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Mental Preparation

Mental preparation is often neglected by sailors, it has now been proven they do at their peril. Stress or pressure on sailors often produces a combination of worry, nervousness and fear, emotions that if not controlled effect a sailors ability to perform.

Experience has proved that people will react differently to the same situation. The stress is not in the situation but in how one perceives that situation. There is both positive and negative stress. Sailors and coaches will not achieve their potential unless stress activated.

There are general approaches which will assist sailors:

There are many ways that will assist coaches and sailors to relax. There are no secret formulas and what may work for one person may not work for another. These methods do not provide instant success and therefore require a lot of practice.

Muscular Relaxation

One method is to tense up muscles in one area at a time, hold for a few seconds, then let the muscle hang as loose as possible. This allows the individual to notice the tension that builds in the muscles as anxiety grows and the relaxed feeling that occurs when the same muscles are relaxed.

Controlled Breathing

Deep inhalations and exhalations assist the individual to focus on the task at hand. One technique of controlled breathing is to say the number 5 to yourself and as you focus on the numbers rake a deep, full slow breath, then exhale fully being sure all air is out of the lungs. Then say 4 and repeat the process. As you work through the numbers allow yourself to feel the relaxation. As you approach number 1 you will feel more relaxed.


Even before you become aware that you are being pressured you begin to rely on your own particular attentional strength. This is your psychological response to stress.

Under totally relaxed situations an individual is quite capable of shifting back and forth among the different attentional dimensions.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, what coaches must do is identify what they are and help the sailor develop the weaker ones and become capable of moving between them under pressure.

The four dimensions are:

Broad External

Strengths - Reads a complex situation well, has a good sense of understanding, can see the first downwind leg tactics clearly.

Weaknesses - May react before thinking, may tack for another boat instead of going behind.

Broad Internal

Strengths - Good analytical ability, organises and makes long range plans. Would have a campaign well mapped out.

Weaknesses - Could become over theoretical, may change plans to support a theory.

Narrow External

Strengths - Good concentration on one thing, e.g. a helmsman that can watch tell tails consistently.

Weaknesses - May stay with one line of thought even if its not working. e.g. A helmsman may not recognise that a sail is in too tight.

Narrow Internal

Strengths - Very good concentration on one thing e.g. mental calculations, main trimmer carefully making adjustments.

Weaknesses - Fails to incorporate new information. Not sensitive to what is happening around them. e.g. Main trimmer watching and adjusting but not to the varying conditions.

There are methods of finding out an individuals strengths and weaknesses which can be assessed by a sport psychologist.


When in totally relaxed state an individual is in a very receptive mood. By producing positive images of sailing whether it is in exercises or races a sailor can enhance his/her concepts and develop responses to a variety of situations.

This could be likened to having a sailor run through a particular move in his/her mind. e.g. Hoisting the spinnaker and "see" step by step what happens. They also "see" problems and develop ways of countering those problems.

Do this sort of mental preparation the individual must be relaxed. This is also good to work at prior to a major regatta.

Mental Rehearsal

This is not a substitute for active practice but it can be used to support practice. It is a learner skill which sailors would need to learn how to do. It requires practice and self evaluation and monitoring by a coach.

There are six features which must be followed for successful mental rehearsal.

1. If possible the rehearsal should take place in the contest environment. Having arrived at the contest venue and had a feel for the conditions, rehearsals can then take place.

2. Particular exercises or even races should be run right through to avoid moving into more complex tasks on the water that have not been rehearsed.

3. The rehearsal outcomes must be successful. When rehearsing heavy air gibes do not capsize or loose the spinnaker etc.

4. Before going out to perform the heavy air gibes atleast one rehearsal should take place.

5. The skill or race that is being rehearsed should be done at the same speed as it would actually happen. Rehearsing in slow motion does not activate the neuromuscular system.

6. Individuals practising mental rehearsal should image the feel of whatever is being rehearsed to ensure the full "picture", which provides more realism.

The main point about mental rehearsal is that it does affect the performance of athletes. The key is making time to do it.


This refers to creating practice conditions similar to those of the actual event. Trials for representative teams are held in conditions similar to the world event.

Developing sails, skills and knowledge in those conditions will be invaluable once arriving at the venue.

Preparation Series
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