Many racing sailors talk themselves out of first-place finishes.
They convince themselves that they have poor boat speed or they tack out of a perfectly good spot on the course and blame it on a wind shift that they thought would come.
There’s always something external, beyond their control that seems to prevent them from collecting the silverware.
The real reason that these sailors are continually disappointed is that they are not mentally prepared to win.
They know that they haven’t done all the things they must do before they can be psychologically ready to succeed so they make up excuses.
When you are mentally prepared, you automatically become a much smarter sailor.
When it comes to trying something new, don’t rush into it, think about it for a while. Evaluate whether it is a legitimate step forward, and only then implement it.
Last-minute changes to your boat or how you tackle a manoeuvre will almost guarantee that you spend time with your head in the boat. Trying to work out the new system or discussing with your teammates what went wrong will ensure that you will be losing those boats around you.
In the lead-up to a race or regatta, practice with the new setup and practice the new manoeuvre so that in the race your head is where it should be.
A vital aspect of preparation is the crew’s physical conditioning and one of the best ways to get there is to sail yourself into shape, that is time on the water.
If heaps of time in the boat is not possible, get a professional to set up a program that you can easily follow. The program needs particular emphasis on exercises that take into account the type of boat you sail and the job that you do on that boat.
Often the boat that wins is crewed by the team that can hike harder for longer, especially on the beat to the finish, or can engage in more legal kinetics than their rivals without tiring.
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 its 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. Its how do we deal with the anxiety? And how do we get our heads right, so that we can win?
I think that’s the 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 of that knowledge base.
So, but the second part is, because 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 a 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 exquisitely accurate feel.
To do this in Sailing, you need to have the experience to prioritise what you should be working on.
You need the resources to travel to where the best competition is and to have the best possible equipment that you can afford.
You must also be prepared to put in the extra training time necessary so that you are just a little more prepared than the other teams.
When you are planning a season or leading up to a championship, you must prioritise and set realistic goals and work gradually but inexorably towards them.
The important thing here is staying on track, not panic if you are not progressing as quickly as you had hoped, and not making drastic changes.
Importantly, work with your team to set a training schedule that will not see you burn out or put stress on your theirs work or personal relationships.
Make a list of your weaknesses and prioritise those, that when mastered, will give you the greatest gains. These may be the things you enjoy doing the least but will see your greatest overall improvement.
An example may be gybing in heavy air which in the past has seen more than your fair share of swimming. To fix this would be the difference between a tail end result and a personal best in a heavy air series.
Another habit to develop is arriving for the days sailing early so your boat preparation is perfect, you can relax and get your head into sailing mode, observe and plan for the day’s weather and then being the first boat out on the course.
Excerpts from an interview with highly accomplished Dinghy through to Maxi Yacht sailor and North Sails sailmaker Michael Coxon.
What’s the most important sail control and how does that vary from class to class?
“The most important sail control for any boat is the sheet tension. Where the sheet tension will tend to control the twist of the sail and the general drive of it, you can actually then use the subtler controls. Those controls include the outhaul and the Cunningham eye.
One very important thing depending on the boat is mast bend and how you achieve the mast bend. If the mast bend is achieved through having a backstay, it makes the exercise fairly easy.
If it’s a non-backstay boat it will depend on things such as boom vang, again, sheet tension; it will depend on if you’ve got control of the mast at the deck. In other words, can you control the pre-bend in the mast whether through a lever or a chocking system?
Another big variable is rig tension. By increasing rig tension you’ll put more compression through your rig and increase, obviously the tension, but also the pre-bend in the rig.”
How often during a race do you adjust your settings and what indicators tip you off to make the changes?
“Depending on how you’re going is how often you’re going to adjust it.
If you feel comfortable, you’ll tend to not play with things that much. You might make subtle adjustments for conditions. I find that if I feel that I’m off the pace, that’s when I’ll get more aggressive in what I do.
My golden rule in one design, it doesn’t matter who the boat near you is, sail yourself boat relative.
I don’t care if that boat is regarded as one of the front markers or one of the back markers. If he’s got an edge on you, use your eyes. See where his traveler is. See where his pre-bend is. How much forestay sag does he have?
The other rule I always have is that most races have two or three beats in them.
So many times I’ll come back to the club afterward, and someone will say, “Ah, I was really slow off the starting line.” And I’ll go, “Okay, so you were slow off the starting, so how were you up the second beat?” “Oh, really slow still up the second beat.” I’ll say to them, “Well, what did you change?” “I didn’t change anything.” I’m back here asking you now. I say, “Well, what you need to do is whether you change something for the better or the worse, if you made a change you would have learned.”
Once you are comfortable and well-positioned on the run as a team, you need to debrief the beat. If you do identify you had a problem, for instance, you might say, “I think we had a height problem. We were good through the water, but we had a height problem.”
If I was on my Etchells, the first thing I’d say, “Hey guys, we’ve got to look at whether we have to control the forestay sag a bit more, so perhaps we should straighten the mast up a little bit with the mast lever and that will instantly give me more forestay tension.” We also might want to take the rig tension up a little bit.
While you calmly think about that down the run before you get to the bottom mark and the action starts again, you’ve made some adjustments. You’re ready to round the bottom mark. You’re in a new boat and you restart again.