Sailing is a unique sport with many facets. Success comes from overall training plan encompassing development of technical expertise, boat speed, strategy, boat handling, tactics, physical training, and mastery of the mental game. In interviews with Olympians, professionals, or other top athletes, successes or failures are often attributed to cognitive or emotional experiences. Elite sailors control as many controllables as possible, and yet, sometimes mental skills are sometimes left up to chance.
You wouldn’t go to a big regatta expecting to consistently go fast without having first worked on boatspeed. How could you expect mental consistency without having first trained the mind?
Training needs always vary from sailor to sailor, and the first step to honing any skill is too build awareness. Awareness in boatspeed could mean tuning into components of the experience like degree of heel. Likewise, noticing your thoughts moment to moment enables greater influence toward more consistently helpful thought patterns.
A good frame of mind can lead to time ‘in the zone’ (as media labels it) or experiencing ‘flow’ (as researchers call it). You can’t make a flow state occur, but you can set the stage such that falling into it becomes more likely. Understanding concepts and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses allows for a more intentional setting the stage. Skills that I often dive into with clients include: goal-setting, clearing cognitive clutter, energy management, mindful attention, mental imagery, and effective communication.
Winning events or medals are obvious carrots to chase after, but thinking about trying to win (or dwelling on fear of bad performance) usually has nothing to do with tasks at hand (like observing sail shape or having a solid tack). I often work with athletes on setting goals centered on processes in the NOW. Similarly, our brains are often filled with chatter that is adaptive or maladaptive. At times when thoughts are actually helpful, it’s akin to riding a good wave- you want to allow it for as long as possible. But when thoughts are maladaptive, it is like Laser sailing in the trough of a wave that is sending you into a pitchpole that wave needs to be rolled. I work with athletes on rolling past less helpful thoughts, sometimes with hard counters, and more often utilizing mindfulness techniques.
An athlete’s energy management is influenced by some of these same factors, plus lifestyle choices, and through psychophysiological techniques like developing an optimally paced breath. This makes a difference on and off the water, especially in the midst of stressful tactical situations. Energy management techniques can also contribute to more flexible attention. Demonstrating that we usually can’t ‘control’ attention, I often tell sailors ‘don’t think about pink elephants. Close your eyes for 10 seconds and try it. Your brain is likely already filled with pink elephants. We might not be able to control attention, but we can be mindful about steering it directions that are more helpful, creating attention habits through good routines. Mental (movement-focused) imagery can be a useful to sailors and other athletes across situations such as: preparing for certain regatta sites, honing a boat handling skill, spontaneous usage on or off the race course, or by combining it with traditional coaching techniques such as video analysis.
With coaches and others, I often work on good communication skills. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a pre-requisite for teams to get along socially. ‘Task cohesion’ is much more important than ‘social cohesion.’ Sailors need to know that they can count on important people like their coaches or their crew. And when everything else (including trust) is in place, good social relationships can add a synergy to the package. It makes the experience fun and can fuel motivation. Whether communicating task needs or social needs, learning a balance between a directive and collaborative style can make all the difference and making sure that the other person feels heard. Clich, but true, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason!
Formats for the work I do with sailors and athletes can vary. Ideal training can involve ongoing individual consultation for coaches and/or sailors, and can incorporate in-person meetings for teams. Given that I currently live in ski country, coming to Montana can be a great get-away for teams that want to ski by day and learn mental skills by morning and night.
Written by Tim Herzog, first published on Sail1Design March 24, 2013.