Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Managing Arousal and Anxiety

"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?


Anonymous said...

What causes it?
For me anything that causes distraction from enjoying the race: Late arrival, idiot on the beach, bad course, bad start, idiot competitor behaviour. This can throw me to slug or squirrel randomly.

How to deal with it?
For me it's to recognise that it has happened. Then mentally stop and put everything back together: Deep breath, relax and set some small goals like make the next mark rounding a good one, try to catch the boat in front a little or just enjoy the next reach. Bit by bit if the small goals are achieved then the enjoyment returns and the slug goes back under the rock or the squirrel back into the tree. And the boat goes faster.

My mental ability/fitness in the Laser increased hugely when I started running 10k and halfs. Took me ages to realise it though.


Tillerman said...

Interesting. I don't think I react to the same triggers as you but I guess my solution was similar. Think about some immediate goals - better hiking form, beat those three guys - and it sent the slug back under the rock.

I have another issue with something that puts me into being too aroused, and I haven't yet discovered a way to deal with it. Will probably write another post on that topic.

Why do you think that running 10k and halfs helped your mental ability in the Laser?

Anonymous said...

Running helped my mental ability in the Laser in two areas:

Long term:
A non-runner has a lot of work to do to reach the point of completing a 10k. Having done a 10k, you can then work on speed. This is all done by setting realistic goals, pushing yourself but ensuring that you end with a feeling of wanting to do more. My PB is 44:52 for 10k and I'm happy to be under 45:00. Now I just want to match it. I would love it to be sub-40:00 but I don't currently have the time for the extra training.

With the Laser I now realise I'm not going to be able to jump in once every other week and beat the top guys in the club let alone the area. So I now sail once a week, in the same series and try for consistency. Now I get more practice with the same people around me and set my targets. I got a series 4th out of a 30-35 boat handicap fleet. I don't let a sub-tenth place in one race rattle me. I'm happy with that, next series I'll go for 3rd. If I had more time to sail (than once a week) I know I could improve my results just from the practice.

Short term:
Running stopped me being a Laser wimp. Running is hard. I run in the snow, the rain, the sun, the mud. I know it's good for me and my sailing. And I enjoy it. With running I always assumed that as I ran up a hill my level of exhaustion was increasing linearly i.e. if I continue I will die. In reality I learned that the pain plateaus and you learn to deal with the pain just long enough to make it to the end of the race or the top if the next hill. In the Laser I learned to hike, sheet, whatever just until the next tack or rounding the next mark. If I make a mistake in the Laser in race then I don't dwell on it, I can laugh at myself and move on. It's all about small stretch goals and pushing yourself a little bit at a time. Each little bit adds up.

I started running to get physically fit for sailing, but the mental side gave me the biggest gains, I think.


Tillerman said...

Interesting R. As a runner myself I can relate to what you are saying.

I think there are other indirect ways in which running can help (and hinder) your progress in sailing. I think I will cover one of them in another post shortly.

Tillerman said...

And it occurs to me that the length of the race you run may help mentally (and perhaps physically) if it is a distance that you can run in about the same time as a typical Laser race. In your case you say you run a 10k in about 45 minutes, and that is about a typical length for a Laser race in many regattas around here. If you have trained to push yourself hard for 45 minutes in a 10k there must be some learning that helps you to work hard for 45 minutes in a Laser race.

On the other hand, running a race that is much longer in time than a typical Laser race may actually be counter-productive mentally. I wrote about this in the second point in my post What I Learned From Running Marathons. (The first point in that post is on much the same topic as the first point in your comment.)

Anonymous said...

Maybe just taking time to think about it all is a good start.

I have never made the 45min connection between 10k and a normal race. I like you're thinking.

Re your previous post on running marathons, I get your point about not wanting to start slow. But in a regatta isn't it just as valid to take each start as a small goal but break each race up to a goal too? In a long running race, I know that I will do some miles faster than others but if I know I've had a slow mile, then make the next a little better. It's about putting together a consisent series, not about best race or best mile.

There's nothing more statisfying than having a good last race in a series or last km in a run because your competitors are exhausted, especially if it improves your result. You end the day with the desire to do it all again and feel you're have fun.


Tillerman said...

Totally agree with your last point. It does seem I am fitter than I was this time last year and it is rewarding to finish every race in a regatta when other sailors are exhausted and going in early. And it's even more satisfying to end a regatta with your best two scores, as I did last weekend. Very similar to that feeling of being able to go faster in the last half mile or so to the finish line of a long race.

Ending the day with the desire to do it all again is a big deal. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of mental fitness in the long run.

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