Frostbiting in Lasers, the guy in front of me hit the weather mark. Thinking perhaps he hadn’t seen it, I let him know, “You hit the mark!” He did his penalty, but for the next leg and a half of the race course, he screamed at me, telling me to sail my own race. I felt the impulse to scream back, to become absorbed in the conflict with him. But, I asked myself- would this be productive? I sailed on, actually using the “USODA” mnemonic I presented in an earlier OptiNews article: “Control the Controllables…” I focused on my breathing, on boat-speed, big picture strategy, staying between my competitors and the finish line, and smooth boat-handling. But my job wasn’t done. Clearly, I had made this guy mad, which wasn’t my problem except that I was likely going to get hosed the next time I was next to him on the starting line, or if we had a tight crossing. I decided to approach him at some point at the end of the day, when he had hopefully cooled down and when it wouldn’t distract me from my own performance.
During the sail in, I happened to be next to him. Despite wanting to pretend none of it happened, I seized my opportunity. Empathy is always a good conversation starter. It makes people more ready to hear you and to let go of any anger. Figuring he was probably embarrassed, I said to him, “Hey, I’m sorry I called you out on hitting that mark. Nobody likes being called out. I just didn’t know if you knew you hit it.” “Oh, I knew!” he said, “I was all over it!” “Oh,” I responded—”I just saw it out of the corner of my eye, so I didn’t know.” “Thanks for talking about it,” he said, and later shook my hand at the dock.
Communication is a key ingredient of sportsmanship and performance. Consider the following…
Your Controllable: Communication
You cannot control your competitors’ (or anyone else’s) behavior, including their style of communication, but you can take charge of your own (which may influence theirs). Strive for a style of communication that balances their perspective and needs with your own.
Around the Course
Speaking, or using non-verbals (such as waving your hand), well in advance of situations, are good ways to avoid problems on the race course. It can be hard to hear on the water, especially a high-pitched voice, so be sure to be loud, clear, and succinct, also paying attention to your tone (e.g., “Cross!” with a smile, as opposed to “I think you’ve got it this time…”). Some critical moments can include: starts, crossing situations, overlaps, and mark-roundings.
Winning (or doing well) with grace is a learned skill. It can be easy to either seclude yourself (not wanting the spotlight) or to be overly excited after a good race. See if you can find a happy medium. “Nice race,” to your closest competitor can feel good. Maybe even, “You almost got me with that lefty!” if it’s true. One cool thing about our sport is that competition comes with cooperation, not a cutthroat attitude.
If you’re driven, the losses (even if it’s just one boat at the finish) can be hard to swallow. You’ll have an easier time moving forward though if you treat the losses just as you treat the wins. Say “good race” where it seems appropriate, and learn to consistently calm yourself so you can focus on the next task at hand.
Team racing can be intense. Interactions with opponents and even teammates have potential to become fiery. Action happens at a faster pace. Often, seasoned teamracers (who have practiced together often) communicate very little during a race. They may yell out play calls to each other, but overall there is a trust that teammates are on the same page. The benefits of this are two-fold: 1) Teammates can focus on their most important task at hand, without distraction; and 2) An atmosphere of trust makes it easier to perform; you trust yourself when you know others trust you (and vice versa). Chatting between races is also very important to share lessons learned, and remember- winning and losing should look similar in terms of your composure and communication style.
Transitioning out of Optis
As you tackle new kinds of sailing (e.g., high school, 420’s, 29ers, college, and/or Olympic campaigns), you’ll find that these skills still apply, with nuanced differences. Sailing a double-handed boat, for instance, is a big transition. Being mindful of your impacts on another person becomes key to your collective performance. You can ask that other person for specific kinds of help in keeping calm, but ultimately that’s up to you. Reading this article, hopefully, you’ve started a “conversation” with yourself regarding your own standard procedures for calming and communicating. As you partner with others, be sure to have that conversation out loud.
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).
First published in April 2017 in OptiNews, the official magazine of the US Optimist Dinghy Association.