Psychology of a skipper

The skipper has one of the most important roles on the boat. They keep the crew and boat safe, and usually the owner happy. But how do they handle the pressure when the going gets tough? With so many people in the sailing industry calling themselves a skipper, what does it take to be a good one?

“Clearly more races are lost than won so if you generalise that is it easy to say you have got to have a lot of really good skippers around the world and they can all sail a boat and get the trim and balance, do all that right. But I think the difference between the really good ones and the bad ones is the ones that make the least mistakes,” explained America’s Cup Regatta Director and Wild Oats XI tactician Iain Murray.

“It is easy to turn a little mistake into a big mistake. Everyone is going to make mistakes, it is how you deal with those mistakes and come back from there. The good guys chip away. The bad guys go to the casino.”

Thanks to social media and the Internet, skippers of the big time campaigns are more accessible and in the public eye than ever. Look at the 2014 Rolex Sydney Hobart. The pre-race banter between Ken Read of Comanche and Wild Oats XI’s Mark ‘Ricko’ Richards was played out on national television and on computer screens around the world.

We saw a lot of this the 34th America’s Cup during the press conferences. Even when Oracle Team USA was 8-1 down, skipper Jimmy Spithill never showed any doubt that the team could win. Instead he planted the doubt in his oppositions mind. Spithill simply asked the question ‘what if he loses?’ From then the seed had been planted and Oracle Team USA went on to win the America’s Cup with one of the biggest comebacks in sporting history.

You may say that a portion of the Cup was won in the press conferences with Spithill’s confidence and ability to make Emirates Team New Zealand's Dean Barker question himself.

Murray explained, “In the Cup, when the stakes are high the pressure is big, the psychology of things like the press conferences is quite substantial. In my mind Jimmy’s famous statement just flattened Dean.

“And Dean, it was clear from that, it wasn’t on his radar and all of a sudden Jimmy gave him something to think about – which no one thought would come true at the time but it did.”

It may just be friendly banter between you and your mates that you are racing against but getting into someone’s head can ruin their regatta, whether it is the America’s Cup or a local event, the pressure is there and any bit of doubt will hurt.

Murray explained, “You can’t help but think these sorts of things weigh on people’s minds and it is the same as a heavy weight title fight, all the teasing and banter that goes on before those sorts of big events, it’s all part of playing with people’s heads.”

DON’T PANIC

The key to being a good skipper, as we have discovered, is remaining positive. Knowing that your boat is ready, your crew is ready, you are prepared for anything, will reduce the negative thoughts and keep you mentally prepared.

“Yacht racing, a big part of it, is all about boat preparation, preparation of the crew and sails and the whole boat and obviously you want to go on the race course knowing you have a boat that is capable of winning races. Clearly using those tools in the best way you can. And approaching a series, it is important because they are generally long and consistency is vital, having a bad score is probably the worst thing you can do because it can bring you undone.”

TEAMWORK

While keeping the boat fully prepared, remaining positive and having a good crew is important, if you don’t respect your crew or your crew doesn’t respect you, it is going to be hard to get the results you are capable of and keep everything positive.

Wild Oats XI is the most successful yacht in the history of the Rolex Sydney Hobart and their teamwork is a fundamental part of their success. Majority of the crew have raced on the boat for years and that is a display of Ricko’s success as skipper.

“He has a very loyal band of followers and team on Wild Oats. It is an old established team, with a huge amount of experience and it has morphed over a long period of time into a bunch of very compatible guys,” explained Murray.

“Ricko leads them well, he leads from the front and he doesn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do. And he steers the boat in the tough times really well.

“As a result of that, he has the respect, he respects the crew and the crew respects him. The owners fall in that position as well.”

HIGH PRESSURE

When you are racing a multi million dollar boat owned by someone else the pressure to perform is high. If you let the pressure get to you, your performance will usually suffer. Sportsmen are usually trained to deal with these situations, when years of work comes down to this one race. Not letting the pressure affect your performance is a key difference between a good sportsman and a bad one.

Some sailors will get excited but then quickly get on with the job.

Iain Murray explained how Ricko deals with these situations: “I think you can see that he gets excited at the start and that is well documented. That all sort of goes away when we get into it and get into the swing of it. Particularly in a sutiation when there is Wild Oats against Comanche, its sort of David vs Goliath when you look at the boats.

“Each of those boats has its strengths and it's how you use those strengths and apply it to the weather conditions that you have got
at the end of the day.”

Sailing as a sport is not only physically but mentally challenging. When all the physical elements are put into place, your mentality and that of the crew is what is important. If you have the best boat, gear and crew all ready to win, but a bad mental state, something is going to come undone.

This is where the skipper is so important. Keeping the team together not just physically but mentally. Knowing that they are ready for whatever challenges are thrown at them, bouncing back from the bad races or parts of races.

When Comanche launched off the start line of the recent Sydney Hobart Race, the television audience heard Ricko's amazement as she sailed away from them. But the Wild Oats XI team held in there till they had the opportunity to pounce. At one stage they held a 40nm lead over the Americans. And at the end of the closely fought battle, the two skippers congratulated each other.

“You’re not always going to win the start and bits of pieces but I think patience and controlling the exuberance to hit a home run out the park on every opportunity is how you win regattas.” ✵

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