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Success on the waves starts in the mind

By Adam Freeman-Pask, PA government expert

Success on the waves starts in the mind

The America’s Cup begins one week from now. We’re backing the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing team bidding to bring the trophy home to Britain for the first time. In the second of our series of blogs, PA’s Adam Freeman-Pask, a former Team GB rower, gets inside the team’s heads to look at the psychological side of top-level competition.

“Golf is a game played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears”. I’ll have a bet that anyone in sport, golfers or not, can identify with that thought from US Masters founder Bobby Jones. I know I do, and I’m sure the crews readying themselves for the America’s Cup do too.

As international rowers, our state of mind mattered as much as our technical skill. The mental processes we went through to prepare for competition were just as important as our physical training. Especially in the Lightweight category, where no rower can weigh over 72.5kg, crews are evenly matched. Equally experienced, equally strong, and propelling boats of equal specification down the rowing lake.

Often, winning is down to mental toughness.

It’ll be no different for the Land Rover BAR team vying for the America’s Cup. They’ll be all too familiar with the psychological side of the contest awaiting them. Some challenges are unique to the event. Everyone knows the cup holders are already in the final. Yet, they’ll still be racing the other crews in the run-up to that climactic face-off. What will they learn, or give away, by feeling out their would-be rivals? Can they take an early hold on them? Could they peak too soon?

Other psychological challenges the crews face are common to all top-level sport. The main ones are about thinking in a balanced way, focusing clearly.

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Balancing dreaming and doing

Each competitor must balance dreaming and doing. For many, the cup will be the highlight of their careers. Nothing may ever be as big again. The BAR team could become sporting immortals if they pull off a first British America’s Cup triumph. They must weigh dreaming big like this against focusing on the individual actions expected of them in the heat of battle. Dream too much and they’ll risk taking their minds off the detail. But get too immersed in a particular process - a tacking manoeuvre, for instance - and it could become an obsession.

This is what sports psychologists are for. They’ve become part of every modern high-performance sports team. They help each competitor find that equilibrium in their thoughts.

They also help find that inner steadiness that anchors good performance. For us rowers, rhythm mattered. The rhythm of actual rowing strokes, the rhythm of breathing and physical movement, the rhythm of routine. It all helped us reach a relaxed state where we could think clearly under pressure. Ben Ainslie’s crew will have their own rhythms. Set activities they do in set ways and at set times.

Screening out distraction

Focus has become a bit of a cliché in sports commentary. But it does matter. To find it, the BAR team will be in their ‘bubble’, just as we were. They’ll be screening out the outside world and its distractions. If their preparation is anything like ours, they’ll have swapped their phones for others with numbers that only the rest of the team knows. The only contact they’ll be allowed with outsiders will be what they and their coaches decide is positive for their mental state.

At PA, we’re backing the technological effort behind the BAR team. We’re supporting them because there are clear parallels between sporting performance and business. And psychology is part of business too, says Claire Logan, who leads PA’s People and Talent practice. “In the world of work, mental toughness is seen as an increasingly important attribute, but managers are not great at talking about it. Giving leaders better self-awareness around emotional resilience can really make a difference especially during periods of uncertainty or when delivering significant change programmes.”

What’s happening in the head of each individual in the America’s Cup is crucial. But it’s how the team comes together that will decide who takes home the trophy. I’ll look at that next time.

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