A Growth Mindset In Sailing

Published on May 27th, 2020

With health restrictions impacting the competition calendar, making the most of this season will be vital, and the adoption of a growth mindset allows us to enjoy sailing more and improve our results. By Jonathan McKee for Sailing World:


I recently heard an ­interesting story from a high school ­sailing coach. She had two good skippers on her team. The first one—we’ll call him Bill—came to the team with a lot of experience from Optimists and 420s, and he seemed to be confident and competent. He was clearly the best kid on the team in the fall and won most of the practices. Jeff was the other helm. He had less experience and less confidence than Bill, but he was open to getting ­better and enjoyed sailing a lot.

After practices and ­regattas, the coach would talk to the skippers individually about the mistakes they made and what could be improved. It soon became clear that Bill was a ­little defensive about his mistakes and tended to suggest that outside factors caused his poor finishes. Jeff, on the other hand, was open to feedback from all sources, and was genuinely curious about how he could improve his decision-making and execution. Although less experienced, his attitude allowed a much faster pace of learning.

By the winter regattas, Bill and Jeff were both winning roughly equally. By the spring events, Jeff was winning nearly all the time because he had continued to improve his game to the point where he overcame his lack of experience, replacing it with a disciplined yet open-ended approach developed by learning from his mistakes.

I have a similar story from my own background. When I was a freshman at Yale, I was pretty fast and good at tactics, but I tended to get into protests. Partly because I did not know the rules all that well, but mostly because I could not admit to myself I had made a mistake and should just do my penalty turn.

This went on for a couple of years, and my results suffered at times because I was not using my mistakes to learn. Finally, after a particularly costly disqualification, I realized that I needed to change my attitude toward learning. Yes, I needed to get better at ­managing risk when the situation involved a possible protest, but I needed to stop thinking that I knew everything, and that my mistakes were the fault of someone else.

Although I did not know it at that time, I started down a path toward developing what is a popular term today: “growth mindset.” Full report.

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