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July 30, 2019

LESSONS LEARNED FROM ROUNDING FIRST

Mike Marshall Explains Two Mental Traits That Will Help You Stay Ahead Of The Fleet

j22 sailing upwind
2019 J/22 Worlds 馃摳 Pepe Hartman

Three years after winning the 2016 J/22 Worlds, I signed on as a trimmer for the 2019 World Championship. I knew crewing would be a fresh challenge, and I was excited to help further raise the game on Raised J, owned by John Koppernaes, a team I鈥檇 sailed with in 2017.

This year鈥檚 Worlds were in Warnemunde, Germany, and our preparation strayed far from the original plan; all our practice days were blown out, so the practice race was basically our first outing鈥攐n an unproven, bottom-painted, charter boat.

What a surprise, then, to find ourselves rounding the first mark in鈥 first.

That evening, I talked through our best approach to the regatta. 鈥淲e鈥檝e got great boat speed,鈥 I said. 鈥淣ow we just have to believe in ourselves, and know that we deserve to win.鈥

Sure enough, the next day we rounded the top mark in first once again鈥攂ut were soon passed by the eventual regatta winners. Without being on the wrong side of a shift, what happened? Looking back in time a bit, Raised J had a tough event in the light and shifty conditions at the 2018 Worlds, and we all tend to set our future expectations by our most recent results. So this year, as soon as we rounded that first mark ahead of 30 other J/22s, the energy and excitement onboard climbed way too high. 鈥淲ow! We鈥檙e winning a race! At the World Championship!鈥

What we should鈥檝e been telling ourselves instead was to keep calm, sail well, and stay in the lead鈥攖hat we deserved to be there.

j22 sailboat sails
馃摳 Pepe Hartman

If turning a great start into a mediocre result sounds all too familiar, here are two traits to work on before your next big regatta.

Trait #1: Confidence

Confidence is the biggest mental asset a team can bring to the race course. Confidence in your starting ability gives you an edge over the boats around you. Confidence in your boat handling makes it possible to react more quickly to other boats鈥 mistakes. If you lack confidence, you may not even recognize another boat鈥檚 mistake and capitalize on it, because you鈥檒l be too busy questioning your own abilities to recognize the errors of others鈥攅specially if it鈥檚 a top rival.

Confidence also leads to more rational decisions. If you are sure of your boat speed, you鈥檒l be able to look past the bad shift you鈥檙e in or the bad waves you鈥檝e just encountered. You鈥檒l think to yourself, we鈥檙e fast, and everyone else also hits unfavorable shifts and waves. We just have to deal with these factors better than they do. Without this basic belief in your own abilities, a single wave can cause you to dramatically change the way you鈥檙e sailing the boat, making you even slower. Sure of your own skills, you鈥檒l have fewer doubts and more definitive decision-making, which will actually make it easier to race well.

Trait #2: Learn From Mistakes

Another essential mental asset is identifying and admitting your mistakes. As clich茅 as it sounds, admitting that you鈥檝e made a mistake is the first step toward moving past it. Analyze what you鈥檝e done wrong, and have a plan to make sure you don鈥檛 make that same error again. Everyone makes mistakes, but your top competitors work hard to only make each mistake once.

Putting It All Together

Rounding first at the first mark in a World Championship proved we had equal skills and speed with the top contenders. The only thing we lacked was confidence in our own abilities. Instead of wondering how we got there, we should鈥檝e focused on perfecting the rest of the race. Instead of getting excited, as if this great rounding was largely due to luck, we should鈥檝e concentrated on minimizing mistakes鈥攁nd learning from the ones we did make.

Sailboat racing is unique in many ways, but its mental side is the same as other sports. If you listen to top athletes around the world, you can hear in their voices the knowledge that they deserve to be at the top鈥攁s well as the humility that comes from working extremely hard to get there. We all need to keep learning, but we also need to develop the mental skills to stay on top after a great first beat.

j22 sailboat
馃摳 Thomas Hanf