Wade seemed to be having a rough day.  This kid normally dominated our Opti practices, winning the favored end with ease, exhibiting almost flawless boathandling, and sailing clean.  But today he was starting late, sometimes from the unfavored end, and he was spinning for hitting marks.  And yet he had a smile on his face as he overcame a string of bad choices.  I (Juan) figured the smile must be fake; I asked him if something was wrong.  “Not at all!” he said.  Wade explained that he was working on the pieces of what it took to grind back after things go wrong, turning practice into a fun challenge rather than letting it be another “boring” day of domination where he wasn’t necessarily improving.  Wade Wadell went on to become a US National Champion, made the US World Team, and finished 7th at Worlds.  Performing consistently with excellence is no fluke.  Consistent excellence comes out of practice, play, and good habits.

Consider these additional examples…  At Laser Worlds one year, Robert Scheidt practiced on the way to the starting line (refusing a tow) to warm up, and then practiced on his way in rather than accepting a tow, after he won the event!  This 6-time Olympian knows that every moment on the water is a moment that could be spent improving.  J70 World Champion, Tim Healy, was “all business” for the 2014 event.  But as his tactician Geoff Becker described, every moment for this group was all-business all the time on the water.  From the dock to the race course and back, the team attended to every detail associated with making the boat go as fast as possible, checking shroud tension, lead placement, the slot, sailshape, and conditions (each person with their designated roles).  Becker indicated that the team only talked to relay pertinent information.  Some might regard this “all business” approach as work, but it can also be fun because being immersed in what you are doing, giving it your all, and experiencing some of the rewards…that is fun.

You may have heard… it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert at something (such as becoming an expert sailor).  But when it comes to training kids younger than 16 to become top-notch athletes in the long run, some research also shows that “deliberate play” is even more important than deliberate practice.  Deliberate play is different than the standard array of drills, such as tacking on the whistle; it emphasizes fun.  Repetition may be part of the process, but the emphasis is neither on the repetition nor on the results.  These are opportunities for instructors (and sailors themselves!) to be creative; it could be a kinetics race, an (evenly matched) team race, a box drill, or another game that incorporates skills that also happen to be relevant in winning races.

But as a sailor, ask yourself if you’ve ever used “fun” (or lack of fun) as an excuse to not work hard.  Perhaps you took your sweet time getting to practice, rigging your boat, or getting out to the group on the water.  Opti coach/author Alan Williams may have put it best, “The reason to go Optimist sailing is to have fun, not to be miserable.  But to have fun, you need to practice.  Remember, there needs to be a high fun factor in all of your training.  It needs a purpose and it needs to develop your skill.”  Think about times when you had the most fun; it is fun to be fully absorbed in your sailing, trying your best, improving skills along the way, and seeing what you’re capable of.

Consider how many hours you put into practice in a given year.  Certainly, it’s going to vary based on the sailor/program, but as an example: let’s say you practice or race an average of 4 days/week 50 weeks/year, for an average of 2.5 hours of training/session.  That means you train 500 hours per year!!!  But, let’s say you tend to be running a little behind because you were goofing off, then you space out as you sail to your coaches with sails trimmed marginally well, and at the end of practice maybe you decide to prop your feet up on the gunwale as you sail in.  Your 2.5 hours/day could quickly become 2 hours (or less) per day.  With this example, 100 hours per year is “lost.”  You’ve essentially cut your training from 500 hours to 400 hours for the year.  On those regatta days when somebody beats you by a boatlength, and you crave just a little more speed, or a slightly better roll tack, or to play one shift better… imagine if you’d had 100 more hours of deliberate play and practice?

Some Take-Aways:

  • Maximize your training time on the water.
  • Develop winning habits by always approaching practice with a purpose.
  • Practice leads to excellence; there are no shortcuts.
  • Excuses won’t serve you; be honest with yourself.
  • Enjoy processes of challenging yourself, building habits of excellence, and improving some daily.
  • With a focus on the process, better regatta results will follow.


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 (reachingahead.com). Look for more of his wisdom in future issues of OptiNews.

Juan Carlos Romero with over 20 years of coaching sailing is the Key Biscayne Yacht Club Sailing Director and Head Coach.  Juan is a United States National Team Coach and the North Sails Optimist Head Coach for North America.