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What does sailor-centred coaching look like?

Published Tue 23 Aug 2022

Sailor-centred, or interchangeably known as athlete-centred or participant-centred coaching, is characterised by a variety of coaching behaviours and methodology wherein the needs and wants of the sailor being coached are the primary consideration in decision making processes.  

With a sailor-centred approach, sailors in a coaching environment take ownership of their learning which increases their opportunity to retain important skills, knowledge, and ideas. This learning also develops a sailors’ ability to make informed decisions during competition, an essential element in success at any stage of a sailor’s development. In addition, sailor-centred coaching helps sailors to take leadership roles, develop ownership of their outcomes, and enhances the training group culture. 

A sailor-centred approach is a desirable characteristic of coaches and below, are some practical ways which you can begin to incorporate sailor-centred coaching into your season plans and session delivery:  

Knowing the Sailor

To be a sailor-centred coach, knowing and understanding the individual you are coaching is important. This can occur through both formal methods such as questionnaires, interviews, and observations as well as informal conversations & interactions, the latter being an effective method for developing genuine coach-sailor relationships.  

Knowing the sailor involves understanding a wide variety of factors, which all influence how the individual sees the world, and what drives them. These factors can include understanding their family context, how they have been coached in the past, what they value and appreciate, what other priorities and interests they have, and their interest in other sports which they might participate in.  

By understanding our sailor’s, we can ensure we know how to facilitate learning for everyone in the group. Every time you are with the sailors you coach, it is important to take the opportunity to reflect on what you really know about them, and understand, what is their context?

Some key questions you could set yourself to find the answers to, over the period of the season that would help with this are: 

  • Do I know how old my sailors are? 
  • How long have they been sailing? – what has been their journey through the sport? 
  • What are their interests? - school subjects, sports teams, and activities outside of sailing? 
  • Does the sailor play other sports? If so, what are they and at what level?  
  • What success, adversity or challenges has the sailor had both in and out of sailing? 
  • What are the sailors’ goals and aspirations? 

By beginning to understand these factors, we can show empathy in our approach and get a broader view of the sailors’ context. 

Individual development 

‘Knowing the sailor’ also means knowing their strengths, weaknesses, and areas of development, both from your own perspective as an educated coach and their perspective as a sailor. This means understanding and defining what the sailor needs to develop, as well as what they want to develop.  

Individual development should involve keeping a written record of each participants strengths, weaknesses, and ongoing development outcomes. This process can be supported by progress sheets for each sailor, as well as encouraging sailors to keep regular reflection journals and having informal conversations to provide them with opportunity to have input into their individual development. 

Sailor-centred coaching does not always mean sailor-led coaching. Whilst there should be significant opportunity for sailors to have ownership in the development process, there are also moments where the coach’s expertise and understanding requires them to mandate the direction or be explicit, in the best interest of the sailor. The simple example of this is a sailor who may not be keen on practicing in light airs but is instructed to by the coach if this is required for their ongoing success and is something that will contribute to the sailor fulfilling their longer-term goals. 

‘’Game’’ based approach

A game-based approach emphasises the development of sailors in and through the ‘’game’’, rather than learning techniques or skills in isolated contexts and applying them to the ‘’game’’. Sessions typically involve modified small/medium/large racecourse designs with constraints put in place by the coach to achieve desired session outcomes, which are typically focused on the principles of play or a race moment (e.g., creating congestion at a start line by using short lines or setting up box starts). 

In each session, there is typically a group theme, aligned to an overall task the training group are working on (e.g., starting), as well as individual themes (e.g., developing a specific skill during the start such as acceleration). These themes can be both short-term (one session or one week) and long-term (months to years) and usually involve some sort of emphasis on a particular technical, tactical, physical, or mental outcome. The coach would spend most time in most sessions providing feedback to sailors based on their individual themes, whilst ensuring, the group theme is being developed. 

Individual task constraints

More specifically, within a game-based approach, coaches can aim to design specific individual task constraints to support sailors in their individual development journeys. Aligned with the individual themes described above, this can involve either setting specific challenges (e.g., asking a sailor to be on the line for a short training race and hold position at 30 seconds to go) or providing constraints within the scope of the overall exercise, and incentivising the development of the individual skill (e.g., winning the start will win the training race for that session). This provides an opportunity for sailors to become attuned to and aware of opportunities to develop on their individual targets and outcomes within the broader scope of the session. 

Feedback and reflection

Part of the process to creating a sailor-centred coaching environment, should involve ongoing personal feedback and reflection, so that sailors have information and knowledge to support their development. This should include the use of video, both sailor themselves and world class best practice examples, as well as post-training conversations about their progress. To further enhance this, you can encourage sailors to use reflection journals and questions the sailors can complete at home.  


Sailing can provide an individual the opportunity to learn many lessons that apply to life, such as, achievement, failure, teamwork, adaptability, winning, pride, overcoming adversity, purpose and more. As coaches, if we create environments with the sailor at the heart, then we can help them navigate through the ups and downs, ensuring they develop foremost as people, as well as skilled sailors. 

A sailors’ journey can be varied, but if we take the right approach, individuals will stay involved in sailing, and at clubs for life. 

Your coaching processes will continue to evolve, and inevitably, your sailor-centred coaching will continue to develop further, as you explore new ways of bringing sailor-centred coaching to life in your sessions, and with the interactions you have with the sailors’ you coach. 

Take a long-term view, know your sailors, know their story, know their context, and then put it into practice. 

This article is adapted from an original article by Tim Palmer which can be found here, we thank Tim for his permission to use the information.

Happy Coaching!