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Thought for the day - Curing competitive anxiety

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

This is a long post but maybe one of the most important. It covers one of the most significant barriers to my achieving stellar performance in sailing. It is not about sailing technique, boat setup or anything else on this web site but about what goes wrong in my head when racing. I set out the challenges I face, my goal, the issues in detail, the solution to achieve a state in which I can deliver my true potential and how I will test and measure the result.

If ever you have seen Crocodile Dundee, part of this post feels a bit like talking to Wally in Walkabout Creek. You tell Wally your problems and then everyone knows about them and the problems go away. Let’s see if it works? You can be Wally.

The problem

Since I started radio sailing 2 years ago, I experienced all the old negative thoughts, feelings and anxieties from when I was sailing dinghies and steering yachts (1968 - 1994). I felt it was time to do something about this, by researching competitive anxiety, which is a major issue for me and sports people in general but especially track and field athletes. To overcome their anxiety which can be debilitating to their performance, they use coping strategies. These are both action oriented and use mental imagery. I will apply cherry picked techniques to myself and incorporate these into a plan to overcome what I believe are barriers to my performing at the very top.


Where am I in UK rankings

I am 8th in the UK ranking list at the moment, was 24th in the nationals and have won or finished in the top 4 of all the open meetings entered. Obviously I have a long way to go.


The Goal

The goal is not about results but about executing all the minor details with freedom and creativity to deliver near perfect performance. You cannot predict a result as you cannot predict how events will unfold on the day.

My goal is to be completely clear headed and stress free in the run up to the start, focused only on getting the boat around the race course in the fastest way and ignoring who might be driving the boat next to me. At all times I will maintain a constant track of wind across the course. I will only be concerned about what I can control and ignore everything else.


The issues

Since I started sailing IOM’s my levels of anxiety have changed. At first, club sailing was stressful, then as I mastered that I started to relax. Then open meetings raised the anxiety to new levels and whilst giving some good performances in several races, I would have some howlers that dragged me off the podium. Starting at the nationals took me to a whole new level of anxiety. e.g. Losing sight of the boat, too little control when stationary, collisions, no speed off the line. Unable to stay in the A heat. All a bit of a nightmare.

What were my perceived negative responses?

Seeing

My gaze becomes too focussed, normally around what other boats are doing. eg where is Peter, Brad and Rob etc. I forget to focus on my own strategy when I panic.

Hearing

Not really aware of anything for or against my performance.

Feeling

From the time I arrive at a meeting and sometimes before, I get stressed. The symptoms are feeling slightly nervous, shaky or shivery especially if I have too much coffee. Fingers are twitchy on the transmitter controls leading to excessive rudder movements; occasional sweats on the start line as the pressure builds; a build up of tension if the race is not going so well.

Tasting

Dry mouth, you will often see me drinking water between races.

Thinking

  • On arrival at a meeting I notice my focus on the top skippers and what they are doing rather than what I am doing.

  • Once I launch I have a process for checking out the start line and which side of the course is favoured. If there is no clear picture my brain starts to panic. I have never been good reacting to a rapidly changing situation with no wind signals on the water. This is probably because I am so focused on where the good skippers are rather than where my boat is.

  • When starting, I would panic and get into all sorts of trouble. e.g. losing sight of my boat, pulling the trigger too early, bumping into other boats.

  • Many times I think I can cross a starboard boat, collide and be forced to take a penalty turn.

  • I think I can approach a windward mark on port and find a gap. Why?

  • In heat racing I am thinking; don’t be in the bottom 4 or 6 and end up exactly where I thought I would. The brain interprets negative thoughts as a positive command.

  • is my boat set up correctly?

  • am I going the right way?

  • is the boat going slowly?

In summary I allowed myself to get wound up so much that my mind became a mush of irrelevant thoughts to the point where I can feel my head heating up. On top of that I am thinking I should be better than this and that just makes things worse. My level of anxiety was in proportion to the size of the event.

So the above is small insight into my world. When I was at my best as a teenager, nerves were horrible but because I sailed so much everything was second nature so I never did anything about the nerves until my mid 20’s. Thankfully I knew I was not alone as even Paul Elvstrom suffered from a near nervous breakdown. It can happen to the best.

The question now is how do I change my current negative state in competitions to a state where I can unleash my obvious potential?


The solution

First of all, the good news is I know what is wrong and what needs to be fixed and that it can be fixed in a moment. All I need are some strategies to apply to cope with the above.

I need to note I have all the sailing skills, experience and equipment to perform at the very top level.

I need to reinforce my confidence and focus through visualisation and expectation setting strategies and if when delivering for real, I get stressed, I use a relaxation routine designed to get my head back into the right space.


Visualisation

The key to all great sporting achievements. If you can see it in your minds eye, you have a greater chance of making it happen provided you have put all the other pieces of the jigsaw together.


When visualising I want to imagine the the precise details of a venue. How far above the water am I? Is the standing area before the start crowded? Can I walk up and down the technical area? I want to think about all the tiny details of the environment around me. The greater the detail the more impactful the visualisation. This video should be bright and large as though you are at the cinema.

I want to hear, see, taste, feel, smell the environment where I am successful and immerse myself deeply in that imagined video. Am I looking cool and confident so the competition worry about me and not the other way round. The more you burn various scenarios into your mind the more you develop automatic responses on the day because you have done it many times before.


Here is an example of one video I play in my mind.

I am standing with my fingers on the transmitter controls and I am preparing for the start. We are 20 feet above the water so have a great view of the start line. The boat setup looks fantastic and perfect for the 5-10 knot conditions.


