How to Stay Ahead

Published on July 20th, 2017

By Tim Herzog, Sailing World
Holding on to a lead can be as much about your mindset as it is your speed or tactics. Being at the top of the fleet is daunting, but keep your thoughts in check and focus on the little things.

I had one of the best high school sailing coaches in the country and one of the best college coaches, but boy, did they ever approach the start of practice differently. My high school coach placed our names on the board in order of where we currently stood on the team. My college coach intentionally put us in random order on the board. Either way, it was easy to play mind games.

As the eternal optimist, I frequently helped myself out by believing I belonged at the top. Over time, however, I helped myself out even more by learning to let go of rankings, both on and off the racecourse.

We often hear about “fear of failure,” but it’s seldom we hear about its equally evil twin, “fear of success.”

The anticipation of screwing up the lead you’ve achieved can create a whirlwind of thoughts that are unrelated to sailing smart and fast. Likewise, the anticipation of success can come with fears that are unrelated to getting to that finish line: “Will I maintain this success in later events? What will people say? Do I really deserve this?”

Thoughts related to two very different outcomes, failure or success, have something in common. Both have nothing to do with the task at hand.

Outcomes are largely based on uncontrollable variables, like how fast other people are sailing. Wanting to be in the lead has little to do with actually being there (except that it may have helped you to work hard to become good). If you do find yourself in the lead, you did something right.

Chances are, you focused on such variables as windshifts, current, and fleet positioning or such controllable variables as your boatspeed, boathandling, and keeping calm. Once you’re in the lead, you probably do not want to start doing something different (like wasting lots of mental space on what place you will or won’t finish).

For some, being ahead is the norm. For others, it can be viewed as a fleeting moment. How do you interpret the situation of being ahead? If you look at it in a neutral manner, like it’s simply information, then you are on the right track.

When we cling to reactions like it being “great!” or “scary!” then our minds become cluttered, we ride an emotional roller coaster, and our bodies tense, causing us to move less fluidly in the boat, and our best performance does not come through.

So how do we become more like Buddha when we find ourselves ahead on the racecourse? Read On.

Tim Herzog is a Certified Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. His land-locked practice, Reaching Ahead is in Bozeman, Mont., and he often works with sailors from afar, using Skype, phone, and e-mail. He’s an alumnus of St. Mary’s College and Tabor Academy, and he’s the former head coach of the Boston College Sailing Team.

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