Uninhibited Thought, Uninhibited Action
When we talk sailing, too often people will claim that its primarily a mental game – a game of chess on water which leads to winning. We do not believe this. We believe that first ingredient to success is to have among the best technical and tactical knowledge that you can get, and then the mental game kicks in. This blog is about the mental game and more importantly its development from the start of racing careers.
What we do believe is that the mental game is developed over a logical sequence of building steps based on competence, confidence and solid work on a SWOT analysis basis. Building meaningful confidence and understanding stress/performance balance takes time, help and some specialist knowledge.
The key to mental confidence which means that the “will to win” can kick in is all based on reality and technical competence. This is the bedrock of any mentally strong athlete. The “ability to lose” is more often prominent than that of mental strength, which gives the “ability to win”. Indeed we can say that the mental game is a matter not of confidence alone, but of understanding the optimum stress that an athlete needs to perform at their best, and being able to replicate that correct stress environment with a structured buildup as we need it. In addition to that we need to be able to minimize mistakes. More super talented athletes fail because they make a mistake at a critical time than those who succeed by doing something brilliant at a critical moment. Being “in the zone” involves focus to do it correctly, whatever “it” may be!
We now have a picture of two types of mental zone – the attacker doing brilliant things and making some potentially losing mistakes, the defender reliably performing making few, and often small mistakes. There are many mixes of category in between these two extremes, and when commentators talk of brilliance or machine like performance, they fail to address the mistakes or solidity that has put the athlete into the position where they must attack or defend, and the mental zone they must be in to succeed. The old expression that we really don’t like is the “risk to win” that some deem needed to win. If you are a solid performer with a good regatta behind you, nothing could be further from the truth that risk was involved. Risk is a manageable factor, not a trip to the casino!
Building competence, and with it confidence, is a process that is relatively simple. If we inhibit the development of an action, placing too many boundaries in its path, then we begin to put in a confidence eroding factor. The process of race coaching must therefore be considered holistically from day one. For example, if a development coach is teaching a light wind race tack, we see the good coach breaking it down into components, and then performing exercises and routines to get it “right”. What we need to do at this point as coaches is to step back and say that the end goal is to tack and gain speed emerging from the tack on a proper course. Whilst all the sailors may not roll tack by the book, as long as they are achieving the end goal why should we make them do it “our” way? This can apply to a massive variety of techniques. Indeed we have seen top athletes in many sports being totally ruined by the insistence of a new coach that they stick to conventional methods. Building confidence and mental strength involves an understanding by the coach of the end goal, an ability to judge whether the end goal is achieved, and above all an imparting to the athlete that they have achieved the end goal when measured against others ability to gain it. Individual confidence is eroded when we produce a squad full of clones, all sailing the same and all bounded by our own narrow abilities.
So we arrive at the topic of the blog, inhibition. Inhibition is a cancer to mental strength. As soon as we inhibit performance we inhibit any ability to win. Lets approach this from a different, more positive perspective: How about we brief our squad (or individual) with the end goal. For example, let’s say we’re practicing mark rounding and we want an “in wide, out tight” approach. Is it better to tell them how to do it, then practice, OR have a session where we simply show them the end goal and let them practice that, then coach them by concise suggestions on the water, so we end up with groups who keep going round the mark, with the inside boat taking it repeatedly, and the losing outside boats learning from that? Is it better to tell them exactly how to do it and insisting we defend the inside going into the mark, swerve out when we own the mark and come out tight, or let them experience the thousand ways that opposition position will dictate how we can round a mark? The answer is obvious I think!
So we can confidently say that conventional “good” coaching can often inhibit a sailor’s mental progress, and limit their natural talent. We can reduce the conventional input we make by simulation of real positions. We can insist on a perfect end goal without insisting on a conventional execution. We can build mental strength by coaching uninhibited actions to the sailors, leading to an ability to have uninhibited thoughts in moments of pressure because if we are to succeed, the proactive and reactive thoughts cannot be inhibited by pressure. This is taking steps into the real territory of “Train as you race, race as you train”, which all our Toplevel Sailing race coaching and race coach courses are focused on.
Want to know more? We’ll be holding a race coach course at our base in Barcelona later in the year, suitable for both sailors and coaches, so look out for details.