I like to end a practice session by executing what I call a “Lap of Excellence.” Regardless of what things you have been emphasizing that day (boat speed; technique; a specific boat handling drill; starting practice, etc.), it’s a chance to try to put everything you’ve been working on back together. As coaches and athletes, we know that breaking down your game into specific aspects, and working on those skills in a non-competitive environment are key components of process-oriented learning. But ultimately, you need to blend those skills into a single solid race performance, and the goal of the Lap of Excellence is to effectively put into place everything you learned that day.
At this point in your practice session you should be physically tired, and you will not be able to sail an excellent lap unless you have a very strong mental focus. Before you begin the exercise, take a few minutes and discuss what you learned that day. You should have gone on the water with a clear plan for what skills you were going to focus on and some specific drills to help achieve those goals.
Now is the moment to analyze and draw some conclusions, then show yourselves that you are ending the day a better team than you started. These are crucial elements of self-directed learning. Make a plan for what to work on, practice it, analyze and refine it, then conclude. If you have a coach to help with this all the better—but the majority of time it is completely self-guided. Coaching should be periodic guidance for your self-directed improvement, not as a replacement for it.
Reinforce what you think you learned by verbalizing it: “We were working on acceleration, and when speed-building in this wind it was best to go straight to full jib trim, but accelerate with only 80 percent vang. On the jibe sets, make sure the halyard gets to the hounds before the boom comes over.”
These small takeaways are the building blocks to improved performance, and you want to incorporate as many as possible into your final lap. Begin with a simulated start, a few tacks on a short beat, often with a practice late duck when on port, and a penalty turn thrown in. Do a jibe set if you have been working on that skill and make sure you nail it. A late change to the other gate mark followed by a rounding to fully hiked and living in the high lane until the (imaginary) traffic clears a bit. If you have done this well, you and your team can feel really good about what you have accomplished. If not, you have plenty to debrief about and some further things to work on for the next session.
Like any other drill, there are pitfalls. Sometimes it can be too easy, especially if there aren’t any other boats around. If you do the maneuvers only when comfortable, you can come away from the lap with a false confidence that doesn’t always stand up to the pressure of racing. That is why it is good to throw in unexpected moves; do penalty turns, double-tacks at the top, etc. More often though, especially with highly motived teams, the issue is not doing a lap that is up to your standards. In the 49er, if our lap went poorly my brother Jonathan and I would always stop, discuss what went right and wrong, and do it again until we felt good about our final lap.
On big boat programs, time constraints sometimes don’t allow another full lap. At least try to clean up the biggest mistake and end on a high note: “Let’s nail one last jibe set then call it a day.” It is always good to end the session on a positive note, and as a coach you are always looking for people to push themselves at the end of a session—to make that lap difficult but not so hard that it is impossible to succeed. True confidence comes from knowing you have practiced well and are prepared, and ending your sessions with a Lap of Excellence can help you achieve that.