by Helena Scutt
On the night before the biggest day of your life, what do you focus on?
The photo above is of Post-Its that I wrote in the front of my journal on August 11, 2016, from my bed in the Olympic Village, on the night before my first race of the 2016 Olympics. My skipper Paris Henken and I were just 20 and 24 years old, racing the 49erFX at the biggest stage of our lives on Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro.
In this article, I’ll take you through what each of the six phrases meant to me, and why I distilled my Olympic campaign into these points of performance when it mattered most. Spoiler alert: Paris and I delivered when it counted, outperforming our world ranking and sailing our career-best event at the Olympics.
Not Perfect. Excellent!
In life and especially in a sport like sailing, nothing is perfect. As a perfectionist, this is something that I seem to re-learn almost every day. Always wanting to give your best is a blessing and sometimes, a curse that you have to manage. The US Sailing Team Sport psychologist at the time, Dr. Jerry May, helped me with this, “Not perfect, but excellent” mentality all quadrennium long. Aiming for perfection is unrealistic and will set you up for frustration.
Jerry reminded me that it’s often better to focus on improving other aspects of your game, therefore making you a more excellent (and well-rounded) competitor, than seeking very marginal gains trying to make something absolutely perfect.
It’s also a bad thing to aim for when you have a teammate, who is, in fact, human (just like you!). Nothing is perfect, we always have to adapt…
“I am the adapter.”
This is another one from Jerry. Let’s say we had just done a bearaway, and maybe the boat wasn’t as flat as it should have been, or the spinnaker halyard or sheets were tangled so it took me longer to hoist than usual. My previous tendency would be to show some frustration, maybe with an aggressive (i.e. not so smooth) swing back out on the trapeze, and/or dwelling on it until we were about to gybe.
You can see how that’s counter-productive. Instead, I would think, “I am the adapter,” meaning no matter what’s thrown at me, I can adjust better than anyone else. Then I would focus on keeping my movements as smooth as possible, take a couple of deep breaths, and let the snafu go.
This is important because adversity WILL come your way. After the race, you can analyze what happened and figure out how to prevent the mishaps.
Paris was always really good at letting these kind of things go and keeping focus on the big picture.
“We’re on the same team.”
After everything Paris and I had been through together (broken bones, surgeries, missed holidays, broken masts, missed years of college, family events), no Olympic result was worth ruining our friendship. In my time on the Olympic circuit, I had seen teams with tense relations, where things were strictly business. For me, an Olympic effort involves too much heart for that to work.
I wanted to remind myself that even when the pressure was on, I never wanted to do or say anything in the heat of the moment that could put our teamwork in jeopardy. Plus, it’s always good to remember that a blame game never helps. What does help is remembering your common goal and asking yourself how you can move towards that.
Observation to Interpretation to Action
This one is all about taking your race communication to the next level. The most basic level is an observation, such as “the boats going out right are getting headed.” This is fine information, but what does it mean (your interpretation) and what are you going to do about it (your action)? In my role as crew, a big part of my job was looking around the racecourse and feeding Paris new information, with her making the final call. Based on that observation, my interpretation might be, “There is a persistent right shift starting to show up,” or it could just be “This is the beginning of the right phase in this oscillating breeze.” Let’s say we were on starboard going left at the time – these two interpretations would lead to two different actions, either tacking to get to the persistent righty, or perhaps staying straight and expecting a lift, waiting to tack until the breeze swung left again. The bottom line: Make your communication direct and actionable.
Put mistakes and frustration behind. Focus on now.
Shortly after the start of race 5 on our race day two at the Olympics, a competitor directly above us bore away into a low mode. Their leeward wing hit Paris, who swung into me, and we both got knocked off the wing, resulting in a capsize. Here we were at the Olympic Games, with the helicopters buzzing overhead, swimming up to our daggerboard… not ideal. Miraculously for us, the race was a General Recall. Instead of dwelling on the incident, we chose to believe that we were building momentum, after a fifth in the first race of the day. We knew what was happening on the course and our start (before the foul) had been strong. We immediately shook off the shock and instead of channeling the incident into anger, we turned it into focus. It was in the past and all we could do was execute for the present race. From there, we got another really solid start, rounded the first mark in the lead, and held on to it for three laps to take the race win. When adversity strikes you, just remember it’s your chance to practice your response for when it matters most.
This probably doesn’t need much explanation. One of the best parts of an Olympic campaign is that it teaches you lessons that you can carry with you for life. Even when there’s tremendous uncertainty, sadness, and it feels like nothing is in your control, choose to see the positive and make the best out of it. For me right now during this COVID-19 shelter-in-place, making the best out of it has meant limiting my news intake, using this time to focus on my job, making sure I work out or stretch every day, and get outside every day (maintaining distance and only if permitted, of course). Get that core workout in on your living room floor, but most importantly, always look out for your teammates. Take care everyone!