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First attempts to understand factors which make a sailing team successful

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The following blog post was originally intended as a series of case studies looking to understand the gender breakdown of participants in student sailing. This work has been taken up by the British Universities Sailing Association (BUSA) with more data and an altered study methodology meaning the surveys collected below are now a stand-alone piece of work.

While this work is very sailing specific, after reading ask yourself what similarities can you draw from your experiences coaching less experienced teams? How do you go about trying to retain team members and get them involved in running the club? Does this change with different ages of participants? What other lessons might we apply to reduce the gender bias in our respective sports? Share your experiences in the comments section.

In November of 2016 the newly founded University of Highlands and Islands Wind and Wave Club (UHIWWC) Women’s team won the silver league at the Scottish Student Sailing Women’s team racing championships (SSSWomen’s). This cohort of sailors would go on the be integral to the club for several years to come with the team including 80% of the 2017-2018 committee and 50% of the senior management of the club from 2017-2019. As their coach I was of course extremely proud, and the team massively outperformed their goals for the event. These goals were focussed on attending the event and learning more about team racing, which were very sensible as half the team had not been sailing for more than a year and none of them had more than a couple of months of team racing experience.

This leads to the question of Why? Why did they perform so well at this event? And can we use this information to help retain and train sailors for the future?

Sailing at University

The sport of sailing, especially racing, is a male dominated sport. This is still the case in a large number of different arenas such as racing: offshore in yachts, dinghy fleets or team racing (Low et al., 2019). Furthermore, dependant on the location within the UK sailing may be more or less male dominated and bias in club membership tends to favour older age ranges (RYA, 2019). This means that sailing is not reaching its full potential as a sport because as a sport it should not be inherently bias towards one section of a population due to the range of technology and different arenas available. The range of ways to participate in the sport mean that whomever you are, you will still both be able to sail and compete. University sailing has a reduced level of bias towards older male participants because the youth scheme for sailing means the recruitment pool of experienced sailors to universities tends to be closer to an equal split of men: women (RYA, 2019). Team racing is a part of the sport that many only participate in at university and is arguably built around this reliance upon university students to host events, build teams and provide the volunteers for club and event management. Team racing can be 2-4 boat against a team of the same number of opponents, is normally sailed in double handed dinghies and requires a modest level of boat sped, but higher levels of communication, team work and tactical awareness than a lot of fleet racing (https://busa.co.uk/development/ten-minute-guide-team-racing). These requirements mean it is an ideal way to get sailors involved who aren’t as experienced in terms of sailing ability, but work well in a team. This aspect is particularly critical for a new university club such as UHIWWC.

Who are the University of Highlands and Islands Wind and Wave Club?

The University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) is a relatively new university that is unusual in that it is split across 13 academic partners across Scotland and it offers a wide range of courses, many of which are not classical university degrees. UHIWWC was established in September of 2016 by four students at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, one of the smaller partner institutes of UHI, located in Oban. Since being established UHIWWC has faced a number of challenges including a limited recruitment pool of students (there are only approximately 200 students in SAMS), lack of access to Firefly dinghies (the primary student sailing boat) and a low average experience base club members. This has changed since these surveys were conducted. The club purchased a flight of Fireflys in 2016, refit them in 2017 and has gone from strength to strength. At the time of the surveys and the success of the Women’s team the club had 20 members, split 45:55 men: women. The senior club management was 75% male and there was only 1 team racing coach, me. It should be noted that the UHIWWC team racing first team was split equally between men and women and as a result these surveys should not be used to understand the challenges that a woman in a male dominated team may face. For this kind of information please see: Low et al. (2019) amongst others. For the survey methodology please see Appendix: A at the bottom of this blog.

What can we take from these surveys?

The team was comprised of 6 sailors of a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Across the interviewees the experience base of all sailors was very broad with one sailor having a high level of experience in Optimists (former Worlds squad) to very low experience (starting sailing in September as part of UHIWWC). Generally the sailing experience of the sailors was low with only 2 having more than one years sailing experience and none having team raced prior to joining UHIWWC. Furthermore, at the time I had no previous experience coaching a women’s team and little experience coaching a team racing. I did not feel that I had changed anything about my coaching style to appeal specifically to the women’s team, but due to the complex nature of team racing I had to change my coaching style to attempt to make team racing easier to understand and training enjoyable for less experienced sailors.

