Dave Ullman On Olympic Coaching
A winner of copious world and national titles and the figurehead of one of the most successful global sail making companies, Dave Ullman, has platinum-grade credentials in the yacht racing community. In his competitive heyday Ullman won three 470 world championships but never got the chance to compete for an Olympic medal. However, he will be out on the water in Rio during this summer’s Olympic Games – albeit not as a competitor, but as coach for the American women’s 470 representatives, first-time Olympians Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha. Earlier this year we sat down with the easy going Californian – who turns 70 this year - to quiz him about his coaching style.
Sail Racing Magazine: How did you come to get linked up with Annie and Briana?
Dave Ullman: In 2014, Charlie McKee, who is the director of the US Olympic Sailing Team, asked if I would spend one regatta with them. It was their first Olympic ‘quad’ and they needed some help with how you approach a big regatta. They had had some very good results but they still felt like they needed some help. So we did the regatta - an event Hyeres, France - and they got on the podium. At that point we looked at each other and said: ‘Why would we stop now?’
SRM: How much of a time commitment is coaching a crew for the Olympics?
DU: Being naive about it, I initially imagined it would be 60 or so days a year of my time. However, the reality is that it's been more in the range of 150 to 200 days per year. So it's basically a full time job.
The bulk of the time I spend with the girls is based around the events and the training they do immediately before the events. They have done some non-event based training in Miami and I spent a little of that time with them, but not very much. You can do all the training and sail testing that you need to do just at the event venues on the circuit.
SRM: How would you describe the way the three of you operate?
DU: Annie and Briana have got to a place now where they know what's going on and my role is to assist rather than dictate or lead. I'm really just giving little titbits of help here and there where I can. That means we are getting closer to our ultimate goal, which is that by the Olympics they understand all the parts of what's required of them and they can do all of that on their own. The idea is that I can just say: “Nice Job!” and then hand them their lunches out of the coach boat.
The three of us communicate pretty well but I wouldn't say we have an absolute format and we tend to work on the fly a lot. When I'm confused about what to do, I call my wife, because she never gets confused and can always give a clear outside perspective.
SRM: Talk us through a typical day at a regatta for the three of you.
DU: When I wake up I start off by checking the weather and taking another look at the scores. The girls get to the dinghy park one hour and 15 minutes before the D-flag [Ed. Note: the flag that holds the fleet ashore until dropped by the race committee]. We spend 15 minutes briefing, then they spend an hour getting ready and then I tow them out to the racecourse. The earlier the D-flag the better, some venues do 45 minutes and that's just not long enough to even tow out and get ready. I dislike the D-flag immensely. I believe that whatever your routine needs, you should be able to do. Why should the race committee restrict how much time the sailors choose to prepare on the water?
After racing we do a 30 minute debrief. Our rule is no longer than half an hour. If you can't say it half an hour, then it's not worth saying. With these two girls there is no need to go over things repeatedly.
SRM: Tell us about how you interact with the girls on the water over a race day?
DU: Out on the water the key job is getting them set up properly for the prevailing conditions. I take stills of their setup before each race and I talk to them about how the boat feels. They are busy before the start so I will go and sight down the line and then I will talk to them about what compass course the line is set up for. I give them my impressions of the first leg. I throw in my two cents every time, but our understanding is that they are totally free to do whatever they want to do.
SRM: Describe a typical conversation when they come alongside your coach boat?
DU: We will have done a debrief already in the morning before we left the dock, so I just give them a very quick reminder of what the weatherman said. I ask them if they are comfortable with their setup and we might discuss something around that. Then I give them a summary of what I'm thinking and Annie gives me what she is thinking. Then she makes the final decision. She has to execute on the plan, so she gets to make the call. It has to be what she’s comfortable with in her mind, not what I’m comfortable with in my mind.
Between races they will eat and we will typically do about two minutes of conversation, max. We talk about some ideas for the next race - we never go back to the last race. We never go backwards, only forwards. That was a process I had to learn and something between the three of us that we had to work on. Initially I would go in with: “Here's what you should have done…” I learned pretty quickly that's not the right way to go. So we keep the on the water feedback sessions very brief and then break everything down in the debrief ashore - that's the time to talk about it all and to go backwards and look at things in detail.
SRM: It must sometimes be difficult to disguise your emotions, say if you are feeling frustrated with them?
DU: You have to remind yourself that everything you do - short term and long term - has to be aimed at making them better. When you are a coach - it's not about you, it's about them.
As a coach, you always have to be upbeat and if you get frustrated, then you have to hold it inside. In the early days I got quite frustrated, often. In fact, the first regatta we did I turned up with a bandaged foot. I had broken it the week before and it was pretty much on the mend – that was until I kicked the side of the coach boat and re-broke it again.
SRM: You seem to get on really well with each other. Is there ever tension between the three of you?
DU: Of course there is! When you are dealing with elite athletes of course it doesn't always go smoothly. But I can tell you that it goes much smoother with girls than boys. Boys throw it back in your face quite often. Ultimately they will probably do what you want them to do, but their first reaction is negative.
SRM: What sort of goal setting do you do together?
DU: We set day-by-day goals at the events. Our most conservative goal would be to have both the day's races in the top nine.
SRM: How much input do you have into making their boat go fast?
DU: Boat speed and tactics are pretty much my most important roles as a coach. Before I went to Hyeres with them that first time I read all the tuning guides and I looked at a lot of pictures of sails. I also spend a bit of time sailing the boat; Annie gets in the coach boat and I jump in the 470. It's amazing how little has changed since my day. The courses have changed - today it's shorter - and the kinetics thing is different from back then. But in terms of boat set up it’s pretty much the same. In fact, I can honestly say there have been no radical changes at all.
SRM: Back in the day when you were winning 470 world championships did you have a coach to train you?
DU: No, we had no coaches. That just wasn't the way it was done back then, coaching was just not a thing at that point. We only had three or four regattas a year, but we practised by ourselves in Newport, four days-a-week, all year-round.
SRM: Is there a formula for success in the 470? Buy these sails, buy that boat, that mast?
DU: If you were new to the class you would buy what's currently winning and try to get good using that kit. You do it that way so you can focus on your sailing rather than worrying about the equipment. Then, once you get to be regularly top 10, you can start to develop from there. I think trying to develop until you are top 10 is a waste of time.
SRM: What would you look for if you were designing the perfect 470 pairing?
DU: The first thing you look for is intelligence. That's number one: find two bright people. Then you would look for competitiveness and hunger, you know, motivation - which often don't go with brightness. Then you would look for people who are the right body size.
You need to have somebody who is willing to be in it for the long haul and not just the short haul. Olympic campaigning takes a while. The truth is that the normal process is like this: in your first quad you learn how to sail an Olympic boat; in the second quad you learn how to get a medal; in the third quad you learn how to get a gold medal.
If there's a formula, then that's it - but I'm hoping my girls could be the exception to that rule. I thought from the very first day we got together that these girls have a chance of winning a medal. I never got to go to the Olympics, so this is my chance for a medal.
[All Images: Jesus Renaldo/Sailing Energy]