What to do When You're Winning

Tim Herzog explains that holding on to a lead can be as much about your mindset as it is your speed or tactics.

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Being at the top of the fleet is daunting, but keep your thoughts in check and focus on the little thingsPaul Todd/Outside Images

I had one of the best high school sailing coaches in the country and one of the best college coaches, but boy, did they ever approach the start of practice differently. My high school coach placed our names on the board in order of where we currently stood on the team. My college coach intentionally put us in random order on the board. Either way, it was easy to play mind games. As the eternal optimist, I frequently helped myself out by believing I belonged at the top. Over time, however, I helped myself out even more by learning to let go of rankings, both on and off the racecourse.

We often hear about “fear of failure,” but it’s seldom we hear about its equally evil twin, “fear of success.”

The anticipation of screwing up the lead you’ve achieved can create a whirlwind of thoughts that are unrelated to sailing smart and fast. Likewise, the anticipation of success can come with fears that are unrelated to getting to that finish line: “Will I maintain this success in later events? What will people say? Do I really deserve this?”

Thoughts related to two very different outcomes, failure or success, have something in common. Both have nothing to do with the task at hand.

Outcomes are largely based on uncontrollable variables, like how fast other people are sailing. Wanting to be in the lead has little to do with actually being there (except that it may have helped you to work hard to become good). If you do find yourself in the lead, you did something right. Chances are, you focused on such variables as windshifts, current, and fleet positioning or such controllable variables as your boatspeed, boathandling, and keeping calm. Once you’re in the lead, you probably do not want to start doing something different (like wasting lots of mental space on what place you will or won’t finish).

For some, being ahead is the norm. For others, it can be viewed as a fleeting moment. How do you interpret the situation of being ahead? If you look at it in a neutral manner, like it’s simply information, then you are on the right track.

When we cling to reactions like it being “great!” or “scary!” then our minds become cluttered, we ride an emotional roller coaster, and our bodies tense, causing us to move less fluidly in the boat, and our best performance does not come through.

So how do we become more like Buddha when we find ourselves ahead on the racecourse?

First, notice the language in your brain. Is it helping or hurting? Does it make you tense or loose? Awareness is a key to success.

Then, embrace controllable variables. These may enter your mind, but remember “garbage in, garbage out.” In other words, you can practice steering your thoughts to the important variables of sailing fast. You can influence your thoughts, but not control them. And over time, you can form new habits in thinking.

If you’re going to play mind games with yourself, play games that work for you, not against you. I often think of golfers who have told me, “I do great on the back 9, but I’m lousy on the front 9.” To which I respond, “Why don’t you pretend the front 9 is the back 9?” Voilà! Their game often improves.

Use imagery on and off the racecourse. Visualize steps leading to success (strategy, boatspeed, boathandling, tactics) and steps to finishing successful. Allow yourself to feel changes in your body and with your emotions as you utilize imagery. Making it “real” makes it more effective for a slew of reasons.

Picture what you want to happen, rather than what you want to avoid. Your mind programs your body for action. It’s OK for fears of failure to come and go, but allow for more repetitions of what you want. More importantly, picture the steps involved.

Practice mental skills. These are like any other skills. Could you imagine having good roll tacks without practicing them? Mental skills are no different; they should be practiced along the way without stress, so they can be better utilized under stress.

Tim Herzog is a Certified Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. His land-locked practice, Reaching Ahead is in Bozeman, Mont., and he often works with sailors from afar, using Skype, phone, and e-mail. He’s an alumnus of St. Mary’s College and Tabor Academy, and he’s the former head coach of the Boston College Sailing Team.