The Hard Work Behind the Smooth Sailing: Singapore Sailing Federation


Singapore Sailing Team and Supporters at 2014 YOG
Singapore Sailing Team and Supporters at 2014 YOG (Photo Credit SNOC).

The Hard Work behind the Smooth Sailing

Tan Wearn Haw, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF) shares about the journey and philosophies behind SSF’s high performance programmes for national sailors.

SSF has recently revamped the developmental High Performance Programmes. Tell us more about the process, issues and the philosophies behind the revamp.
In 2010, we created an Olympic Pathway Taskforce with the intent of identifying key gaps and the success factors needed for sailing to succeed at the Rio Olympics 2016 and beyond. We worked with key influencers in upstream planning and downstream implementation, domain experts including the Singapore Sport Institute and experts who can provide  us with insights from outside of sailing. We also undertook a hard analysis of statistics and empirical data.
The review took six months and it allowed us to scrutinise our systems and processes, and pushed us to adopt a long term view of high performance sailing development in order to guarantee the growth and sustainability of the high performance aspects of sailing in Singapore. Out of this arose a  number of key theme.

First, we needed to build a system where athletes and stakeholders can implicitly trust one another, one that is open, fair and meritocratic, ensuring that the better athletes will always step forward to do their best for Singapore.

An environment with healthy competition, drive for excellence and culture of innovation and effort, is vital for high performance sports to evolve. Character development is now a focus in our athletes’ development and we placed much emphasis on hard work over (perceived) talent.

We also recognise that it takes a combination of effort to get the desired performance. Note that we focus on performances as opposed to results. Good performances should (though not always) lead to good results, and we are aware that performances can be engineered while results cannot. Overall, it was an effort to stick to strong fundamentals and keep things simple.
What are some of the key strategies/programmes put into place that support the themes identified?
With the idea that “iron sharpens iron” we made sure that our athletes from the different age groups and Olympic pathway classes were racing in the toughest fields against their top peers from around the world. This is crucial to allow us to realistically benchmark our performances and finesse the programmes. This is one key strategy of the Olympic Pathway's recommendations, which was to continuously give our sailors the chance to benchmark themselves against the best in the (real) world.
Secondly, we choose to steer away from earmarking 'talent' prematurely, especially since sailing is a late development sport. We let the athletes' performances and results speak for themselves, and choose to instead “develop the fleet” and not the individual. When coupled with our implementation of a transparent selection process (simple language, easy to understand and based on results) it prevents any discord and allows all stakeholders to have confidence in the system. This ensures that the best athletes will step forward.

"Youth Olympic Game Gold Medallists with Coach, L to R, Ynez Lim, Samantha Yom, Bernie Chin, Fernando Algre.

We also want to develop sailors with good character. We feel that because of the nature of Sailing as an “open sport” with many variables such as the sea/weather, officials and opponents - all of which can affect the outcome of a race, the best skill set that our athletes should possess is independence of minds and adaptability. Accordingly, we are continuously working with all pathway coaches to drive a mentality of collective growth and development of the sailors, their skillsets, experience/exposure and mental abilities with a shared focus on the ultimate goal – the Olympics and beyond, and not merely the particular class of boat they sailed at junior or youth levels.
We also took the position of shying away from seeking special dispensations or privileges for the athletes, for example, whether for leave or school work. Our belief is that the athlete must have the ability to work around difficulties or obstacles - which is the same in any life circumstance. Though we saw it important to put a “team around a team” – meaning a support network of coaches, sports scientists, medical personnel and athlete advisors, it was equally important that we not “wrap them in cotton wool”.   For athletes who are focused and committed to excellence in sailing, the earlier they are exposed to the (sometimes harsh) realities of top level sports and life, the better it is for their development.
We are adamant in creating a culture of passion and sustainability and as such, our athletes are required to co-fund their own efforts, just like their peers elsewhere who are campaigning for Olympics. We believe that an athletes’ investment of their own resources goes a long way to shaping their commitment as well as creating sustainability for the sport overall. This was the case with the recent 2014 YOG medallists Bernie and Sam. The motivation has to be intrinsic, because when they are on the start line, they are up against opponents who are just as 'hungry' as they are!
Essentially what we (or the system) can do is to bring our athletes to within that 'striking distance' come Games time. At the highest levels, anyone in the top 8 or 12 would have a decent shot at winning a medal , so it depends on who has the week of their lives!
Many of these initiatives reflect changes in mental models – what are the tools that will be used to effect this change?
From a granular performance perspective, we used a variety of measurement and tracking instruments utilising both leading (in areas of training, skill development, fitness testing, coaching feedback etc.) and lagging (e.g. tracking of event results, post-mortems etc.) indicators as well as functional fitness and medical screening instruments. Sailing is a blend of art and science, so while we can be very specific and targeted, we recognise that there is a human aspect to it as well. So, the system looks at how to help the coaching and support teams function at their best, and they in turn would have the space and comfort to help the athletes realise their fullest potentials.

We also believe in the importance of the organisational development as a whole and the overall improvement of SSF's internal HR management and development allows our people to continuously grow and develop as individuals and as a group. This equips us with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to continuously improve on the way we do things. The scientific nature of sailing requires fair amount of hardware as tools, but our most important resource are our people and their passion and ideas! So 'heartware' is just as important as well!

At the end of the day, it is not rocket science… And just like what we constantly remind our sailors about working hard and working smart, it applies to the people in the wider system as well!

YOG Team Welcome Back at Airport (Photo Credit SSF
"Youth Olympic Games Team Welcome Back at Airport (Photo Credit SSF).

For more information, please refer to the Olympic Pathway for sailing. .

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