Teacher Tips


1.         ****** LET THE STUDENT MAKE MISTAKES ****** 

The psychology of an adult (18 years +) learner is dramatically different than that of a child learner.   The most dramatic and relevant difference is that adult learners, simply put, need to learn things themselves.  If you lecture them on something, it rolls off their complex motor skill "learning" experience like water on a duck's back.  They simply need to do it themselves.  Within the bounds of safety, let your students do as they wish.  Let them make mistakes.  Let them pinch into the wind.  Let them over trim the sails.  Let them sail inefficiently.  Let them cleat the wrong jibsheet.  Let them make these mistakes!!!  Unless it’s a safety issue, let them learn on their own through the experience of making the mistake why it is a mistake.  If you constantly supervise and coach them away from all mistakes you rob them from learning from these mistakes and are simply sailing by proxy via a student.   At any given five minute period, only coach them on ONE mistake or way they can optimize their sailing.  For the rest of the time, bite your tongue and let them enjoy the experience - mistakes and all.


2.         ****** AVOID THE URGE TO LECTURE ****** 

When teaching a complex motor skill to an adult learner the teacher needs to avoid the urge to lecture and instead let the student learn through physical practice.  I taught motorcycling professionally for 3 years.  At the end of each teaching session, the students were given a test that had a points system that quantified the student's learning.   We started to notice that a certain small set of instructors consistently had a dramatically higher student test scores.   So a study (which was unfortunately proprietary so names & numbers are changed here) was chartered that analyzed why certain "top-performing" teachers continually did better than all the other teachers.  After reviewing the data in detail, a very interesting similarity arose among the top performing teachers.  They shut-up!   After reviewing tapes, we learned that the average teacher spoke approximately 50,000 words to the students over the life of the course.   Rather amazingly, the group of "top" teachers spoke a measly 7,200 words on average.   That is a phenomenal difference.  The top performing teachers spoke 86% less than the other teachers?!  Yes, in fact, there was a bizarrely direct correlation between speaking less and higher student scores.  The teachers with the worst student scores were the ones that spoke the most.  So why does shutting-up work?  Well, for the typical adult learner to effectively process a new complex motor skill they need to turn off other portions of their brain, such as auditory functions.  (Incidentally, it is this same physiology that makes talking on a cell phone, whether hands free or not, dangerous while driving).  So if you, as the teacher, are talking - during that time they are not learning the new motor skill.  Sailing is a complex motor skill just like motorcycling, so the moral of the story is to shut up and let the student learn on their own.  No lecturing!  If you need to say something, say it concisely and then be quiet to let it "marinade" in the student's mind.  Though it sometimes is not the most comfortable because of our incessant instinctive need for socialization, silence is okay - get comfortable with it.  As an aside, one particularly accomplished senior at Cal Sailing is a great master of this - Joshua Leihe.   If you are a student who goes sailing with him, you will notice that he gets seemingly quiet when you take the helm.   If you ask him a question, he will happily speak up and provide you a succinct but thorough answer - but for the remainder of the time he is relatively quiet in comparison to other teachers.  Every once in a while he will provide a poignant piece of feedback - which, since he speaks up relatively infrequently, is listened to and internalized very closely by the student.  Take a sail with Joshua and you will see a great role model who instinctively limits his vocalization during teaching.


3.         ****** TELL THEM WHAT THEY DID RIGHT ****** 

Focus on positive feedback.  That same study further analyzed what those higher performing teachers were saying in their limited 7,200 words on average.  It turns out that majority of their vocalization was positive feedback on what the students were doing right, and only briefly focusing on what they did wrong.  Why did this lead them to be higher performing teachers?  Well, back to psychology - the adult learner has a significantly larger ego than a child learner.  Children are accustomed to the subordinating position of a teacher-student relationship; adults are not.  They really take negative feedback to heart which can significantly affect confidence in their new motor skill.  Fortunately the adult learner of a complex motor skill is usually very cognizant of when they make a mistake.  Unless it’s a safety issue - try to let it go.   Instead focus on sincerely complementing them on what they did right.   Choose when you do so carefully, but if you do need to make a constructive criticism be sure to sandwich it between two earnestly positive comments on what the student was doing right.  For example, "I like how you maintained tiller control during that jibe.  It might help if you keep your hand on the mainsheet ready to ease it.  You did a great job progressively turning the boat throughout the maneuver - nice tiller work."   At Cal Sailing, a great master of this is Alistair Boettiger.  Go sailing with him and notice that how he throws in little more than sayings like "nice job" and "well done" which are sincere because he does so when they are earned.  In fact, you'll notice that 10-15 minutes can go by where he rarely says more than quick snippets like those types of complements.


