With the revamped US Sailing Olympic Development Program announced recently, junior sailors around the country will be making a push to earn invitations to "ODP" Training Camps, but in the scramble to get on the inside track, it's important to keep the fundamentals first, and keep the big picture in perspective. Every month, I coach sailors who believe that they're just one revolutionary piece of advice away from a breakthrough performance - that all they need to do is find the right coach, who can tell them how to sail the boat correctly, and that they'll suddenly jump to the front of the fleet.
The truth is that the best coaches - the ones who consistently produce standout athletes - aren't primarily teaching boat speed, tactics, or boat handling. The aspects of training which cause the best sailors to rise to the top of the stack have more to do with big picture program creation, which over time create the other advantages. While coaching from an expert in your class can certainly be a useful tool in the climb to the top, and the US Sailing ODP will definitely be a great resource for sailors looking to compete at the top international level, if you think that getting advice from the ODP coaches is the big boost you need to jettison you to the top of the fleet, it's probably a good idea to take a step back and evaluate your big picture program first.
Focus on the process of improving
Kevin Hall wrote an awesome article for Sailing Anarchy about the importance of "meta-practice", or practicing the process of practice (if you haven't read the article, check it out here). In the article, he argued that the best America's Cup teams aren't the ones who practice effectively right out of the gates, but the ones who develop a systematic training process over time. In junior sailing, this idea is even more pronounced because of the fact that there is such a wide range in training programs and skill levels.
The first, and most important part of this idea is that in order to improve, you need to reflect on every single practiced session. Getting on the water for a few hours is a great way to keep your skills sharp, and build up muscle memory which will help you execute on race day, but if you're not spending some time after practice, talking or at least thinking about what went well, and what didn't you will not progress beyond mastering the fundamentals. "Practice makes permanent", so only perfect practice can make perfect. Unless you are already doing a technique perfectly, practicing without reflecting on what needs to change will only solidify improper techniques and habits, so even if you just pick one lesson to reflect on from each practice, start cataloging lessons learned, and using those to dictate the focus of future practices.
The second point that Kevin articulates well, is that not all of your reflection should be about speed, tactics, and boat handling; the best sailors spend time thinking about the process before anything else. If you can create a habit of reviewing your practice efficiency, and finding places to improve the time spent on and off of the water, you will get more out of each practice, and over time, will develop the edge that will put you at the top of the leader-board.
How can you get the most out of the US Sailing ODP Camps?
With a solid plan for improvement in place, the ODP training camps and regattas will be a great supplement to your training schedule, so when you have the opportunity to take advantage of the coaching, it's important to go in with a plan. In our 29er HP camps, we strive to send sailors home with a clear picture of their next month's training requirements, and at the ODP's this should be the goal for your team. Take notes, write down quotes from coaches, and be sure to ask questions about what the most important things for you to work on are. If you do a good job at the camp, you should have material to work on for several weeks after.
Finally, own your own development. Don't adopt a technique just because a coach tells you it's right unless you fully understand, and agree that the technique is superior. As a coach, one of the most rewarding experience for me is to have sailors question techniques that I'm teaching. The main job of a coach is to help sailors learn the process of improvement, and a major part of that process is questioning new techniques until you totally understand them, and feel comfortable enough to call them yours. There are many ways to go fast, so ask questions, and don't wait for the magic bullet.
The bottom line is that being the best is never an overnight development. There is no magic bullet, so it's important to put together a plan that is completely within your control regardless of whether or not you get selected for a training camp, and then execute, taking advantage of opportunities if they arise.