Ian Gotts takes a look at how the full time sailing teams like Red Bull Youth America's Cup contenders the American Youth Sailing Force train their bodies and their minds for peak performance.
Training is important. Really important. You can’t go out on the race course un prepared and expect to win. Whoever said it’s the 5P’s got it right. 5Ps: Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
But specific training, focused training, tailored training is way more effective. That is what separates the talented or hardworking sailors who get the occasional success, and those who make a habit of winning. Those who seem to come from impossible situations to win regattas – time after time. These people are winning machines.
However, many would put the “stars” success down to natural talent that they were born with. But there is a huge amount of evidence that suggests that this view is just a convenient excuse for those of us who are also-rans. The results of the highly successful is directly linked to their training approach. In fact they may not be the best natural sailors, which is what forced them to be so disciplined in their training, and allowed them to accelerate way beyond those who coasted relying on their natural talent.
For those of you who point at Sir Ben Ainslie and Paul Elvstrom as a clear sign that it is all about incredible talent need to read Bounce by Matthew Syed. It is full of empirical evidence from a wide range of sports including chess that shows that well structured training trumps natural talent every day of the week. I guarantee it will change your approach to competitive sport and also parenting.
What is the winners mindset? How do they train differently? How do they deal with failure and adversity? These are the questions that we should be asking.
Firstly they do not believe that they are more talented. That mindset suggests that they have reached their peak. Often they believe that they are the underdog who needs to work even harder. There is no such thing as failure, only feedback. It is an open learning mindset. They believe that they can only get better, but that requires hard, concerted effort. And that means pushing way beyond the comfort zone that many of us have as a barrier.
Therefore their training is very structured around improving specific aspects of their game; mental, fitness, strength, boat handling, rules and tactics. Some of this can be achieved in the gym rather than on the water.
But the Red Bull Youth Americas Cup teams have a huge challenge. They are racing in AC45s in the final 1-4 September. But they do not have access to the AC45s until early August and that gives them very little time in the boats. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons cited by the German Sailing Federation when they announced that they were withdrawing their support from the German youth team. Their view it was too little time and therefore unnecessarily dangerous.
The American Youth Sailing Force (ASYF) team have developed a training plan recognizing this limitation. To mitigate it they are training on an SL33 which has been modified to mimic as closely as possible the layout, sheet systems and winches of the AC45. Whilst it is slightly shorter and has a soft mainsail rather than a wing mast, it is still a high performance catamaran. Sailing it is helping the team gel, understand and embed in their subconscious all the race maneuvers, and get comfortable with the power of a fully loaded up catamaran on a close 3 sail reach.
When they get on the water they are not just blasting around with their hair on fire. They have mapped out what they need to achieve in that training session and they will work on it relentlessly until they have perfected it. Relentless. A great term, which is maybe why Red Bull are sponsoring the Youth Americas Cup. The training session is recorded on their chase boat – when it can keep up – for later analysis. With cheap, small. waterproof and shockproof video cameras now available it is surprising that video (self-)coaching is not more widely used in all sports.
And time in the gym is not enough. The gym work needs to be completely tailored. I often hear people say that they are going to the gym to get fit for sailing. Judging by their shape, either they are going to the gym just to watch the aerobics class or they are doing the wrong things.
It is not by accident that the AYSF team are based on Pier80 next to Oracle Racing. They are able to use the Oracle Racing gym and use the training programs designed for the Oracle Racing team members. These are not exercises you or I would recognize. Firstly they are way harder. But secondly they are very specific to the team member’s role on board. The AC45 and AC72 are massively physical boats. So most of the crew need raw power combined with incredible levels of stamina. But also agility is needed to skip around an unstable and bucking trampoline. And through all of this, a clear head is required to make both strategic and close boat on boat decisions.
The training that has been designed involves grinding, high power exercises, aerobic sprinting or dancing through an obstacle course laid out like an AC45, and then once they have finished a circuit and are wasted they are required to complete a puzzle. The puzzle may be solving a mental problem, or it may be physical, such as arranging pieces into a certain pattern.
Sounds different. It is. Suddenly you realise why popping down to the gym or putting miles on a mountain bike is getting you aerobically fit or stronger, but is not getting you prepared for racing.
The British team who narrowly failed to qualify as one of the 10 youth teams were based in the south of England. The first time they would see an AC45 was the first day of the selection trials. So they built a mock up of an AC45 deck layout in a local barn and trained on that. Sounds fanciful. Maybe, but it clearly helped.
In the aerospace world, the British Team’s “barn” is called the simulator. For airlines and airforces, training pilots in aircraft is very expensive. So now pilots put in hours in the simulators that are so realistic that when a malfunction or accident situation is simulated the pilots bodily reactions (pulse, blood pressure, brain activity) is as though it was happening for real. It is claimed that they can take a pilot and train them so that they can get a commercial pilots license without ever stepping foot on a plane.
So how can you improve your training regime? Firstly look carefully at your role on board your boat. If you are tactician and the only thing you do is prod at at an iPad at the back of the boat and think big thoughts, then you are done. But for the rest of you, think about how you simulate the tasks you do on the boat in the gym, your garage or living room. And then when training work yourself to breaking point and then train yourself to be able to think clearly. Do a Suduko puzzle, assemble a small jigsaw, play a word or a pattern game. At last the games on your phone have a real value. Some great ones are WhirlyWord and UConnect on the iPhone.
The professional sailors don’t just win. They build structured programs to make sure that they win consistently. They need to. It’s their job. But as amateurs we can do much of the same, and for us it is even more important to be focused and efficient as we have less available time.