Why encouragement is the greatest motivator

Tim Gibson reflects on a life lesson about the power of encouragement to change lives

By Tim Gibson

Charley* was a withdrawn boy. A typical teenager from a London estate. Broken home, poor schooling. Self esteem at rock bottom. When he stepped onto our yacht for a week’s sailing as part of a charity project, he barely said a word. Slung a Nike holdall in his pit and sat quietly in the corner, staring daggers at anyone who tried to engage him in conversation.

    ...he was apparently unmoved by the beauty of the stars twinkling in the sky above us.  

He was assigned to my watch, on the grounds that if anyone could get him chatting it would be me, who rarely shuts up. But it wasn’t easy. We sailed from Hamble to Cowes, then across to Poole. Four days into our voyage we anchored in the shelter of Lulworth Cove. The plan was for some of us to swim ashore and walk round to Weymouth, while the rest of the crew sailed there.

“Come on, Charley,” I implored. “Join us for a swim. It’ll do you good to get some exercise. And it’s a great day for a walk over the headland.”

Charley wasn’t keen. He hadn’t been keen on much, to be honest. When our watch was on deck, he’d sit huddled in the corner unspeaking and unengaged. Even when we sailed overnight from the Isle of Wight, he was apparently unmoved by the beauty of the stars twinkling in the sky above us.

Eventually, though, after lots of encouragement, he agreed to accompany us on our swim and stroll. He was still reluctant, but came up on deck with his swim shorts and rash vest on, ready to dive in.

Touching the water was like being exposed to some kind of magic potion. Charley’s demeanour changed immediately. He was an exceptionally strong swimmer, and quickly made progress towards the beach in the cove. I strained every sinew to keep up with him, dragging myself ashore and gasping, “Crikey, Chas. You’re a flippin’ good swimmer.”

That moment of recognition signalled a change in our relationship. By identifying a clear strength in Charley, I unlocked something in his psyche that was massively untapped. So when I encouraged him to jump straight back in the water and swim to the stragglers, giving them a friendly boost as they made their slow progress towards the shore, he didn’t hesitate. It was the first time I’d seen him do something with genuine enthusiasm all week.

When one of those stragglers later tripped over a hummock and twisted his ankle, it seemed inevitable that the revitalised Charley would be the one to help him through the final three miles of our walk. At one point, I glanced round to see Charley with his big arms wrapped around his injured crewmate, offering gentle words of support as they limped, three-legged style, towards the boat.

For the remaining three days of our sail-training voyage, Charley was a completely different person. Funny, enthusiastic, lively and engaged. He ended up being recommended for watch leader training, giving him the chance to come back in future years and mentor other novice sailors.

    ...By identifying a clear strength in Charley, I unlocked something in his psyche that was massively untapped.  

As he left the boat at the end of our trip, I helped him down to the pontoon, where I’d been loading victuals onto a trolley. As we shook hands, he looked me straight in the eye and said: “Thanks for what you did in Lulworth. No one’s ever told me I’m good at something before. It made all the difference.”

It’s tempting to chalk this experience up as an example of my world-famous man-management skills. But the reality is this: that difference Charley saw? He made it all by himself. All I did was show him how good he could be.

Tim was sailing in the late 1990s with the London Sailing Project (LSP). The charity, now called the Rona Sailing Project, continues to provide sail-training voyages for young people between the ages of 14 and 25 and vulnerable adults. It specialises in working with people who have learning disabilities, mental health issues, a history of addiction, or who are living with long-term challenging conditions.

*Charley is a false name. His identity has been disguised.

Published: 15 May 2019

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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