"Arousal" seems to be the flavor of the month in the sailing blogosphere. It's a hot topic in sports psychology generally and mental fitness for sailing in particular.
Mark R. of Slipper Musings has been.... well, musing on the topic on and off for weeks.
For example, in this post he reported on a couple of sailors discussing their problems with arousal levels. Either they were too low because they just couldn't get psyched up for light air sailing, or they were too high when the kite was launched.
And a few weeks back, Jay Livingston of Laser Sailing Notes wrote in Anxiety is Helpful about the same issue. Anxiety is often treated as a negative emotion but Jay encourages us to turn it into a positive. Too little anxiety and we feel flat, we have low energy, we don't care. Too much anxiety and it becomes disruptive, we tense up, we try too hard, and we make mistakes.
The issue is often present in graphical form like this...
The message is clear. If arousal levels are too low or too high we won't perform well on the race course. We need to find that middle zone of arousal if we want to achieve our optimum performance level.
I even found one article on the topic that had a chart which used the example of a slug to illustrate the problem of too low an arousal level; and a crazed squirrel as a metaphor for how you act if your arousal level is too high!
This is a slug
This is a crazed squirrel
So if we want to succeed at racing we need to be aware of our arousal levels.
But what do we do if we discover that we are feeling like a slug or a crazed squirrel? How do we manage our arousal or anxiety to stay in that optimum zone of maximum performance?
One of my favorite books Mental and Physical Fitness for Sailing by Alan Beggs, John Derbyshire and John Whitmore has many chapters that are essentially addressing this question. All sorts of methods are suggested, all essentially about how to relax when we are acting like the crazed squirrel, and how to energize ourselves when we are feeling like the slug. Maybe I will write another post (or three on) some of their ideas.
A couple of personal examples on this topic from the racing last weekend...
I mentioned that on Saturday, although it was by no means very windy all day, I was starting to get cramps in my arms. I took this as a sign that my anxiety levels were too high. I was getting frustrated about how slow I was sailing upwind and how low down the fleet I was finishing. And without doing it consciously I was tensing up, pulling harder and harder on the sheet rather than letting the ratchet block do its job. Stupid. I didn't even know I was doing it until afterwards.
I was very tired after racing on Saturday and was still feeling the after-effects on Sunday morning. I started to develop a headache as I sailed out to the course. As I waited for the first start I was definitely feeling like a slug.
But somehow I accidentally discovered a couple of ways to energize myself and get out of the slug zone and more into the optimum performance zone.
One thing I did was to start thinking about the people just ahead of me in the rankings after the first day of racing. Could I beat a few of them? I didn't see why not. They're not better than me. I can do it. Essentially I energized myself by using the competitive side of my personality. And it worked. On Sunday, in every race I beat every sailor who had finished behind me in any race on Saturday; and in some races I finished ahead of three different sailors whom I had never beaten on Saturday.
The other thing I did to kill my inner slug was to watch a couple of the fleet leaders as they powered off the start line in the first race. How is he hiking? How straight are his legs and his back? How far forward in the boat is he? How is he dealing with the waves hitting his bow? How is he moving his body? How is he steering through the waves? I guess I was planting some positive images in my head of of how to sail better and then I just stopped thinking too much about it and let it happen.
And the weird thing was that I stayed "in the zone" for all four races. I didn't get tired while racing, even though it was windier than Saturday. Those two little things at the beginning of the day seemed to reset my mental attitude to just where it needed to be. I was still on a high as I packed up my boat and hung out with other sailors after racing.
But enough about me. What about you?
Are you ever the slug or the crazed squirrel?
What causes it?
How do you deal with it?