If you feel as though you are losing your touch out on the race course sometimes you need to go back and start at the beginning.
If your performance is a shadow of your past, you need to go through each one of the potential problem areas.
First, check the finish of the boat and your equipment and make sure that it is up to racing standard.
Next, go sailing and work on your steering, your sails and adjustments. If you think the problem is something you are doing, work with your team to analyse and come up with a consensus.
Once you have an answer, go out for a full training session or two to work on and fix the problem that is causing your current “go slows”.
The most important point here is don’t go looking for excuses, go all the way back to the begining and recheck everything and then go sailing to see if your performance improves.
Be honest with yourself, you may find that you are not footing because the sails are not sheeted properly or you are not pointing because you have not bent the mast to suit the conditions.
A question often asked regarding a slump is “have we peaked too soon”. Sometimes coming up to a big event it does no harm to have an uncustomary poor result to bring you back to earth.
Treat it as a wake up call and go back to the basics to evaluate where you are really at. An overconfident sailor gets too relaxed and does not concentrate on steering, keeping the boat flat & trimmed correctly or study the sails and equipment diligently enough.
When you have a bad day, during the debrief, list at least 10 things that you could have done better and this should include input from everyone on the team.
Once the list is put together, use your practice sessions to work on each of the things that you have identified as issues and sharpen your skills so that next time you race these problems do not occur again.
To someone unfamiliar with our sport, two identical boats should sail at the same speed given equal crews, the same wind, and the same wave conditions.
What an outsider may not realise is that small changes in identical equipment can make big differences in boat speed and performance.
A couple of turns on a forestay turnbuckle can change the mast rake thus affect the helm load and balance or in the case of a side stay, it can affect mast bend characteristics and thus sail shape.
The adjustments available to a sailor are endless, ranging from the rig adjustments just mentioned through to sheet tension, outhaul, batten tension, Cunningham, and haliard tension to mention a few others.
Other than in boats with adjustable rigging systems (adjustments that can be done on the fly) most rigs are set up before you leave the beach or dock and cannot be changed once on the water.
These settings are based on your perception of what the day’s weather will be and once you are out there, you are stuck with those settings, so plenty of study of the weather patterns is important.
If you are sailing at a new venue, don’t be too shy to copy what the locals are doing to get the perfect tuning for that venue.
On the water, every change to a sail control will either give you a better or worse result and being able to ascertain the effect of these changes is incredibly difficult.
Select the most successful sailmaker in your class. They will have a tuning guide that will help you set up your mast rigging tension, fore and aft rake, and pre-bend for the various conditions.
If you are new to a class, not only follow the tuning guide but ask questions of the top sailors in the fleet and copy what they do. You will be surprised at how helpful they will be, it is just a case of plucking up the courage to ask.
Copying is not cheating and most champions appreciate being pushed harder and will be happy to help you get faster as this forces them to improve as well.
Quantifying the effect of a small tuning change is hard to do on the water and may not be apparent until many minutes after the change because of variables in the wind between boats across the course.
After establishing a baseline, it is important to experiment using your own tweaks and then learn what each adjustment does with reference to boat speed and handling.
When out racing, be honest with yourself when evaluating the changes that you made during a race and factor in a lucky wind shift that may have given you the improvement, not the adjustment.
Copying the best sailors in your fleet guarantees getting up to speed quickly and this should give you an easy jump on much of the competition.
Therefore the answer to the question in the headline is a resounding no, if you don’t copy the fleet champions you are starting behind the 8 ball.
A race or regatta should not be over for your team when you cross the finish line and there is plenty to be gained from the post-race debrief.
After a successful result, our self-confidence gets a boost but after a poor showing on the water, we have to deal with the psychological fallout. All is not lost though and the team de-brief can allow us to learn from what went wrong to ensure that next time you race you won’t make the same mistakes.
If you have a coach, make sure that they are part of the team meeting and this should take place immediately after the race either on the boat, in the boat park but more importantly away from the after-race festivities.
Initial points for discussion are where did you lose places unnecessarily, and why. Other things that need to be discussed are the start, your speed around the course, and the day’s tactics.
The debrief is also a good time to constructively talk through the crew management on the boat remembering that these sessions are about how to improve not to lay blame.
Make sure that you talk about the positives that came out of the race as well as the negatives but importantly try to focus on the two biggest mistakes and talk through what went wrong adding solutions so that you can avoid them next time.
If possible have a whiteboard available and run through each individual part of the race and use a diary to make notes for future reference. Use the diary to note down information about the time of the day, wind speed, direction, sea state, current, and information about fellow competitors.
If you have model boats available, they can be very helpful in recreating on-water situations as part of the discussion. Many times observations from off the boat can vary from on the boat memories so all inputs need to be considered when arriving at a solution.
It’s amazing what a coach can see from off the boat and many things may not have been obvious to those on board so have them involved in the discussion.
The importance of the de-brief is to learn so that next time you hit the water, you will not make the same mistakes and thus end up with a better result.
Key tactical tips on how to improve your sailing both upwind, downwind, and around the course.
When sailing downwind, use your masthead wind indicator to show your apparent wind and look at your nearby competitor’s indicator to see if they are shadowing you.
If you lose distance after crossing tacks or gybes, have the courage to shift sides of the course.
Always stay on the same side of the course as the majority of the fleet have chosen.
When making a manouvre, always work out the new course to steer first. Before you plan to tack or Gybe, look for an object on the shore to aim for, pick another boat or use the compass for a reference.
In most races, you can make a mistake but still do well. Your ultimate goal though should be to sail better in each subsequent race by eliminating little errors.
When approaching another boat, always accelerate for speed. If you are on Port tack, decide early whether to tack, lee bow or dip.
A good Rule of Thumb is, if two-thirds of your boat can cross, usually you can successfully tack to leeward.
When the crossing is close, lee-bowing another boat is risky.
When dipping another boat, start your manouvre three or four boat lengths away. Your goal in dipping is to be close-hauled and sailing the second that your bow passes the other boat’s stern.
Do not run directly downwind to the leeward mark, always approach on a reach.
Avoid tacking immediately after rounding a leeward mark, to avoid sailing in disturbed air and choppy water.
If you are going slow, make a change such as easing sails or bearing off a little for speed.
If you are well down in the fleet, don’t try to pass every boat in the fleet by taking a flyer, work on passing one boat at a time.
If you are being covered by a boat, the time to get out of phase is when you are faster, never tack when you are slower.
Major Mistakes to avoid:
(a) Being over the start line before the gun goes.
(b) Staying in disturbed air for long periods of time
(c) Sailing on the wrong side of the course after you have lost to the boats on the other side.
(d) Getting into a protest.
(e) Not communicating the next manouvre with your crew.
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.