Poacher turned Gamekeeper 

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There’s always been something almost Tiggeresque about Paul Brotherton’s seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm.   But even by his own standards, as he talks about his new role as Skandia Team GBR’s 49er squad coach that gets taken to whole other level.  


‘Breathtaking’, ‘awesome’, ‘astonishing’, all words that litter his conversation as he describes the attitude and endeavour demonstrated by Britain’s four top 49er crews in contention for 2012 selection since he took over the squad in July this year.  

The story goes like this.    

Coach for the Yngling girls’ successful 2008 Olympic campaign, Brotherton, still the only sailor to have won medals at both 470 and 49er World Championships, returned to the water himself in a bid to win 49er gold with Mark Asquith at London 2012. The duo established themselves as one of the top 49er crews in the world, picking up ISAF World Cup regatta medals plus a 2009 European Championship silver.    

But by the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta in June this year something was niggling in Brotherton’s mind. Yes Britain had good 49er sailors, but could any of them, including himself and Asquith, genuinely look at themselves in the mirror and say ‘I believe I can win Olympic gold next year’. Brotherton didn’t think they could.    

With Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes, third at Sail for Gold, selected for August’s Olympic Test Event, the 45-year-old decided to take the bull by the horns and offer up his services as a coach. It was an offer that was accepted and from that point on, the Brotherton-led squad has worked together meticulously to try to get a British 49er on the top of the 2012 podium.    

Brotherton admits it may be a move that doesn’t ultimately pay off with a gold medal. But it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.    

“I’m absolutely staggered how well the lads are working together,” Brotherton enthuses. “They are all willing to put very detailed and focussed information into the pot for the benefit of the people they are competing for the 2012 place against. It’s quite breathtaking.    

“Of all the squad environments I’ve been involved in I’ve never known anything like this in terms of what people are prepared to share. I think everyone believes their best chance of being able to return a result that everyone can be proud of next year is to be involved in a strong, synergenic squad. The minute people start holding information back and keeping secrets, the squad doesn’t work. Their energy and commitment’s been astonishing.”  

From the outside it could be viewed that Brotherton has sacrificed his own personal 2012 podium aspirations for the good of the team. But he would never see what he is doing as a sacrifice, simply a “responsibility” to try to help his country win an Olympic gold medal.    

A veteran of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and many Championship medals since, Brotherton has lived by the mantra that when you race, you always want to go out with the best chance of winning a gold medal.     That was a confidence absent towards the end of his own 2012 campaign, and he couldn’t sit back and wait for what he felt would be the inevitable next year to happen.    

“When I was sailing I found it hard to see how we were moving forward. Our results spoke for themselves, we were capable of getting good results but winning gold felt a million miles away, and that we were just churning over the same old water.    

“I’m now more fired up than I was towards the end of our campaign, I’ve got more energy and commitment to it because I can see it’s going somewhere and what the boys are putting into it is inspiring to me. We are all, as a unit, going in a direction that’s meaningful.”    

No-one can doubt Brotherton’s coaching credentials. He was the non-blonde in Sarah Ayton’s all-conquering Yngling team and has an innate confidence in where his own strengths lie. He sees his role as offering an external perspective, a source of information, to the sailors. It is then up to them which bits they chose to use based on what they believe will make the biggest difference to them personally. He also maintains a close emotional understanding of the principles of performance and the execution of skills and processes.    

“The unique perspective you get off the coach boat is very, very powerful but of course you can’t feel how much load is going through the rudder, or whether the boat is feeling sticky in the water, you are only part of the picture. In that respect there is almost no difference at all between coaching a 49er, a boat I’m so familiar with, and three women in a Yngling.    

“I’m working really hard with the lads to make sure they trust my observations to be as reliable as possible. But it is still then up to each individual sailor to make deductions on what is most important to them. I’m just giving them extra bits of information.”    

With a British 49er boat yet to be selected for London 2012, next month the squad heads to Perth, Australia to prepare for December’s ISAF World Championships, another key event in the selection process.     However, one thing Brotherton learned from his Yngling experience was the value of having the right team. And he insists that as much as he is loving life back on the coaching edge, if whoever does eventually get the 2012 nod doesn’t feel that he is the best fit for their team, he would be 100% behind that decision.    

“Sarah was exceptional at putting together the team who would do the job. We were all wildly different personalities and characters but it seemed to work. Her energy in being ruthlessly focussed on each task was only possible because the whole team was absolutely appropriate to the job. It was a very potent unit and everyone wanted to find what we had.    

“I would hate for the selected 49er team to go to the Games and come away with less than they deserved because I hadn’t been the best fit for their team. They have a responsibility to make sure their team is the team they want, not the team they think they should have. If they decide I fit that’s fine. If they want to go with someone else, that is entirely fine too.    

“For now it is about moving things forward to that point. It is early days, and things do take time to come to fruition, but it feels like we are moving in a new direction that is positive and inspiring. No-one can guarantee an Olympic gold medal at the end of it, but there is not one of us not giving it everything we have got to make that a more possible outcome.”