The line is slightly port end bias, well enough to encourage most of the fleet to that end but I notice a subtle new band of breeze coming down the right hand side. I gently ease my boat into position to prepare for a starboard end start and with 2 seconds to go sheet in and get the perfect start.


The boats at the port end of the line are a nose ahead but they cannot tack. For a moment I have control of the fleet being the most starboard hand boat and then the new breeze hits and I am lifted 15 degrees. Scanning the upwind side of the course I notice another puff down the right hand side so I wait until boats start tacking across onto port before making my move to the right. My tacks are smooth with only small amounts of rudder movement. I ease the sails a notch on the new tack until the boat gets up to speed. I am a boat length clear of second place and am able to sail fast and free. Bow down for speed as one of my US friends would say. I get to the new puff and tack back for the new lift and power around the edge of the gust maximising the lift. As soon as it finishes I tack back onto port to cover the boats going further right and easily cross the starboard boats as they return and can hit the lay line for the weather mark.


My lead is a few yards which enables me to round the spreader mark and gybe towards the stronger wind on the left of the run. The fleet spreads left and right but my speed looks OK down the run so I think I have made the right decision. I know the left hand leeward gate is the favoured mark so I set up for that approach. I cast my eye up the beat and can see a pattern of wind shifts that will favour me so after rounding the mark I play the shifts being careful to keep between the front bunch and the windward mark. The rest of the race is about covering the fleet. When I finish there is a big smile on my face and I feel the warm glow of winning the race.


Of course this is one scenario and I can imagine a range of races from a disaster at the start pulling through the fleet to the one above. By playing and replaying videos and feeling that they are real is great for building confidence and it costs nothing.


Expectation setting


Setting the right expectation is so important. It is not about winning, it is about creating a framework for outstanding performance. Here are mine:

  • I will do my best, the result is unknown

  • I will focus on the process, not the outcome

  • Whatever the event, it is just another boat race

  • If things go wrong, identify any lesson and move on

  • I can beat all the competitors around me on the day. They are more worried about me rather than me about them.


What if I get stressed at any point

Here is where I apply a simple relaxation technique taking 5 deep slow deep breaths. When I exhale the first time I relax my head, on the second my shoulders, on the third my torso, on the fourth my legs and on the fifth I relax everything.

This simple technique can be done any time, even in a crowd waiting for the start and I find it to be very effective. No one will realise you are doing it.


Cognitive restructuring

A posh term for what are you thinking about. So here is what I will now focus on.

What I can control, e.g. my boat setup, preparation, strategy, tactics, calmness, making my thoughts work for me rather than against me on the race course.

What I can’t control. e.g. what other boats are doing, how spread out (left and right) the fleet is on a beat, being rammed from behind at the start and being pushed over the line, picking up weed, getting caught on the wrong side of a wind shift when there was no signal for the change in direction.

If I can’t control something I do not have to waste time thinking about it. If something crazy happens, respond to it and move on.

Developing self confidence

When I was at my best when younger I just expected to win every race. Now I am rebuilding that self confidence through practice and preparation, applying coping strategies, visualisation techniques, focussing on my successes and learning from failures.


There is a check list below the post consolidating everything above which I use before heading out to a meeting and I can say already it has had a positive impact on my approach.


How do I test this

I will apply the above in the last event of the year at Chipstead (19 Nov) and a program of club racing over the winter. Success will be a near clean sheet at an open meetings and club racing, a top 3 position at a ranking event and top 5 position at the Nationals so I can qualify for the Europeans next October.


Last Thoughts

Having been through all this, I am finally left with a simple process for setting up the boat, clear expectations for my performance, and ability to clear my head and relax and let my natural sailing talent prevail. From complexity to simplicity in one easy move. Roll on 2023.


Update

Since fully applying the above, I had an astonishing set of results at the Chipstead open (19 Nov) with some healthy competition. 16 races, 10 firsts (several by a significant margin), 3 seconds and 3 discards. In addition I had a similar day last Thursday before with a B rig at Gosport.

Was it the coping strategies or a lucky amazing set up and an inspirational day?

Time will tell.

Watch this space.




IOM Race Guidance checklist - Keeping calm and focused


The Goal

The goal is not about results but about executing all the minor details with freedom and creativity to deliver near perfect performance. You cannot predict a result as you cannot predict how events will unfold on the day.

My goal is to be completely clear headed and stress free in the run up to the start, focused only on getting the boat around the race course in the fastest way and ignoring who might be driving the boat next to me. At all times I will maintain a constant track of wind across the course. I will only be concerned about what I can control and ignore everything else.


Expectation setting

  1. I will do my best, the result is unknown

  2. I will focus on the process, not the outcome

  3. Whatever the event, it is just another boat race

  4. If things go wrong, identify any lesson and move on

  5. I can beat all the competitors around me on the day. They are more worried about me rather than me about them.

Relax

5 deep slow deep breaths. When I exhale the first time I relax my head, on the second my shoulders, on the third my torso, on the fourth my legs and on the fifth I relax everything.

Thoughts

  1. I will only focus on what I can control, e.g. my boat setup, preparation, strategy, calmness, making my thoughts work for me rather than against me on the race course.

  2. I cannot control what other boats are doing, e.g.

How spread out (left and right) the fleet is on a beat,

Being rammed from behind at the start and being pushed over the line,

Picking up weed,

Getting caught on the wrong side of a wind shift when there was no signal for the change in direction.


If I can’t control something, I do not have to waste time thinking about it. If something crazy happens, respond to it and move on.



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