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Addressing attraction and retention in Womens sailing

by Richard Gladwell/ 7 Jun 06:41 BST 7 June 2019
Sailor and designer Elise Beavis - an Emirates Team NZ Performance and Design Engineer - is also regular competitor on the foiling WASZP - America's Cup 2017 © Emirates Team New Zealand

There was a very interesting statistic buried in the results of this year's Toyota New Zealand Optimist Nationals.

In the Green fleet, for essentially first year sailors, 40% of the fleet was female. In the Gold fleet, for the more experienced Optimist sailors the percentage of female competitors had dropped to 12.5%.

Contrary to the popular view, women sailors are being attracted via the Optimist class, but the statistic says they are exiting very quickly.

"We've just completed a Women and Girls Sailing Strategy," says Yachting New Zealand CEO, David Abercrombie when asked his response to the Optimist statistic. "It will be released shortly."

"It's been a six month project and there has been a lot of really good information come out of it. But there is some quite disturbing news in the research as well," he adds.

Abercrombie says that while YNZ doesn't have any influence over what happens in the junior and intermediate classes, but notes that the parents have a lot of influence.

"There is a level of bullying going on - both on the water and off the water. That's not just boys bullying girls either, there's evidence of the reverse going on - but to a lesser extent."

"We're putting in place systems where we can help class associations to manage some of these things, without stepping into their space", he says.

"We certainly don't want to tell them how to run their associations, but we need to make parents and kids understand what acceptable levels of behavior are."

The study has identified that sailor and parental behavior is a significant issue in retention. A lot of the offensive side-line behavior that is seen in other sports has crept into sailing.

“One of the most chilling things was that after the last Sir Peter Blake Regatta, there was was whiteboard session conducted with kids and parents, it highlighted among other issues the extent of the bullying on and off the water by coaches and sailors. I was surprised at what I heard,” Abercrombie said. “I was totally unaware that some of this behaviour was going on. It was really disappointing,” he added.

"Like all sports we have parents who vicariously try living their lives through their children. We've had many comments come back in that regard. A lot of the offenders are sailing parents", he adds.

Escaping their parents

Another interesting comment that was uncovered in the study, was that some sailors said they enjoyed getting into the Youth programs, “because we [Yachting NZ] do not allow parents to be involved in the Youth programs. We do communicate and encourage them to come along to the educational sessions. But on the water they have nothing to do with the program at all.”

"With the Youth classes we have things in place like Codes of Conduct, and Contracts with Coaches. We are hoping to extend that through sailors and class associations, and particularly with travelling teams. We want parents to sign those as well.”

"If parents understand the risks around retaining kids in the sport, then maybe their behaviours will change."

The study extended beyond the Optimists and included all classes up from Optimists to Keelboats. "We went as far and wide as we possibly could."

"We also looked at what the international trends were, and what other countries do, what World Sailing are trying to do in this space, and what other sports in New Zealand are doing."

"Rugby, football, cricket have all gone a long way towards understanding the challenges around retaining women and girls in sport - and growing that side of the sport. New Zealand is very, very involved in this space."

"There isn't one answer to everything. There are a number of areas we need to look at. Culture, although difficult to define, is a really major factor in retaining people in any sport. But we have to be careful about just throwing that out as a catch-all term."

"The Welfare and Wellbeing of coaches and sailors is a very important and a critical component going forward."

Another factor is to reduce the emphasis on winning in kid sport.

"It has to be fun, you have to create opportunities for girls and boys to be able to sail with their friends. We have to be cognisant of overdoing the racing side of sport, the number of hours kids spend on the water, the intensity with which training takes place. The way that coaches demand excellence from youngsters - when maybe they don't want to be spending six hours on the water every day."

"We need to look at the number of races that are held in National Championships. Five and six days of Opti Nationals to a lot of parents is an issue. Cost of equipment is an issue. Lots of families have children that are in multiple classes, so getting the calendar right is a big piece of it."

The quality of club coaches was also an important .

"The important thing when kids go into a club is that they have a good experience. If they have a bad experience, it is very hard to get that attraction back."

Part of the new strategy will be to how clubs look at certain areas - without being prescriptive, accepting that many clubs may already be working well already.

"The idea is to have a raft of things that clubs can draw from. We see that as being quite beneficial."

Yachting NZ will use their junior coaches, talent development and youth team to put together a communications plan to identify the key components to giving young sailors a good experience, having good coaching and good engagement and helping to create a good culture amongst the kids and clubs.

"Hopefully that will flow onto the class associations and the girls will take it through with them as they progress through the Junior, youth and onto the Olympic classes, and potentially beyond that into keelboat fleet and match racing."

Promoting career option for Women in Professional Sailing

“We want to demonstrate that there are opportunities for girls who want to stay in the sport, with both educational and commercial opportunities.”

Abercrombie says the perception with males who go into a high performance program then you will end up with a job in an America’s Cup team, or on TP52 or similar.

