Finland's Optimist World in Review

It was a privilege to be appointed the coach of Optimist Sailing Team Finland for the 2017 IODA World Championships in Thailand this July. After coaching in Finland for four seasons this was my second time leading the Finnish Worlds Team, the previous campaign in 2015.

Over the past 7 years coaching has been my absolute passion. Whilst corresponding little with my professional services ambition and my university studies I have felt compelled to continue to coach. The reward of seeing young kids develop not only into great sailors, but outstanding young teenagers is incredibly fulfilling. Watching the young mind learn and develop - seeing that light bulb switch on. This, combined with my love for sailing and the ocean has fuelled my passion and consumed much of my life. Naturally, as a sport coach I am motivated by results and performance. After a World Championship, it's important to sit down, reflect and review about what can be done to further fast track young sailors development and ultimately lead to improved international performances.

Background

Since 2014, through Zealous, I have been lucky to work with sailors from around the world. After coaching the NZIODA World Championships Team in 2016, this year I was appointed the NZIODA Technical Coach. In this role I returned to New Zealand early June to run two NZIODA training clinics along side NZIODA travelling team coaches. Outside of New Zealand, in 2016 and 2017 I have had a long standing relationship with the Riga Yacht Club, facilitating their Optimist programme through our "Zealous Sailing Programme" and running several Zealous Sailing Baltic Development Clinics. In Finland, I have run an Optimist programme with Brändö Seglare r.f. A club built upon family values, that has supported Zealous the past 24 months to help build a strong base for Optimist sailing in Finland, boasting 18 sailors in the recent national qualification. This year the club team went on this year to qualify three sailors for the Finland World Championship Team, one sailor for the Finland European Championship Team and eight sailors for the Finland Optimist Nordic Championship Team.

Regatta

From New Zealand, to Finland, to the Baltic's it has been a particularly adventurous and rewarding 24 months. However the highlight each year is arguably the IODA World Championships. This Championship brings together the top 5 sailors from over 60 countries to take part in the most competitive Under-16 sailing regatta on the planet. This years Championship was held in Pattaya City, Thailand, with 271 competitors across 62 countries and was clearly one of the most competitive world championships yet. The conditions consisted primarily of 5 -12 knots, with moderate current and a difficult "sloppy" sea state. 12 races were scheduled across six days of racing, with three days of qualifying followed by three days of final series racing. Due to light winds, only 9 races were completed.

Optimist Sailing Team Finland had a new look for 2017, with all five sailors competing in their first IODA World Championship. In fact, only one sailor had competed in an IODA regatta prior to the World Championships. With a young team eager to gain experience, it was certainly important to treat the trip as an invaluable learning opportunity, without paying too much attention to the score board. The goal was for sailors to merely do their best and learn as many lessons as possible.

All five sailors had fantastic individual races posting scores in the top 10. With one discard across 12 races it gave sailors little room for error, each competitor desperately aiming to make it through qualifying with a set of "keepers". This year the race committee selected to run particularly short first upwind legs, thus, placing increased pressure on the start line. Sailors had little opportunity to implement any kind of strategy before they found themselves forced to consolidate towards the top mark. Those sailors that couldn't get off the line clearly found little solace on the corners of the course.

To do well in such a championship sailors needed to be incredibly well rounded. They needed to come from a background of difficult conditions and have exceptional feel and balance. Attention to fine details such as mainsheet trim, windward and leeward heel had never been so important. In short, the Finnish Team found themselves on a steep learning curve - doing their best to improve and develop throughout the series.

Out of 62 countries Finland finished 34th in the Nations Cup. Our Scandinavian neighbours Sweden finished 8th, Denmark 25th, Norway 41st. Reflecting on this results - what can we do to improve our nations performance? And how can we get up to speed with our big brother?

Review

Sweden, like Finland, has comprehensive club Optimist programmes across the country. From what I have seen, there is similar ambition held by both sailors, families and clubs to pursue Optimist sailing at a high level. The weather/climate is the same. Both nations have rich sailing traditions and have performed exceptional well on the world sailing stage. As a coach of a national team like the IODA World Championship Team I always enjoy sitting down with a pen and paper and brainstorming ideas that we (as a nation) could do better to improve our (Finland) level of Optimist sailing.

