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Is Optimist Competition Pushing Kids Too Hard?

29th March 2014
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optimist dinghy racing
The Optimist dinghy – one of the most popular children's classes in the world and one where many of today's sailing champions cut their teeth. Photo: Bob Bateman
Is Optimist Competition Pushing Kids Too Hard?

#opti – As Ireland prepares to welcome a record fleet of youngsters to the Optimist dinghy European Championships in Dun Laoghaire in four months time, Afloat.ie reader David Quinn questions the level of intensity of this winter's training and asks is this developing a life long love for sailing, or creating the environment where a tiny minority can push for Olympic Glory, while the rest take up another sport? 

I live close to the Harbour in Howth, County Dublin so I tend to walk the pier or drive past the Yacht Club most weekends. This winter, much more than previous years, I have become really bothered and concerned at the extent of winter junior training sessions, particularly with the Optimist Class.

I started sailing relatively late so don't have much knowledge or experience of the Optimist Class. I started out in Mirrors before moving to Standard Rig Lasers. We trained hard, as an informal group, in Howth and competed internationally, but this was only in our late teens and early twenties. It is noticeable how many of my peers from that time are still sailing now and have a great love for the sport. I put that down to the huge fun we had racing Mirrors in Sutton Dinghy Club and at Regional events.

The major issues facing our sport are the fall off in memberships, declining activity and the lack of youth members in our clubs. I think a close scrutiny of the Optimist class would go some way to explaining some of the underlying problems in our sport!

I don't have an exact count, but the Optimists must have done at least four intensive training weekends, each with six hours of training per day. I'm not involved in the class so I can't be certain of the timing or intensity, but they seemed to launch before 10am and finish at dusk most days. I'm sure they came in for lunch. Is this developing a life long love for sailing, or creating the environment where a tiny minority can push for Olympic Glory, while the rest take up another sport?

I know some in the ISA are very concerned with this level of intensity for such young sailors, but the class, driven by over-ambitious parents, takes no notice. I doubt this is developing a life-long love for the sport, and I doubt it is even encouraging the kids to become elite sailors.

Maybe 1/100 will make it to senior international funded sailing? I would love to see a wider debate on the subject? I know when I was in my teens I sailed Mirrors and had a ball. It wasn't exactly an elite pathway class, but most of my peers from those days still race and sail very actively 25 years later. There must be a lesson there and it would make for an interesting study?

David Quinn (40) is a Laser and SB20 Sportsboat sailor from Howth Yacht Club and a former racing manager of the ISA.

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