Overcoming the Mental Hurdles

Published on December 21st, 2016

Mike Ingham was the coach for the US Sonar Team at the Paralympic Games, and in this report for Sailing World, Mike shares some of the mental steps to help stay calm from start to finish…

The path to Paralympic silver medals for the US Sonar team reached a turning point at the 2016 Sailing World Cup in Hyeres, France. Going into the final day, Rick Doerr, Brad Kendall and Hugh Freund were leading, which required them to wear yellow jerseys and compete with a large yellow dot on their sail. It was a big deal, and a lengthy wind delay did nothing to calm their nerves. By the end of the day they had dropped two places in the standings. As their coach, I had spent all my time honing their racing skills, but with their world championship just six weeks away, and the Rio Games five months away, it was time to help them get over this mental hurdle.

“How do I coach that?” I asked Charlie McKee, the US Sailing Team’s High Performance Director. McKee connected me with the team’s sports psychologist Jerry May, who has guided Paralympic, Olympic, and professional, athletes across many sports.

“There is a range of optimal arousal to achieve optimal performance,” May told me. “If an athlete is too relaxed it is hard to perform well because they need a high level of mental energy to focus. But, too much turns into agitation, making it impossible to focus on rational decisions.” The goal, he added, is to “find the level of arousal which leads to an optimal level of performance.” The challenge, however, is that the desired level is highly individualized.

When the stakes are high, nervous energy is also high, so the challenge I faced with my Sonar sailors was to figure out how to knock down the stress. I started with what works for me, which is to acknowledge and accept that anxiety is natural and unavoidable. The solution was to shift their thoughts from results to the process of sailing well. If they could compartmentalize the components of sailing, they would avoid getting too amped up when things got intense. When the emphasis is on results and things don’t go as planned (as is inevitable), the wheels fall off.

To refocus the team, we wrote down process-oriented goals that were about enjoying the journey of learning. – Full report

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