After much through, I believe that one of the first things that we could do in Finland is to bring all our club Optimist winter programmes together in order to achieve a common goal - that goal - develop Finnish Optimist sailors racing ability on an international stage.

I can think of a handful of clubs off the top of my head in Finland that have active winter tours, taking part in regattas in Spain, Italy and the Netherlands under the leadership of their club trainer. These programmes typically operate from November through to April. Throughout these "Winter Tours", clubs very rarely share resources, and whilst all the sailors may very well be from the same city, the result is four or five Finnish club teams taking part in a competition where teams share no resources, briefings or team building exercises. Sure - the coaches might have a beer together at the end of days racing, but otherwise the four teams may as well be from different countries.

- I am guilty of taking part in this. I have run two winter programmes- holding clinics very much independently of any other Finnish Team. I believe they have really helped my sailors get to the top, with several sailors going on to qualify for the Finnish worlds team - but this is kind of missing the point - this is a short sighted vision that isn't building Finnish Optimist Sailing as a whole. We need to bring Finnish sailors together, build and develop these young athletes as one big group. First of all, this would achieve unity between all the sailors and coaches under "Optimist Team Finland", and I firmly believe that it would increase the sailors rate of racing development. I think a nation that does this incredibly well is the Netherlands. Led by Pim Stumpel, the Dutch have a great model where the National Team trains at home together, plus travels and competes as one team abroad. They proudly wear their Dutch team uniform, and everyone in the Optimist community knows they've become a formidable opponent in the last 10 years.

Whilst the Dutch Optimist model may be too extreme for us in Finland at the moment it is a good example. If we are eager to improve the Finnish level of Optimist sailing why not try something similar?

The Finnish season currently consists of 5 national ranking competitions that constitute the National Ranking Series. Sailors from all around Finland attend these competitions, traveling to Kuopio, Turku, Espoo and Helsinki. At the end of the 5 competitions sailors have their individual national ranking. The top 80 or 90 sailors in the Ranking Series are then offered a place in the Finnish Qualification Series (for FODA Worlds, European & Nordic Championships) the following year. Zealous proposes making the Ranking Series more meaningful by selecting the top 25 sailors (for example) to take part in an Optimist Team Finland Winter Programme.

Having an Optimist Team Finland Winter Programme during the off season (November-April) where the clubs pool their resources together to build a common winter tour would be excellent. Led by the Finnish Optimist Dingy Association (FODA), 25 sailors based off the national ranking series would be invited to take part in Optimist Sailing Team Finland Winter Tour. All the major clubs would need to buy in, pooling resources such a trailers, ribs and vehicles together. FODA would employ club coaches directly to lead the team of 25 to three pre-determined winter events. For example, Torrevieja, Palamos & Garda.

Having a unified Optimist Sailing Team Finland competing during the Winter would achieve the following...

1. Give greater purpose and meaning to the National Ranking Series - arguably leading to a more competitive national series.

2. Bring the top 25 sailors (for example) under one team umbrella to achieve a common goal.

3. Sailors further developing friendships, sailing skills, team building skills and national pride.

4. Sailors recognise what it means to represent their country and be a member of Optimist Sailing Team Finland.

5. Coaches bring together their knowledge and experience to achieve a common goal for Finnish Sailing.

5. FODA present sailors from all clubs with an equal opportunity.

Finland is a small sailing nation. It includes a number of fantastic sailing clubs that have rich traditions and success in the sport. As Optimist sailing continues to become even more competitive and demanding, I firmly believe that an idea like this, or something similar would help bind young Finnish sailors together and fast track sailor development. It would help further develop and prepare our young sailors for the demands of the sport. I am fortunate enough to have a group of 18 racing Optimist sailors at Brändö Seglare, and I know that I would certainly support all of them to take part in a Optimist SailingTeam Finland Winter Programme in 2017/2018.

I am passionate about Optimist sailing in Finland. Whether my ideas are good or not, I work with young sailors because I want to help them achieve their goal of making it to the top. A programme, like the one above could be a fantastic stepping stone to help them get there.

Sam McKenzie