Tuesday, August 13, 2013


How important is visualization to success at sailboat racing?

Can you "think" yourself into being a better sailor?

If you took a few minutes each day to use the power of mental visualization to improve your racing performance, what should you imagine yourself doing?

Should you create a mental picture of yourself crossing the finish line in first place?

Could you believe yourself if you did that?

Would it actually do any good?

Or should you visualize yourself making a small improvement?

Imagine yourself beating that guy who always just beats you?

Finishing a couple of places higher than you usually do?

Or are you wasting your time trying to visualize outcomes?

Should you focus instead on how you sail?

Visualize pulling the trigger on the start line a second earlier than you do now.

Visualize yourself hiking with straight legs all the way up the beat.

Visualize the smoothness of your roll tacks.

Would that work any better?

When is the best time to use visualization?

Before you go to sleep?

Driving to the regatta?

Before every race?

All of the above?

And how do you go about visualizing?

Do you literally "see" what you want?

Or is it more about "feeling" it?

Do you focus on your emotions in the situation you are visualizing?

Or do you talk to yourself?

Does music help?

What about you?

Do you use visualization?

Does it work?

What can you teach me?


hetzeilen said...

I like to picture myself in the preparation towards the event, like how I would arrive, how to park the car and the trailer. Then I would visualise myself preparing the boat for launching. I just find out I do not visualise any actions after this, which is rather strange, but confirms to me that perhaps this is the reason why I often return home with a feeling of something rather unaccomplished. Good thinking, Tillerman!

Tillerman said...


I thought what you said hetzellen was a little strange at first. Why visualize the preparation? Then I realized that I unconsciously do the same. When looking forward to a regatta I think about the drive there, and the boat park and what it will be like to rig, and where I will park the car, and how I will launch etc. I don't consciously try to visualize this. It just happens.

Why would I do this? Well, I suppose it might be because these are the first things I will do when I go to the regatta. Or perhaps it's because these are the things that will be unique about sailing at this particular location.

And the weird thing is that by thinking about these "preparation" factors, I sometimes talk myself out of going to the regatta at all. Let's face it, these are the "chores" that we have to get out of the way before we get round to the real fun. Sometimes I unintentionally convince myself that the drive there will be too long and tedious, that there will be a "boat park nazi" making life insufferable, or that I will have to stay in some crummy motel etc. etc. I focus on all the negative things about going to the event. And then I don't go! How weird is that?

The solution is obvious. I need to visualize how much fun the sailing will be, how I will enjoy meeting up with old friends, how satisfied I will feel after a hard day's racing etc. etc.

Thanks hetzellen. I think you have taught me an important lesson about how to use vizualiztion.

George A said...

Visualizing beating people better than me is something I do all the time. I just called it by another name: fantasy.

Tillerman said...

But George, isn't the seed of your own failure already embedded in the way you articulated this? Those people are not "better" than you. They have just happened to finish a few places in front of you in every race for for the last 40 years. If you think they are better than you, then you will never pass them. If you visualized yourself beating them then maybe you would break out of the habit of thinking they are better than you, and then you would actually beat them?

Not to pick on you personally because I also fall into the same trap of ranking certain sailors "better than me." I need to follow my own advice.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tillerman,

I’ve literally just been researching visualisation for dinghy sailing myself (great minds think alike / fools seldom differ and all that) so I can’t believe you’re writing about it. I’ll try and post a blog or something about it because I’m just in the process of setting something up, and I’ll let you know when I have it up. Briefly, here are a few things I came across that might be helpful:

Visualising outcomes doesn’t really work. However, we often have a psychological fear of doing well, or at least doing better than we would be expected to do - it upsets the pecking order which can make us feel uncomfortable among other things. For this reason it does help to visualise yourself doing well in a race and feeling comfortable and relaxed, say leading a race. Eric Twiname in ‘Sail, Race, Win’ tells a pretty good story about this.

