I recently heard an interesting story from a high school sailing coach. She had two good skippers on her team. The first one—we’ll call him Bill—came to the team with a lot of experience from Optimists and 420s, and he seemed to be confident and competent. He was clearly the best kid on the team in the fall and won most of the practices. Jeff was the other helm. He had less experience and less confidence than Bill, but he was open to getting better and enjoyed sailing a lot.
After practices and regattas, the coach would talk to the skippers individually about the mistakes they made and what could be improved. It soon became clear that Bill was a little defensive about his mistakes and tended to suggest that outside factors caused his poor finishes. Jeff, on the other hand, was open to feedback from all sources, and was genuinely curious about how he could improve his decision-making and execution. Although less experienced, his attitude allowed a much faster pace of learning.
By the winter regattas, Bill and Jeff were both winning roughly equally. By the spring events, Jeff was winning nearly all the time because he had continued to improve his game to the point where he overcame his lack of experience, replacing it with a disciplined yet open-ended approach developed by learning from his mistakes.
I have a similar story from my own background. When I was a freshman at Yale, I was pretty fast and good at tactics, but I tended to get into protests. Partly because I did not know the rules all that well, but mostly because I could not admit to myself I had made a mistake and should just do my penalty turn. This went on for a couple of years, and my results suffered at times because I was not using my mistakes to learn. Finally, after a particularly costly disqualification, I realized that I needed to change my attitude toward learning. Yes, I needed to get better at managing risk when the situation involved a possible protest, but I needed to stop thinking that I knew everything, and that my mistakes were the fault of someone else. Although I did not know it at that time, I started down a path toward developing what is a popular term today: “growth mindset.”
What is your attitude toward failure? In sailboat racing, we fail all the time. Even top racers are consistently making mistakes large and small—take it from me. A growing body of research into learning and brain plasticity suggests that the manner in which a person processes mistakes and failure will impact their growth and future performance. I will be focusing on sailors, both elite athletes and weekend warriors, but these issues are relevant to other parts of our lives as well. I love it when sailing can be a metaphor for life.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist, and other researchers have shown that people applying a “growth mindset” are able to learn faster and improve further compared with those applying a “fixed mindset.” It is worth reading her research and listening to her podcasts and TED Talks because they are quite illuminating. Summarizing the main points, a growth mindset is a belief in process. Talent is not innate. Success comes from sustained effort and working through the inevitable challenges. The process is driven by growth and improvement, not success.
A fixed mindset is all about outcome. If you fail, you think all your effort was wasted. Talent is innate, so there is no way to improve beyond a certain point. It is not worth learning a new thing. You take failure personally—as I did in my early college years—and feel shame and embarrassment when you make a mistake.
We all have seen this effect in our local fleet. There will be some sailors who continue to improve faster than others, and other sailors who seem “stuck” at a certain level. In my experience, this is often caused by differences in the way sailors process their past performance. The sailors who get stuck do not really analyze their errors in a meaningful way—maybe because they are embarrassed by them. They tend to take failure personally. They prefer to focus on the good parts, and write off bad parts to luck or outside effects. The sailors who keep getting better tend to take the opposite approach: Rather than being embarrassed about their mistakes or feeling shame, they see them as an opportunity to learn and improve. They do not take failure personally. They use their errors to learn real lessons that help prevent those errors in the future. In this point of view, mistakes are the catalyst to improvement.
We all have elements of both types of mindset, and the literature discusses a mixed mindset, which includes parts of both. We might use a growth mindset in only some situations, and we might revert to a fixed mindset in others. So there is a continuum, but the point is to recognize where we are on that scale. One thing I am confident about: By moving toward the growth mindset, we can improve our sailing and also enjoy it more.
How can we move toward a growth mindset in our sailing? To me, it starts with the debrief after the race. Try to be as objective as possible, even if the truth hurts. By stating aloud that our spinnaker hoists are slower than the top boats (which is objectively true), we are then free to find a solution. We are not bad people, or even bad sailors; we just need to improve this area. We can discuss with our crew how to do that without being emotionally attached. Let’s try sneaking the tack out a little sooner. Let’s try improving the blocks in the halyard system. Let’s try keeping the bow a little lower during the set. Let’s take some video of the top boat in our fleet to study how they manage the hoist. After that, we can dedicate practice time to improving the hoists. Then, we can test our new techniques in racing.
I’m confident that if we employ a process like this, we will find the right solutions to any challenge by seeking answers to basic questions: What is the problem? What are the potential sources of the problem? What resources are available to help show us how other teams do it? Then, with answers in hand, we can try the good ideas and fix the issue. It sounds so simple, but many of us are not open enough—to ourselves or our teammates—to clearly state there is an issue and commit to a solution without embarrassment or concern for blame.
One of the keys to a successful debrief is involvement of the whole team. Each person on your crew has a valuable perspective, even if they are less experienced, so make an extra effort to solicit input from everyone. Once the areas to improve are identified (make sure to discuss the positive areas as well), ask each crew member for their thoughts on potential solutions, and decide together how to proceed. Once everyone is on the same page, it’s an issue for the whole team to solve and not the responsibility of one or two individuals to correct.
The second key to a good debrief is to keep the atmosphere open and positive. By making it more comfortable for everyone to provide their input, you’re more likely to correctly identify the key issues and their potential solutions. This is a place where a coach can be extremely helpful. But even if one of the crew is running the debrief, the same principles of openness and future action orientation can be employed.
I remember when I first started sailing J/70s. I was not used to a boat where wing-on-wing is sometimes the best mode. I had been sailing lighter, faster boats, where wing-on-wing never worked. It took me almost a whole season before I was able to embrace that wing-on-wing was part of the tool set needed to be successful in this class. I then realized I was way behind in this area, and I needed to develop my skills, just like a beginning sailor. So I set about turning this weakness into a strength. Our team would practice it every chance we got, even when it was marginal. I would talk to other sailors who were good at it. We had lengthy discussions within our team about when to use it and what method to use to deploy (jibing the main versus jibing the kite). Finally, after almost two years of focused effort, it is becoming more natural, our techniques are getting better, and I am no longer afraid of it.
If you are able to maintain a growth mindset, where learning is paramount, you can continue to improve as a sailor forever—this is the hopeful me talking. The other thing that a growth mindset gives us is a new way to view competition. In this worldview, you need competition to improve, and the better the competition, the more opportunities to get better. As long as we are able to not take the results personally. This is a big challenge for a lot of us. Our desire to improve and our curiosity have to be stronger than our fear of losing, as well as the associated shame and embarrassment. But if you can make the commitment to continual learning a growth mindset allows, you will feel “lighter” and less invested in the result—and thus be able to enjoy your sailing more. You will have good races more often because your skills are improving, and you will not feel so bad about the lost races because they are merely opportunities to get better—a virtuous cycle.