Paving The Way For Future Talent 

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Whenever Skandia Team GBR enjoys any great success on the international stage, reference is invariably made to the pool of young talent Britain seems to constantly have at its disposal.  

But building that sustainable talent pool doesn’t happen by chance; it’s the result of a long-established, successful ‘performance pathway’ that gets kids into, and enjoying, the sport before carefully managing and feeding those with the most potential through the RYA’s junior and youth programmes, with the top performers ultimately invited to join the Olympic Development Squad.  

All Britain’s medallists at Beijing 2008 came up through this system while the Olympic Development Squad is already bubbling with talent just waiting to seize their opportunity at Rio 2016 and beyond.  

And while the big stars at the top end of the tree enjoy their long-fought and hard-earned success the future stars of tomorrow are just discovering their sea legs for the first time through grassroots schemes such as RYA OnBoard and Team15.  

As John Derbyshire, RYA Performance Director, explains: “There will be thousands of youngsters across the country that will try sailing and windsurfing for the first time this year, many through RYA OnBoard. Inevitably, some of those youngsters will have a natural aptitude for the sports and show a bit of potential and could end up being our Olympic sailors of the future.  

“First and foremost we have to make sure that all youngsters that are introduced to the sports enjoy themselves and have fun learning new skills and being out on the water with their friends. But we also have to ensure that when a youngster does show some natural talent and promise the structures are in place for that child to develop their skills.  

“Our record for talent development speaks for itself over the past 20 years but as the rest of the world has started to look at, and tried to replicate, our pathway system to produce Olympic medallists so we, as the national governing body, have to think creatively and make sure our sport development and world class programme teams work closely to keep us ahead of the game.”  

The introduction of RYA OnBoard, the nationwide grassroots programme giving youngsters opportunities to sail and windsurf regularly at low cost, in 2004 has arguably been the biggest development in continuing to maintain a sustainable sailing talent pool in the past decade.  

Teams of OnBoard Development Officers work within the regions to develop links between local schools, community and youth groups and sailing clubs and centres, ensuring that those kids who try sailing and windsurfing for the first time through OnBoard can stay involved easily.  

More than 210,000 OnBoard beginner sessions have been run across the country, with more than 10,500 youngsters taking up sailing or windsurfing on a regular basis. There are now almost 200 OnBoard Clubs and Centres in Britain with the aim to give half a million young people in Britain the chance to try sailing and windsurfing over a 10-year period.  

Once kids are participating regularly in sailing clubs this is where the real talent identification process begins and two other RYA programmes – Volvo RYA Champion Clubs and Team15 – can play a pivotal role in making sure kids showing the most potential don’t slip through the net.  

Now coming into its 14th year, the Volvo RYA Champion Club (VCC) programme formally recognises clubs with a commitment to youth sailing and race coaching in six RYA junior pathway classes – Optimist, Topper, Cadet, Mirror, RS Feva and Bic Techno windsurfer. VCCs are sociable, fun and safe places for youngsters to receive well-organised coaching, advice, expertise and encouragement to support their development. Six RYA High Performance Managers (HPMs) work closely with the VCCs in their regions and invite kids of the right age, ability and potential to join their regional RYA Zone Squad, the first rung of the ladder towards Olympic sailing.  

Since the launch of the Team15 nationwide windsurfing scheme in 2001, thousands of kids aged 15 and under have learned and developed new skills under the guidance of specialist RYA coaches. Like VCCs, the top Team15 sailors are invited to join the Zone Squads and Team15 has already been hailed for its role in swelling the numbers of windsurfers breaking into the Skandia Team GBR ranks.  

However, even if a talented young club sailor isn’t a member of a VCC or a Team15 club, they are still on the radar of the HPMs, who work with the class associations to organise and administer Regional Open Training, from where the most promising youngsters are again recruited to the Zone squads.  