Visualising processes can really help. For instance, visualising tacking well can actually help you to improve your tacking. There was a study done with basketball players in which physical practice produced a 24% improvement and visualisation practice produced a 23% improvement (those who did neither didn’t improve at all). This means you can improve your process skills nearly as much just by visualising them as by actually practising them. Good news for those of us that can’t get out very often because of real life and jobs and family and eating and sleeping.

The experts actually call visualisation ‘mental rehearsal’ now, because the consensus seems to be that you need to try to use as many senses as possible in the visualisation process. Essentially you should try to use not just sight, but imagine how it sounds, feels, smells, tastes(?!?) to tack well. As such, they suggest doing it just before you go to sleep, or at a time when you can get ten minutes to yourself to relax and engage in the process.

One other thing before I finish rambling on. A lot of people think back over races they’ve just sailed, which is essentially visualisation. You can use this to help you get into visualisation by either remembering something you did particularly well and replaying it in your mind to reinforce it; or (and I suspect I will have to use this method to get me started) you can replay a the lead up to a mistake you have made, but change the outcome to a successful one (i.e. imagine what you should have done, not what you did do). This can help avoid the same mistake again. Hopefully.

So there you go. If nothing else, when you're caught dozing off in the afternoon you can now say you were using mental rehearsal to optimise your tacking. You won't be believed, but at least you'll have an excuse.


George A said...

No psychological fear of doing well here--just keeping things real! There's a pecking order in every fleet. Mid-fleeters like myself occasionally get lucky and cross in front of the greyhounds but the natural order generally reestablishes itself by the next race. I think I'm just a natural underachiever. And while I'll never win big, I'll probably never burn out either.

Tillerman said...

Thanks Damian. That's really helpful advice.

I had a feeling that visualizing outcomes probably wouldn't help a lot. Although I do suspect that you are right in saying that it can overcome the pecking order issue. I do occasionally beat the sailors ahead of me in the pecking order so I guess I should use mental rehearsal to relive those races and build up my confidence that I can and do beat those people.

I hadn't heard that stat with basketball players before. Being basically very lazy that's excellent news.

Look forward to your blog post or posts on this topic. Do let me know when you have published them.

George A said...

Is beating the pecking order due to prior visualization or circumstances unfolding on the race course? You think on that. I need to "visualize" getting in the car and going to the rink so as not to be late for my skating lesson.

Tillerman said...

Is getting to the skating rink on time due to prior visualization or circumstances unfolding on the road?

Or both?

George A said...

Don't know. Traffic was light so I can't answer that question. I did try visualizing the perfect half-flip jump but it didn't happen. Maybe next time. My progressives were a good bit smoother however.

/Pam said...

In 2009 I visualized winning the top woman trophy in the Butterfly Nationals. Sure enough my name was called and I was awarded the trophy. Ten minutes later they realized they'd made a scoring error and the trophy was taken away. I forgot to visualize actually doing well in the races. Three years later I won it for real. I specifically didn't visualize winning and instead just thought it would be really cool if Doug won the event and I won the women's ... And that's exactly what happened.

Doug is a big time visualizer. He's sailed every race a dozen times in his mind before he ever arrives at a big regatta. When he sails locally he'll actually call for and visualize something and it appears: 'what I need right now is a knock ... and there it is'. He'll do that all day long and just keep getting lucky. I think experience has taught him what generally comes next and he simply waits for it to show up ... and he knows what it looks like when he sees it.

Keep Reaching said...

The mental aspect of any sport is very important and visualizing is a big part of that. But, where is the dividing line - or is there one - between visualizing and simply planning ahead and being prepared - mental checklists.
Simply checking my bag to be sure that I didn’t forget my gloves is not what I would call visualizing, but in some visualizing there is a definitely a sort of by-the-numbers drill or checklist - trying to identify and then visualize the specific movements rather than just a daydream about being successful.
I find that visualizing a specific action – like a gybe or prestart preparation - with a sort of checklist or at least reminding myself of things to be especially careful about – is a good way to break things up into manageable bites and keep the focus on the task at hand and not on the bigger issues such as overturning the pecking order. Is this a way to avoid the bigger, tougher questions? Maybe so, but I find that succeeding with the maneuver after such visualization produces a virtuous circle of feedback.

