Thursday, January 17, 2008

Inner Game of Sailing Part 3

Skandia Team GBR’s Dr, Ben Chell continues his explanation of Mental Toughness in part three of our series. Following last week's advice, we’ve built up our confidence, and are now ready to examine the role our concentration plays in achieving performance results and how to increase our concentration to achieve success on the race course.

Part Three - Developing your concentration
Unlike other athletes, sailors not only think about their equipment and physical state, but they also have to consider the state of their playing field. As we all know the sea is in a constant state of change due to wind and tide. To remain at the top of their game, a sailor is constantly considering all variables out on the race course and this requires a huge amount of concentration.
Sailing is one of the most complex sports in the world, owing to the amount of concentration and information processing required in order to sail optimally.
Concentration is not simply about working hard to maintain your concentration. It is about relaxing and identifying what is important to focus your attention on, maintaining that focus, recognising when it shifts to irrelevant things and being able to bring it back to what’s important.
Concentration is a skill that is central to performance. It is also a skill that you can train and develop with practice. Good or bad performances are often attributed to the athlete’s ability to concentrate.
The brain is extremely limited in its capacity to process information. It is therefore of paramount importance that all your attentional resources are in the ‘here and now’ and are focused on the task in hand (i.e. sailing). "Staying in the 'here and now' is vital during a race. I use routines to get me focused before a race and key-words to keep me there during races!" - Shirley Robertson, Double Olympic Gold Medallist

Everyone loses concentration at some point while sailing. The skill is to be aware when this is happening and minimise the time you are not in the ‘here and now.’ The routine below will help you to refocus on the ‘here and now.’
Refocusing routines can help when attention is wavering, when motivation is down, or when an external situation, or a dispute within the boat is distracting you from the task in hand.
If you are struggling to be aware of when your attention is wavering then you might try sticking coloured dots on significant areas on your boat as a reminder to check in with yourself and go through your refocusing routine if needs be.
Refocusing routines can be practised on shore and in training. The coach can engineer a stressful on the water situation. For example use a rabbit start to a close upwind or downwind mark rounding. When there is a rules dispute, teams can use their refocusing exercise to get back to the next task rather than dwell on the past.

The exercise highlighted below is called ‘Breathe-Talk-Sail’ and involves a series of physical and mental cues.

Breathe - The physical cue is a simply performed routine, equivalent to a tennis player spinning his racket, changing his grip, or bouncing the ball. A crew’s physical cue might be to put one hand on their head, or adjust their trapeze height.
Talk - The speed cue is a phrase which takes the sailor back into the race: “speed,” “compass heading,” “next wave,” or “where’s the fleet?” are all examples of speed cues.
Sail – The sail cue refers to the sailor getting back to the task at hand - sailing!
Refocusing routine

Preparation Phase - Breathe
“Step back” from the situation, carrying out the physical cue to tune attention
Take two deep breaths and relax the shoulders and arms
Focusing Phase - Talk
Speed cue or focus e.g. "speed", "relax", "external"
Execution Phase - Sail
Back to the task
Once you have mastered this skill and personalized it to suit your needs you can implement this process within a few seconds thus minimising the time you spend outside of the ‘here and now.’
Next week we post the final chapter in the series where Ben will discuss the last of the three C’s - Control