Over the last several years, the Skiff Squad has helped to develop some of the top sailors in the country including many US Sailing Olympic Development Program sailors, College National Champions, ISAF Youth World and 29er Open World medalists, and Olympians. From a coaching perspective, the path from getting into the boat to the top of the fleet is somewhat straightforward, and for sailors who are able to dedicate the time, the process is fairly methodical, so we're going to break it down for you below.
Step 1. Master The Fundamentals Without Creating Bad Habits
If you watch the best skiff sailors in the world - Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - sail the 49er, nothing that they do is magical. They're not insanely faster than anyone else, and their boat handling isn't super flashy; they just do everything consistently well. Mastering the fundamentals means creating consistently good mechanics in the boat, to eliminate the need for heroics around the race course. The most challenging part of mastering the fundamentals is avoiding developing bad habits in the process. To do this, we structure all of our intro drills - drills like heeled-to-windward sailing, rudderless, tacking around the forestay, etc. - so that they pinpoint certain skills, while avoiding situations that invite bad habits. A list of the most important fundamentals to master might be:
- Precise sail trim (think, heeled to windward drill)
- Straight line rhythm ("in and ease, trim and squeeze")
- Rudderless sailing
- Footwork through each maneuver
- Handwork through each maneuver
This stage is definitely the most variable in terms of how many hours it takes to graduate to the next step, but generally teams will be in this phase for 300-400 hours, or 1-2 years, depending on how many hours per year a team can get on the water, and how disciplined they are about staying focused on the fundamentals.
Step 2. Increase The Reps Alone, and Start to Incorporate Other Boats
Up to this point, the key is QUALITY of maneuvers - doing each drill, and each maneuver with intention, and with a specific focus. Now that some of those fundamentals are feeling natural, it's time to increase the reps to really solidify the techniques; in other words, we're banking on the fact that baseline quality is now high, and we're shifting the focus to QUANTITY. At the same time, we start to incorporate other boats into the equation. Drills like rabbit starts, cross tacking, cone drills, etc. start to come into play. In this way, we introduce new variables to the point where our boat handling techniques are stressed a little bit, but we back off of the intensity before they really start to break down (i.e. maintain that high baseline of quality!). By running drills that allow more reps and more variables, we're learning to execute under pressure.
Again, this stage generally takes most people a year or two to get through, depending on how many hours per year you can commit to training, and how often you can get on the water with a teammate.
Step 3. Develop Tactics and Strategy
The Skiff Squad model teaches tactics and strategy that are easy to replicate, but require some studying. We recognize the value of improvisation, and creativity on the race course, but again, we believe that the core of good positioning on the race course can be boiled down to some core fundamentals. We teach five or six standard strategies, and slowly build each team's playbook up to around 50 tactical scenarios and plays. These plays allow teams to adapt to a wide range of unforeseen situations on the race course, and build good intuitive responses for split second decision making.
Teams who make it to this stage will be gold fleet contenders at the international level. Teams who already have a solid tactical background from other classes can often breeze through this stage, while others will require six months to a year.
Step 4. Learn How To Win
Again, this is something that a few sailors will bring from previous classes, but others can learn it as well. Learning how to win involves learning where on the course to take risk, when to attack using speed, when to attack using tactics, and when to split to put pressure on teams around you. At its core, the process is very methodical, but it requires constant evaluation of the changing race course.
We've seen sailors complete these four steps in as little as a year by putting in 400 hours in twelve months, while others never find the time to make it all the way through, but we believe strongly that quality hours in, are almost directly correlated to a team's success in the long run.