4.         ****** EXHIBIT A RELAXED ENERGY ****** 

Anxiety, stress, discomfort and increased adrenaline will tend to inhibit a student's learning of a new complex motor skill.  These factors can be easily exacerbated, often unknowingly, by the instructor.  One of the most prominent ways we project our energy is via tone of voice.  Our tone is such an important part of communication that it may often override the actual words you're using.  Current theories believe that the overwhelming weight we give to tone is so fundamental that it is actually part of our genetic programming as vertebrates.  To test this theory, try this on a dog.  Speak in a harsh, loud, angry tone and say the words, "Good dog!"  Watch him cower although you are actually complimenting him.  Switch your tone to a soothing, cooing nature and call him a jerk, idiot or worst dog you ever met.  Despite your insults, he'll be wagging his tail and wanting to get closer to someone who is speaking so soothingly.  Fortunately, tone is something that can be worked on and changed.  When I first started teaching I used a tape recorder on myself and listened to it later to get a feel for the tone I was portraying.  I was blown away that I didn't realize that I was sounding stern or stressed at the time.  The master of projecting a relaxed energy at Cal Sailing is, hand-down, Steve Russell.  I strongly recommend that everyone go out sailing with him at least once.  Listen to what he is saying and watch what he is doing, but more importantly notice how he is saying it and the manner in which he is doing it.  Notice that he is always calm and relaxed.  Notice that his facial expressions, word choice, tone, posture and body movements all coordinate and project to create an easygoing aura.  In fact, just by him being present I've noticed that whether its in a boat or the clubhouse, he is a master of creating a relaxed energy around him.


5.         ****** BE EXCEEDINGLY PATIENT ****** 

Each of us has a different "cognitive profile".  There are some cognitive profiles that excel at spatial perception and process visual/auditory information very quickly.  Then there are others that take a while for new motor skill information to be processed.  Its simply dependent on how one's mind happens to be built - and different people are built differently.  It doesn't mean that a person whose brain takes little longer to process new information is stupid or slow.  It just means that our minds have different internal time frames for processing input.  Question... ever met a person who sounded very ditsy in-person, but came across strangely eloquent and intelligent via email?  (I am the epitome of at least the first half of this one.)  That supposedly ditsy person is a classic example of someone whose cognitive profile requires a little extra time to process certain thoughts, which is likely available when they sit down to compose an email, but not feasible during a quick-moving conversation.  Their internal wiring just needs a little extra time to cognitively process information.  It is no different for sailing students.  People's varying cognitive profiles take different amounts of time to process new sailing concepts.  So error on the side of being extra patient.  Give them extra time to learn something and show exceedingly large amounts of patience as they do.


