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From the Archives: Pressing the Reset Button

Every race is a fresh start, says Andrew Campbell, so press the reset button to keep focus.

January 5, 2016
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In any racing, especially at the America’s Cup level, one of the most important skills for a sailor is to be able to reset after a bad race. Ricardo Pinto

“We’re taking it one race at a time” is an understated way of saying we can’t think too far into the future and risk losing focus on the details necessary to win the race at hand. Reading between the lines, the saying also implies a full recovery of one’s composure between races. The notion of taking a regatta series “one race at a time” may seem cliche, but it’s more important than you may realize. One’s ability to press this reset button after the first race of the day, or after any race in a given regatta, can mean the difference between a great series and a disastrous one. There are many situations where we need to regain our focus and set aside for later something that may have happened in the previous race. We’ve all had an OCS, a black flag penalty, been disqualified from a race, had a fourth-row start in a two-row fleet, or simply had a bad leg and a mediocre finish. How each of us copes with such shortcomings makes all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a series.

At a major Olympic-level Laser regatta in 2009 I had just finished racing on the third day and I was talking to one of my competitors about how he had received two yellow-flag penalties and had been forced to sit out a race for Rule 42 kinetics violations. Instead of preparing for his next race he fumed for an hour about something beyond his control. The next race he sailed was worthy of another throwout. He said that up until that point in the regatta his coach had told him he was doing a nice job of “pressing the reset button” before each race. The advice was essentially to continue one race at a time.

The game of golf provides a perfect parallel to a regatta series. Your score on the seventh hole should have no effect or bearing on the eighth. If you play poorly on the seventh hole, you should be able to clear your head, regain your composure, and play the eighth as if it were the first. The best golfers can certainly walk away from a triple bogey, step up to the next tee, clear their minds of all the angst and frustration, and swing with confidence in their abilities. Relying upon your fundamental skill set is always the most important part of the game anyway. All the practice and previous rounds you’ve put under your belt can easily be rendered useless by a lack of focus after making a mistake on the previous hole.

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The same is almost always true in sailboat racing. When a dinghy sailor gets flagged for excessive rocking or pumping on the racecourse it’s absolutely critical that he or she be conservative thereafter. However, it’s easy to go into the next race angry about how you’ve been robbed by some rogue jury. If your mind set is not clear, then it becomes much easier to lose control of your fundamental boathandling and tactical skills. Also, when disappointment from past races gets in the way of present opportunities, mistakes perpetuate themselves. You may blame the jury for a bad downwind leg in the previous race because you didn’t want to get caught under Rule 42, when in reality a tough leg is entirely within your control. If you do as the coach says and press the reset button before the next race starts, you can fall back on all the improvements you’ve made through hours, weeks, months or years of training.

So how do you press the reset button consistently? One of the most useful skills you can work on is to be consistent with your approach to each upcoming race. The best sailors develop a regular, but flexible starting routine and dive into it as soon as they get back to the starting line. As soon as you cross the finish line after a difficult race, go through what happened and why it was a mistake. Do this only once. On big boats, set a short time limit to talk amongst the entire crew and stick to your limit.

I press the reset button by using my internal clock, letting myself burn off the frustration for a short while and then forcing myself to get back to the starting line and getting set up for the next race. Two minutes is usually more than enough time to devote to being irritated by history. Also, the best way for me to get my mind re-focused on the next race after a disastrous one is to chock it up to a lot of bad luck and remember that the time I’ve spent practicing and training my entire life is what’s going to get me around the next racecourse. I have confidence in the fact that if I continue to make good decisions, luck will eventually come my way. It takes a lot of maturity to brush off bad luck and even more to brush off bad decisions. Every strategic situation that you enter into on the racecourse has a high-percentage and a low-percentage choice. Most of the time the high-percentage move is the only reasonable one because the low-percentage move is too risky. The most difficult thing for every sailor to do is to continue making high-percentage choices even when in dire straights.

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As soon as you’ve identified the problem and have come up with solution, immediately go back into your pre-race routine. This includes checking the racecourse for a favored side, checking your foils for seaweed, checking the starting line for a favored end, grabbing a bite to eat, taking in some fluids, and getting your head around the fact that you know when everything goes right, you deserve to be leading around the next mark as much as the next boat. I’ve learned that only after I’m able to push aside the previous race and deal with it later can I take full grasp of the race at hand. Remember that you have the sail in, the drive home, and the rest of your life to analyze what happened in the previous race, but you only have a few minutes to get your new strategy together for the upcoming race.

You can even take the strategy of one race at a time and apply it to each leg of a race or even each tactical or other important decision made on a given leg. Taking a race one tack at a time is too simplistic because of the need to anticipate and plan for racing scenarios developing all around us. But without question you can legitimately approach races starting anew at each turning mark. Making the correct decisions at every possible opportunity will improve your scores in the long run. Fuming with frustration from something that’s history will only ensure you miss those opportunities.

I won’t spend time listing ways to cope with frustration because people deal with pressure in different ways. However, I will say that taking a deep breath and focusing on the race at hand for a moment will go a long way toward improving your demeanor before the start of your next race. Taking it easy and being thankful for the fact that you’re literally getting a fresh start can make a huge difference in your upcoming performance. If you don’t take advantage of that fresh start, then you only have yourself to blame.

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Much of what we’ve covered here focuses on what you can do after a bad race, but it’s also important to reset after a good one, too. You can never have too much confidence when it comes to sailboat racing, so knowing that when you make the right decisions and have proper boathandling you should be able to win each race you start. After you have a good race, apply the same seriousness to your between-race routine as if you’d had a bad race. Ask yourself whether the patterns you experienced last race will repeat themselves? Do you need to reassess how to handle the next race? Take a few minutes to talk about what went well and congratulate yourself for having a great race, but as soon as you’ve done that, capitalize on that performance by using your extra time from finishing first into checking out the developing conditions for the next race.

The Five-minute Reset
Let’s assume you’ve tanked the last race after making a few mistakes on the final run. You have a five-minute window before your next race. How best do you use this time?

  • Spend a minute reviewing your mistakes and how to avoid them. Close the discussion, put it in the past, and revisit it on shore.
  • Spend the next 2 minutes focused on your pre-race routine: check the line, the course, and the wind. Formulate your strategy.
  • Spend one minute rehydrating and getting some nourishment.
  • Use your final minute to think positive and get back to the basics.

It’s a new race and a fresh start.

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