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Jobson Report: Positivity Is Faster

There’s no place for constant negativity on a racing team—it’s always slow. Focus on keeping things upbeat, and the speed will follow.

September 18, 2013

Gary Jobson 368

A sailboat race is at its best when everything works to perfection, but it can be quite the emotional roller coaster. One moment, things are looking good, and then, often without warning, it all turns upside down. But if racing were predictable we’d all be bored. Every race should be a challenge and a new experience, which is what makes the sport so appealing. When things go awry, the best way forward is a positive attitude.

The best sailors I know thrive on adversity. It’s as if, deep down, they actually enjoy the challenge of extricating themselves from a difficult position. For them, working through the fleet after a setback provides great satisfaction. Perhaps I, too, fall into that camp. What helps me in times of adversity is to think back to a turnaround from a past race, which instantly calms me. Then I make a plan and verbalize it to my crew.

I find it easier to maintain a positive tone throughout a race by first avoiding high-stress, high-risk situations in the first place, and that includes staying away from packs of boats. Sailors that lock up in battles with one or two boats rarely advance: They usually end up dragging each other down emotionally as well. Also, think about the effect of your maneuvers: A good leebow or covering tack will get the crew fired up and focused on going faster.

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I like to review races when fleet tracking is available. Many people only review their courses, but I learn the most by reviewing the course of a team that made a big recovery, then seeking out the skipper or tactician to ask how he or she recovered. Whenever I do this I find that a sailor who can make a great comeback usually has a great attitude, too.

Sailors that win one race and are deep in the next rarely score well by regatta’s end. The problem I find among inconsistent teams is they take too many chances. When you take big gambles, you’re staring down potential big losses. I avoid this by constantly evaluating my risks, especially at the start of a race. I have watched countless regatta winners regularly start in the middle of the line because there’s a potential jam up at either end.

Turning marks are another time to be careful and positive: Unless it’s wide open and easy to get in, avoid approaching the windward mark on or near the port-tack layline. The final approach should always be on the starboard tack layline, at least five boatlengths out. The same is true for the leeward mark: Come in clean, take the gear down early enough, and give a positive shout-out to the crew (“Great rounding guys!”) as you settle in on the next leg.

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I’ve raced with skippers who constantly complain about every little thing. This cumulative nagging casts a black crowd across the entire boat. Great sailors like Dennis Conner, Dave Ullman, Greg Fisher, or Paul Foerster almost seem emotionless and disconnected when things go sour. This doesn’t mean they aren’t trying hard, or don’t care. They simply don’t let emotions cloud their thinking while they analyze the situation and make a new plan. If someone tacks on Conner’s wind, for example, he’s quiet. He will quickly decide whether he’s better off staying in disturbed air or tacking away.

One method to maintain a positive vibe is to continually watch other boats, keep track of which boats are gaining, and try to understand why. Assign one crew to be the spotter, looking for any signal that might indicate a new trend in the wind. Effective dialogue from the rail keeps the rest of the team engaged and optimistic.

To help me understand how I sound during a race I sometimes wear a microphone, tape my dialogue, and listen to it at night. I’ve learned that my tone influences the crew’s collective attitude. My best comments offer encouragement, but I wince when I hear myself complain. The next day I try to do better. Guess what? Our results improve.

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It’s refreshing to occasionally race by myself because it helps me discipline my thinking routine. The silence is therapeutic. We don’t have crowds cheering us on, so self-motivation is the key ingredient that helps us sail better.

Every member of the crew can help the process. Try this: If you find your boat back in the pack, declare to your teammates, “Just for fun, let’s see how many boats we can pass before the finish.” This simple encouragement can turn things around for the better, and when we do make gains the spirit comes alive. Try to be the person on board that elevates the entire team. In the end, a positive attitude makes the difference between sour frustration and sweet satisfaction.

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