Fleet practice: repeating spinnaker maneuvers at the dock – doing it over and over again until we get it right.

“What the mind can conceive and believe, and the heart desire, you can achieve.”   ―   Norman Vincent Peale

Recently, I came across a short article, “Why Practice Is More Important Than Talent,” posted by Scuttlebutt Sailing on its newsfeed.  The idea made me appreciate the kind of targeted, mindful practice I’d learned as a musician, which has enabled me to create a very successful approach to improving my own sailing.  My experience is a real life example of how motivation, practice and the right mindset can help anyone become a skilled sailor — even later in life.  Although Scuttlebutt’s article just scratches the surface of what I refer to as the “talent versus practice” debate, I’ve read some books recently which support what has been my own personal experience over many years of learning.  Here’s a look at two of my favorites:

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Successintroduces the the concepts of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.  In her book, she explains that an individual with a fixed mindset perceives that intelligence, or natural ability, is fixed and unchangeable, and shows how this can inhibit performance and future improvement.  And, conversely, she notes that the individual with a growth mindset believes that practice and hard work can most definitely improve performance and ability, and views effort as the key to learning new things and overcoming challenges. She writes that “For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.  It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you commit to and accomplish the things you value.”  And in a second book, The Talent CodeDaniel Coyle shows us  that researchers now believe that talent (or skill) is far more determined by practice – specifically through “deep practice,” (reaching for a targeted goal through intensive repetition and re-evaluation) which studies have shown will actually produce myelin growth in the brain.  He writes: “The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle.  Thrashing blindly doesn’t help.  Reaching does.”  Both books are full of useful information and real-life examples, and I recommend them highly.

So what’s my synthesis of this information as it relates to your sailing?  (And I’m referring to all sailors here, regardless of their level – this pertains to anyone who has a mind to improve their sailing.)  Here are what I think are the three most powerful ideas you can use in your training:

  • Mindset is everything – it’s the foundation.  If you don’t have a growth mindset, you’re in trouble.  If you believe you can improve your sailing through practice and study, you will.  If you believe you can’t, then, obviously, you won’t.
  • Motivation is key – it’s the engine, if you will.  It’s the thing that makes you get out on a wet, cold day to practice your gybes 100 times.  It is what will make things happen for you.
  • Mindful practice is the third layer –  it’s that try and try again piece, that thoughtful, problem-solving “How can I make this better?” piece.  This kind of practice “grows” your skill through the myelinization of nerve fibers.

All three of these things are necessary; certainly none would work without the other two.  In many disciplines, including sailing, coaching can be very helpful during this process, because sometimes it’s difficult to see your own shortcomings, or which areas will benefit the most from this intensive practice.  And don’t be overwhelmed if your list is long – don’t forget that great progress can come in the form of working on those seemingly smaller, less significant things, too.  If you haven’t already, please check out my post Lots of Little Things Can Add Up to Big Gains.  Sometimes it helps to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and you’ll be amazed, over time, at what a difference working on those little things can make.

So, what’s the moral of this story?  You must believe that you can become the sailor you want to be!  That’s the most important thing, and certainly the first step.  Having a growth mindset provides the necessary foundation for everything else, as it allows you to believe that with practice, you can improve your sailing skills.  And built upon that, having the continued motivation to implement mindful, focused practice will help you chip away at your weak areas and to find new ways to improve them.   With the right mindset, motivation, and targeted practice, it’s just a matter of putting the steps together to help you get from where you are to where you want to be — whether it’s skippering your first race, winning a regatta, or tackling that tricky mooring landing.

So get out your sailing notebook, and start making a plan!

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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