He points to the impact that women sailing in the last Volvo Ocean Race as part of a mixed crew has had in other areas of the sport.

“Leadership roles opening up are really important, and that is what we are going to promote.”

He sees roles opening up for women in the marine industry in management roles or as sail makers, rigging, engineering and design.

“We have to open up those opportunities so young women can understand the options and what is available.”

Abercrombie says he doesn't believe this type of education is being done particularly well at present . He believes that Yachting New Zealand can facilitate the understanding and help create the various pathways, for both genders.

Reflecting back on the three sports mentioned - Rugby, Cricket and Football - and of late the increase in participation by women, he accepts that in two of the sports - Rugby and Football, both are now Olympic sports thanks to gender equality requirements by the International Olympic Committee. He notes that all three are quite differently funded than Sailing.

“What we want is to retain girls, women and boys in the sport. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be part of an Olympic program.”

“That 12.5% (of Girls) of the Optimist Gold fleet are probably quite critical to our Youth and Olympic programs. But that future intake might also come from the 40% in the green fleet who are currently dropping out because they are having a poor experience, and who leave the sport.”

“We know that children develop physically and mentally at different rates.”

“If we lose them early, it is much harder to get them back.”

“If we have children enjoying the sport and we grow that number then hopefully we will see more coming through, and girls in particular wanting to remain in the sport with a number of those then going down the High Performance pathway.”

Optimist overstayers

He says that the issues are well known of young sailors staying in the Optimist class for too long, and similarly with the Youth classes.

“I think that sometimes we put too great an emphasis on Youth Worlds and that we would be better to focus on class worlds.”

The point being that like the Olympics only one crew can be sent to a Youth Worlds, but with class worlds multiple crews can be sent. “But again there is not point in sending young sailors off to class worlds if they are just going to take a pasting.”

“Sending a 29er crew off to a class worlds, who have been together for six weeks, just because their parents want them go to a class worlds, is not necessarily the right thing to do.”

Abercrombie says the value of Squads has been demonstrated with the 49er and Laser classes (where multiple New Zealand crews finish in the top ten of an international event). “Should we be looking more to those areas,” he asks?

Currently Yachting NZ has 70-80 sailors in its junior and Youth programs - of which Abercrombie estimates 40% are female. “But it is a fairly targeted group.”

He points to the new Mixed 470 class maybe opening up some new options. “Regardless of what you think, the decision has been made, and we have to run with it,” he notes.

“We have more children in New Zealand interested in sailing a Mixed 420, that we have in separate Boys and Girls classes. We have four or five teams wanting to sail Mixed 470’s, and currently we have just one womens 470 crew and one men s 470 crew.”

“I think we will see a growth in 470’s in this part of the World [NZ and Australia]”, he adds. That includes re-evaluating the Youth pathway so that the Boys and Girls 420 events at the Youth Worlds becomes a single Mixed event.

Despite that comment he believes the Open 420 fleets will continue - “because a lot of the young sailors want to be able to sail with their friends - and it is a big part of retaining young sailors in the sport, with the Open fleet option still there, we allow that to happen.”

Another aspect that came out of the study is that girls have a lot of trouble finding crew. He points to the 49erFX where currently New Zealand has a couple of very good potential female skippers, “but we do not have high quality female crews.”

“That’s not something that just gets pulled out of thin air. One of the nice things we have seen developing over the past few years is that crew are as well recognised as the skippers. Previously it was just the skippers that got the accolades.”

The conundrum in the 2024 Olympic scenario are that in Sailing 40% of the events will be for Mixed crews, which in other sports only 6% of the events will be for Mixed crews, and many sports like Rowing and Canoeing will have no Mixed events.

Sailing has decided to pursue a gender equal sport (ignoring the collateral damage in some Mens events) the female competitors for both the Womens events and Mixed events are ostensibly being drawn from that 12.5% in the Open Optimist fleet.

“That is the space we have to work in,” Abercrombie explains. “We have to create change. We need to get more Girls into the Gold fleet. While there are some issues further up in 29ers and 420s, the real issue is the female attrition rates in the Optimist fleets in particular, and we are starting to understand the reasons why those girls are not carrying on in the sport.”

He points to may angles - the cost, the time and giving up other opportunities for children at an Optimist sailor age to be involved in the arts and music, other sports and spending quality time with their friends and family.

“Perhaps it is only those who are committed to the sport who will go through. But we need to create opportunities for girls and boys to come down and only spend a couple of hours on the water, and still be able to go and participate in those other interests. That requires clubs and coaches to look at the programmes that they run - so that they listen to the sailors and listen to what they want. They might not always be right, but we have to listen and take some of what they are saying on board.”

“We know that if you can keep someone in a sport for five years, there is about an 80% chance they will stay in that sort for life.”

“But if you lose them in the first year, your chances of getting them back are very slim.”

The study will be published in a few months.

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