The 46th annual Tillotson Lecture at Bolton School Boys’ Division was given by former pupil, John Derbyshire OBE, whose involvement with the Royal Yachting Association British Sailing Team spans 32 years as coach, Olympic manager and director of racing. He spent the whole day in the school, during which he was interviewed by a young sailor, Thomas Platt, and met with gifted and talented sports pupils.
Come the evening, Derbyshire took centre stage to reflect on his career, provide insight into Olympic sailing, and explain how Great Britain became one of the best sailing nations in the world.
He was first grabbed by the sport while still a pupil at Bolton School, from 1963 to 1974. It was the mental side of sailing which really interested him, described as “chess on water”, with sailors anticipating wind shifts and the movements of other boats in order to be successful.
In 1984 he had the opportunity to work at the National Sailing Centre as a coach. His first Olympic Games as coach came in 1988, “the most amazing experience”. After not selected as Olympic laser coach in 1996 be became involved with Paralympic sailing; the team went on to win a gold medal. Looking back on this experience, he advised the audience to “try to find a positive” from disappointment.
Talking more broadly about his approach to leadership, he said that coaching is in essence “creating the environment for athletes to be the best they can be”. He talked through the values he set for the British sailing teams – passion, innovation, a commitment to excellence, fun, honesty – and the need for collaboration between all sailors on the team, despite being in competition with each other for Olympic places.
Derbyshire went on to talk about the 2012 Olympics in London, for which he was performance director, and during which he escorted VIPs including the Princess Princess Royal, David Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge.
He pointed out that between 1980 and 1996 Great Britain won just five sailing medals, but since then have secured 24. Derbyshire then talked about the future of sailing and how the team secures its funding through evidence.
Finally, he said that, although he didn’t have a plan when he left school, he gradually built on the opportunities that came along. He reassured pupils who might be in the same position, saying: “You never know when the thing you want to do with the rest of your life will come along. When it does, grab it, take a chance and have some fun.”
The floor was then opened up to questions. Derbyshire talked about his favourite Olympics and host city – both Sydney – and described the importance of being respectful of other cultures. He also talked about his experience of continuing to sail after becoming a coach, and the difficulties of not having enough time to do both well.