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Preparing for the Big Event?

Get Your Mind and Body Ready First!

By Matt Burridge
14834 – Yeti

I’ve been reading a bit from my competitors about “psyche” or “mojo” for big events or how to get into the proper frame of mind for top level competition.  As I reflected upon what was written I realized that although the big race is still “just a race”; the preparation for a big athletic competition (event) is fundamentally different than regular preparation. The actual competition may just be the final 10% of the total effort but the competition might just be the yard stick to measure the preparation. Clearly the preparation effort is overshadowed but, in my opinion is the key to getting the good “mojo” for an event.

Jim Carson is a great friend, former team mate and mentor of mine. He is also a past international sailing champion (Penguin Class) and perennial top competitor in the Lightning class; he really knows what he is talking about when it comes to competition.  Jim told me a long time ago that champions are made by their preparation well ahead of time. Although he’s unquestionably right, that reality is often overlooked in sailing.

My personality is one that likes to set long term goals.  This is just me; I know it and try to use it to my advantage. One of my goals always was to win a Lightning North Americans; it just took 29 years as a skipper to do it; so I officially qualify as a “slow learner”.  However, it was a goal that my teams achieved two years in a row, which I think partially justifies my belief in unusual preparation methods.

Clearly, the most important single factor to the teams is finding the right team mates. I had four sets of proven world class team mates (Dan & Tobi Moriarty;  Todd & Kristine Wake; Jeff Coppens and Jim Sears and Paul Hanson & Jen Aljets ) who made me better and have shown repeatedly they can step into anyone’s boat and “change the game”.  They are also some of the most ferocious competitors you can imagine. Our successes as a team came from their boat handling, tactical skills, desire to win and overall expertise in how we managed the big events. Much of that preparation occurred over years and was only “blended” into the team as we gelled for the big event. For me, the team gelling process was a bit Zen like in terms of psychology but this was because I was the one investing the least amount of time on the water.  I considered that cumulatively I had invested enough time over the years to know what to do; I just had to be committed to do it and be physically fit enough to perform in all condition ranges.   Ultimately this proved correct for my successful teams because I learned that “training” was both physical and mental preparation process. It helped give us good Mojo for the big events.

When we got everything as right as we could we were “in the zone” (my perception) as I’d never seen before. I define “the zone” as:  that place where your mental clock speed is quickened, concentration is improved and there is a lack of fatigue (mental or physical) while handling a complex competitive environment. I now believe being in “the zone” is a critical success factor for big event competitive sailing.  This is probably what keeps legions of sports psychologist employed by USOC and other institutions: getting athletes in the zone.

One design racing is usually an effort to push the boat to its limits, and does not use the “throttling back” technique which can be the prudent thing in long distance offshore racing. Famous long distance sailor Sir Robin Knox Johnson wrote that off shore long distance racing is similar to “playing chess while doing chin ups”. If this is so, I believe one design racing can require the ability to “play chess while running flights of stairs” and that being fit enough to do this is an overlooked component of success for one design sailboat racing.   As a result I incorporated “fitness” as on of the milestones in my big event preparation routine.

Although sailing is not a sport like football, soccer or wrestling where can be a premium on explosive movements or bursts of overwhelming strength and speed ; it does reward overall fitness, endurance, balance and timing but not in every sailing condition. There are plenty of days where sitting, waiting, and getting frustrated by other mental distractions are all that occur.  I found that for me, personally, a good way to prepare for big events was to be over prepared physically. That seemed to create a mental calm that helped promote a focused “just the facts” team mentality. One benefit was that our teams became relatively immune to mental pressure. For my teams this was one aspect of “team mojo”, a calm, rational focus without fatigue.

Q: What does physical training have to do with mental preparation for a big event?

A: For me, it leads to a hunger that is only satisfied by achieving our goals, so it sets up some interesting motivations.

Training is an intensely personal thing and to be effective one must find what works for ones’ self.  It could be just improving overall fitness by mall walking in the winter or it could be an hour and a half per day off the water fitness regimen or it could be moving to Miami and sailing 10 hours per day, every day. It all depends on your goals, level of commitment and what your life will allow. However, once you set your goal do not accept any excuses for not doing the preparation work required to reach the goal.

What worked for me since fall of 2004 is a combination of Physical Preparation, Mental Preparation and simulating the event (with a tapering period) that begins about a year before the big event.

Physical preparation is closely tied with them mental preparation because so much of the sailing game is mental:
  1. Focus your Efforts

    on the top flight event and work your fitness plan to “peak” then. This does not mean limiting ones’ self to one event; but have the psychological architecture to see that it all leads up to the one big event. This sets the internal motivational bar very high.
  2. Goal Setting

    Work up to your limits and then extend the period of time where you can perform at that limit. This approach usually results in excellent fitness. For me this led to 6 work out sessions per week (weight training plus hundreds of hours and nearly 1,950 cumulative miles per year of cardiovascular training on a Nordic Track Cross Country Skiing machine over ’06-’07 campaign). Improvement in strength, flexibility and endurance without injury are always my goals.

