Some of the Bullseye fleet, gathering for the start sequence.  Who will take home the trophy?

I’ve written about mindset in previous blog posts — recognizing the advantage of having a growth mindset, for example, or the systematic development of a more confident mindset through careful practice and preparation.  It’s easy to talk about this on shore, but the real test comes when you’re out there on the race course, in the heat of the moment, trying your best to prevail.  That’s when you need that winning mindset the most.   It also happens to be the time when many skippers fall short.

Here, below, are a few concepts that I’ve found to be effective in creating  a more winning mindset, both on the stage, and on the racecourse:

  • Reframe Your Race

This is a really powerful thing. In an earlier post, I alluded to this idea of “reframing,” which, in our case, is looking at the race and and rethinking it in a way such that you turn any negative thoughts into positive ones. I’ve been reading about something called “loss aversion,” which can  help explain why some people choke under pressure, and why some people can be more successful at winning. Basically, it boils down to whether your current mindset frames you as a person who really, really doesn’t want to lose, or as a person who really, really wants to win. Both set up different challenges. In a post she wrote for The Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire discussed a study by Johns Hopkins, noting that it “found that those who hated losing the most choked when told that they stood to win the most, while those who cared more about winning choked when they stood to lose something significant. In other words, it’s all about how you frame the incentive: as a loss or as a gain.”  It’s a subtle thing, but try to figure out which profile fits you best, and then work on adjusting your thinking.

  •  Let Go of Negative Energy 

Like a musical piece, a sailboat race has its own tempo, one comprised of what the waves and the wind and the other boats are doing in relation to one another. Each race has its own particular rhythm, and you should begin to develop a sense for this as you’re sailing around before the start. Certainly, once the race has begun, all the boats will pretty much settle into this rhythm together.  But what happens to if you mess up?  Just as a singer on the stage is dictated by the aria’s tempo to keep singing – despite a memory lapse, for example – a sailor must keep sailing and looking ahead, not back, to avoid risking falling further behind in the race when things don’t go as planned. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you can take a time-out!  Quickly letting go of the negative energy associated with setbacks is something that the best sailors know how to do – that’s partly why they win races.  They keep looking forward, always forward, and never back at what can’t be changed.

  • Compete Against Yourself

Sometimes, whatever your level, focusing too much on beating other sailors can psych you out.  Stop thinking about winning the trophy, or about beating certain boats, and instead, try thinking of it as competing against yourself. Use that energy to focus on doing every component of the race as well as you possibly can, better than you’ve ever done them before.  Look at each race as an opportunity to learn – pay attention!  If you are racing against sailors who often win, see what they are doing differently than you might be, and work on finding ways to bring yourself closer to their skill level.  Analyze what worked and what didn’t in each of the races you sailed.  The first two seasons that I raced my boat, this is what I did.  I decided to look each race as a “tutorial,” complete with debriefings in my sailing notebook afterward, documenting what worked and what didn’t.  It sounds simplistic, but I learned a lot, and improved my standings. If you try it, I promise, it will improve your sailing, and it will keep your head in the game in a much more positive, purpose-driven way.

  • Embrace Your Failures

Look at your failures as a learning tool!  Don’t underestimate the power of this. It’s important to learn how not to dwell negatively on past failures — finding a way to see them as part of the natural progression of learning is a valuable tool in opening your mind to future successes.  Research has shown that dwelling on past failures can inhibit motivation for future improvement — I see this as another example where a growth mindset is a real asset, where one can see that the path of improvement and learning is littered with mistakes and setbacks.  Unfortunately for me, I seem to do a lot of my learning by making mistakes — but I’ve always tried to look at each mistake (no matter how painful!) as an opportunity to improve and progress.  As Oscar Wilde said: “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

I hope you find some of these ideas helpful as you look ahead to the upcoming racing season.  Each one is a simple concept, yet, if mastered, can be extremely effective.  They work for me!  In slightly different ways, they can help you reframe your racing scenarios, past and present, so as to help minimize your chances of poor performance on the racecourse.  The moral of this story?  Never underestimate the power of perspective!

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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