6.         ****** SOMETIMES, JUST LET THEM SAIL ****** 

Ever notice that some sports players are absolutely amazing what they do, but can't explain how they do it?  Ever tried to explain to somebody how to walk?  Seems so simple, so why the disconnect between what we can verbalize and what we can do?  We use different parts of the brain for different activities.  When the sailing student is reading the dinghy handbook as they study for their junior written test, they are primarily using the prefrontal cortex.  This area of the brain is used for rational, discrete knowledge-based problems which requires logical analysis of of what we know.  In contrast, the area of the brain that is used during complex motor skills is in a different area on the rear portion of the frontal lobe.  Yes, a completely different physical area of the brain!  This rear portion of the frontal lobe senses what "feels right" in the physical world.  Processes in this part of the brain are learned by trial and error - not verbal coaching.  The sailing instructor will often use their logical prefrontal cortex to try to explain the nuances of sailing technique, but the student on the tiller is primarily using the rear of the frontal lobe, which learns best from interaction with the physical world.  This is why there is sometimes a disconnect between student and teacher when new complex motor skills are being taught.  Initially when learning a motor skill there is some amount of conscious analysis that needs to be done by the student, but with practice these cognitive operations become more automatic and move to the rear portion of the frontal lobe.  It is sometimes said that “those who can’t do, teach.”  I believe that this is not exactly correct - in fact, it would be better said that the best performers are often unable to teach. The inability to articulate their knowledge is actually a benefit to the performance of these chosen few.  And the instructor's ability to teach motor skills may inhibit their own performance under certain circumstances.  The act of “choking” under pressure is widely understood to be a result of the brain trying to regain conscious control over the motor skills in an effort to improve performance when it matters most. This strategy is a complete disaster as our conscious knowledge is inadequate for the task.  Athletes who have little articulate knowledge of their motor skills are (fortunately for them) unable to execute this strategy and so their motor control remains more consistent under high pressure situations.  When the sailing student is practicing their jibe, they are developing the rear of the frontal lobe of their brain.  That is why no amount of verbal explaining by an instructor alone (which is simultaneously distractingly activating the opposing prefrontal cortex area) can teach them to do a jibe.  They simply need to do it - many times.  Clearly some amount of verbal instruction from the instructor is necessary.  And I'm not saying that verbal coaching is pointless.  But keep in mind that sometimes the best way for them to learn sailing, is just to let them sail...


Fundamental Sailing Instruction Concepts  

  • Learning is voluntary; that is, participants cannot be forced to learn material that is not relevant or meaningful to them.
  • Mutual respect is demanded, not by the expertise of a sailing instructor, but by empathy and sincere interest in student learning
  • There must be a high degree of reciprocal trust and respect, and there is a balance between caring and challenging
  • Sailing instructors and students share a mutual goal: safe, responsible, skilled sailing
  • Past experiences form the basis of new learning
  • The instructional environment should he high challenge and low threat
  • Sailing instructors must be able to adapt to a variety of circumstances and be creative in facilitiating instruction
  • Students should attribute success to their own effort and ability, rather than the instruction of an instructor.


For Adult Sailing Students, Socrates had it Right 


When teaching I try not too speak to much - but if I do, I try to work in a question.  There are two basic types of questions that I use. 


Content-Centered Questions, such as:

  • Where is the mainsheet?
  • What would happen if we luffed the jib?
  • What are the applicable right-of-way rules with that boat up ahead?
  • How much anchor line do we let down?
  • Which side of the dock should we approach on?
  • Which direction is the wind coming from?
  • What is the difference between a sheet and a halyard?

Learner-Centered Questions, such as:

  • What did you learn today?
  • Is there anything that you did not understand?
  • What was the best part of today's sailing lesson?
  • What did you like?
  • What did you not like?
  • Is there anything that you disagree with or that doesn't make sense to you?
  • Does your experience confirm this?
  • Is there anything you would like clarified?
  • Does this make sense?
  • Did anything about this surprise you?


Sailing Maneuver Demonstrations 


Getting on the helm and physically demonstrating a maneuver is an integral part of sailing instruction, especially for maneuvers that require a certain level of finesse such as jibing or man-over-board.  Effective demonstrations serve as a springboard for the development of sailing skill.  There are two primary functions of a demonstration: one is to allow the student to see the movements involved;  the other is reinforce proper sailing techniques such as fluid communication, situational awareness, and attention to safety.   Instructors should keep the following demonstration principles in mind:

  • Demonstrate maneuvers at the speed, difficulty, point-of-sail, etc. that the student will be expected to do it in.
  • Over-communicate such that you are stressing fluid verbalization throughout any maneuver
  • Repeat any demonstrations where you feel the student might not have fully understood the sailing technique
  • Be very conservative in your risk taking to show by example how to exercise good judgement



Reminder to All Skippers:  


·         During low tide, you will likely need the rudder and centerboard all the way up.

·         Please sign out your boat before leaving the dock. 

·         Sign in when you return. 

·         If you can't "sell" your boat when you're ready to leave, please get it out of the water and back in the boatyard.  

·         Tighten the forestay tensioner when taking the boat out of the yard.

·         Loosen the forestay tensioner when putting the boat away.

·         When we have variable winds, think through your plan for leaving the dock and for returning to the dock.

·         Remember to always launch on the leeward side (this may change as the wind changes) of the dock.