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Kit Guide

Psychology of sailing - is it relevant to the club sailor?

By 30th September 2020
So something a little different for the Rooster blog. Over the past season I've been taking an interest in the 'psychology of sailing', and thought I'd share some of my findings ('share' is a term I can legitimately use in a post covering this subject, I plan to try and get 'closure' and 'mental toolkit' in at some point later in the post). The subject is departure from the more usual techniques learnt in sailing. For example, learning how to roll tack a boat is relatively straightforward, it is a sequence of activities that can be practised, analysed and perfected, but learning to modify an emotional response to a poor start is a more complicated task, yet possible. The first problem to be dealt with is a definition of Sports Psychology, which in itself is a minefield. Type it into Google and you will get a myriad of responses involving terms that your average sailor doesn't understand. For example (from Wikipedia, but they are all similar):
"Sport psychology is an interdisciplinary science that draws on knowledge from the fields of Kinesiology and Psychology. It involves the study of how psychological factors affect performance and how participation in sport and exercise affect psychological and physical factors.<1> In addition to instruction and training of psychological skills for performance improvement, applied sport psychology may include work with athletes, coaches, and parents regarding injury, rehabilitation, communication, team building, and career transitions."
Fantastic, but I don't know what Kinesiology is, and I'm not due for any career transitions. I needed rehabilitation back into the boat after being caught out in 28 knots recently, but seemed to manage OK without a psychologist. So I'm going to provide a laymans definition for sports psychology as applied to sailing:
"Sports psychology helps you to control your mind, and become better at sailing as a result. And its nothing to do with 'therapy.' "
This covers not only race performance, but also how to train. Surely I can copyright this simplistic definition, I'm sitting by the phone waiting for a call from the British Psychological Society to welcome me to their flock, but I might have to do away with the 'therapy' bit. There are indications that sports psychology is relevant to our sport:
  • The 2012 GB Olympic Sailing team employed two psychologists as part of the 'Sports Science' team of nine (interestingly that team includes a Performance Lifestyle coach too).
  • The 2012 Australian Olympic Sailing team employed a full time psychologist, as did the US sailing team.
  • Sir Steve Redgrave believes that mental fitness is one of the differentiators for winning in elite rowing competition. He takes the view that all teams can get to the point of equivalent technical skills and physical fitness, and that mental fitness can make the difference.
  • Lots of professional sports - golf, cycling, baseball, football, rugby - appear to make use of sports psychology. These sports can be considered as businesses in many ways, they wouldn't be investing the money if there was no return.
So it seems that elite sailing and most other sports are willing to invest time and money in sports psychology. And yet I would postulate that there are reservations about even considering sports psychology at club level in sailing. Here are some of my observations relating to 'psychology of sailing' at a club level (purely limited to my clubs and sailing friends, but I bet they are representative):
  • For many of us, the term 'psychology' has an immediate resonance with the type of 'therapy' we hear about in American reality shows. It involves a couch and £500 per hour, reviewing relationships with parents. We view it as slightly weak and contrary to the stiff-upper-lip British values. To be considering sports psychology is an admission of character weakness and therefore we don't want to consider it.
  • None of the standard fare RYA syllabus (I'm talking about the courses you would expect to see at club level here) has any aspect of psychology included, so why do we require it? It this stuff was worthwhile, wouldn't it form part of the RYA training for sailors?
  • We have never seen a psychologist working with any sailors at a club level. It clearly isn't required, if it was someone would be providing these services by now.
I think half the problem is that sailors don't understand how sports psychology can work at a practical level for them. To me, a lot of it is simply common sense, rather than a mystical dark art. So having tried some of this stuff I thought I'd highlight some example elements that have been of practical use to me:
  • Goal setting. Sounds like a relatively straightforward area, how hard can it be to set goals? Well the truth is that setting goals which are realistic and attainable is not as easy as you might think. For example, problems come about when we set goals that are ill defined, or that are dependent on the performance of others. But there are many techniques that can help with this. .
  • Teamwork, and Attitude A few years back I was sailing in a regatta race in Chi harbour (might have been Fed week), crewing an asymmetric boat in a fast handicap fleet. We were leading by miles, when the helm fell over in the boat and we capsized. We had such a commanding lead that when we recovered we were still in contention, but such was my frustration at the mistake that I couldn't focus for the rest of the race as I couldn't forgive the helm for the error. This was Not Good Teamwork, and a Very Poor Attitude, and Not My Finest Hour. Better would have been to accept and forget the mistake and get on with the race. Even better than that would have been to talk to the helm afterwards to discuss and agree how to manage similar situations in the future. A lot of teamwork issues can be identified and pre-empted before the start gun.
  • Imagery You know how you sometimes catch yourself daydreaming, and re-live that excellent final downwind leg from a race 8 months ago, and the feelings of self-fulfillment that come with it? Or when you recall the perfect pin end start when you stuffed the ESSC ISO fleet? Well it turns out that mental imagery and rehearsal is in fact very useful, and can be harnessed to improve your sailing. And we all do it anyway so why not.
  • Focus and Concentration Yes we all know that concentration is required to perform well, but how do you improve?
The point that I'm trying to make is that a lot of the sailing psychology literature is concerned with practical, executable techniques that are relevant to all sailors who want to improve. It is not all about 'inner selves' and 'left brain/right brain' analysis. Anyway, I'll end with my conclusions on psychology for sailing:
  1. It is relevant to all levels of sailing, but only appears to practiced at the higher levels
  2. It is accessible, as there are lots of easily digested books on the subject
  3. It can improve progress and enjoyment of the sport, even for the average club sailor.
  4. It can provide a practical mental toolkit (told you I'd get it in) and should not be confused with therapy.
And two good books on the subject: Mental and Physical Fitness for Sailing, by Alan Beggs, John Derbyshire and John Whitmore The Psychology of Sailing, by Ian Brown As an aside, my youngest son has just started the martial art of Choi Kwang-Do, and I've been taking him to his lessons. What is interesting is that the mental fitness aspects of his sport are formalised in the training from Day 1, through all levels of competance. He is already asking me what it means to have humility and perseverance, and its relevance to Choi Kwang-Do and his day-to-day life. Imagine that in the Stage 1 syllabus, teaching your 7 year olds!

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