Photo by Amy Ballentine Stevens – used with permission

The decisions you make in those moments before the Class Flag comes down and the racing begins are absolutely critical as you set yourself up for a winning start.  There’s a lot happening, with all the other boats jockeying for position for that one “perfect” start — and the intensity of it all increases exponentially the closer you get to that crucial second when the racing begins.  One mis-step can put you at the back of the fleet on the start line.  And you’re nervous.  Really nervous!  Or what about that crazy mark-rounding, where everyone seems to be yelling for “ROOM!” and the scene is one of mass confusion and frazzled sailors?  And you’re nervous.  So much so that you can’t handle all that information coming at you all at once – your ability to react and think quickly has been hampered, because your nervous energy has taken control of you.  How can you harness that energy to work for you instead of against you?

Experts all agree that some amount of nervous energy is good, and in fact, believe it is necessary to ensure optimal performance.  Some people seem to thrive naturally on lots of this energy, and describe the edge it gives them as a  sort of heightened awareness and mental clarity.  But there are others who find themselves paralyzed by the intensity of it, and who feel unfocused and helpless in the midst of the competition.  If you find yourself unable to perform because your nerves get the better of you, can you actually learn to use that adrenaline rush in a way that can help improve your racing?

As a singer, I learned firsthand that your adrenaline can be translated into forward motion — into valuable energy that can take your voice (or your boat) where you want it to go.  Breathing helps a lot.  Your breath can help focus you; it can help you to center yourself and push your energy forward and out, and redirect it where it will do you some good.  That sometimes overwhelming energy rush from adrenaline can be a good thing — you just need to know how to make use of it.

As a sailor sometimes confronted with pre-race jitters, I use the very same techniques I learned as an opera singer, and with great success.  A singer must learn to appear completely relaxed while singing incredibly difficult pieces, and must learn to maintain absolute focus.  Letting nerves take over simply isn’t an option, because you couldn’t maintain the control needed to produce that “effortless” sound.  Whew!  If you think figuring this all out on a sailboat is tough, try doing it with a full audience staring at you.  I should know: I’ve crashed and burned on stage for all to see.  Screwing up in a sailboat at least affords a certain level of anonymity!

But before we can begin the work of re-directing this valuable energy, we need to spend some time putting ourselves in the best possible frame of mind before we even get out there on the race course.  No amount of breathing or positive affirmations can help you if you don’t feel that you’ve adequately prepared yourself and your boat before the race.  I’ve always felt that the foundation of a winning mindset in sailboat racing lies in knowing that you’ve ruled out the need to worry about what I call “controllable” issues.  Thorough preparation is a very necessary first step for that. Regarding the importance of practice and energy focus, my coach, George Moffat (2-time World Champion glider pilot), wrote this in his book, Winning IIRemember that all the intuition and sports psychology in the world won’t do any good if you haven’t really practiced.  No matter how psyched you are, pouring out of an empty bottle produces nothing.  But no matter how full the bottle, not much will come out if it’s stoppered by emotional chaos.” Although George’s words were written for those competing in glider competitions, they’re just as applicable to sailboat racing.  Once you’ve built your foundation through practice and preparation, you can begin to focus on the myriad other things – like what to do with all that nervous energy, for example.

So, here are my tried-and-true tips on how to harness that adrenaline, and to make it work for you:

  • Preparation and practice.  These build your foundation.  Without them, you can’t possibly believe you can succeed.  You need to know that you’ve managed all the controllable variables and that you are as prepared as you can be.  That’s your “jumping off” point for everything else.  This includes a solid knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing.
  • Breathe.  When the adrenaline kicks in, breathing is always the first thing to go. The general rule is “2 in, 1 out.”  Sometimes I blow the air out forcefully to “blow out” excess energy and tension.
  • Know your energy “center.”  Before you can channel it, you need to know where your energy gathers.  My center is in my chest.  I find that it really helps to know where all that energy is coming from, before you attempt to harness it and give it a direction.
  • Harness your energy.  From its source, give your energy a channel to follow.  As a singer, I used to blast it out of my eyes and let my voice follow it.  Sounds silly, I know, but it worked!  In my boat, I let my energy flow through my hand to the tiller. I find that I can often tell what the boat needs this way, as the energy conduit opens up sort of a two-way channel.
  • Imagine Forward.  Being fully aware, based on a foundation of practice and preparation, can liberate your imagination and help you stay one step ahead of the game.  You can “imagine forward,” as I like to call it.  Thinking several steps ahead is necessary in sailboat racing where the conditions and the tactics are changing constantly. Think ahead and imagine where you want to be.

Instead of trying to get rid of the energy adrenaline provides (some people take Beta-blockers, for example), I believe you can learn to use it and channel it into your racing to improve your results.  You can actually transform your anxiety from a liability into a very valuable energy asset!  Remember: most people never learn how to do this, so it can be a powerful advantage if you can.  Try the suggestions I outlined above, see what works for you, and then develop your own approach.  It was a process of trial and error as I figured out what would work for me, but I stuck with it, and what I ultimately developed as my own personal approach has the huge added benefit of working in any situation where nerves might be an issue.  So, keep experimenting until you find the imagery and concepts that work best for you.  I promise — if you work on it,  you’ll find you have a very valuable life tool.  And yes, your racing will improve, too!

Looking ahead: I didn’t talk about this here, but understanding the overarching effect of mindset and how you “frame” situations can also be helpful.  Are you focusing on what you might lose?  Or are you thinking about what you might gain from winning?  Both of those set you up for very different outcomes, something which I’ll discuss in a future blog post.

So, stay tuned!






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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