action but from ‘deliberate practice.’ That means attempting a skill, getting feedback, tweaking it and going again. Repeat as many times as necessary (i.e. forever). It’s a tough, gritty process. The crucial part of that sequence, is of course, the feedback. With that in mind, you the student have an important role.

The quicker you receive feedback, the more relevant and useful it is. That means 2 things. Firstly practising with the coach at a spot or in a way where instant feedback is possible – for example where the wind blows all the way into a shallow shore and where you can perform and then stop easily and chat. Or by having access to two-way headsets, which are brilliant.

And secondly, YOU have to make yourself visible and available. Those who get the most out of the session are the camera hogs, the ones that constantly perform right in front of the video and the coach; who do NOT hunt the horizon but who do short runs and put in as many attempts at whatever skill they’re working on as possible.

You gybe around me. It was OK but you sheeted out and dropped your hips back. But before I offer corrective advice, I want you to start the conversation and tell me what you felt happened because what you say informs the feedback. If you start by saying that you tried to sheet in but got opened up by the sail, it could be a setup issue. So I have a go on your gear. Sure enough it IS really hard to sheet in. The downhaul looked OK but it transpires you have the sail set on too stiff a mast, which stops it twisting and breathing. It was your feedback that unearthed the problem. We’re back to the two ears and one mouth theme – make sure the coach lets you speak. And if ever you doubt your setup, encourage him or her to hop on your kit.

“A coach who asks to have a go on your gear, is on the right track. You can tell so much about people’s performance, good and bad, from their choice of kit and setup.”

No one improves unless they feel secure, nurtured and are having fun – the group makes for the best security blanket of all.  Photo Hart Photography.

To sum up – it’s NOT about the money
My friend James is a maths teacher at a private school. The fees are so heart-stoppingly steep that the parents expect results. He says it’s quite unnerving the way people, especially those who inhabit a brutally commercial world, view teaching as transactional. Here’s a few thousand quid, now hand me back my more intelligent and higher achieving child. As he is at pains to point out, he can only make little Alfonse better at maths if he wants to be better and is prepared to put the work in.

Similarly in windsurfing, the “here’s a couple of hundred of quid now where’s my planing gybe?” contractual approach doesn’t work either. He can only help you help yourself. The coach is your mate – not a contract worker! I’ll leave the last word to RRD sail designer, pro rider and coach John Skye, who offers his opinion on the matter.

“The most important thing when being coached is to have an open mind and actually try to do what you’re told. I have had stubborn people that think they know more or know better or have things so preset in their head that they struggle to move forward. On the flip side, those people that are open to new ideas and do exactly what you tell them often advance at crazy levels. So it’s really very simple… if you are going on a coaching course, go there to be coached! We had a guy on one of our courses who wanted to learn to forward loop but he couldn’t even sail in a straight line and do a straight jump. It was terrifying watching him completely unsettled, snaking around out of control, flying towards a wave and just throwing himself over the front without really taking off. We first got him to practice blasting fast in a straight line and then practice doing straight jumps. But he completely ignored everything and just carried on chucking himself into death loops. The worst thing was that because he sort of got around one loop (it was a crash into waterstart away), in his head he felt even more right to ignore us and proved to himself he knew best all along!!!”

In the next issue, Harty breathes fresh air over that old favourite, the helicopter tack. Free spaces are few and far between on his legendary clinics, but check out availability by going to www.peter-hart.com

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