Jon Emmett Interview Part 1: From Late Starter to World Champion

There is a saying here in Ireland: "God loves a trier but hates a chancer". It means, as I'm sure you can gather, that "god" (whoever he or she may or may not be) likes someone who works hard and tries their luck a bit, but doesn't like someone who just chances their arm or pushes their luck unreasonably.

I sometimes feel like I sit uncomfortably between these two things - and especially so this week. I wrote a couple of reviews of two great new books and, as I enjoyed the books so much, I thought I'd take a punt and ask the publisher if they could arrange for me to interview the two authors - Jon Emmett and Nick Craig.

This was taking me dangerously close to chancer territory, but...

...unbelievably they said they'd ask, and even more unbelievably the two authors agreed to do the interviews.

And so it came to be that at 9am of a Sunday morning I was using the wonders of technology to speak with Jon Emmett as he sat in his accommodation in Rio, in the midst of training two Olympic hopefuls (one of whom happens to be the reigning Laser Radial Olympic champion!).

Jon is a hugely successful sailor and coach, as I've mentioned before, but he is also a tremendously open, engaging and humorous guy. And, like a lot of sailors, he's learnt a lot by teaching himself. He took an unusual path into sailing for someone who became an elite level sailor, but it is one that perhaps shows a little of how to foster a love of sailing and other outdoor pursuits.

"My route was very, very un-typical. I started with a youth organisation called the Nautical Training Corps, and actually my mum is still involved now 20 years later. I joined at around 9 or 10 years old, and did a bit of everything - I played in a band, I swam, I camped, I kayaked, we had sports days, and I really enjoyed it. And a part of that  was sailing, but it was six people in a Wayfarer so every so often you got to hold a jib sheet and that was about it! But my maternal granddad died and he left me a small amount of money, so I bought myself a very old, red Topper and, as they say, the rest is history."

It's interesting, especially given all the talk about keeping kids in sailing, and making sailing more fun. Jon had a range of outdoor activities at a young age, and that variety may have been important in enabling him to finally settle on sailing.

As I've got two young kids myself that I'm just starting to take sailing, I'm always interested to know what role parents have played in developing keen sailors. Did they encourage him to get into racing?

"No, it was something I really wanted to do. Actually, if I can be really, really blunt I don't really enjoy just sailing. I really enjoy the racing, and the trying to do your best. It's not about beating people, just about trying to improve as much as you can, and the only way you can see that is when you have some marks and you try and go around them as quickly as possible.

"When I was at university and I told young ladies I sailed they thought I sat on a yacht and drunk G&Ts and motored back into the harbour, and I can't actually think of anything worse from my point of view."

His move into a Topper (at around 14), and then a Laser are perhaps more typical, but he says that, because he was late getting started, he always felt that he was playing catch-up.

But he does feel that his choice of boat helped him:

"I'm a big advocate of single-handed sailing - I think I learnt an awful lot on my own. I do remember that I did quite a lot of swimming at the beginning". His determination shows when he talks about his early years, and not just the determination it takes to keep righting a Topper that you've just capsized.

"My first Youth Nationals was in 1992, and it was at Lake Bala, which is long and thin meaning they had to set very interesting courses. It was a reverse P course (I think he means something like this) and you had to go through a gate. I remember it being around 20 knots and I just couldn't get through this tiny gate! It's such a long time ago that I don't know if you can pick up the results historically (I've tried but I can't, by the way), but I think Ben Ainslie won about six races and finished about sixth overall. It was just pretty hard."

To make up for starting sailing so much later than many of the top sailors he was competing with, Jon used goal-setting (and sheer hard work) as a means to get himself up to speed.

"I was very lucky to get a little grey Fiesta van which I slept in the back of - it had a 999cc engine and only four gears - and I used to drive around and do as much sailing as I possibly could. I always felt I was playing catch-up, and trying to make the most of every year, the most of every month, the most of every week, the most of every day, the most of every hour. Goal setting is fundamental to everything, and as an overall sailor, you're always going to have more improvement working on you weaknesses.

