Fire Walking: Advanced Mental Game Techniques for Elite Athletes

I had a very interesting experience when travelling back to Mexico earlier this month. I sat beside Dan Millman, the author of “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” who is one of the leading experts on mental strength and spirituality in sport and life. Coincidentally, only hours before, I had been reviewing books in that genre to read on the plane. He was able to introduce me to some fantastic life anecdotes and metaphors. One of them I will share with you:

Dan MilmanDan: I used to teach a knife fighting class as a tactile and meditative sport that offers an element of danger which teaches students how important attention is, and my students were goofing around, so I asked them: ‘if there were a 20 meter long balance beam about 5 inches wide about 3 feet off the ground, could you walk across it?’. Everyone agreed that walking the beam would be easy. I then asked them if the same beam were between the rooftops of 2 skyscrapers on a windless day, would they walk across it? Everyone agreed they would not like to for fear of death if they fell. I protested, saying what is the difference? It’s the same beam that was easy inside the gym so what has changed besides perspective?

If you had to do it, would you not just pretend like the beam between the rooftops is only a few feet off the ground? Could you then practice on the beam inside the gym, and pretend like it is hundreds of feet off the ground.

In your mind you should always train like something is on the line to have the greatest impact on your tactile retention.

What is fire walking:

In sailing, we hardly try to recreate the moments we have not yet experienced. So when we have those new experiences we treat them different than training or other races we have done. But in reality, there is no difference. A race at the Olympics is the same as a race anywhere else. Train like you are in the big event, and race like you are training. As easy as it sounds, it is very hard to do so because of human emotions. It requires lots of practice.

You can fire walk in two different ways:

Try to use visualization to see yourself executing perfect manoeuvres in a very high level competition. This keeps the focus on a particular action instead of the result with the feeling of urgency and importance because of the event.

During practice, make every thing you do meaningful and important. Picture your training partner as World #1 and do your best to overcome them by focusing on YOUR actions. Have your coach yell to you constantly about imaginary scenario, like “Nick Thompson is about to roll you!!” I often trained alone and when I made a slight mistake, I would visualize Lee Parkhill passing me.

For some just introducing a simple principal like this can make a big difference, but for others it isn’t easily adapted. And that’s ok! The most important thing is how hard you train, because that is what will be reflected in your racing.

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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.