We put the question to Tim Herzog, a top sailor and coach who has studied group dynamics, and here is what he told us:

It is no surprise that some of the best teams consist of spouses, siblings, or even multiple generations. Good relationships serve as the foundation for a successful team because of solid communication over the team’s vision. A family team’s commitment toward a clear vision may foster a synergy that can propel it toward the front of the fleet.

Delineating goals ahead of time can ensure that everyone shares a common vision. Without prior discussion, members of a family-based sailing team may hit the water with different agen­das (e.g., having fun, forming dozen relationships, or simply winning). Having different goals may make it tricky, but not impos­sible to share a common vision. Setting goals in advance allows for compromises that people can truly live with, or maximization of enjoyment through a new plan (like sailing on separate boats).

When a common vision is in place, family teams can gain an edge through highly developed communication patterns. Commu­nication aimed toward cooperation makes it safe to think outside the box. Successful teams have learned, on and off the water, to communicate in a manner that conveys respect, empathy, and acknowledgment. Racing often requires affirmative and sometimes abrupt communication.
Being mindful of one’s tone can ensure that the right message are delivered. A mindless grunt, “Trim! Trim! Trim!,” or disregarding of someone’s input may be aimed at helping performance, but may actually hinder performance and enjoyment. Empathy is a two-way Street though, so remember that both the trimmer and Mr. “Trim! Trim! Trim!” are likely doing their best during a pressured situation.

For family members especially, it can become easy to take things personally, because non-sailing roles can creep in. One way to stay in the moment (i.e., concentrating on sailing fast) is to compartmentalize roles into “sailing role” and “life role.” This does not mean that “bad” behavior is fair game in either context, but empathy during a boat race is different than during life. And, carrying baggage from one context into another isn’t likely to bode well. A good routine is to chat about it afterwards, when things are calmer. It is important for one to be able to share what is observed, by making statements in a neutral or positive tone, without broadcasting any judgmental tenor.

Communication is not just what is said, it is how it is said, and how one shows he is truly listening. During competitive mo­ments, it can feel difficult to be mindful of ail the messages we send verbally and non verbally. This can be especially hard with family members, when they push buttons just the right way, at just the wrong time. Mindful communication, especially during such tense moments, is a skill that takes practice. But, as we embrace the process of improving across domains (sailing skills and communication), success will likely follow.


Article Published in Sailing World 2008