Positive Sailing

Positive Sailing


We often talk about “staying positive”, surrounding ourselves with “positive people” and using “positive energy” to boost our results or gain the winning edge.  Very often this is then left to the sailor, no matter how young or inexperienced, to get their own vision of what “positive” may be – often the coach or supporters will be saying that we can win this, we’re gonna do great, and other such seemingly motivational expressions.  Often this burdens the sailor, who knows realistically in the prevailing conditions with their experience and handicaps against the fleet that they cannot win, they cannot “go for a result”, and far too often the coach or supporters will not take the step of saying that good results come from a good process, so let’s attack the positive side of OUR process and be positive in words about that element/those elements of the regatta.  You may state that you are comparing improvements in all aspects, rather than comparing with other sailors.  In this way the pressure of winning is removed, the pressure of honoring your training is optimized.  Reality is delivered in a positive manner.

The goal of this blog is to deliver an outline for a psychological strategy to both sailors and teams, with some positive contributions, and some examples with reasons of things not to say, or indeed think.

Positive and Negative Filtering

Most of us know that feeling – we have given in a piece of work or report, which we are proud of. Somewhere in the depths of the document the reader finds a flaw.  We get the feedback from the document that it is comprehensive and competent, BUT…. The reader thinks this flaw is undermining a part of it.  Suddenly, dependent on how we are told about this flaw, the entire document becomes an obscenity, something to be ashamed of, useless, worthless, and this is reflected by a knock in confidence and a deep-seated wish to distance ourselves from something that is an excellent piece of work.  This scenario is an example of negative filtering in feedback, where disproportionate emphasis is placed on the wrong, and little emphasis placed on the good.

As an athlete how should we treat negatively filtered feedback that undermines a chunk of our training or performance and may undermine our confidence and even self esteem?  Obviously, we are on a damage limitation strategy.  Finding another opinion which confirms the positive aspects of our performance is not always possible, though peer feedback is often useful.  The only real way to combat the type of negative filtering (focus on the mistakes) is to keep a good inventory, even in the form of a list, of what we have done right and where we have achieved improvement, regardless of the cost of the mistake.

This raises the question of how a coach can debrief a performance with a key flaw which has cost a decent result.  Yes, it is obvious that mistakes are expensive, and equally obvious we cannot afford to repeat that mistake.  The question then arises what emphasis we place on the mistake, and can we afford to ignore the remainder of the debrief so this super costly mistake is not repeated.  The answer is dependent on the individuals that we are coaching, but the one thing for sure is that a race or training must be debriefed holistically.  We need that “inventory” of skills and actions that will contribute to a great performance, and we need an ongoing overall status of where our athlete is positioned in each facet.  Equally as coaches we are not perfect or infallible, so we may get the balance wrong on some days.  That makes a good case for the athlete agreeing to an assessment of each facet/element and keeping their own score too, leading in the longer term to a less autocratic approach to coaching, and a more democratic process as the sailor matures.

Putting this structure in place at an early stage ensures the growth of reality based confidence and an ability to focus in a balanced manner for our athletes.

Positive filtering is nearly as negative to performance as negative.  For an athlete to make mistakes but then believe they have performed well is fiction-based confidence, which will crumble in a pressure situation.  They may feel good, may be happier because of the positivity surrounding feedback, but they will. Never reach their potential, because the feedback is based on lies.

Other Aspects to Consider

Seeing things in absolutes, often called black and white thinking, is a danger to positive sailing.  When you are training or coaching, every time you employ absolute words such as never, always, every, rule, and many more, you have to be certain that this is applicable.  The talent of your sailor may dictate that your “never” is the sailor’s “sometimes”, which leads to an undermining of confidence and a resistance by the sailor to take your path.  Absolutes do exist, but so do hundreds of shades of grey, so make certain you are describing the right color, and as sailors that you are seeing the right shade of grey!

Closely associated with absolutes are the opportunities which arise when coaching in certain conditions.  We often take one major point in a session and develop it into a mantra.  This over-generalization of a coaching opportunity is more often than not inaccurate, and leads to exceptions to the mantra being found over the sessions that come, leading to a loss of confidence by the sailor in the coach, and a battle of wills to get the generalization into some form of usable experience.  When debriefing these big training opportunities, the coach must ask key questions, so the sailor will recognize the uses of the experience, and find out by exploring when it works and when it is inappropriate to use.  The coach will then be positively contributing by focusing correct energy on the incident/opportunity, without giving absolute instructions which are inappropriate to the sailor.

Catastrophizing is a term for a focused negative filtering.  Catastrophes, such as an action that leads to capsize or penalty, are still one incident in a full race.  To make any capital of an obvious negative not only undermines the sailor but increases the risk of it happening again.  Catastrophes should not be ignored in a debrief, but the sequence of events leading to the incident should be investigated, rather than the crisis management of the incident itself.

The dangers of either the sailor or the coach jumping to a conclusion of anything negative without examine full evidence and often repeated evidence are massive.  By jumping to a conclusion, we run the increased risk of being wrong and doing harm.  Because sailing is a complex, and in many ways a sequential sport, getting a base fact wrong complicates development.  This can be avoided by developing a relationship with the sailor which involves a systematic approach to every phase of development, so we minimize the risks of error.


To write an article about positivity that focuses on what NOT to do is perhaps a different approach.  The reason we take this approach in coach training is because there are many, many ways in which a coach and athlete can become positive – not all suit every individual.  The one thing for sure is that the list mentioned in this article represents the boundaries of positivity – the golden territory of forbidden actions.  Yes, it IS absolute, and YES< it defines the playing field of positivity and allows coaches to develop their own styles and athletes to develop their own confidence without too much chance of involuntary erosion.  Above all remember that positivity is not a sublime mindset but is a confidence of having done as much correctly as we can and be confident to use it.

Find your triggers for positivity, make them real, and always base them on the truth of the current point of development

At Toplevel Sailing we encourage factual debrief whilst acknowledging emotional drivers and stimulus that can positively effect performance.  This emotional stimulus may be verbal, body language or simply facial expressions.  Balancing factual appraisal with emotional stimuli is one of the many arts of our coaching at Toplevel Sailing.

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