Interestingly it may not have been the coaching which lead to this team success at all, but a theme which consistently came out of interviews that:

  • the team enjoyed sailing together as part of a team of friends
  • no one wanted to let team mates down,
  • and that most were feeling comfortable at the SSS women’s team racing championships.

In the words of one sailor ”it [the SSS women’s team racing championships] was pretty chilled”.

This team support, combined with an event which was specifically aimed at sailors who were not necessarily the most experienced, seemed to ensure that the team performed due to this desire to do well for the team. One of the sailors acknowledged that they would not have considered helming at a team racing event, had it not be the women’s championships. This team support for less experienced sailors is a theme which was consistent across questions. While no sailor believed that sailing as part of mixed team would change the levels of team support, it was a common theme to acknowledge that different people communicate in different ways. As a result giving the level of support needed for an individual sailor to perform to the best of their ability was likely to change across teams. Despite this one sailor remarked that ”a win mattered more to the ladies [team]”. This sailor had experience previously of fleet racing in as a youth, a male dominated arena, which she suggested seemed to have put her off competing at a higher level. By contrast surrounded by peers with a team supporting her winning clearly motivated her more. This underlines that the support of a group of women may become more important dependent upon the sailor and the team.

Most respondents suggested that having a female coach would not have made a difference to their experience, generally by using examples from other sports that they had participated in. One respondent even went so far as to suggest that having a male coach brought a new perspective to the team, which may improve the intra-team personal dynamics. Two respondents noted that the team supported each other and as a result it would not matter, in this scenario, what gender the coach was, but that for younger sailors having this female role model would be a much more important aspect in keeping sailors within the sport, in common with other work (Low et al., 2019). There was only one sailor who had previous experience of such a female role model in sailing, but this sailor went to far as to say that the reason she initially wanted to participate in fleet racing was to emulate her coach who was ”beating the boys”. This aspiration to follow the example of the coach in question had clearly had a large impact upon the sailor’s choices within the realm of fleet racing corroborates other work which shows the impact having a role model has upon a young sailors choices.

Common themes can be drawn out such as:

  • the importance of a relaxed environment for less experienced sailors,
  • the potential role for team support within both women’s and mixed teams, and
  • the need for female role models.

If we could all apply these lessons by providing low pressure events for less experienced participants and supporting teams so that everyone can achieve their potential then major progress could be made to improve the sport to retain less experienced participants. The need for female role models and ones which younger sailors can identify with is also critical for the future expansion and survival of our sport.

While this work is very sailing specific, what similarities can you draw from your experiences coaching less experienced teams?

How do you go about trying to retain team members and get them involved in running the club?

Does this change with different ages of participants?

What other lessons might we apply to reduce the gender bias in our respective sports?

Share your experiences with me in the comments below.

Please note: I acknowledge I am likely to be bias in my preparation of this piece of work due to my role as both Commodore and Team Captain of UHIWWC at the time.

You can find out more about me by visiting my coaching profile

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

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Appendix A

The surveys I conducted with the sailors on the Women’s team were focussed on the factors that they considered to have affected their success at SSS Women’s. Surveys were conducted using the question list (appendix: A) either by face to face interviews or over the phone, depending on the availability of the interviewee. Interviews lasted an average of 10 minutes and were all conducted in a 5 day period between the 21st and 25th of November 2016 by the myself. These surveys were conducted over a short time period, using a very small pool from which to draw its data.

Question list for sailors:

• What is you previous sailing experience?

• What motivated you to first start sailing?

• What have you enjoyed about sailing as part of a women’s team racing team?

• Would this have been any different as part of a mixed team?

• How important is it, for you, to be able to sail as part of a women’s team

racing team?

• Would this have been any different as part of a mixed team?

• What difference might a female coach have made to your motivation and enjoyment?

Question list for the coach:

• What was your motivation in getting together a women’s team?

• What experience have you had of coaching a women’s team previously?

• Was there anything you did differently to encourage your female sailors to get


• What were your challenges as a coach?

• What were your successes?

Clarification was given when asked for.


V Low, L Dillion, D Caffari, H Hoare, and A Pindar. Women in Sailing Strategic

Review. Technical report, World Sailing Trust, London, 2019.

RYA. 2018 RYA Club Census. Technical report, Royal Yachting Association,

Southampton, 2019.


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