Cathy Foster and the 30-Second Bubble

Once upon a time I was coached by the Olympian Cathy Foster. Of course, at the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have some of the coaches that taught me – Cathy, Jim Saltonstall, Steve Irish to name but a few – but looking back now it is amazing that I still remember many of these sessions. I suppose important moments stick with you, whether you realise at the time they are important or not.

I learnt a lot from Cathy Foster. For example, she was the first to have me sailing a boat without a rudder. I remember having that response of frustration when something is hard – what was the point of sailing with no rudder? Now it is a common training technique, but back then almost no-one was doing it, at least as far as I know.

Anyway, one of the things I most remember from that weekend was her talking about having a 30-second bubble. The idea was that you constantly think within a 30-second time period – meaning that if something has gone wrong, if a mistake has been made, then it is forgotten quickly. You move on and focus on what is happening now. I’ve come across this advice in various forms every so often – sail the situation you are in, not the situation you were in, or would like to be in.

Of course, like most good ideas, it is far easier to understand the idea than it is to actually use it. But it is good practice, and even being aware of it can help to snap yourself out of self-recrimination and get on with sailing your race.

There are exceptions of course. I was sailing a race a while back and made a dip start. Another boat in the race insisted that dip starts are illegal, and so I went back and re-started. I was enraged in that funny way that sometimes hits you when you perceive an injustice has occurred. I sailed like a demon to catch up – it is one of the few times I’ve been “in the zone” for an extended period of time – and I came back to win the race. The feeling of anger only dissipated when I hit the front of the fleet, when it fizzed out and I felt almost embarrassed at how animated I had felt over such a small incident. (Funnily enough, I found out after the race that the other sailor was right – it was written into the particular racing instructions that any boat over the line within the last minute before the start you had to round one end and restart. I’d been enraged over nothing.)

Interestingly, if I had used my 30-second bubble then there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have sailed as I did, and I might not have won the race. Then again, maybe I’d have done better. I’ll never know.

You get the feeling that other sailors use anger to produce better performance too. Remember Ben Ainslie’s “they didn't want to make me angry” moment? Maybe that is what he was doing – harnessing anger to produce results.

Whatever the exceptions, the 30-second bubble can be a useful way to reboot, get back in the race and focus on moving forward rather than dwelling on the past.

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