Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Thought Comes Before a Fall

Alex Mineev made an interesting observation on his blog the other day about the similarities between falls in skiing and capsizes in Laser sailing, and how they are often failures of the mind rather than the body. Which leads to the question, can you train the mind to not "give in" to capsizing? As Alex says...

There is one common thing with skiing and sailing outside of the comfort zone. When pushing it hard, the weakest link that breaks first is usually the mind. It's rarely muscles or motor skills.

Most of the falls and capsizes happen when mind gives in to the pressure of fear and commands the fall or the capsize to escape the pressure, to get back into the comfort zone.

So, is it possible to train the mind and push further away the snapping moment? How much further?

I know exactly what he means. As regular readers of this blog will know, my Achilles heel in Laser sailing is the death roll when sailing downwind in heavy air and big waves. I can cope well for a while with the conditions but then there comes a moment when a bigger puff or a rogue wave rolls the boat a little more and something clicks in my head and I develop the conviction that I'm going to capsize to windward and there's nothing I can possibly do to prevent it... and a moment later I prove myself right. Glug, glug, glug. There's definitely a split second when the mind decides that the hassle of keeping the long pointy thing aiming at the sky is just too much pressure any more, and it "gives in" to capsizing.

So what can be done about it? I'm no expert on the question. If I were I wouldn't be wiping out so much downwind. But three possible approaches occur to me.

1. Practice on the water

One of the drills we did at Kurt Taulbee's SailFit clinic was the Maximum Heel Drill. The idea is to sail downwind heeling the boat to windward as far as you can. If you never capsize you're not really trying. One year at SailFit, there was a kid from the Clearwater youth team who joined us for the weekend of the clinic who could heel the boat to about 80 degrees from the vertical in a solid breeze and then not only recover from the death roll but also go straight into a gybe. Amazing!

Of course you don't have to go to a clinic to do this drill. You can do it any time on your own. Play around. Experiment. How far can you heel? What is the best way to recover from an impending death roll? Does it work better to head up or to steer further to leeward? Is sheeting in the key? How fast can you get your weight to leeward to prevent the capsize? What's the best way to move your weight; what do you do with your feet, your hands? Play around.

All this play is training the mind. You will develop unconscious skills on capsize avoidance. You will will learn that you can heel further than you thought possible and still recover. You will gain confidence. You will train your mind not to "give in" to the capsize.

2. Mental rehearsal

Of course the sports psychologists would tell Alex that he can train his mind through mental rehearsal while lying in bed at home. Think positive thoughts. Imagine yourself sailing a windy run. See the waves, hear the wind, feel the boat, taste the salt. Visualize yourself dealing successfully with every puff, every random wave. Think competence. Feel confidence. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I've never used this technique much. Maybe I've been sailing badly for so many decades that it's hard for me to even imagine sailing properly any more? Would it even work for a problem like this? Or is telling yourself not to think of capsizing the same as the old game where you tell someone not to think about elephants and then ask them what they are thinking about? Elephants, of course!

3. Distraction

I wrote a few years ago in Wheels on the Bus how singing a silly kids' song had an amazingly positive effect on my ability to sail a Laser in heavy air. Usually when I am going downwind in big air I am all tensed up and thinking, "Oh shit, don't capsize. Oh shit, don't capsize. Oh shit, don't capsize." Not surprisingly the more I think about not capsizing, the more likely I am to capsize. But if I am singing at the top of my voice, "The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round... " it seems that I am more relaxed, and instead of thinking about capsizing I am thinking about, "What verse comes after, 'The wheels on the bus go round and round'?"

The theory behind this approach is essentially that you really know how to sail downwind without death-rolling all the time. You just need to stop your conscious mind from trying too hard not to capsize, and instead make it get out of the way and let your subconscious mind do what it already knows how to do. Relax. Breathe. Stop trying too hard. Sing, if that works for you.

Of course all three suggestions above could be total crap. God knows I'm no expert on this topic. So please feel free to abuse me in the comments, tell me what is wrong with my three ideas, and then offer Alex (and me) some more constructive advice on how to stop thinking ourselves into falling.

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Mojo said...

What an interesting comparison. I can only speak to the skiing side of it, but it is absolutely the mind "giving in" that leads to a fall.

When skiing "steeps" that are outside your comfort zone, the natural tendency is to lean back toward the hill (where it might be safer?) and look down at your skiis (to make sure they are still on the pitch).

This quickly leads to a loss of control, more fear and a tensed-up body that can't turn fluidly.

It's not long before you wind up like the skier in the picture above.

The proper way to do it feels counter-intuitive: lean forward and directly down the fall line, with your pole out front and your eyes up.

Instead of tumbling over your skiis (as you thought you might be), you are now rocking and rolling through graceful, arcing turns.

The hard part is making the mental leap in the face of fear. Once you've done that, your body follows along easily.

But IMHO, it's not something you can learn while lying in bed (#2).

Baydog said...

Yeah, but that image of Mojo's is a Telemarketer. They're freaks. Too much damn work to get down the hill if you ask me. God already invented skiing with hinging bindings....it's called cross-country.

Back to mojo's point about leaning forward, right on the money.

Tillerman said...

Lean forward? Isn't that MSNBC's new motto?

Sam Chapin said...

Turn toward the boom. Check with Steve Cockrel. Maybe you gybe, but the rudder in the water will try to right the boat. If you see the big gust trim in the sail some so, so much of it won't try to turn you over. How do I know all this--I am watching from shore.

Tillerman said...

Yeah, I saw the Steve Cockerill video too. And I tried his suggestion. I have conclusively proved to myself that it just as possible to do a death roll when steering to leeward as when steering to windward.

That's why I suggested in the post that folks try out both options themselves and see what works for them.

Sam Chapin said...

You turned too late. The rudder needs to be in the water still.

Tillerman said...

Thanks Sam. I suspect you are right. Something else for me to practice this summer!

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