From Attain to Sustain
From Attain to Sustain
You've made it to the front of the fleet, or maybe at least the top of the class, but do you have what it takes to stay there? From the Experts, June 2011.
Coach: You’re saying the coach is like your best work colleague?
Doc: Partly. I guess I’m saying that top coaches and crews both have fairly high levels of expertise. A big part of a top coach’s value is in the relationship with the crew, rather than expecting the coach to always have the answers. But there’s a second part. Top coaches hold their teams responsible for focusing on perfecting performance. It’s not all about constantly trying new things; it’s about refinement at a very high level—being able to do a world-class tack every time.
Coach: You’re saying that a good coach is a taskmaster—“get out there and do 100 tacks before I let you off the water?”
Doc: Yes, there is a taskmaster element I suppose, but most serious teams set that level themselves. In sailing at an elite level, world champion performance does not automatically result in a race win. How many times has the winner of a major regatta not won a race? World-champion performance comes from the disciplined delivery of the behaviors that maximize your performance at any given moment—and doing that at all times. I guess you could frame “mental toughness” in those terms. It’s about resilient and committed adherence to performance behaviors in the face of powerful forces of distraction. The coach helps the team to embed and perfect knowledge and behavior patterns that result in performance. Put another way, he redefines success for the team.
Coach: Now you’ve lost me.
Doc: At an Olympic Games, everyone is good. Everyone can sail at that phenomenally high level. But a good number of teams don’t—it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t. The difference at that very top level is that a winning team never drops off its game, no matter how tough the conditions get, or how stressed the sailors feel. They retain a laser focus—not on winning, but on “performance”—doing the things they know (through hundreds of hours of practice and racing) make the boat go fast and head it in the right direction. The also-rans get distracted, do a sloppy tack or miss a shift, or worse, start to get creative.
Coach: Get creative?
Doc: They respond to the “this ain’t working” monster, who’s mantra is, “We have to do something different.” This eats away at the sub-elite crews because they haven’t yet built the knowledge and confidence to really know what works. Even top crews can get caught because the distractions and emotional charges drag them toward panic and away from what they’ve spent hours learning.
Coach: … Cornersville?
Doc: A classic example! Shooting a corner to get back into the race, even though everything you know is screaming, “This is not smart.”
Coach: What goes on there? Why is that attraction so powerful?
Doc: There are two parts to the answer. The first is that, at times, the thought of not winning is so painful or threatening that we’ll risk anything to avoid it. The other is that the radical creative risk just might work. It’s like what psychologists call “variable-ratio reinforcement schedules.” If you want to condition a person to do a particular behavior, provide the reward he or she craves, but don’t provide it all the time. Do it inconsistently. Then, when the reward doesn’t appear, the person will try again because “maybe it will work this time.” Sometimes it does, so the person keeps behaving in that way. The pull from these two monsters is incredibly powerful, and it pulls top sailors away from doing the things that race the boat well.
Coach: So to coach a top team, help the crew commit to doing what they already know how to do?
Doc: That, and continually striving to improve everything incrementally.
Coach: I’m going to be brilliant.