Racing at Beverly – with a dear mentor who always pushed me ever farther along the path toward being the best sailor I could possibly be.  
(Photo by Tyler Fields, used with permission)

Not many people have the luxury of having a sailing coach at their beck and call. So unless you were fortunate enough to have participated in high school or college sailing, and had the opportunity to work with a great coach, you’ll need to figure out how to coach yourself.

But before you can coach yourself, you need to have some goals. It doesn’t matter what they are – they can be anything you want them to be. Obviously, they will be different for everyone, and they will most definitely change over time. What matters is that you have them.  The goals you set for yourself will help you begin to identify the smaller steps that can lead you along the path to reaching them, and they will give you an end-result to strive for, instead of a directionless path.

As a singer, I was trained at a Conservatory, where the model of instruction is one in which a student studies her craft one-on-one with a master teacher. In this unique relationship, the work you accomplish together is driven at the front end by thoughtful goal setting, followed by results-oriented practice — with the necessary motivation fueled not only by a burning desire to be the best you could possibly be, but also by the sheer accountability of your performance in the studio that week!  Either you stepped up to the plate and worked hard, or your shortcomings would be glaringly (and embarrassingly) evident in your next lesson. Years and years of studying this way taught me a great deal about coaching, goal setting, and the incredible power of motivation in helping you to reach your goals.

I came to realize that I prepared for my studio lessons by “coaching myself forward” through the ensuing week, using a combination of goal-setting, and focused and targeted practice. Although fueled by the inner desire to excel, my motivation for improving week to week lay primarily in knowing that I would  be personally tested and ruthlessly challenged in a private lesson, with my teacher’s high expectations and laser-like focus — directed solely at me.

Here’s how my self-coaching process evolved as I trained to be a singer.  I’m sharing this process with you, with the hope that it can help you figure out how to be your own sailing coach. I’ve outlined my method below, in the way that it might be used by a sailor:

  • Figure out what’s holding you back.

Is it a boat-handling problem?  Or is it that you don’t understand the Racing Rules of Sailing?  Do you need more confidence in using the compass to your advantage?  Or maybe it’s a “mental toughness” issue that you need to work on.  Only after you have identified your weaknesses, can you begin the process of setting your goals.

  • Identify your goals.

Be specific about your goals — make a list.  Specificity helps you achieve more fully what you are trying to accomplish.  Do you want to learn to sail faster downwind?  Maybe you need to further distill that goal into learning to sail faster downwind on a really windy day.  This will make you focus on specific skill-building practices to help you reach your goal.  Some goals will be relatively easy to reach, while others may be more of a challenge.  The level of challenge will naturally organize these goals into shorter-term or longer-term projects.

  • Don’t look too far ahead.

Focus on one thing at a time, and keep at it for a while.  Don’t rush it.  Maybe you decide to pick one or two things for an entire season.  Or maybe it’s one small thing every week.  But if you get out there, and have time on the tiller, I can promise you that you will see results.  You must trust that your progress will become evident over time, even though the small gains from week to week may not feel like much.

  • Reevaluate.

Understand that your goals will always be changing.  As you master new skills, you will need to be looking ahead for other areas that could benefit from some attention.

  • Repeat. 

It’s a never-ending process.  If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth doing, would it?

I know this all sounds simplistic, but remember: the vast majority of the world doesn’t operate this way, and those who do will see real gains.  Most people just sort of drift along.  Thoughtful goal setting will get you well on your path to improving your sailing, certainly much farther than those who don’t take the time to reflect and plan.  And then, adding in targeted practice and thoughtful reevaluation will keep you on track. You’ll feel motivated as you gauge your success each week on the race course, or the mooring field, and will glow with pride when people comment on how well you’re sailing.  So grab your notebook, make a plan, and take the time to execute it.  I promise you’ll be awfully glad you did, especially when you look back at the end of the season and can see how much farther you’ve moved along the path to perfection.  I think sailboat racing’s rather unique in that there are opportunities for improvement in so many different areas, whatever your level of skill might be. Isn’t it fun to know that there will be no shortage of challenges on your horizon, and that the journey to reach them all will be a long and storied one?


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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