“Pressure is expectation, scrutiny, and consequence,’ says Gilbert Enoka. ’Under pressure, your attention is either diverted or on track…if your attention is on track you have situational awareness and you execute accurately. You are clear, you adapt and you overcome.”
-Enoka is the Mental Skills Coach of the New Zealand All Blacks.
Your mind is a weak and fragile puddy. Sorry, but it’s just mush.
If your mind were a tree, it would not be an oak. It would be a palm tree, or more accurately a long reed. One that bends, sways, and is thrashed about by the weather. Some days getting rained on or flooded, struck by lightning, but on other days warmed by the sun.
You know that your mood or focus can often be derailed by an “incoming weather system,” a misread text from your friend, a car cutting you off, drama. All these situations in life can put our thoughts in a spin.
Anything that demands so much of the body can only be won with the mind.
We talk a lot about preparing for sport with fitness routines, practice drills, equipment prep, knowing the rules, discussing playbooks, scrutinizing technique or jib placement, but we don’t focus on the strongest muscle you have – the one between your ears.
Sailing is physically hard work, but you’ve been at this game for a while. And while you must become more physically fit, you must also work on your mental fitness. Once you develop a certain level of mastery in sport, the next realm to dive into is your mind.
Like the ocean or the dark side of the moon, we have only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding our minds. And the best athletes, the most successful ones, exude confidence and focus in their sport.
Physical strength is mental strength. And a mentally fit athlete has the endurance and skills to tackle pressure, anxiety, and stress of competition.
We love to focus on our regatta routine: inside and outside of the regatta circle. We know every step and decision matters. Our routine holds us accountable to take action and do things like investigate issues or to sync up with our crew for accelerations.
Most sailors have a few “perfect world scenario” data collection routines for finding the line and planning your route up the track. These are important steps. These are the MUST Dos. But to quote two aphorisms,
“The best laid plans often go awry,” & “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
So, what are you going to do with yourself when you’re up shit creek with a broken paddle? This is where attitude, confidence, and resourcefulness step in. Having the right attitude isn’t something you’re born with, or about getting that delicious iced macchiato and listening to Drake before you launch.
Just like every other aspect of sport: it’s about practice. It’s about work. It’s about testing yourself. And having the right tools to sort out your emotions and move on. Here’s a list my tools.
FOLLOW YOUR ROUTINE
You know how I feel about routine. Here’s a link to our Hong Kong Report where I go into it deeper. A twitter version of this message is: when you create an excellent routine, you make fewer decisions and have more mental space. Once that happens your mind is clear and ready to strike!
FIND DISTANCE FROM YOURSELF
Our thoughts pile up. Emotions flair. Sometimes we become the victim of our mind’s war against reality. When you feel this coming on, it helps to take a step back and away from yourself for a moment. Ask, “why the hell do I feel this way?”
Taking that step back and asking why creates distance from the situation, so we can look at it from a new angle. Not only does this help give new perspective on a situation, but once you become an observer of your thoughts, you are no longer a victim of them.
Creating this distance immediately neutralizes the sting of whatever is attacking you. And you have space to roll out your plan to solve the problem(s) in front of you.
STRESS & DEADLINES
Who cares what Webster’s dictionary defines as stress? I don’t, I know what it feels like. I don’t need it defined for me. Stress is when my stomach feels like a sandbag, my throat swells like a balloon is stuck in it, and a rainstorm moves into my mind and thunders down 1,000 hamsters on 1,000 tiny wheels. I can’t move. Can’t think. Can’t make decisions. I just get pummeled by hamsters.
US Sailing coach Grant Spahnek “Fuzz” says, “stress is what you experience when your body doesn’t know what to think.” The anxiety that comes from races forms inside your head when you have open space to fill it. Anxiety can only manifest if you give it the space and time to. So, give your mind something to think about. This is where routine comes back into play.
Set deadlines for yourself. Make a schedule and timeline to complete your to do list. Then act. Check off the boxes. Checking off boxes feels good. And when you do, it builds your confidence because you see yourself meet expectations you’ve set.
If you don’t check things off in the time you’ve set. No big deal, you’re still attacking your goals and taking the time you need to complete each task to your level of approval.
SUCCESS ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK
We are too results oriented in sport that we get hung up on the wrong details. At the Spring Skiff Fest, Luke Muller asked the group, “What does success look like to you?” Three people answered this question with a variation of the same answer: “Success is achieving your goals.” If this is true for you, then you will rarely succeed. You will succeed, by your definition, but most of the time you will fail.
To make this point another way: If you don’t achieve a goal does it mean you were unsuccessful? What does that say about the process and journey it took to achieve your goal? Is success not shaped and re-defined along the yellow brick road to Goaltown?
We need to give ourselves the opportunity to achieve our goals. We must enable ourselves. This is success. (Here’s another article on this topic) Enabling yourself is success. And success is being proud of yourself no matter what the results are. Success is knowing you did everything you could within your control. Success is fulfilling your potential. This feeling makes you impenetrable and unshakable.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Buddha
Humans are the only animals capable of reflecting on the past, looking ahead to the future, and living in the present. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time stuck in the past or daydreaming. You probably like sailing because it forces you to live in the present moment. To adjust the boat beneath your feet to push it faster.
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
This article explains it better than I can. And I challenge you to take up a mindfulness practice.
Let’s step away from this situation for a second and practice step number one of finding distance from yourself. What we’re talking about is learning to be more in tune with your mind, so you can execute jobs in the boat and handle pressure. We are talking about becoming better athletes in a sport where we get to slide across the top of the water beneath a blue sky. We are talking about playing in the water. Be grateful that you have the opportunity to even worry about stuff like this.
To make this point better, I’m going to reference the intro to a song you may know:
Kyle: Man fuck
Yachty: What’s wrong Kyle?
Kyle: Man these, kids man, talkin’ shit, makin’ me feel bad
Yachty: Man, fuck them kids, bro. Look around, bro, look at life
Kyle: Man you’re right
Yachty: You see these trees man? You see this water?
Kyle: I guess it is okay
Yachty: Come on, man, you got so much more to appreciate, man
Kyle: Man you know what, y-you’re right
Yachty: You damn right, I’m right, I can’t remember a time I was goddamn wrong
Kyle: Man, thanks, Lil Boat
Yachty: Hey man, that’s what I’m here for
(iSpy- Kyle feat. Lil Yachty)
I can’t really believe I made that reference, but it makes my point. Stepping back and practicing gratitude shifts your focus from the tiny bullshit drama of a situation and looking at the bigger picture.
Come on, man, you got so much more to appreciate
My final advice on this topic, practice these steps daily. Do them when you feel good, make them a part of your routine. If you establish these mental strength building exercises into your schedule on the good days, once the bad and stressful days hit you’ll be ready. And you will feel in control watching yourself manage stress rather than get thrashed by it.