Sailing competitively is tough. There are very little reward for the very hard work involved, and variables out of the athlete’s control can influence drastically the outcome of a race. To perform consistently in this scenario sailors have to learn how to control their inner state and avoid that their own mind gets in the way of sailing.
Tim Herzog is a Clinical Professional Counselor and Mental Performance Coach who helped many competitive sailors to perform how they know they can and to step up their mental game during competition. His website, Reaching Ahead, has interesting resources and articles about competitive mindset and sport performance. He grew up sailing, then coaching, before starting his current career; I reached out to him to ask few questions about sailing and mental skills.
FB: Hi Tim, thanks for this interview, how did you approach sailing in the first place?
TH: I began sailing when I was 10 or 11 years old. A lot of people are introduced to this sport via their family but I was different, my mom signed me up for lessons in a community program where I grew up, near Boston and I instantly fell in love with it, I did as much as I could whenever I could and I was very drawn to the competitive side of it. I would say that initially it served as a healthy escape. I lost my dad at a young age; I had mom suffering from a terminal illness in my teen years, and so time on the water was a welcome escape where I could completely be immersed in that activity. I just wanted to be better at a skill that didn’t have to do with bigger questions of life and death and so on and so forth.
FB: When did you realize that mental training and psychology could be useful for sailing?
TH: When I was sixteen, my nature was to push, push, push. I don’t think I had exceptional talent but I had really good work ethic. I remember once, I was about to put my laser up on top of the car and drive several hours up to Maine to go compete in a regatta and so I asked the coach to help me put the boat in the water so I could practice for few hours before driving. He told me that I was crazy, and I was not going to improve anything that night. I just needed to show up relaxed for the race. And so, he told me to go and read “The inner game of tennis, by Timothy Gallwey, which really opened my eyes to how in any sport we can either be our best ally or really get in our own way. I think this is not true just in sport, but also in any performance arena. And so, that was the beginning of my interest in sport psychology.
The college I went to also had an excellent sailing team. We didn’t have sport psychology per se, but at any chance I had I would turn a psychology paper into a sport psychology paper, and as a sailor I turned into my own guinea pig. And I did a lot of coaching in the summer, where I tried to apply what I was studying to those I coached.
FB: What are the most important mental skills in sailing?
TH: I think all mental skills are relevant. You may have heard about the term “the zone” that gets a lot of attention in the media. The research term for “the zone” is “flow”, and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined that term. “Flow” refers to those moment when we are really locked in what we are doing and things are clicking: we have full present moment, awareness, the challenge in front of us feel like a stretch but within reach, and time can even feel distorted, like moving in slow motion or really fast. “Flow” feels very good and can be kind of addictive and as much as we want to force those flow moment into happening, forcing them paradoxically makes them even less likely to happen.
And so I often work with athletes including sailors on a menu of mental skills with the idea that we are setting the stage for “flow” to happen, minding being mindful that there are no guarantees that it will happen. There is no one of these skills that is more important than the others, they all fit into the puzzle, each a little bit differently, and together they help putting the athlete closer to experiencing “the flow”.
Goal-setting is really important, for instance. Lots of good can come from having Outcome Goals, but if you are too focused on them , for instance if you think “I need to be top three,” you are distancing yourself from the task in hand; the thought “top three”it has nothing to do with actually having the boat going fast around the race course.
So, I work more on Process Goals, that shift the focus more on the present moment, to the processes that lead to going fast. One of the most important process goals and mental skills is arousal control, which means influencing how amped up they are.
People may have little arousal, meaning they are bored or sleepy or not very motivated, and on the other end of the spectrum- they can be overly angry or anxious. Both of these extremes are not conducive to top performances, but somewhere in the middle there is that sweet spot of optimal performance. That could depend a lot on the individual person, on the conditions in which they are sailing and other variables, but you can get better and better in knowing where that sweet spot is, and you can get better in getting there intentionally rather than haphazardly.
You can influence arousal in either directions, and you can have routines to amp up when you feel low, or calm down when you are overly activated, so the flow moments become more likely.
Click here, for more about “Flow” on Tim’s website.
FB: Do you think that sailing can change your mind/brain?
TH: An interesting bit of research found that college sailors have better visual-spatial skills compared to college rowers. Sailors could picture something more easily and have a more vivid imagery. They could also perform well in manipulating that mental image.
Sailors excel in looking at the water, making predictions about when puffs are going to come along, which directions the wind changes, staring at the sail noticing nuances in sail shape. It’s a chicken or egg situation: do people develop those skills because of sailing, or maybe they are good at sailing because they possess those skills? It’s hard to tell, but it’s definitely true that sailors possess exceptional mental imagery abilities.
FB: Do you think mental skills developed during sailing can be used in everyday life?
TH: I think all mental skills can be used in everyday life, whether it is goal-setting or arousal control, or mental imagery and related skills. If you are able to do it on a sailboat you can do it elsewhere. I found in my dissertation work that when people practiced my video imagery technique or old school verbally guided imagery, their ability to create and manipulate images was stronger compared with a control group that didn’t use one of the techniques.
Improvements in imagery ability was not only held true in the context of sailing. Imagery ability is a key athletic skill and as well a key life skill. If you do a good job in planning, whether it’s in the business world, or in an athletic arena, or even in conflict with your spouse, by rehearsing in your head in advance what’s going to happen and prepare for it, that is a great advantage in many real life situations.
FB: Spending hours on the water, waiting for things to happen or not happen and dealing with expectations and uncontrollables bring a lot of stress. Do you think sailor can build resilience that helps in as resisting mental anxiety?
TH: You can obsess on uncontrollables or you can put a lot of energy on what is under your control. In sailing, wether is competitive sailing or cruising, those are pretty important skills to develop. Rather than resisting the anxiety, I tend to consider the power of mindfulness approaches: rather than fighting anxiety, you can notice it come and go.
In our modern day society, a lot of people look for quick fixes for many things including anxiety, and I feel like that’s why prevalence of anxiety is more rampant than it has ever been. Because there are NO quick fixes. If you don’t catastrophize the fact that you are anxious in the first place, sooner or later it’s going to fade. It may pick up later but overall it’s going to fade again. If you say “I can’t be anxious! I can’t be anxious!” and you jump straight into whatever quick fix, you may feel a little better in the short run, but when anxiety comes back you might feel that the experience of anxiety is that much more “catastrophic.”
I often work with people on anxiety tolerance first and foremost and then on anxiety reduction. It is important to me to work on tolerance first, because then- when I can reduce it, I’m coming from a place of “because I can,” as opposed to from a place of “because I have to”. It sounds like a little difference but it’s a big difference.