So, you’ve made the decision to sail offshore. For most people, preparation for offshore sailing means getting the boat equipped and organized for a long passage; ensuring that all systems are working well, and that all the check lists are getting ticked off. Preparation usually involves ensuring appropriate training in navigation, weather knowledge, and first aid training to name but a few of the long list of essential skills. However, in all the excitement leading up to a long voyage and ensuring that everything is as ready as possible, we must not forget perhaps one of the most essential elements – our psychological and emotional preparedness. Enter performance psychology.
Up until recently, people gave this part of preparation little or no consideration. There was simply an assumption made that in times of stress, people could manage themselves or not. Most people never really considered an experience from the psychological or emotional demands and consequences. This holds true across disciplines. I have worked as a performance psychology consultant for the past 30 years. Much of this time has been devoted to working with elite performers in the context of sport and in more recent years, to the performing arts as well as in the corporate world. What we’ve come to understand is that our mental and emotional dimensions need training just as our technical and tactical skills need training.
In order for us to prepare the mental (cognitive) and emotional dimensions, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of the background. We often hear terms like mental toughness – but what does that really mean? Are some people born “mentally tough” and others not? The good news is that things like mental toughness and solid decision-making skills can actually be learned and developed – just like technical skills can be learned and developed.
For starters, it helps to understand the language of performance. For example, total performance is comprised of 5 components; doing, physiology, thinking, feeling, and team. Doing refers to the technical and tactical skills of sailing. Physiology refers literally to our physical well-being – fueled, rested, hydrated – or in other words, just general health and ensuring that our bodies can function at the level that is needed. Thinking is the mental part of performance – thinking, decision making, processing information – in essence our entire cognitive realm. Feeling is simply our emotional state – and more specifically from a performance perspective, our ability to manage our emotions and to respond appropriately. And finally, that leaves team. Yes, we need functional and healthy interpersonal dynamics.
Performing well under pressure means we have taken the time to prepare ourselves on all of these dimensions. I refer to these as systems – simply put, are all systems functioning well? Are all systems prepared to handle difficult and challenging situations or conditions? Using the term “systems” makes it easier to understand and furthermore, it parallels the language of systems in a boat. In the same way that a boat has many systems – mechanical, electrical etc., we as human beings also have systems.
Of course, the question we are really asking in preparation for a long voyage is, “are each of the systems mentioned equipped to handle the stress and pressure of a long passage?” Can I manage myself in challenging conditions? Can I maintain clear thinking (decision making) in times of stress? In reality, anyone can function like a champion in peaceful, calm, non-threatening environments; however, that’s not what we’re preparing for. Once we leave the security of shore and easy access to sheltered bays or marinas, we have to be prepared to handle anything the environment dishes out. We cannot run for shelter, so we have to be prepared for anything.
This discussion is limited to the mental and emotional systems and to some extent the team system. In order to prepare these systems we need to understand the dimensions of how we function as a human being. We function primarily in three domains: the cognitive, the emotional and the core of who we are. We could add a fourth, which is the spiritual, but that’s for another time.
WHY are we venturing offshore?
The inner most dimension is the core of who we are. It’s this part of us that defines us differently from any other person on earth. It is in the core area where our passions, gifts, values, beliefs and so on reside. This level or dimension informs our choices and decisions. It’s at this level that the ‘why we do anything’ question gets answered. Curiously enough, this is also important when preparing for a long passage. Essentially, each of us has to answer for ourselves WHY we want to embark on a long passage. If the answer to that question is because it fulfills something deep within us – our passion, dream or aspiration – we will likely be far more robust in times of stress. Alternatively, if an individual does not have a good answer for that question, that person will be far more vulnerable in times of stress or pressure. They will not be as robust, or resilient. The ‘why we do anything’ question is an important component of mental toughness.
Thinking under pressure
The cognitive domain is where our thoughts, ruminations and decision making reside. And yes, we can train this domain. For example, we can train ourselves to hold our focus on our task to the exclusion of all other distractions. This, of course, requires us to know what our task is at any given moment, and we also need to understand that our task can change multiple times in quick succession. When talking about distractions, of course we include typical things like fear. Fear is something we all face from time to time, and of course with varying reactions or responses. Some people may discover that they freeze when confronted with a stressful situation. Some people stay calm, cool and collected and go into “rational thinking” mode. It is important for each of us to learn how we respond and ask simple questions like “is my typical reaction or response helpful or not helpful?” If I realize that my typical response is not helpful, I need to slowly but surely train myself to respond in a more helpful or appropriate manner.
