The psychology of racing

lizzyIn this series experienced racer Lizzy Foreman takes us on a journey through the lives of racing sailors looking at the challenge these men and women face. This month the psychology of racing is under the spotlight.

Sail racing places many demands on the skipper and crew, both physical and psychological. Consequently the sport appeals to people who are naturally independent, resourceful, organised and have a desire to succeed.

Yet when it comes to preparing for key events in the race season, many sailors rarely give a second thought to mental preparation. As a result they can find themselves panicked and distressed throughout a race, rather than being able to act in a controlled, proactive manner in difficult situations.

To develop a flexible, strong and enduring mind you must understand how you react to these challenges and the factors that influence your emotional state while competing. This will allow you to develop and implement a variety of coping strategies

Those who are mentally tough know:

  • How to manage their emotional state
  • How to independently make decisions
  • How to prioritise
  • How to deal with set backs
  • How to adapt to different situations
  • Their limits and when to push
  • And have self discipline

Therefore they are able to deal with the four main stressors faced on the water: environmental, physical, competitive and personal.

Environmental stressors

Too much or too little wind, physical isolation from land and other boats, being too hot or too cold and threats from shipping and wildlife can be dealt with by:

  • Creating a back up plan (if the shroud breaks I will…)
  • Using your shore team (contacting land via email, sat phone, downloading a GRIB file – weather forecast information)
  • Normalising the situation (making a cup of tea, eating a meal to recover from a stressful event)
  • Controlling emotions (using music, writing in the logbook, talking to competitors, visualising how you managed before in a similar situation)
  • Rationalising (the wind will come back eventually)

Physical stressors

Sleep deprivation, physical exertion and nutritional issues can be dealt with by:

  • Creating and following a sleep plan (see All at Sea June 2016)
  • Creating and following a specific physical training programme (three months minimum prior to the main event)
  • Preparation (ensuring you have packed enough / extra food for the event taking into consideration the weather)
  • Planning ahead (e.g. reefing or dousing a sail ahead of a depression / squall, preparing a thermos flask or quick meal to consume before / during heavy weather)
Mini Transat sailors encouraging each other before starting a race

Mini Transat sailors encouraging each other before starting a race

Competitive stressors

Poor progress, technical issues, threats from other competitors can be dealt with by:

  • Remaining calm (using music, deep breathing, imagery techniques)
  • Rationalisation (the race is not won until it is over)
  • Confidence (remembering previous successes)
  • Prioritisation (correct heading and sail trim foremost)
  • Goal setting (splitting up the race into legs with specific objectives)

Personal stressors

Personal issues can actually be the most stressful when preparing for or partaking in an event: family demands, financial worries, time constraints, work commitments and feelings of guilt can all affect performance on the water, but can be reduced by:

  • Effective time management
  • Rationalisation
  • Remaining task focused (by concentrating on the wind, waves, motion of the boat)
  • Clear communication

In conclusion, mental toughness (the ability to change your attitude to best fit the situation and to balance the rational and emotional mind) should be given equal attention as technical, physical and tactical preparation.

Before casting off for your next event, consider what environmental, physical, competitive and personal stressors you may face. Have you got a coping strategy in place?


Lizzy recommends: ‘The psychology of sailing for dinghies and keelboats’ by Ian Brown