Jon Emmett Interview Part 3: Mental Skills, Training Tips, and Toilet Tricks(!)

There's something really pleasant about having had a conversation in which you've both laughed a lot and learned a lot, and that's how I felt after having interviewed Jon Emmett.

The only downside was that one of the things I learned was that you get the best improvements when you put the work in. I know it's true, but somehow hearing it rarely makes me feel a whole lot better.

But there were loads of things I took from chatting to him. So far we'd talked about the importance of goal-setting, how working on weaknesses creates the biggest gains, how determination and commitment are essential to progress, and much, much more. And it's worth saying that there's a lot more detail in his books about these topics, and he explores everything from starting to boat-handling to boat maintenance too. But I was still keen to see what else he could tell me about.

Jon Emmett Walking on water

I know Jon's good, but walking on water is just showing off

One of the areas I was most keen to explore was the mental tools he uses, and that he encourages the sailors he coaches to use.

"If you look at the books, and the chapters "The Winning Mind" and "Mental Attitude", those skills and techniques are literally what I use." he says, "It's the same if you look at the pictures of the meals (in his chapter on "Diet") - they are literally my meals. I took a picture of them and then I ate them.

"I think (mental tools are) a bit of a personal thing - I think it's important to choose techniques that work for you. Personally I really like detachment and reframe. Reframe is really a very, very simple principle - you fill your mind with what you're meant to be focusing on, so it's very hard to focus on the wrong thing. That's the problem when people get in pain - they think about the pain. Reframe is like when you rub a young child on the head when they've hurt their foot, because it stops them thinking about their foot and makes them think about their head. It's a very funny thing. That's why we rub skin when somebody's hurt themselves - it distracts the mind.

"So if you fill your mind with lots of useful thoughts then it is very hard for the negative to creep in. I think, fundamentally, that's what all techniques are doing - helping you focus on what you should do, and not focus on what you shouldn't. I think about what I'm trying to achieve, and Lily does it quite a lot as well. In fact when we go to the gym often she will take her notes with her, just like preparing for an exam, and she will close her eyes and think it all through."

I'm interested in the notion of mental rehearsal and visualisation, as many top performers seem to use it. Jon uses it too, but he tends to focus on small, specific situations, and always in a positive way - i.e. he focuses on what he should be doing, and never on what he shouldn't be doing. He also focuses on remembering key things that will help the boat go as fast as possible:

"Certainly I visualise," he says, "but this idea of focus is very important - that you only think about the good things. I have a lot of memories, like how far the blocks should be apart going upwind in light winds - the key things. We call it anchoring - it's something to hold on to."

Listening back to the interview, you realise how positive Jon is - he frequently talks about "every cloud having a silver lining",  but in a very genuine, thought-out way. You don't realise it at the time, but chatting to him leaves you with a sense that anything is possible. It seems it isn't by accident, either:

I'm pretty sure he said DON'T think about a red elephant

I'm pretty sure he said DON'T think about a red elephant

"The problem you have is that the mind doesn't process negatives. So if you say "don't think of a red elephant" you might think of a red elephant, and if I hadn't mentioned a red elephant you might never think of a red elephant. A typical example would be "Today you need to make sure when you tack and change sides you're really quick across the boat - as fast as you can" - that's an example of something I would say. What you would never say is "don't capsize at the gybe mark" because that puts a negative thought in the head.

"So 'reframe' and the way you frame things is very, very important. When I wrote my first book it was a very low time for me. I'd split up with my girlfriend, I couldn't go sailing (because of injury), I was meant to be doing an Olympic campaign in the Tornado and that got kicked out of the Olympics.

"But actually the book brought around a lot of good things: Lily read my book and contacted me via Facebook to do some coaching, and she got an Olympic Gold medal which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't written the book. And I don't think I would have written the book unless I had had that injury. I've written three books, and in order, the first one was when I broke my neck (so to speak), the second book was when I broke my arm, and the third book was when I broke my shoulder. They were always written when I had the time, and I couldn't be on the water coaching. So if I hadn't have had shoulder surgery this year then there wouldn't have been a revised edition, I don't think."

So detachment, mental imagery and reframe are all key to what Jon does. "I think a lot of people will have different techniques but they're actually achieving the same thing. It's like active recovery - there's lots of techniques for getting fresh blood in to the muscles - we can have cupping, we can have acupuncture, we can have deep tissue massage, we can have hot and cold therapy - there's all sorts of things, but they're actually fundamentally looking at doing the same thing."