Fear is generally based on our ‘perception’ of an event or the ‘perspective’ we carry into an event. Fear is often based on the unknown. It is human nature to fear the unknown. And this reaction generally comes from our imagination. Our mind consciously or unconsciously creates a story around an event, based on piecing together parts of other stories that we have either experienced personally or have read about. Often this fear response is based on fiction rather than truth. Not always certainly, but often. Our minds are brilliant at creating worst case scenarios and if left unchecked, we work ourselves into a frightful state about something that has not even happened, or may never happen. For a great discussion on the topic of fear, I would encourage you to read a book called “The Fear Project” by Jaimal Yogis.
Enter the discussion on mental toughness. Mental toughness simply is a person’s ability to remain calm, cool and collected in times of challenge or adversity or stress. In other words, can I hold it together mentally and emotionally when a situation becomes challenging. These are the mental skills any one of us can learn and develop. The good news, these are not skills any one person is born with, meaning anyone can learn and master these skills.
Another book worth reading on this topic is Chris Hadfield’s book called “An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth.” Chris Hadfield had a brilliant question he would ask himself in preparing for space travel and all the possible contingencies – “what’s the next thing that can kill me?” This became an important question for him precisely to manage his thoughts and emotions. This was not a fear-based question, rather a question of preparation. The intention of this question is essentially anticipating possible scenarios and then preparing ourselves to manage those scenarios well. A question like this essentially helps us create another check list, in this case of mental and emotional coping skills. In the world of Chris Hadfield, the more prepared he was for anything and everything, the more he was able to remain calm, cool and collected when things did get challenging, because he had already prepared an appropriate response. The more prepared we are in managing the mental and emotional domains, the more likely we will be to remain calm, cool, and collected, if and when we face the challenge.
Emotional reactions and responses
It is true that our cognitive system and emotional system are closely linked, and yet we can treat them as discrete systems. Some of the discussion above certainly applies to the emotional system; however, it is important to devote attention to this system on its own. Here it becomes a question of “Can I control my emotions in times of stress? Can I respond and react appropriately so that I can function well when things get difficult, when I’m fatigued, when I’m frustrated, or when I’m bored?” The good news again, is that we can learn to be more emotionally robust or resilient.
The question I’m often asked is “how do I become more mentally tough?” The answer to this is both complex and simple. The complexity involved with this answer is beyond the scope of this discussion. The short and simple answer goes like this: Dry land training is a term used to describe any additional training one does – like going to the gym or going running for example – that will make one better equipped to perform well in any sport. This same principle applies to developing mental toughness. In this case, because we are talking about developing the skills to manage our thoughts and emotions, literally any waking moment is an opportunity for dry land training for mental toughness. Any situation I encounter in the normal course of my day is an opportunity to test my reactions and responses.
I can start with asking simple questions like “is my reaction or response to this situation helping or not helping?” If the truthful answer is it’s not helping, well then I’ve just given myself the opportunity to determine what a better reaction or response might be and then systematically work at making the alternative (better) response the typical response.
Does this seem simplistic? It is. There is no mystery to this strategy. It simply requires me to be more mindful of how I function, truthful in terms of understanding fully the results of my reactions and responses and disciplined in changing my reactions or responses if I recognize my current ways of reacting or responding are not helpful. In the same manner as any training, we need to know where our current thresholds are and then consciously seek out situations that are more and more demanding. As I learn to manage myself in one context, I will learn what works and what does not, and then use this information to function well in more difficult or more challenging situations.
In other words, the training and preparation required for offshore sailing is learning to be okay with the unknown. Learning to be okay with being out of our comfort zone. Learning to embrace challenge and adversity.
One final thought, based on my experience of sailing across the Atlantic with one other person, that is, I found I had to come to grips with my mortality. This was an unexpected line of thinking for me. Early in the voyage, I realized that there was a point at which I was literally beyond help – unless some random rescuer happened to come along. I spent two days coming to grips with the fact that no matter how much preparation we had done, and how well prepared we thought we were, random and unexpected things can and do happen from time to time. Things we simply cannot prepare for. It was this realization I had to come to grips with and make peace with. I had to accept the fact that something beyond our control might happen and that a series of events could possibly lead to my death. And I had to be okay with that. It was a difficult thought process to work through, and yet the result was highly rewarding. A level of peace settled in that has remained with me to this day. I know that it contributed substantially to my feeling a sense of calm and clear thinking in times of challenge.
In conclusion, we must remember the purpose of this discussion, and that is to understand the emotional and cognitive dimensions of performance. Specifically, how can I prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the challenges of a long offshore passage in order to perform well when I lose sight of shore.