I’ve been reading a bit from my competitors about “psyche” or “mojo” for big events or how to get into the proper frame of mind for top level competition. As I reflected upon what was written I realized that although the big race is still “just a race”; the preparation for a big athletic competition (event) is fundamentally different than regular preparation. The actual competition may just be the final 10% of the total effort but the competition might just be the yard stick to measure the preparation. Clearly the preparation effort is overshadowed but, in my opinion is the key to getting the good “mojo” for an event.
Jim Carson is a great friend, former team mate and mentor of mine. He is also a past international sailing champion (Penguin Class) and perennial top competitor in the Lightning class; he really knows what he is talking about when it comes to competition. Jim told me a long time ago that champions are made by their preparation well ahead of time. Although he’s unquestionably right, that reality is often overlooked in sailing.
My personality is one that likes to set long term goals. This is just me; I know it and try to use it to my advantage. One of my goals always was to win a Lightning North Americans; it just took 29 years as a skipper to do it; so I officially qualify as a “slow learner”. However, it was a goal that my teams achieved two years in a row, which I think partially justifies my belief in unusual preparation methods.
Clearly, the most important single factor to the teams is finding the right team mates. I had four sets of proven world class team mates (Dan & Tobi Moriarty; Todd & Kristine Wake; Jeff Coppens and Jim Sears and Paul Hanson & Jen Aljets ) who made me better and have shown repeatedly they can step into anyone’s boat and “change the game”. They are also some of the most ferocious competitors you can imagine. Our successes as a team came from their boat handling, tactical skills, desire to win and overall expertise in how we managed the big events. Much of that preparation occurred over years and was only “blended” into the team as we gelled for the big event. For me, the team gelling process was a bit Zen like in terms of psychology but this was because I was the one investing the least
amount of time on the water. I considered that cumulatively I had invested enough time over the years to know
what to do; I just had to be committed to do it and be physically fit enough to perform in all condition ranges. Ultimately this proved correct for my successful teams because I learned that “training” was both physical and mental preparation process. It helped give us good Mojo for the big events.
When we got everything as right as we could we were “in the zone” (my perception) as I’d never seen before. I define “the zone” as: that place where your mental clock speed is quickened, concentration is improved and there is a lack of fatigue (mental or physical) while handling a complex competitive environment. I now believe being in “the zone” is a critical success factor for big event competitive sailing. This is probably what keeps legions of sports psychologist employed by USOC and other institutions: getting athletes in the zone.
One design racing is usually an effort to push the boat to its limits, and does not use the “throttling back” technique which can be the prudent thing in long distance offshore racing. Famous long distance sailor Sir Robin Knox Johnson wrote that off shore long distance racing is similar to “playing chess while doing chin ups”. If this is so, I believe one design racing can require the ability to “play chess while running flights of stairs” and that being fit enough to do this is an overlooked component of success for one design sailboat racing. As a result I incorporated “fitness” as on of the milestones in my big event preparation routine.
Although sailing is not a sport like football, soccer or wrestling where can be a premium on explosive movements or bursts of overwhelming strength and speed ; it does reward overall fitness, endurance, balance and timing but not in every sailing condition. There are plenty of days where sitting, waiting, and getting frustrated by other mental distractions are all that occur. I found that for me, personally, a good way to prepare for big events was to be over prepared physically. That seemed to create a mental calm that helped promote a focused “just the facts” team mentality. One benefit was that our teams became relatively immune to mental pressure. For my teams this was one aspect of “team mojo”, a calm, rational focus without fatigue.
What does physical training have to do with mental preparation for a big event?
For me, it leads to a hunger that is only satisfied by achieving our goals, so it sets up some interesting motivations.
Training is an intensely personal thing and to be effective one must find what works for ones’ self. It could be just improving overall fitness by mall walking in the winter or it could be an hour and a half per day off the water fitness regimen or it could be moving to Miami and sailing 10 hours per day, every day. It all depends on your goals, level of commitment and what your life will allow. However, once you set your goal do not accept any excuses for not doing the preparation work required to reach the goal.
What worked for me since fall of 2004 is a combination of Physical Preparation, Mental Preparation and simulating the event (with a tapering period) that begins about a year before the big event.
Physical preparation is closely tied with them mental preparation because so much of the sailing game is mental:
Focus your Efforts
on the top flight event and work your fitness plan to “peak” then. This does not mean limiting ones’ self to one event; but have the psychological architecture to see that it all leads up to the one big event. This sets the internal motivational bar very high.
Work up to your limits and then extend the period of time where you can perform at that limit. This approach usually results in excellent fitness. For me this led to 6 work out sessions per week (weight training plus hundreds of hours and nearly 1,950 cumulative miles per year of cardiovascular training on a Nordic Track Cross Country Skiing machine over ’06-’07 campaign). Improvement in strength, flexibility and endurance without injury are always my goals.
Artificial “Exams” to Gauge Progress.
Make one week be a “simulated event” where you push for across the board personal records in weights, reps and lower times and greater distances each day for a week. During an “exam” pay attention to answering the question, “is this good enough to win the big event?” Be honest and live with your answer and make adjustments.
Use training time to solve problems and envision sailing tactical situations or your team’s executing the perfect roll gybe, over and over again. Seeing it in your mind’s eye actually get the muscles and nerves ready to “feel” what it is like to “get it right”.
In competition I choose to de-personalize things so that racing becomes a “territorial grab” not a game to “beat the other guy”. I know that guy, like that guy and if I do beat that guy I wan to be respectful. Sailing is a chess game but I want to be in that space in front of him (or in front of where I am now on the race course). This allows me to “let the energy spring uncoil” no matter who the competition actually is. It also allows me to relax with competitors after the day’s racing since it is not personal, I just wanted their space. This helps a lot because good people skills are required for success in life and it can become insufferable on land with your cohorts. Make sure your team mates know this about you so they are not undone by perception of Jekyll and Hyde behavior patterns between “game on” and “relaxing” modes.
Watch video of sailing while you work out so that your mind is working on “sailing” while your endurance and strength are being improved. This really helps the focus stay on the sailing and the training is just a vehicle to improve the sailing.
I also work at being able to compartmentalize things on the race course; it helps me forgive myself and focus on recovery if mistakes are made. Have role models, it is really healthy. My role model in this regard is Greg Fisher. He is as intense, skilled and accomplished competitor on the water as you can find yet he is always willing to lend a hand offer an observation, etc. When I grow up I want to be more like Greg!