Staying Present Is Your Daily Priority for Racing Success

Why is being in the moment so important?

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I hope to pass that person downwind” or “I don’t want to lose another start”?

Although one is seemingly positive and the other one seemingly negative, both are potential future outcomes and neither thought creates an action that gives you a result. This is the noise every sailor deals with all of the time. How can we filter it?

During a recent regatta, I built up a lot of confidence racing against top sailors after having a nervous, cautious and experimental day where I found myself “in the zone”. The next day I thought I was unstoppable. I changed my routine, I became less aware of my surroundings and more in tune with the voice in my head feeding me stimulus I didn’t need:

“Now that you are doing well, there’s something on the line”
“If I can keep this up, I may just be able to win”
“Imagine I can pull it off, and win!”

With this second day approach I fumbled, made mistakes, and inevitably fell back in the standings.

So what changed?

What was the fundamental difference in my approach? Day one, I was cautious and aware of my surroundings. I spent time on land analyzing the spot, the competition, the current and wind patterns. I kept a keen eye on where the other sailors were, noticing what was working and what wasn’t. I was focused and didn’t rush my game plan. Everything I did in day one was deeply rooted with the physical and mental attention to the task of winning a race. Day two was all about ego, stress, restlessness and competition. I didn’t have time to focus on how to win the race, because my mind kept feeding me information about what will happen if I lose the race! I judged the future and lost the present.

This is the noise every sailor deals with all of the time. How can we filter it?

Spending too much time thinking about the future gives you an emotional attachment to something that hasn’t happened yet. Emotion is useful when dealing with instances that require adrenal stimulation and quick reaction. Emotion is not useful when trying to figure out what side of the course to go to.

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On the subject of filtering your thoughts:

What happens if you keep telling yourself “I’m the greatest” and then you fail? You haven’t prepared yourself for failure, so the dialogue becomes overturned; “I am inadequate”. Sure self-talk can be useful to boost your confidence, but what I’m hedging towards is that there’s a big difference between thinking you’re great and knowing it. Knowing it is when an athlete can pay attention to task and not potential outcome. Like how you will approach your steering in certain wave sets, which body movements create the most acceleration or where the outhaul setting feels best and making your best strategic judgements. Thinking you’re great is more focused on “winning being the operative”, which insinuates the fear of losing, or the possibility of feeling inadequate. All things to do with your future, your ego, you hope to someday be relaxed and happy.

Emotion is not useful when trying to figure out what side of the course to go to.

Allowing your mind to freely jog your memories creates lack of expression and creativity, because nothing you do NOW has happened yet. Access thoughtfulness by tuning into small things that are currently happening, and deter any thought that depicts a future outcome.

“I hope to make gold fleet”
STOP
and replace with:
“I feel like the waves are getting bigger and may require deeper outhaul, and wider steering”

“I better be top 5 to the windward so I can relax”
STOP
“with the boat end up, and limited current, I can likely setup early for a boat end start”

“I hope Lee Parkhill doesn’t beat me this race”
STOP
“If I have an advantage to windward, I know I can hold them out to the lay line with my current sail setup”

If you are able to change your perspective and focus more on the task, you will exude your confidence outwardly. For my sailing I understand now that my mistake was changing my daily expectations as the regatta goes on. The thoughts and emotions that helped me succeed must be replicated like a routine from one day to the next. That means deliberately using thought process techniques like “STOP” and replacing your mental consciousness with useful and focused ideas.

Give it a try and let us know if it worked for you!


Vaughn Harrison

When Vaughn isn't coaching sailors at our week long, all-inclusive Laser clinics in Mexico, he continues his work with countless Olympians, youth and masters sailors. He coached at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and founded ISA in 2008.