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I’ve just spent the past week at Junior Sailing Camp, helping kids circa age 10 become better sailors. At this age, they’ve learned many of the basic concepts: that pushing the tiller to starboard turns the boat to port, that they need to pull the sail in when going upwind, and let it out when going down.  Yet they often struggle to get the boat going in varied conditions.  They steer too vigorously  in light air or choppy waters, killing the delicate momentum they’ve achieved.  They position the sail inefficiently–sufficient for a moderate breeze, but insufficient for zephyrs. And in heavier air, the wrong sail trim may result in an impromptu capsize drill.

Much of my coaching depends on helping them observe these varied conditions and how the results of their actions are affected by them. Their current skills work fine when the conditions match the way they practice them. When conditions change, the same actions fail. Without keen observation, the cause of that failure is a puzzle.

I’m teaching them to see the wind. It’s invisible. It’s vital for sailing. And it’s constantly changing, both in velocity, direction, and turbulence. But it’s so hard for them to see.

I show them the cat’s paws on the water, and the wind line where the water darkens. I show them how to ease the sail out until it starts to luff and then harden. I point out the trees, and the nearby sailboats, that disturb the wind and rob it of power. These are some of the ways they can actively seek the invisible and make it observable. As they grasp these techniques and remember to do so, they learn to teach themselves to see the wind.

With practice and time, they’ll learn to notice these cues, and even more subtle ones that are difficult to describe – like the way the boat feels when the wind shifts aft and forward. They’ll learn how to react to these cues smoothly, moving tiller and sheet together in an instantaneous reaction to changing conditions.

Well, some will. Some may become great sailors. Most, perhaps all, will become competent. Right now, there are some who seem not yet ready for these lessons. I run out of different ways to tell them. With only a week, there is little I can do to remedy the situation. But I also note that one of the strongest sailors this year was struggling last year. Where she once was timid and hesitant, she now is confident. Even when conditions are challenging, she continues to teach herself how to handle the situation and doesn’t give up.

Coaching sailing is an easy parallel to coaching software development. There’s a similar aspect of teaching techniques and when they apply. There’s a similar aspect in learning when to react to changing conditions, how to react, and how much. And the building of confidence with growing successes is very similar.

And above all, there’s the similarity of learning to observe that which cannot be directly seen. And learning how to observe the effect of our actions in response to those significant but invisible changing conditions.