Thursday, June 09, 2005

Winning Isn't Everything

I was trimming my hedge this morning and pondering all sorts of questions about why I race sailboats and my mental attitude and approach to different regattas.

Such questions as....

Why am I racing in this event? What will it take for this to count as a good day? What are my expectations of winning? How much do I care about winning?

In thinking back on the events I have entered this year the answers are surprisingly different.

First of all there are regattas like the Laser US Nationals where I had no chance of placing near the top of the fleet. I was just there to have some fun and get some practice sailing in stronger winds and bigger waves than I am used to. Sure, I tried my hardest in the individual races. But I also played around with different techniques. And I didn't stress out about how well I would do in the races. It really didn't matter.

Then there are events like our Wednesday evening Sunfish series. Actually I probably could do well in this series if I put my mind to it; I do win the occasional race. But I really don't take the series seriously at all. My main aim there is to practice my starts for other more "serious" events. So beforehand I am thinking about being aggressive on the start line and, in the racing, I feel free to experiment, joke around with fellow sailors, have fun.

There are other events that I do actually win, but where winning is not my main focus or reason for sailing. In our Sunday Laser fleet series my main aim is to build this new fleet. I want to attract new sailors, have them enjoy sailing the Laser, pass on some of my knowledge and get them coming out on the race course regularly. I will consider the year a success if we build the fleet to, say, 10 active, regular sailors by the end of the season. Right now I win all the races but there's little pleasure in that; I will actually count it as progress when some of the newcomers do start beating me. In the meantime I also get tremendous pleasure in just being out in the wind and the waves and the sun in a superb little boat.

My approach to our Laser regatta was similar. My main aim was for the event to be a success. A good turnout, well run regatta, close racing up and down the fleet. I had tougher competition than in our Sunday races but winning was just a bonus.

The most problematical events, in terms of preparation and mental attitude, are those regattas where I have a chance to win -- maybe a 5 to 25% chance -- but certainly no expectation of an easy win. And because the competitors are strong I would feel a genuine sense of pride in testing myself against them and beating them. So I do really care about winning. In these races there is a definite risk of "choking". I can think of several regattas over the years which I entered thinking I only had a small chance of winning, and then being tied or with a one point lead going into the final race. Time and time again I blew it with a stupid mental error or lapse of concentration or error in execution. SoulSailor writes in his blog this week of being "2nd a bloody gain". I know how he feels -- I have a shelf of 2nd place trophies and hardly any 1st place ones.

The Commodore's Cup this Saturday is in this latter category of events that are a real, but realistic, challenge. I certainly have a chance to win; after all I have won it the last 2 years. But that brings it own pressures. I would certainly feel proud to win it because I know that the competition will be tough. How will I get myself in the right frame of mind to sail well, to be relaxed and not tense, to focus on performance not position? How to care -- but not too much?

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