Tillerman said...

I think you are right KR. The main benefits of mental rehearsal surely come from using it on specific processes like pre-start prep or roll gybes. Some of those things will need a checklist approach and some will be more about feel and style.

I do tend to agree that just imagining being a winner or higher in the pecking order is not going to help much by itself. But I think that if you have an issue of "choking" or nerves when sailing unexpectedly near the front of the fleet (as I sometimes do), then rehearsing feeling calm and confident and focused on sailing fast when in the lead will probably help.

Anonymous said...

I think that's it exactly. Visualisation isn't about wish-fulfillment - there's no point dreaming about planing past the fleet in a force 1, it is much more about practising things, using the mind, that you can control. It links in to 'The Inner Game of Tennis' in my opinion, where Timothy Galwey talks about learning skills by switching off the voice in your head that tells you "you're terrible at gybing in a breeze" when you're about to do something, or "You were bound to mess up that gybe" when you've just done something wrong. By visualising something, you can switch this filter off (because you can visualise doing it perfectly), and you can do it slowly or quickly, or even rewind if you want, allowing the learning process to happen uninhibited.

Also, I thought what Pam said about Doug was interesting. How often do people talk about someone getting a lucky lift at just the right time that wins them a race? Doug obviously doesn't win by luck, so there is an element of understanding the conditions and sailing in such a way as to be most likely to benefit from whatever the wind does.

But I can't help wondering (and this is purely conjecture) that there is an also an element of him spotting opportunity better than others. Some people expect things to go wrong, and some people expect things to go right, and there have been social experiments done showing that people who expect something good to happen are more likely to notice and take advantage when it does. People who don’t expect something good to happen (or, worse, expect something bad to happen) tend not to notice the opportunity and instead latch on to something negative.

Or maybe it has got nothing to do with any of this and he’s just a really good sailor. I don’t know, but it sure is an interesting area to think about.


/Pam said...

Doug keeps a daily gratitude journal. Five things every day and he can never be grateful for the same thing twice. His brain is trained to see what is going right. We go through life with many of the same experiences and but our perspectives are very different.

Anonymous said...

I really like that idea. Although I'd have to work pretty hard on both my self-discipline to do it every day and on my creativity to come up with five things per day...


Tillerman said...

I guess it's a bit like writing a blog. Once you have committed to writing about those 5 things each day your mind is always going to be looking for them.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. Are we saying I would need to be self-disciplined, creative and committed, and that I would have a positive disposition? How would my family and friends know that I was still me?

/Pam said...

I did it for a month and it takes a little effort and work. In the end it was easier to revert back to my unpredictable disposition and let Doug carry us both since his has positivity to spare.

It's still on my to do list to try again.

Anonymous said...

Great reading all this, so many points to make into a plan and start getting better. As an add on, I think it sometimes matters once the race is over and you meet the people you beat who you might not normally have done - you need to be ready for the conversation and the comments by those people. They might want to remind you how 'lucky' you were and so on, and judge your response, they probably don't want you to keep beating them so a good put down might help keep you 'were you belong' - I think once you have visualized the conversation, you can act accordingly and be self-depreciating or indeed tell them that the race order seems to be changing.


Tillerman said...

Good point Paul. But actually I've never experienced that "put down" after I've have had one of my rare good races. I almost always find that my fellow sailors express their congratulations and pleasure in my success.

Maybe it's because they know it's not going to happen again any time soon. Maybe it's because Laser sailors are generally very nice people. Or maybe it's because they know I have a blog and know how to use it if anyone pisses me off?

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