  3. Set Artificial “Exams” to Gauge Progress.

    Make one week be a “simulated event” where you push for across the board personal records in weights, reps and lower times and greater distances each day for a week. During an “exam” pay attention to answering the question, “is this good enough to win the big event?” Be honest and live with your answer and make adjustments.

Mental Preparation

Use training time to solve problems and envision sailing tactical situations or your team’s executing the perfect roll gybe, over and over again. Seeing it in your mind’s eye actually get the muscles and nerves ready to “feel” what it is like to “get it right”.

  1. Mental Visualization

    Watch video of sailing while you work out so that your mind is working on “sailing” while your endurance and strength are being improved. This really helps the focus stay on the sailing and the training is just a vehicle to improve the sailing.

  2. In competition I choose to de-personalize things so that racing becomes a “territorial grab” not a game to “beat the other guy”. I know that guy, like that guy and if I do beat that guy I wan to be respectful. Sailing is a chess game but I want to be in that space in front of him (or in front of where I am now on the race course). This allows me to “let the energy spring uncoil” no matter who the competition actually is. It also allows me to relax with competitors after the day’s racing since it is not personal, I just wanted their space. This helps a lot because good people skills are required for success in life and it can become insufferable on land with your cohorts. Make sure your team mates know this about you so they are not undone by perception of Jekyll and Hyde behavior patterns between “game on” and “relaxing” modes.

    I also work at being able to compartmentalize things on the race course; it helps me forgive myself and focus on recovery if mistakes are made. Have role models, it is really healthy. My role model in this regard is Greg Fisher. He is as intense, skilled and accomplished competitor on the water as you can find yet he is always willing to lend a hand offer an observation, etc. When I grow up I want to be more like Greg!
  1. Fun

    Year round training can become really dull. Dull is pretty un-motivating so you have to keep it fun by doing something else rigorous that aids fitness. I like to set goals and see if I can meet them, I am also accused of being a bit out there. Recently I set a personal goal to return to the wrestling mat after a 21 year hiatus. My physical training regimen is more or less how I trained in the off season for high school and college wrestling, only without the mat work.  I was curious if I could do the mat work again at age 48, as a fitness benchmark, so I did. Maybe it was a mini-mid life crisis without the “comb over”, gold chains and a new sports car but it was harmless and fun. Wrestling is a very personal battle, so if I wanted to be a warrior on the race course why not practice wrestling? Even if I embarrassed myself, so what? It ought to still be a good work out physically and mentally.

  2. I also made a point of finding fun and active things to do to prevent “workout boredom”.  The videos of sailing were great but for long pacing rides on my Nordic Track Classis Skier I’d watch the Tour De France with the beautiful French Alps in summertime. It also helped motivate me by watching professional athletes pedal their guts out on a patch of vertical asphalt when all I was doing was staying fit in my basement hand crafted gym. “If they can do that, then surely I can do this” was my mindset, it kept me on the machine doing what I felt I had to do.

    Cross training also mixes it up and increases the fun. Wrestling is a very different thing than sailing, although both are great sports, in wrestling you are truly alone against an opponent and there is no hiding behind conditions or excuses. You either prepared or not, win or lose and losing can be very painful and humbling.  Both sports require mental toughness to be successful but wrestling is very intense and taxing. If one design sailing is “playing chess while running stairs”, at times wrestling feels as though you are “playing chess while carrying someone and running stairs at altitude.” It is an awesome way to measure your fitness level.

    I had heard an axiom that a high school wrestling work out burns about 1,000 calories. There is no way to measure it except by comparison to other exercise known to burn 1,000 calories. So, I went wrestling to see how hard it was with my current fitness level, and age.  For the record, the high school wrestling practice I went through was more difficult than doing 10 miles on a Nordic Track machine (the  1,000 calorie work out variety at a steady pace). Wrestling is also more fun and interesting too, but pretty exhausting. These are not the muscles and type of training required by sailors.  However, I challenged myself and was pleased with the results by surviving without getting hurt. It also refreshed my motivational level during the off season.
  3. Motivation

    Play tricks on your self to stay motivated. This works “in competition” too. I think there can be a high degree of “intramural gamesmanship” that serves as a motivator. I recall reading a quote by Neal Fowler that said of the time he sailed with Steve Benjamin (and they won everything in 470s)  “I just try hard not to be the biggest wimp on our boat”.  Neither Neal nor Steve are wimps but a friendly competition keeps everyone sharp. My Lightning team mates may not have known it but I was just preparing to avoid being the weakest link on the boat.
Two other things help your mind and body get ready for the big event: Simulating the big event in your training Tapering you work outs before the actual competition.
Tapering you work outs before the actual competition.

