Is the RYA selecting too early?
Speaking at the launch of his own Laser youth training scheme which will attempt to bridge the gap between the junior classes like the Optimist and Cadet and the Squad, Littlejohn said: "If you're in the top few, then you'll get all the coaching help you need."
But he added that he believes it is becoming increasingly difficult for children to get themselves up to the required standard before they receive that type of support. The current system was in danger of focusing on the few at the expense of the many, he believed. "It is an approach that might produce more medals, but it is not necessarily good for the sport," said Littlejohn who coached Shirley Robertson to gold at the Olympics.
"I'm interested in maintaining a healthy sport, and if kids can't find coaching to help them get to the next level, then there is a danger we will lose them altogether. I've looked at the numbers of kids in boats like Oppies, and I reckon that around 60 per cent of people who were sailing when they were 14 or 15 are no longer sailing by the time they're 18 or 19," he added.
Littlejohn told us he would like to see a return to the approach used in the '80s and early '90s by former RYA youth coach, Jim Saltonstall, when up to 50 or 60 Lasers would attend youth training sessions. "If you look at our Olympic team, people like Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Hugh Styles all gained their success on the back of a huge base of Laser sailing," he said.
We put Littlejohn's comments to Steve Joel, the RYA's new youth manager. He welcomed much of what Littlejohn had to say but explained that there is only so much that can be achieved within current resources. "We have the Volvo/RYA Transitional Youth Squad, which we are looking to expand next year with greater funding. We also have our national junior squads, and we have 260 sailors on that programme," he said.
Joel pointed out that the current system allowed for three open weekends where any aspiring youth sailor can turn up and aim for selection. "We then select down from those weekends to form a squad for Spring training, and from that the Youth Squad is selected. Next year we'll have more open training weekends," he explained. "We also encourage the class associations themselves to run their own training, and we like to leave it to them to co-ordinate the various activities. There are two strands to our strategy at the RYA, one being to encourage that class association training, the second to provide opportunities for the junior squad to progress into the Transitional Youth Squad."