Psychology In Sailing

Psychology In Sailing

The role of the sports psychologist is often misunderstood in many, many sports.  In sailing, the direct support these guys give came in largely in the 90s, and more prominently in the past few years.  As with all roles, the manner that this profession applies itself is varied, so this blog is about prioritizing the role, and gaining an understanding of the direct benefits this psychological aspect of the “surroundings” may bring to our performance in sailing.  It is by no means complete, but designed as an insight into part of the framework of our working methods.

Many people argue that “it’s a mental game”, regardless of the sport that they are talking about.  Were this to be the case and performance outcome so dependent on the mental side, we would see an awful lot of different people getting out of the happy side of their beds more often.  In fact, sports psychologists will be the first people to say that they cannot overcome technical deficiency, but they can improve results based on the competence of the competitor.

Let us first inspect some of the factors that are considered to be a part of “mental strength”.  We will comment on the pitfalls as we go:

  1. Determination is looked on as being a needed quality to succeed. Determination without direction is often depressing, and we must note that there are few people headed in the same direction at any one time, so determination can be as greatly flawed as the old saying that “speed makes a sailor look like a tactical genius”.  If you are fast, you can go deeper into the wrong side and look pretty dumb.  If you are determined you can go further down the wrong path, with dire consequences.  Determination to plough down the correct path is needed.
  2. Focus – the ability not to be distracted from the goal(s) set whilst participating in your training or racing. Focus is a quality massively dependent on prioritization, so for example focusing on your rig details whilst your technique is poor will lead to little gain.  Technical prioritization brings the greatest rewards to the ability to retain focus
  3. Positive mind set – the “can do” philosophy. No matter how many times the phrase is repeated, you cannot do “it” without being better than the opposition.  For sure people of the same abilities and different mindsets will see their results affected by the positive elements, but the ability to achieve technical excellent will then produce positive mindset   as a consequence of the technical achievement – otherwise known as confidence.
  4. Feeling “sharp” or “in the zone”. This is an interesting aspect of mental performance.  Many people will perform at their best when engaged in external conflict, be it in their personal lives or with money worries, adverse effects from within their own teams or just feeling low due to an unhappy personal life.  Look at the number of athletes who win and dedicate their victory to a tragedy.  Achieving the state of being “in the zone” is very individual, as we will go on to explain.

There are of course many other aspects of mental strength, particularly relating to the size of the dreams that we all have!   Generally there is a “key” to each level that we have to achieve, and once we find the key we can progress.

We may link prioritization to being a key skill in our mental strength at many levels.  If we always focus on the aspect of racing which will give us our biggest return, we have to pitch this program into whatever our prior knowledge or skill base is.  Therefore to prioritize the factors that give us the biggest gains is not necessarily conducive to long term development – it has to be dovetailed seamlessly into the bigger plan.  In this way, as in any business, the consequences of taking a big short term goal at the expense of the long term progression may be understood.  We need the big medal – the temptation to go for all the small ones along the way often leads to holes appearing in our structure and vulnerabilities appearing in the longer term.  This is certainly a part of the mental game of sailing.

So what role does the sports psychologist primarily play in sailing our peak performance regatta?  Many people believe that being relaxed and happy is a key element, but we know that there is proof that stress increases performance, and then when we get too much it decreases performance – often rapidly.  This stress/performance curve is probably the anchor that we need to establish with our sports psychologist and sailing coach.  All the peripherals about being happy, solving personal problems and so on are of tertiary interest as regards the impact of stress on performance.  We need to know how highly each of us needs to be stressed to perform at our best, and also where the drop off (too much stress) occurs – in a two person sail boat if one shouts at another, it can be productive, but it may also destroy the zone that the boat has been performing in.  The same applies to the sailing coach – do they scale up the intensity of the debrief, or keep very calm?  Only by understanding the zone that each athlete needs to be in can the sailing coach successfully pitch their debriefs at the correct intensity between races, whilst still making them constructive.  Continuity of coach/sailor/psychologist relationship is important to understand the benefits that this aspect brings to performance.

Our experience shows the role of the sports psychologist in sailing to be a very beneficial one when it is understood and optimized.  The anchor is the understanding of role.  We may peripherally benefit from advice on training patterns and recuperation etc, but the core of the successful relationship is in understanding how much stress the individual needs to perform at their optimum, and the point at which too much stress has a negative effect on performance.

At Toplevel Sailing (formerly WSA) we are intent on the development of the mental game for all our sailors and sailing coaches.  We do recognize that without technical excellence the mental game cannot produce winners, so we feel confident that we have got our priorities in the correct order for our sailors to produce the best results with confidence based on technical and mental excellence.

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