“The Desire to Sail Well…”

There are a couple of things I like to remember before I go sailing.

The first is to remember a dry towel. I'm about 95% successful at this, which makes me sound like a towel-remembering genius. But let me tell you, the 5% of the time I forget can be pretty costly.

Dry Towel

I almost always remember to pack one of these

The other thing I always think about before I go sailing is this:

"The desire to sail well often results in winning; The desire to win rarely results in sailing well"

Dr Stuart Walker said that, and he knows a thing or two about winning sailboat races.

Anyway, the quote came to mind when I was re-reading some bits of John Bertrand's wonderful book, Born To Win (I've reviewed it here, if you're interested), which I pulled out when I was writing my (silly) post on Australian sailing. Talking about his early years as a sailor he says this:

"The pursuit of excellence has always driven me. We (John and his crew, Geoff Augustine) did not do it for domination but to achieve sailing perfection."

 When I was younger I would almost always turn up at regattas thinking one of two things:

  1. That I probably wasn't in with a shout of winning (if lots of top sailors were there); or
  2. If the competition wasn't all hot-shots, that I had a pretty good chance of doing well

The problem with this is obvious. On one hand, if I thought I wasn't in with a shout of doing well then the chances were that I wouldn't do well. On the other hand, if I thought I had a chance to win (or at least come very close) then I would put too much emphasis on the result, and not enough on just sailing well. This would often result in my not doing as well as I should have.

It's not that I didn't want to sail well - of course I did. The problem was that my focus was on the result, not on the process.

Of course, thinking in the way Stuart Walker suggests does improve results. But more importantly, it edges the emphasis away from results and more onto performance, allowing you to feel good coming off the water regardless of where you finished. In other words, you might come last because of one big mistake, but still come off the water feeling good because you did everything else right. Or, conversely, you might sail really well, but someone else sails even better - no matter, you'll still feel great, even though you were beaten.

It is surprising, when you are conscious of this idea, how often you hear athletes from all sports talk about how they have focused on the processes in training or in competition.

In a way, it relates to a post I wrote called Would George Clooney Improve His Sailing Quicker Than You?. Both ideas avoid focus on the result, and instead on performing the small things well.

Interestingly, John Bertrand describes at the beginning of his book the start of the fifth race in the 1983 America's Cup. Australia II is 3-1 down in a best of 7 series - this race is do or die. Lose and the Australians are going home. And what happens at the start of the race? The Australians are over the line and have to re-start.

There are many reasons why they might have been over at the start, but one could be that they were too focused on the result. They had to win, so the result may have become the focus. If that is the case, then it is comforting to know that even the great sailors focus on the wrong things sometimes.

That said, I bet he didn't forget his towel.

4 thoughts on ““The Desire to Sail Well…”

  1. Could be a good idea. Although if I wrote everything that I ought to remember and generally forget when sailing then I would need a much bigger boom.

  2. Great Quote – thanks for sharing. Now, all I have to do is remember it and not let it be displaced by all the inane, irrelevant things that seem to crowd into my mind at race time.

    • Very true. I’ve got to try a bit less “Hang on a minute, did I remember to pack my towel?” and a bit more “where’s the next bit of breeze coming from”.

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