One of the best books ever written about the mental side of sports performance is Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis. It's not really about tennis; it's about how to overcome such obstacles as anxiety, self-doubt, and lapses of concentration, lessons that are applicable to almost any sport. It's hard to credit that the book was first published 35 years ago. It was sports psychology before anyone knew there was such a thing as sports psychology.
Maybe his ideas would be useful in sailing? Let's see.
One of Gallwey's concepts is that there are two voices in your head, Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is that voice is that is always telling you what to do. "Hike harder." "Sail it flat." "Don't pinch." But who is Self 1 talking to? He is talking to Self 2, the doer, the self that is actually sailing the boat.
Actually Self 2 is a pretty good sailor. He can do it unconsciously if Self 1 would just let him. But Self 1 is always shouting at Self 2 and telling him what to do and making him feel stupid. (Sounds to me a bit like some married couples who sail together.)
Self 1 doesn't trust Self 2. Self 1 tries too hard. Self 1 distracts Self 2 from doing what he can do perfectly well, sail the boat.
So what to do? We need to find some way to stop Self 1 from interfering and shouting at Self 2 so much. In his book, Gallwey writes about a coaching session where he he told a tennis student, who was having difficulty hitting the ball on the strings of the racket, simply to concentrate on the seams of the tennis ball. Don't think about your feet, or your swing, or where your racket is hitting the ball. Don't think about making contact. Don't even try to hit the ball. Just concentrate on the seams on the ball and let your racket hit the ball where it wants to.
Her ability to hit the ball cleanly improved dramatically.
Is this relevant to sailing? I think so. Especially for a single-handed racer sailor, the ability to sail the boat unconsciously is vital. You need to be able to make the boat sail fast in the groove without having to think about it. Then your conscious mind can concentrate on strategy and tactics and what the wind is doing and where the opposition is and how to beat that guy.
Is this why sailing coaches tell us something like, "Look at the water two boatlengths ahead and one boatlength to windward"? Maybe it's so we can see waves and puffs coming. Or maybe it's more like watching the seams on the tennis ball.
Wednesday afternoon last week I went out and did just that. Sailed a long, long beat doing nothing but concentrating on that spot on the water. Not telling myself anything about how to sail. Just staring at the water. Seeing the ripples on the wavelets on the chop. Seeing the light patterns. Losing myself in the concentration on the water.
Did I sail better? Is this how you achieve that elusive goal of a tenth of a knot more boatspeed?
I live in hope.