Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation for Sailing

Mental Rehearsal is one of the most useful ways of improving sailing skills for people with limited time on the water.

What the Experts Say

Eric Twiname - Sail, Race and Win
'Not only does mental rehearsal increase the chances of a good performance, but ability at the practised skills will actually improve ... Winning, remember, starts in the mind. By establishing greater perfection in your mind, you establish a model of the perfect race, which will in time come more nearly to be played out on the water.'

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing
'Athletes use Mental Rehearsal to practice new skills, to get "psyched up", to recover from injury, or just to relax. Mental Rehearsal can really improve confidence when it is used to practice coping successfully with challenging situations'

Alan Beggs, John Derbyshire and John Whitmore - Mental & Physical Fitness for Sailing
'Research has shown very clearly that mental rehearsal is the next best thing to physical practice - what's more it's cheap, and you can do it anywhere!'

Videos for Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation for Sailing

The highly successful British Sailing Team teach visualisation techniques quite early on to help enhance and improve sailing performance. Here's some advice from one of their psychologists:

The above video was the only sailing-specific one we could find. However, there are some useful videos for other sports where the skills taught are transferable to sailing.

Visualisation isn't about day-dreaming of winning a race, it is about mentally rehearsing the specific skills you'll need to win that race:

This is a useful video for Basketball players with some good advice on how to use mental rehearsal to develop skills

This video also covers the key points needed for visualisation

Although we haven't found any videos teaching sailors how to use visualisation, the following videos could be useful in helping sailors practice visualisation. Watch the videos, imagining what the sailor is seeing, feeling, hearing, etc. These guys are top sailors, so you get the opportunity to experience a boat being sailed really well, which will aid your own mental rehearsal:

Robert Scheidt sailing a Laser, upwind (and here)and downwind (and here)

Doug Peckover wearing a hat cam and racing a Laser. The race is in 11 segments of around 5 minutes, so you can pick and choose which section(s) you think will help you most. The full 11 segments are listed here

Books with information on Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation for Sailing

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, page 229

Alan Beggs, John Derbyshire and John Whitmore - Mental and Physical Fitness for Sailing, page 38

Eric Twiname - Sail, Race and Win, page 81 and page 148

Websites and online articles for Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation for Sailing

University of Chicago Visualisation Study

This article talks about visualisation for sailing

few sailors talk about using visualisation when preparing for a big regatta

What We Learned...

Visualisation and mental rehearsal are widely used by top athletes in all sports, but they are so easy to use that they should be used by all of us. Most of us only get out sailing once or twice a week, so visualising successful performance becomes ever more important

There are two key things that can really help when developing the skill of Mental Rehearsal

  • Understanding what it can and cannot help you with
  • Developing a methodology that works for you, and that enables you to use mental rehearsal successfully

 What can Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation Help With?

The simple answer is: quite a lot. As Ben Tan mentions in The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, many athletes use mental rehearsal to practice new skills, to get "psyched up", to recover from injury, or just to relax. I would add that many top athletes also use it to build confidence, and there is some evidence that it can be used to increase physical fitness, but there is less convincing proof of this. In all the other areas, though, mental rehearsal is widely accepted as incredibly important to top level performance.

For sailors, the common areas it can be used for are:


  • Tacking
  • Gybing
  • Starting
  • Parts of the beat
  • Hiking
  • Wave technique
  • Overtaking other boats on a reach
  • Gaining places using good tactics
  • Sailing at a new venue
  • Sailing in big fleets
  • Recovering from a mistake
  • Becoming comfortable sailing at the front of the fleet
  • Building confidence
  • Relaxing when anxious
  • Getting psyched up for a race
Try to avoid using mental rehearsal for outcomes, and instead focus on processes. For example, don't imagine people congratulating you in the boat park for having sailed a brilliant race, rather visualise a great start and first beat, good offwind handling, tidy mark roundings and perfect tactics to help you cross the line first. I should add the caveat that you can use visualisation of being congratulated in the boat park, or of an acceptance speech on winning a trophy, if these things make you feel anxious. Some people hate the idea of public speaking, or find it difficult receiving praise, and there is no harm in mentally rehearsing these things if they remove a psychological barrier to doing well.

How Do I Use Mental Rehearsal?

The first thing to do is to get into a relatively calm and relaxed state of mind. Some people use meditation, but it can be done anywhere - on the bus or train, out walking, before racing or training, before going to sleep at night or just as you wake up in the morning, while having a meal or a snack, the list goes on. Just take a few moments to concentrate on breathing calmly, and relax in your environment.
Once you are calm there are a few simple guidelines that will help you get the most out of mental rehearsal:
  • The rehearsal you do should always be successful
    With mental rehearsal what you are trying to do is teach your subconscious  the right way of doing something, and then making it a habit. For this reason it is important to always focus on having positive outcomes to the things you are rehearsing, thus re-inforcing the correct techniques whilst at the same time building confidence.
  • You should rehearse the same thing several times
    This is a technique for building positive habits, so repitition is important
  • You should try to really get a feel for what you are rehearsing - use as many of your senses as you can, and visualise things as clearly as possible
     The clearer the visualisation, the more likely it is that you will benefit from it. By rehearsing something as accurately as possible you are engaging as much of the brain as you can, and thus helping it to figure out what messages it should be sending out to your body in order to complete the task in reality.
  • You should try to be the doer, not just an observer (although it can help to look at yourself performing skills as a third-person observer at times)
    Much like the point above, by rehearsing in the first-person you are giving your brain a more accurate picture of what you would like to do when you're in the boat.
  • You should imagine sailing at the venue at which you wish to perform well
    This sends out a really good message to your subconscious, developing a sense of yourself performing well at the venue, making good decisions, handling the boat well and feeling confident. If you've never sailed at a particular venue before, then go on Google Streetview and see if you can get a view of the place using it. You can normally get some idea of the sailing area and its surrounds, and it also helps you know what to expect in terms of the clubhouse and boatpark before you arrive at the venue.
Once you can do these things, there are some different things you can add to the process
  • Try speeding things up and slowing them down or even rewinding certain elements and replaying them
  • Try imagining performing in practice and in competition and note any emotional differences. Select the one that makes you feel better and try to replicate that feeling in the one where you felt more anxious.
Some useful hints
  • If you are practising a technique it can be useful to watch videos of top sailors doing these things first. This gives you a good picture of what you should be doing, helping with the visualisation later. You can even watch the video imagining that you are in the boat, experiencing what they are experiencing, and this will help develop your own visualisations.
  • Google Streetview can be a good way of getting an impression of a club at which you haven't sailed before, as can talking to fellow sailors that have sailed at a particular venue before.
  • It is also worth saying that having a read of The Inner Game of Tennis can be really useful for visualisation, as he gives an excellent description of how our bodies learn to perform physical techniques, and this knowledge can really help you get the most out of your mental rehearsal.


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