With Zone squads a relatively new addition to the RYA’s World Class Junior Racing Programme in the past decade, Skandia Team GBR Development Squad 470 helm Phil Sparks, 18, is one of the first Zone Squad graduates to have worked his way up to Olympic Classes sailing.  

The 2009 420 ISAF Youth Worlds champion and former Optimist sailor admits joining the South Zone Squad was the point he started to take his sailing more seriously.  

“As soon as I joined the Zone Squad I could tell how beneficial it was to my sailing as opposed to doing something without a decent class structure. It was quite cool getting into the Zone Squad and stuff like getting my squad jacket.”  

Once a young sailor’s skills and enthusiasm have been nurtured within the Zone squads the pathway is in place for them to take their sailing as far as their determination, commitment and talent allows.  

The top Zone Squad sailors are fed into the National Junior and from the ages of 14-15 the top Junior sailors begin the transition into one of the recognised Youth Classes and eventually move into the RYA Volvo National Youth Squad.  

Here the process continues readying sailors for Olympic Classes sailing until those sailors identified as having the potential to win medals for Great Britain at Olympic and World level, and who want to pursue sailing as a career, are invited to train with the Olympic Development Squad. This is where they start receiving the sports science support and elite coaching to really give them a shot of reaching the very pinnacle of the Olympic Performance Squad.  

On paper it sounds so straightforward.  

But as double 470 World Champion and former Optimist National Junior Squad sailor, Nic Asher, 26, explains it takes a lot of bravery and big calls to stay focussed on your goals when making the jump from level to level.  

“I didn't think being selected for the Optimist National Junior Squad was much of a big deal at the time as the top 32 sailors in the UK got selected and I wanted to be number one, so I still had a way to go. But my parents were proud and put a banner up! In the last two years of Junior sailing we had a great structure and coach (Rob Wilson), a great group of sailors and we made big improvements.  

“When I first went into the 420 Youth Squad, the coaching and structure weren’t quite as good. It was a time of change around the Youth set-up. From 2000 things started to change for the better in Youth sailing but towards the end of our Youth years, we pretty much ran our own campaign. Our coach Tom Saunt did a great job in preparing us for Olympic sailing.  

“However the leap to Olympic sailing was massive. We went from winning every event in 420s to struggling to make the top 30 in the 470. You could not make as many mistakes. Time was also a big difference. When I was in Youths I was at school, we sailed at the weekends and fitness was done at lunchtime or after school. When we joined Olympic Squad, we were sailing full-time and had time to do everything, but everything also had to be much more professional.”  

Phil Sparks also admits joining the Olympic squad for training for the first time was a bit daunting.  

“I started sailing the 470 with Chris ‘Twiggy’ Grube and he was already quite well-established in the squad, which made it a bit easier for me. I was only 16 and was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of older people who are all big names and really driven. It was a bit intimidating and I spent a couple of months not really knowing anyone. But the team atmosphere is really friendly so I soon settled in.”  

History will ultimately judge how successful the RYA’s performance pathway continues to be by the numbers of medals racked up at the Olympics every four years.  

But as all the sailors who have come through the system, like Asher and Sparks, will testify they couldn’t have been given a better opportunity to satisfy any goal they have set for themselves.  

John Derbyshire concludes: “Ultimately every sailor will decide how far they want to take their sailing. We have a programme of excellence that can give every youngster the best chance to turn something they love doing into something they could win an Olympic medal in and make a successful career out of.  

“Even if a sailor leaves the programme, whether at Junior or Olympic Development level, we want them to have enjoyed their sailing so much they stay in the sport, whether by going into other types of racing like big boats or match racing, by becoming coaches or instructors or by just enjoying regularly staying involved at their sailing clubs.   

“The types of life skills sailors develop as part of the squad system, like time management, team work, organisation and planning, are also transferable to all careers outside of sailing. That’s why the performance pathway is so valuable. It is about being the best you can be, and offers so much more opportunity than simply the potential of being the next Ben Ainslie or Sarah Ayton.”