Jon feels that mental strength and psychological fitness are absolutely crucial to getting better and winning races:

"The thing that separates the sailors on the podium (from the rest) is the mental side. They're all incredibly talented sailors, they're all incredibly fit, and it's the mental side that makes the difference.

"For example, Alison Young did an amazing job at the Worlds in Oman this year. She qualified for Gold Fleet in, I think, last place, and then she finished 7th overall. To come back from that - that's a real example of mental toughness. She sailed better in the Gold fleet than she did in the round robin - that's the skills of the champion."

This talk of mental toughness, of grit, led me to wonder if there are particular traits that he's noticed that really good sailors have.

"To use the French phrase - 'je ne sais quoi' - you speak to someone like Ben Ainslie and there's just something about them - whether it's a quiet determination or a professionalism or a drive or however you want to put it. That's why I like the goal-setting - if you look at successful people in any field that's something that they all do. Whether they realise they do it or not is another matter, but it's actually a key thing. There's been a lot of research about people who run very successful businesses, which is much easier to quantify than an athlete's performance, and they're very goal-oriented people."

Like most sailors in the boat park, I'm interested in what equipment people find most useful. I ask Jon if there is one piece of equipment that he loves the most - that he couldn't do without?

"Actually, it's completely the opposite." he says, "You never, ever want to be in that position, because it's a weakness. If you have a lucky pair of socks and you lose one of them, you're in so much trouble. You should be able to just jump in any boat. I think Ben Ainslie said before one of his Olympics his mum washed his hiking pants and destroyed them and she was really worried and he was like "Well, it's no problem. I'll just borrow somebody else's.""

So that's me well and truly told.

Of course, Jon's right. I've often had people look at my compass as if it's the reason I've done well (when in fact it is more likely to slow me down at times), and we've all wanted a new sail or a stiffer mast when really they aren't the issue - it's the helm driving the boat. And superstition (or milder forms of it) can be really damaging, as Jon says.

So I head to safer ground. What books or DVDs or websites has he found useful?

"When I was young I really liked the Fernhurst Sail to Win series and I read them all. And that's why it such a nice thing for me to be part of that. If you'd asked me when I was 16 whether (I thought I'd one day write for the series) it wouldn't have even been in my mind. But I remember having those books in my bag, and I'd always have Glenn Bourke's book, and I'd read it in my 20 minute break between classes. So to be involved with the Sail to Win series is just great, and they've got a lot of other good authors now as well."

It is Jon's bad fortune and our good fortune that he got injured and had to take an extended period out of the sport. It may well have cost him an Olympic medal, but he's not the type to dwell on such things. What he did, instead, was write Be Your Own Sailing Coach and, as well as being a brilliant and very successful book, it also opened other doors to him, like coaching Lijia Xu.

"When I wrote Be Your Own Sailing Coach I'd just had a very major neck surgery - I had seven months out of the sport and it really got me thinking about how to make the best of the time I had when I came back. It was actually quite easy to write the book because a lot of the diagrams I must have done so many times. In fact I think in Ireland there's possibly one of my diagrams still on the board where I made a mistake and ended up doing it in permanent marker!

"The hard thing was knowing what to leave out. Be Your Own Sailing Coach was actually the first book ever published by a company called Wiley Nautical because originally I was meant to be writing for Fernhurst Books but they sold up. Ironically Fernhurst Books bought back the titles from Wiley Nautical and I wrote the first book for them as well - Coach Yourself to Win. It is basically a slimmed down version of Be Your Own Sailing Coach, and when I wrote Be Your Own Sailing Coach I found it very hard to keep the book small because people have written very good books just on fitness, just on tactics, just on race strategy, just on psychology, and I had to narrow each down just to a chapter. And when I went to write Coach Yourself to Win they said they needed a different format and I had to cut out even more - it was a bit heartbreaking. Hopefully, though, the condensed version makes it even more accessible."

Having coached so many people, from beginners to Olympic champions, Jon is used to passing on wisdom, but I'm interested to know what is the best bit of sailing advice he's ever been given?

"It's funny because I don't (tend to) remember where specific things come from but I went to one of Jim Saltonstall's talks a few years ago and I remembered it word for word. One thing I really liked is this idea that "if talent doesn't work hard, hard work will beat talent every time". It's not rocket science - the harder you work the more likely you are to be successful and everyone at the top is an incredibly hard worker. It does mean a lot of personal sacrifices and people have to think what they're willing to do, but you need to be talented and work hard."

Hard work includes fitness and being fit enough for the job in hand. It's true that club racers don't need to be as fit as World Champions, but Jon's thoughts on this are enlightening.

