Reflections from a volunteer coach

"The Helmsman Project is a truly unique experience for everyone who gets involved. Designed to enhance the hope, resilience and self-regulation of young people, The Helmsman Project is a fusion of adventure education and adolescent coaching. After participating in some of its early conceptual and structural design work, I finally got my chance to coach a cohort in May 2015 (after waiting 3 years). After being paired with another coach (Marina), and being assigned to a cohort of year 9 girls from Sir Joseph Banks High, we began a 12-week learning experience that positively challenged all concerned (both on land and on the water).

Whilst the adventure education components of the program tend to attract the most attention - and rightly so, they are terrific experiences - much of the important work gets done away from the water when the students engage in a series of individual and group-based coaching sessions. These help the students set learning goals, regularly reflect upon their experiences, capture insights, set a positive plan for the future and participate in a community-focused project of their choosing. The uniqueness of The Helmsman Project is that this coaching happens before and after the sailing schemes, and also whilst the students are on the water, to help them get the most out of the experiences as they unfold.

Our vessel for the sailing schemes was the majestic James Craig: a 21-sail, 3-masted tall ship that had more ropes than can easily be imagined. Crewed by an exceptional group of dedicated, passionate volunteers, the James Craig became a classroom unlike any the girls had ever seen. Joined by students from five other schools (around 40 girls in total), the students were taught both an array of rudimentary sailing skills (e.g. navigation, knot tying, hauling) and put through several 'planned challenges' that stretched their capacities because of the high perceived (but low real) risk involved. Safety is, of course, of paramount importance. Great care is also taken to leave nothing out of the experience, including night watch rotations (which I had to get up for too at 3am), kitchen duty, furling sails, and (for me) several turns on the anchor chain gang! 

Over the course of the sailing schemes my 'on the water' coaching moments included everything from savouring the accomplishment two students had climbing to the 'royals' (i.e. the top of the tallest mast), right through to taking on a conflict resolution role one evening (after a couple of sleep deprived students forgot some communication basics!). But this is a fully textured experience - as I said; THP is a truly unique experience for all who get involved - the students, the THP coaches, the James Craig crew. Seeking to facilitate the growth and development of young people is not something that one can (or should) walk away from unchanged.

As a result of my involvement, I have been reminded of the things that I do well and not so well, whilst at the same time forging new friendships, developing new perspectives on my role as a man, a teacher and as a parent, and gathering some wonderful memories about the people I worked with and the stunning natural beauty of the Sydney area. I have also been powerfully reminded of the variety of different ways that coaching can be utilised to create change in the lives of young people, and the communities that they (and we) live in.”


Dr Gordon Spence

Program Director, Master of Business Coaching, Sydney Business School, UOW

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