Battling myself: process versus outcome
While I do feel like I’ve made some considerable strides in my sailing over the last year, this blog post is the moment for a dose of candid honesty. There’s one specific area I’d like to talk about which I hope will be relatable to others.
The big headline is - I messed up. You may know the saying ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Well that phrase has never been so cruelly correct. I recently wrote about the importance of focusing on the inputs and the things I can control rather than focusing on the outputs/outcomes - the “uncontrollables”. Unfortunately, when it came to crunch time at the World Championships this year in Mexico, I choked.
The season so far has been a roller coaster for me. Lots of racing early on in the calendar, culminating with the Worlds in Mexico at the end of May. The first major international event of the year was the Mallorca World Cup in Palma.
Interestingly, this event went relatively well. I was quite happy with my performance - I definitely lacked the legs when it came to the final few races as it was a pretty full-on week in terms of conditions and I had only just recovered from COVID.
Maybe this was a good thing looking back. Being ill in the lead-up to the first competition is never optimal but what it allowed me to do was to have absolutely no expectations. I knew I wasn’t going to be performing at my best. I went out there and just had fun and who would have guessed but when you are having fun you tend to sail well.
Even though I couldn’t quite pull the legs together for the last couple of days, I felt like the work over the winter had really paid off and I was on the right growth trajectory. If I could get myself back into full health for the next competition, I thought I would be able to iron out the weaknesses from this competition and put together a solid series.
The next event on the calendar was the second World Cup in late April in Hyeres, south of France. This was the final major event in the lead-up to the Worlds in May in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I really wanted to perform here as it would set me up well to go and perform in Mexico. I set myself the target of trying to get a top 40.
This is the target I had set myself a year ago for this year’s Worlds in Mexico when I was putting together my long-term sailing plan ahead of the Paris Olympics in 2024. This was the trajectory I wanted to be on and hitting that top 40 was a big step on that road.
For the first few days in Hyeres, I knew something was up. I really wasn’t performing like I knew I could. The results were dire, I was second-guessing a lot of my decisions rather than just backing myself and sailing with what was right at that exact moment. As soon as things weren’t going to plan I started taking bigger risks to try and get back to where I thought I should be.
But taking big risks to try and win back lost places only works 1 in 10 times. You might feel like a tactical hero when you pull it off, but really the best thing to do is sail your own race and pick people off one by one who make those mistakes.
On the third day of the competition I had a switch-up in mental approach. I started backing myself a bit more and we had a complete change in weather conditions which helped me feel like as though it was a whole new competition.
At last, I started sailing really well although by that point I had left myself a little too much to do and qualified in the bronze fleet. The next couple days I sailed consistently and risk-free to win the bronze fleet. Even if it was not where I wanted to be, at least I could take some confidence from the last few days of the competition.
I returned to Weymouth for training before flying off to Mexico. Training was going really well and I was starting to achieve new PBs in the gym and feeling good on the water. I felt in good shape to go and execute my goals at the worlds.
Once out in Mexico, after sorting out a little mishap with the location of the accommodation (it was much further from the venue than suggested which would have required a long bike ride in the 30C heat which probably wasn’t the advice for keeping a Brit properly hydrated).
We had a week of training before the event to acclimatise and get over the jet lag. This all seemed to be going well and I was getting into a nice routine. But then the problems started. Day 1 of racing did not go according to plan. I got poor starts and was on the back foot from the start in both races that day.
In this fleet you can’t afford to be giving an inch at the start as the quality of the fleet is so high and any losses here mean you’re giving yourself a tough mission to win those places back.
I managed to pull myself together for the starts on day 2 and got really nice starts with options off the line. I made this a real focus for me for day 2. Not thinking about anything else, just getting off that start nice and cleanly. Day 2 results reflected that and I started posting some solid results. It could have been even better if I hadn’t flicked back into a second-guessing mindset after the start.
Day 3 was the final day of qualification before the fleet was split into gold and silver. Being a mathematician I couldn’t help my brain trying to work out what I needed to do in order to make the cut. I was only a few places off and if I was going to make my top 40 goal, I needed to get into gold fleet.
But focusing on the results was completely the wrong approach and if I had just focussed on getting the next thing right at each moment of the racing, I imagine the outcome would have been different and better. Effectively I choked. I missed the cut for gold fleet and missed the chance of completing my goal for this event.
Choking: ”The failure of a person, or persons, to act or behave as anticipated or expected. This can occur in a game or tournament that they are strongly favored to win, or in an instance where they have a large lead that they squander in the late stages of the event.” Granted I may have not have been the favourite for this event, but you get the picture.
What really happened? Recently, I wrote a piece on goals and if you haven’t read it you can check it out here. In this blog I write about the importance of focusing on the process or inputs.
At the worlds this year I did exactly the opposite. I was so focused on my outcome goal perhaps due to the effect it would have on the financial support I would receive from UK Sport. But there are no excuses. You might be thinking, come on Jake, you’ve been an athlete for years - surely you know how to deal with this stuff now. It’s tough - I don’t think you can ever fully master this. It’s not something you learn and then it is there, like riding a bike. The brain is just as much of a muscle as the rest of our body and it needs to be trained and maintained too.
Going forward from this I have to really practise how I am going to shift my mindset back into focussing on the process rather than getting consumed by the outcome. The first step is noticing when I am getting derailed by outcome focus. I think I am getting better at this now. The next step is controlling it and this is going to be the challenge. But I’m up for it. “Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor”.
On a more positive note, I have definitely made some strides over the last year. I feel quicker and my racing skills are so much sharper these days. Even though it has been a tough couple of months, I’m optimistic about the future. Also, the world rankings have just been updated and I’m up to 60th which is a personal best, so I am taking the positives where I find them.
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