Jon Emmet Image 1"If I knew 20 years ago what I know now, for sure I wouldn't have had the surgeries I've had. I'm a huge believer in Pilates and it's actually the muscles you don't see that you need to work on - all the core. It's the lower tummy and pelvic floor that protects the lower back; your shoulder girdle - the muscles that hold your shoulders back and down - if they're strong it protects your neck; if you have strong rotator cuffs it prevents the wear to joints.

"All these things you can just bundle up in Pilates - it's incredibly useful. If I'd known that it would have saved me a lot of problems. But every cloud has a silver lining, and when I first met Lily she had incredibly bad lower back problems. Looking at her results in 2010, she hardly got through a regatta, and the Chinese were just putting her in a corset and tightening her up, (using) a super strong weight training belt just to get her through the regatta. But the problem with that is it makes the muscles switch off even more and she got even more weak and even more injured.

"I was able to help Lily with her lower tummy and her back and we got to the point at the Olympics where she was pretty much pain free, and it's all the strength of the lower tummy. So when I see sailors wearing these belts around their waists it just breaks my heart.

"When I first started working with Lily, if she laid down and just raised her head her tummy would pop out. Not even doing a crunch. You could see the section on her body where she had been wearing the belt and the muscles just didn't work. It took pretty much a year to get that firing and working and now she has an incredibly good core, but I would probably never have had that awareness unless I'd been down the same route. So the fact that I've had lower back problems and neck problems and shoulder problems means that I can pass it on to all the sailors I work with, and anyone who's worked with me on the water will know what a hard time I give people about good hiking posture. But I know what it's like to go under the knife and lose 7 months of your life.

"Prevention is always better than cure. Nobody likes to be injured but nobody thinks about it until they are. For sure my kids will do Pilates - they won't have a choice!

"The good thing is that when those muscles start to fire they will fire in every day life. I've actually had a problem before now peeing on the RIB when I'm bouncing up and down a huge amount and my stabilisation muscles are firing and they won't let me pee - it's really bizarre!"

I'm a bit of a Pilates fan myself (and not because it has interesting effects on my peeing), because as well as working on the core all the time, it also works on the leg and arm muscles in a way that is of real benefit to sailors. These things make a big difference on the water, and help make things like "reframing" easier. As does having the right kind of energy when you're on the water, so what kind of foods and drinks does Jon use?

"I've worked with Science in Sport since 1995 and I'm very, very comfortable with their products. Things like the gels are very good on the water because you're just looking at something that's really easy to digest. I also would have a pure carbohydrate energy drink, so that's about 6.4 grams of carbohydrate per 100grams of liquid, and it is very kind to my tummy. And little things, like eating straight after sailing - I think everyone knows them.

"With diet generally, it's very much whole foods. So if you buy something it's got very few ingredients on the back then its a good thing. I had a conversation with Oren (Jacob, the Israeli Laser Radial sailor he is currently training) about Weetabix, and she said "But it's boring", and  I said "I know it's boring, but it's exactly what your body needs."

The last thing I asked was, if he had a motto, what would it be? It's a cliched question, but it can really help focus on what is important. Jon's answer is no surprise, and it's a pretty good way to end an interview:

"Make the most of every minute of every day to get better and better and better."


There was so much great material from Jon's interview, I've broken it down into three parts. This one has lots of tips and advice on a whole range of sailing topics; the previous part looked at his Olympic coaching; and the first part covered his progress into sailing

You can read more about Jon on his website, or you can like his Facebook page, or you can visit his YouTube channel which has loads of great coaching videos on a range of topics.

Or you could buy one of his books:

Jon's Books

Coach Yourself to Win

The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Sailing Coach

The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Tactics Coach

The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Books Mentioned in this Interview

The Sail to Win Series

Championship Laser Racing by Glenn Bourke

The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

The chapter "The Winning Mind" appears in Jon's most recent book - Coach Yourself to Win (page 70)

The chapter "Mental Attitude" appears in Jon's first book - Be Your Own Sailing Coach (page 215)

The chapter "Diet" appears in Jon's first book - Be Your Own Sailing Coach (page 199)

Science in Sport

Science in Sport produce loads of widely used foods and drinks for sports people. There is a list of what they sell here (for the US) or here (for GB and Ireland).

The gels that Jon mentions can be found here (for the US) and here (for GB and Ireland), and the carbohydrate drinks can be found here (for the US) and here (for GB and Ireland)

2 thoughts on “Jon Emmett Interview Part 3: Mental Skills, Training Tips, and Toilet Tricks(!)

  1. Thank you. It’s well worth a revisit – it’s amazing how much more I saw when I was going back through it before the interview.

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