"At the '95 youth nationals, which Ben won, I was second (and in fact I think I was the only one that won a race apart from Ben!), he was sailing full-time, but I was doing A-Levels and then studying doing a chemical engineering degree at Loughborough so I never had as much time. I mean, if you talk to anyone, nobody in any walk of life says 'I have too much time' to do all the things you want to do, and I was very conscious of that."

Jon Emmett at the 2012 Europeans

Over time he realised that the Laser wasn't the right boat for him - he was too light for it. But until that realisation hit, which was once he stopped growing, he benefited from an extraordinary set of circumstances.

"I was very lucky." he told me. "Chris Gowers who was Paul Goodison's coach for the Gold Medal in Beijing, and is also the coach now for the current Laser World ChampionNick Thompson, Chris was very kind. He selected me for the youth squad in 1994 when, on paper, I had absolutely no right to it. We had a qualifying series and in the light winds I was usually top 3, but when it was windy I only had letters - RET, DSQ, PMS. I think I was pretty much last in the series but he obviously realised I could sail - I was just very light and couldn't sail in strong winds. If I look at the '94 squad it is just names: it's Ben Ainslie, and Iain Percy, and the late Andrew Simpson, and Paul Goodison, and Edward Wright. I think every single one of us have won a World Championship now, and several have got multiple Olympic medals and have gone on to much bigger things as well. It was a golden age - I was incredibly lucky to be born in 1977."

It was an amazing time for British sailing, and I've talked about it a little before. Jon is clear, as well, that he doesn't think it was an accident.

"At the time I thought Jim Saltonstall was the RYA and lived in RYA house" he jokes. " You know (the success) can't be chance - there's Ian Walker and Jon Merricks and all sorts of other people in double-handed boats - it can't be chance that there were so many people going through at that point. They are still the cream of British sailing."

Always looking for a shortcut, I ask Jon if there were any big "A-ha!" moments where he made a discovery that led to a big jump in his performance.

"I was such a late starter, so at Youth level I was very much on a very steep learning curve. There are big progresses - when you finally get to go downwind in 20 knots without swimming, suddenly that's a big progress. But, for me, a lot of it was I was such a late starter and I hadn't the number of regattas that everybody else had. Now it's all about marginal gains - the small things all add up. People hire me for a day's coaching (and I don't do this so much now because it's an Olympic year), and they expect to be given a magic pill which will make a huge difference" (my heart sinks at this point, by the way), "and it's very rarely like that."

It's interesting (if a little disappointing) but hard work and good, focused practice always seem to be the keys to progress. Although most club sailors couldn't dream of doing what Jon has done - our life choices are different, after all - there is still a lot to learn from his experience.

Packing as much as you can into as short a space of time as you can will accelerate your learning, but it will also require a little discipline, planning, and goal-setting.

And surrounding yourself with the best sailors (and indeed people) will greatly increase your chances of success. That "golden age" of sailing in Britain was accelerated because a small-ish group of people all had the same goals, had good motivation, and made the most of any opportunities that came their way.

But if anyone does know of a magic pill then do please pass the information on.


Notes

There was so much great material from Jon's interview, I've broken it down into three parts. This one covers his progress into sailing, the next talks about his Olympic coaching, and the last covers lots of tips and advice on a whole range of sailing topics

You can read more about Jon on his website, or you can like his Facebook page, or you can visit his YouTube channel which has loads of great coaching videos on a range of topics.

Or you could buy one of his books:

Coach Yourself to Win


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Sailing Coach


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Tactics Coach


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

2 thoughts on “Jon Emmett Interview Part 1: From Late Starter to World Champion

  1. Thanks.

    Hopefully you’ll find tomorrow’s bit interesting – there’s loads of stuff about how and why Lijia Xu did what she did in the 2012 medal race. I found it really fascinating – there’s some real insights from Jon in there.

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