Simulate “big event” atmosphere to get mentally used to competition:
  1. I would try a 5-6 weeks with a new exercise station or number of reps or intensity and work up to 6 work outs per week with the new component. The individual work outs would be mapped out in advance to accomplish certain measurable objectives (break 30 minutes for a 10K, for example, or increase resistance on a certain exercise by X number of pounds).

  2. After finding a formula that appeared to achieve the objectives, I’d stay with it for 5-6 weeks and then do one entire week set of 6 consecutive days with weights and cardio to simulate the ”big event.”

  3. After the simulation I’d take 2 days off to stretch, recharge then repeat the cycle. During the winter I’d do a 1 week long taper before the simulated event.(Christmas to New Years typically) to let my body heal. After the simulation I’d take 3-4 days off and only stretch and map out the next phase of the training depending on how much time was left before the big event.
I learned that each time I’d go through a cycle I could reach a new plateau of # of miles or times or weight lifted. If I took my time I could get stronger and more fit without sustaining an injury (a big concern at age 45+ since I don’t heal very quickly anymore). Using this approach over the past 3 years I was never injured beyond mild muscle soreness (to be expected).


The week before the actual big event, just go through the motions on physical training, reduced weight lifting, relaxed times, increased stretching and increased hydration (our muscles are about 80% water, so dehydration is very bad). This approach will help ensure your body is fully healed and hydrated while your metabolic rate and work capacity remain high before for about 2 ½ weeks after the taper begins. This is why the technique is used so successfully in competitive swimming, for example.

Last thoughts? Now that you’ve done all of this, don’t blow it at the last minute, pay attention to good habits during the competition. Make sure you get superior nutrition (consult experts), appropriate hydration and adequate sleep; they are all vital to a good performance. Save the “pub crawls” and “bar closings” for letting your hair down at the awards banquet after the event. Maybe you will have more to celebrate.

Does it work?

It did for me and my team, but the actual regimen is very personal. I consulted nutritionists, various instructors and coaches from my past that provided significant guidance but by and large I was my own “project manager” for the year. Through trial and error I discover what worked well for me. This approach is not a silver bullet, but in general I felt better, thought more clearly on the race course and enjoyed my time racing with my team mates much more. We also achieved our big event goals.  

Was it fun?

Overall, a big YES! Was every second of it fun? No. But seeing all the hard work rewarded by achieving our goals is more fun than can be imagined.  There were other hidden benefits that were realized but that would vary from person to person.  It was enormously fun and satisfying to feel as though we were sailing the regatta of our lives, again. The above preparation helped make that a possibility.

What if it is light air, why do all this?

Yes, it might be light air but what if it blows a hurricane? There are some conditions that are not as demanding as others but no one can forecast conditions with 100% accuracy, so why not be prepared for a non stop week of sailing in very heavy air. If you actually race in an entire series of heavy air, you’re golden; if not, you are probably still better physically prepared than your competitors. It may make a big difference over the course of a week’s worth of racing to your benefit. Make the preparation much more difficult than the actual big event and avoid bringing a “slingshot to a gun battle” both mentally and physically.

What’s this about hidden benefits?

One hidden benefit for me was that I wanted to be worthy of my excellent team mates and their investment in time, money and preparation to achieve our team’s goals. I gained a new respect for their hard work though my own. Another one was I placed a higher value on our goal because I was paying such a high price to achieve it.  In the final analysis the goal just meant more to me than before and these were among the most “tight” teams I’ve ever raced with.

What are other methods of doing this?

On training techniques and exercises that are maybe more specifically tailored for sailing I suggest the excellent articles by Betsy Allison and Scott Ilke over the past years in Sailing World’s archives on the subjects. They are both great writers, outstanding coaches, smart, respected and accomplished competitors who both know how to improve performance on the water through team fitness. Anything those two champions write, I suggest you read and consider.

Good luck and Enjoy!

Credits - These fine people all assisted me with this regimen and article:
  1. My team mates 2004-2007, Dan & Tobi Moriarty,  Todd & Kristine Wake, Jim Sears, Jeff Coppens, Jen Aljets and Paul Hanson. They are all fantastically brilliant, seasoned, competitors, athletes and the best team mates I could ever hope for.

  2. Young wrestler / warrior, Rainey Johnson (Middlebury ’09) who returned to the wrestling mat with me, a quirky, 48 year old former wrestler. He taught me some great newer moves, did not mind my rusty “old school” technique and did not break my old bones or my nose. He reminded me what true fitness is, thank you, it was fun and humbling.

  3. My wife Christine and sons Patrick (12) and Timothy (9); who  inspire me daily and allow me the time to train and then leave for a week without them to compete. With out their support I would not be able to prepare as I do and achieving our goals would not be as meaningful.

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