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When Push Comes to Shove

Understanding one's competitive shortcomings is never easy, but as the doctor explains, getting to the heart of our fears will result in consistent and enjoyable results on the racecourse. Strategy from our October 2012 issue.

October 23, 2012
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Mental strategy

Mentally tough

Hal Mayforth

Doc: Hi Claire, nice to see you. How is your 420 squad going?

Claire: Boy those kids grow up fast. They’re training really well, and I’m hoping they will put in some good performances at nationals this year. Actually, have you got a minute?

Doc: Of course, what’s on your mind?

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Claire: I have a dilemma and need to talk it through.

Doc: Shoot.

Claire: I would like to talk to the kids about how to handle those critical moments in sailboat races. You know, those tight calls when you need to decide in an instant whether you should go hard or back off. So often, that’s where races are won and lost.

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Doc: Yes, I know what you mean—like the last few seconds in a crowded start, or coming in late at the bottom mark, or whether to tack right in front of a starboard boat.

Claire: Exactly. The competitive side of me wants to tell them to just jam it in there and go for it, but the more responsible part of me wants them to back off, to play it safe—to be [with the “in quotes” fingers going] “responsible good citizens.” I think this is stuff that we don’t talk about enough … or particularly well. Yet, I just don’t know what I should give them as guidelines.

Doc: Tell me, do you find it’s the same problem for all the kids, or do some kids seem to approach things one way and other kids another?

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Claire: Doc, I have this lovely kid George in the squad, a really talented sailor. He got caught up in a protest in his last major regatta and came away gutted. He seems to have taken it quite personally, and now we’re coming up to nationals, and he is petrified of doing anything wrong. I’m worried some of the older kids will just walk all over him.

Doc: … and you want to make it “right” for him somehow?

Claire: I want him to be able to play the hardball game—hard but fair, and not come away feeling bruised.

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Doc: What do you think is going on here?

Claire: I think it might be a lot of things. But I think the biggest part for a sailor his age is that he doesn’t want people to think badly of him.

Doc: You do know that this concept applies to adults as well, don’t you? I’m interested in what you think you might do.

Claire: My standard slogan has always been “stay out of trouble,” and really that’s what I need to get across to some of the cowboys in the squad. But George … I need to help him not be so fearful about mixing it up.

Doc: If you were to design a program to help the kids with tight boat-on-boat confrontations, what would it look like?

Claire: [pause] There are really basic skills you just have to have for those tight situations. Firstly, you have to have the boathandling. How often do you see skippers attempting maneuvers that are beyond the skills of their crews? I remember listening to an Olympic medalist talking about how, as his team’s handling improved, he felt more and more confident to push hard in tight situations—and that team was already national champions.

Doc: I’ve seen crews capable of doing the most beautiful roll tacks execute some pretty ugly tacks under pressure. There seems to be something more than just having the boathandling skills.

Claire: I agree. There is certainly something about staying cool and focused on the right things that really experienced crews seem to have. But it’s not just the experience. The experience seems to lead to something. There is something about having really good vision—being able to see how things will play out well before they actually occur.

Doc: There is good psych literature about how experts have more time to make decisions because they notice and respond to earlier cues—earlier warnings about what is coming.

Claire: So then the second component is about looking ahead, seeing what is happening now and interpreting what it means. I need to build that into the program somehow. But I think the other thing that experience gives you—sometimes—is judgement. I was watching the America’s Cup World Series recently, and the on-board commentary was really interesting. Those skippers have a clear idea of when they can and can’t push. They have this exquisitely fine judgement, and they rarely get rattled under pressure.

Doc: So that might be the third component of the program then. Providing experiences, drills, and debriefs that help build judgement about when to go in and when to pull back.

Claire: Yes, I think that’s important.

Doc: I’m thinking there is one more component. To be able to exercise that judgement, they have to know the rules.

Claire: Of course—and it’s not just knowing the rules, it’s having an intuitive sense of how the rules work in action. You don’t get the thinking time to analyze each situation in detail as it’s happening. So part of the program is providing experiences that build the kids’ on-the-fly knowledge of how the rules really work.

Doc: So your training program needs to build boathandling, vision, judgement, and rules knowledge.

Claire: And build in a high level of automaticity so you can get those things right when you have no time to think.

Doc: And that leaves George.

Claire: [sighs] You’re right. George. There is something about how a person is in the world, or how they see the world—or maybe what things are scary in the world—that really drive our behavior in those stressful moments. The racing we do is not the Olympics or the America’s Cup, but the way some adults come on you’d think there were lives at risk if their kid doesn’t do well. And then there are those who have this ego-driven sense of entitlement—like it is their absolute right to barge at the start, slam into the top mark on port, or elbow their way to the front of a queue. Yet I can’t help thinking that this is some of what I’d like to see in George.

Doc: So there is something about striking a balance?

Claire: It depends. The cynical part of me says the more aggressive you are the better you will do, whether or not people think much of you afterwards. For professionals, it’s a livelihood. Their boundaries are governed by who pays the bills, but for most of us, sailing is a competitive outlet that we do with friends. We all find a different balance between ego needs and social affiliation.

Doc: … and pay the associated prices.

Claire: I still don’t think I’ve quite got it about George. I think what I want is for him to show a little courage—a little backbone.

Doc: Saying someone lacks courage always seems to carry judgement.

Claire: Yes, I know what you mean. It felt weird to say that.Doc: You know, saying George needs “courage” implies he’s scared of something. I wonder what that is.

Claire: That’s where we started. He’s scared of people thinking badly of him.

Doc: So part of this thing with George might be about “permission.” If the people he cares about—his parents, friends, or coaches—can have a discussion that gives him a more balanced view of what “normal” or even “acceptable” looks like in these situations, he might feel more comfortable or safer to push a little harder. We’re starting to get near one of the central conflicts of our sport. On the one hand, it is a competitive sport where reputations and livelihoods are on the line—at least at the top end—and there is little in the way of referees. Yet most sailboat racing that goes on in the world is social. We do it for fun. As you said, we do it with our friends.

Claire: So then the last part of this mix is working out where the balance is between competitive aggression and … I don’t know … being a nice person?

Doc: Sounds a bit lame doesn’t it? I think maybe it’s a three-part balancing act—competitive aggression (which for some is “courage”) versus “what others might think of me” versus “who I choose to be for myself.”

Claire: That’s too fluffy and new age.

Doc: What will you put on the list?

Claire: I think I’ll go with “courage” and “responsibility.” You know, I think you need them all—all the things on the list. Without any one of those, you are going to be at a disadvantage. But I still don’t know how I could talk to them about this—particularly the “courage and responsibility” thing.

Doc: I wonder what would happen if you gave them the list, and got a discussion going about what the words meant. Get them to make sense of it themselves, tell some stories about incidents they’ve had, how it has gone, and how it has felt. Maybe then they could decide which are strengths and which aren’t—for themselves. At least then they could build a sense of what might be the most valuable for them to work on.

Claire: That might work.

Doc: Are you sure this is just for the kids?

Claire: Actually, I think I might be making this list for me, not them.

Read more From the Experts.

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