H Class Championship, 2015  –  Photo by Caroline Bolick (used with permission).

Have you ever found yourself in the situation where beating a certain boat (or not!) meant winning (or losing!) an entire series or regatta? That’s the situation I found myself in this past summer, when I needed to beat one particular boat in order to have a chance at winning a hotly-contested race series. As the final race day of the series approached, I came to realize that the idea of focusing on defeating that one boat felt hugely limiting, and it became clear that it was starting to psych me out.

This made me think back to all of the singing competitions and sailboat races in which I’ve participated, and how I’ve evolved in the way I approach competition. What I’ve learned, over time, is that I’ve not often been successful when focused on trying to beat one particular person. What happens to me is that it increases the likelihood of my making decisions or taking risks that fail to accurately assess the bigger picture, or, perhaps most importantly, it causes me to lose focus on my own performance, wasting valuable energy where it doesn’t do me any good. When you’re hell-bent on beating another person, rather than putting all your energy into doing the best for yourself, you run the risk of having that constant comparison affect everything you do, and not always in a productive way. The mindset shift might seem subtle, but I believe that it can make a huge difference.

So, in last summer’s series race, instead of targeting that one person I had to beat, I made the conscious decision to focus completely on sailing my own race, and to do every little thing as well as I possibly could. I concentrated completely on doing every piece of the race better than I had ever done them before. In other words, I decided to compete against myself.  Please read my post “Lots of Little Things Can Add Up to Big Gains!!” for more on this concept, and how it can work for you. I believe that competing against yourself is just another way of saying that you’re committing to the hard work of learning to become the best you can be, because by embracing this growth mindset, you encourage yourself to develop your abilities in order to improve on previous efforts. You are, in effect, teaching yourself to become a winner.

Here’s why I think competing against yourself is so powerful:

  • It forces you to measure your progress relative to your past performance
  • The commitment to consistent improvement over time guarantees winning results in the long-term
  • You “win” whether or not you win the race, because you have improved
  • By refining your own excellence, you are guaranteed to be the best you can be

In his book, Game Changer, Dr. Jason Fox writes this: “If you’re competing against yourself, you’re simply engaged in constructive discontent between your current personal best and your future personal best. The negative consequences of competition are mitigated because the only party not to win in this game is your past self. And they don’t mind – they’re happy for you.” It’s clear that you can’t lose with this approach, especially if you realize that the real prize is the improvement you’ll strive for, and the better skills you’ll own as a result of your commitment. One of my favorite sailing writers, Eric Twiname, wrote this in his book Sail, Race and Win: “Instead of emphasizing the rewards and making that your motivating force, your will to win can be strengthened at the deeper level through that desire to find perfection. I don’t mean that you should no longer care whether you win or lose, of course you should, just that you should shift your emphasis in preparation and racing from the winning to the perfection of techniques and skill.”

So how can you make this work for you? In a nutshell, all it takes is an honest assessment of your current skill set, identifying where the shortcomings are, and then setting small goals to help you along the path to perfecting them.  A lot of little things really do add up, over time, to make a huge difference – but only if you make the commitment to follow through with the constant measurement and reevaluation required. So get out your notebook (you do have one, right?) and start your process right now.  And, yes! Strategizing and goal-setting during the winter, even while the boat’s on the hard, can help you far more than you think.

What little things will you start with?



Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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