There are plenty of “uncontrollables” in sailing… wind direction, current, your competitors’ actions, your competitors’ training, race committee’s choices, and how you finished last race– are all out of your control. You can hyperfocus on these things, but it’s wasted mental energy!

What to focus on

Would you take a math test while you’re on Snapchat or Twitter? Similarly, focusing on your finish last race while you focus on what you are doing right now, in this race, is next to impossible. By habitually shifting focus to controllables (like sailing on lifts, or having good tacks), you maximize performance. This focus on all the little controllables adds up; a good race finish becomes a nice bi-product.

Does it really matter?

It’s easy to give into the temptation of dwelling on the uncontrollables, but consider how important it is to be able to tap into every ounce of your concentration.  Have you ever won (or lost) a race by a boat-length? Won or lost a place in a regatta by a point? If you were working with a smidge more or less of your concentration during the race or event, it probably made all the difference.

Once stuck on uncontrollables, then what?

Use skills discussed in last issue’s “Getting Through Tough Times” (e.g., trying out different self-talk, and feeling it and letting it pass). And regularly practice a routine of using the uncontrollable as a cue to focus on controllables. Develop an acronym or mnemonic that reminds you of important controllables, such as USODA:

U: Picture the Inverted U graph. Are you too relaxed? Too pressured? Sing a song, have a long exhale, or use another go-to strategy so optimal performance happen more easily.

S: Sometimes, just focusing on elements of Speed is all you need!
What’s your Offense? Think about your strategy from an aerial view. Consider traffic, where there’s pressure, and current if it’s a factor.
What’s your Defense? How can you put yourself between your competitors and the finish line, minimize risk, and cut losses?
Boat-handling, or “Agility,” is key around the race course. With your tacks and gybes, focus on being smooth in the boat.


Learn through repetition! 

The USODA mnemonic can serve you well, or come up with your own! Practice bringing your attention back to these things that are within your control and influence, consistently. Run through USODA over and over again, when you’re drawn to uncontrollables, or even when you’re not!  You’ll develop good thinking habits in the process.

Tim Herzog trains sailors and other athletes to consistently be on top of their mental game. He has been a college sailing coach at Kings Point and Boston College, and now is a mental performance coach at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance ( Look for more of his wisdom in future issues of OptiNews.