Preparing for Success

Nobody tells you when you’re growing up that “winning” and “success” come at a cost.  At world level the cost is many times that which anyone outside top sport can imagine.  It involves the sacrifice of dedication, not for a month or a year, but four years plus to reach anywhere near potential.  The cost of friends, first encouraging you, then asking why you must miss their party/birthday/wedding or whatever, then the loss of friends.  The jealousy from your former peers, always stating that they used to beat you (usually fabricated).  The cost to your body – the constant pain that repeated training gives, not being injury free for long periods, if ever.  The cost of mental stress, engaging in a form of life where losing is sometimes inevitable, but needing to play the game to win, yet failing sometimes.  The list goes on.

So preparing for success involves “peaking”, yet it also involves accepting that in a sport of infinite variables the skills of risk management weigh heavily on the outcome.  The assessments of likely conditions, optimum weight, meteorological knowledge etc. are going to have a significant impact on the outcome.  Above all in sailing, good results are a consequence of a great program.

The Olympic Games is special – one opportunity every four years to gain success.  How does this vary from World Championships – why do sailors who often scarcely feature in World top 10s win medals, and why do favorites fail seemingly more spectacularly than at Worlds?  There is little doubt that contenders in World Cup / Grade 1 events feature strongly in the World Championships – it is almost by right that they are the ones contesting the medals, so why is it that with certain exceptions the world rankings count for so little at the Olympic Games?  We considered these questions and many more.

There are essentially two types of competitors – the ones who can “peak” through luck, apparently random method, supreme psychological belief, or a combination of all of these factors and more, and then there are the born Champions – sailors such as Ben Ainslie, for whom winning is so vitally important that practice is the time they make their errors, and the drive to win is ever constant.  These two personality types feature in most sports – we all know that cyclists may do nothing aside from win the Tour de France, golfers may win Major championships and never be seen again, runners may win Olympic medals and do little besides these monumental achievements.  The great champions are always up there in every regatta.

What makes the Champion type of competitor?  Obviously supreme talent, but also the single minded ability to practice harder and more focused for a longer period than their peers.  It seems these character types are that bit more obsessive, prepared and capable of working harder and longer, and mentally capable of concentration through their training which is beyond most of our understanding.  In this way when they enter a regatta that is not their “peak performance” regatta, they are practicing winning, rather than practicing competition techniques.  It seems straightforward enough to analyze – great champions win, and they win most of the time.

In some ways this reflects the goals of Toplevel Sailing – to provide a unique environment which caters for the special needs of massively talented individuals with the additional ability to be focused for extraordinarily long periods at their chosen sport.  But let’s consider the other greats too.

What is the art of delivering peak performance?  There have been many books written, and this blog has not the space for detail, but the simple way of looking at it is this:  The “recipe” for success involves (among other ingredients), technique, tactical abilities, fitness, rig knowledge, response to conditions, local knowledge of regatta venue, and being in the right place psychologically.

Suddenly we have the beginnings of a structure, where the super talented obsessive may be vulnerable to a super talented sailor of  none  obsessive nature.  Do the demands of the location require a cross the board technical superiority?  Probably not, so we find that by eliminating 70% of technical training we can focus on the vital skills that a particular location requires to be specialized.  The meteo side of a location will determine what kind of fitness and weight we should concentrate on.  The boat setup can be aimed at the prevailing conditions for a given location, and as long as we have an adequate setup for qualification, that saves more effort.  In terms of psychological approach, each individual is different, and the necessary stress / performance curve will be known through consistent evaluation.  Psychological triggers are developed.  The list goes on.

Is the preparation for a peak performance event, be it the Olympics games, Asian Games, Youth Worlds or others, the same for each personality type?  To an extent, yes, BUT … one sailor may be happy to take a clinical and often repetitive approach, believe fully in statistics and probabilities, whilst the other type of personality will enter the regatta in a totally insecure frame of mind and at less than their optimum mindset if they are not at the top of their game in every department.

The reality is that there is no such thing as perfect preparation in a sport of infinite variables – as sailing is.  However, in recognizing the systematic approach to championship preparation, the sailor may make a fully informed choice as to which personality type they are, and how they can best prepare for themselves to have the best chance of success.  The word “experience” then takes on a new meaning, because we can rationally analyze the performance and build on the strengths of a preparation, whilst working on the weaknesses in a much more informed, structured and meaningful way than simply saying that we were weak in a department, when that department may be spurious to our needs at the peak performance regatta.  Equally, learning to be confident in our own individual manner stems from getting the individual preparation correct for each and every peak performance regatta.

Toplevel Sailing go into detail, gain agreement, and then go for the Gold. At the highest level the program is as much about the sailor’s choice as our own, and planning a successful campaign for a top sailor must be done in a timely manner to make that medal happen!

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