Excerpts from an interview I did with Dr Gavin Dagley, Consulting Psychologist and Executive coach with a reputation for results and performance development. Gavin is a very accomplished sailor having won amongst many other titles, the World Laser Grand Masters Championship sailed in Nuevo, Mexico in 2016.
Brett: Do you think that it’s psychology that defeats a sailor who can win a race in a World championship and the next day finish 50th. What must have been going through his head and do you think that influenced his placing on day two?
Gavin: We often look at a top golfer who is brilliant, but can’t actually crack the world title. Or the example you gave a moment ago of a guy who can win a race of the Worlds and then come in last in the next one.
I think that’s how people perceive where psychology is. How do we deal with the anxiety? And how do we get our heads right, so that we can win?
I think that’s a small part of the psychology of sailing. I think the really big part is…, that comment you made before about complexity?
Sailing is, I suspect I probably wouldn’t get much argument, the most cognitively complex sport there is. There are so, so many variables.
You think about a tennis player, for instance, a top-flight tennis player. And they’re not just running, where they’ve got a fixed motion, like rowing or swimming.
They’ve got to respond to each flight of the ball from somebody who’s trying to beat them. But they don’t have 25 other guys hitting balls at one court. They don’t have to adjust the strings every time they hit the ball.
They don’t have to have one guy doing the grip, one guy doing the head speed and one guy doing the direction.
Sailing is orders of magnitude more complex than most sports you do.
And so one of the absolute keys to being, in my view anyway, both as a psychologist, and as a sailor, to being good at sailing, is the very best sailors I’ve seen are the best learners.
They are able to convert what happens to them into stuff they can use on the course. And that’s what makes them good.
Now that’s also what manages their anxiety. Because although the very best sailors, and, in fact, in working in sport psychology at various times, that the very best athletes absolutely have a fire in the belly to win.
Somehow they’re able to harness that in a way that allows them to focus upon performing, rather than winning.
There was a lovely quote from, well, it’s as near as I can remember it, but Ian Thorpe at the Athens games, so it’s going back a little bit and somebody stuck a microphone under his chin and said, “So how many medals are you going to win this games, Sunshine?”
He said, “I’m not there to win medals. I’m there to deliver performances. I can’t determine who’s going to turn up in the pool or how they’re going to swim, but I’ve got to deliver performances.
“For a guy like him to be able to sort of hmm, you know, that’s my orientation, that’s what I would call an orientation that’s going to produce somebody who can improve and win.
So being able to learn. That’s the secret. And being oriented to learning.
There are big bits to that. So, because this is such a complex sport, there’s a whole lot of knowledge that experts have put together over the years.
You’ve got to have access to that in your head somehow.
- So some people do a lot of reading.
- Some people do it by going to talks.
- Some people do it by searching the web.
- Some people do it by listening to lectures or whatever.
You’ve got to have a way of quite deliberately building up that knowledge base.
So, the second part is, that sailing is a performance, rather than a science. There’s a whole lot of science behind it, but you’ve got to somehow turn that science into performance.
The very central piece of that is feel. The very best sailors can feel what’s going on. And that’s very conscious…Well, for some it’s a very conscious thing. For some, it’s not.
Every single top sailor can feel. They’ve got an exquisitely accurate feel.
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