Since the final day of Youth Champs in Rhode Island, we've been on the run, migrating from Newport to Boston, Boston to San Francisco, San Fran to Santa Barbara, and tomorrow we head out bright and early to hit the road to the Gorge. It's been a whirlwind week, but I wanted to get the Youth Champs debrief posted for anyone who is interested in reading it before the Gorge regatta.
The ISAF Youth World Qualifiers. In the last eight years, I have attended the regatta six times, three as a sailor and three as a coach. The event holds a special place in my development in both realms, and every time I participate, I learn a tremendous amount about myself and my teammates.
Mentally, the regatta can seem like the most difficult event of the year to win; being the fastest, the smartest, and the best team on the water is not always enough. Small errors often lead to a cascade of mistakes in the heightened competitive environment, and the psychology of knowing that you only have one shot to get it right can be consuming. The most important tool to bring to competition at this event is without a doubt, the right mindset.
Be confident in your training
Coming into the top mark, Dane and Quinn are on port, battling for first or second after a heroic rally from a deep start. As they approach the three boat length circle, they are bow ahead, but just barely. With their blazing speed downwind, they can easily afford to duck the first place boat, and catch them again after the mark. But they don't. With both boats inside of the zone, Quinn throws a last minute tack at the mark to try to squeeze around inside, and from my vantage point it looks clean, but a second later I hear the shout, "Protest." Later that night, after sitting through hours of tense protest hearing, Dane and Quinn get disqualified from the race, using up their single discard, and setting up a tough battle for the remaining days of the event.
If you are vying for a top spot at this regatta, you have probably put in hundreds of hours on the water in the last year, and your experience in the boat will show. On a wide open race course, anybody can execute a good maneuver, but in high pressure situations, there is no substitute for experience - knowing when you can make the cross, where you need to tack inside, and when to take the high percentage duck. Trust your training, and stick to what you know. Remember, the best you can do is to sail to your potential; you can never exceed it.
Be confident in the racing format
Race 7 - the final race of the day. So far our scoreline for the day was a 3, 2, 1, and we were keen to continue the trend to hopefully put some points between us and Judge and Hans. The course four placard went up, signaling a three lap race to finish the day. We came off of the line with good speed, and by the top mark, we had established a lead, followed by Max and David, and then Judge and Hans. This was exciting. Aside from the first race of the regatta, this was the only other race where we had been able to get a boat between us! We went around the course once. Around the course twice. Around the course a third time. We passed the committee boat to round the leeward mark and turn back upwind for the finish, and as we approached the leeward mark, we heard a horn for the first place finisher... We had misread the course chart, and instead of sailing through the finish line on the downwind, we had gotten three quarters of the way to a mark that wasn't on our course! By the time we got the kite down, and got back up to the line, five boats had finished ahead, and Judge and Hans had erased our regatta lead. This in itself wouldn't have been the end of the regatta, but an impending sense of doom set in. Two days and three races later, we lost the event in the last race of the regatta.
In an average twelve race series, there are 24 upwind legs, 36 mark roundings, 60 minutes of pre-race jockeying, 180 standard maneuvers, and ultimately 420 minutes of racing. Don't let a single race outcome influence the rest. With thousands of decisions to be made over the course of a regatta, a few bad tacks, bad shifts, or bad starts aren't going to end your regatta. Be quick to let mistakes go - they are part of the statistical inevitability that is sailboat racing. Instead, focus on what you can control. As Quinn says, "The mistake isn't the first error, but allowing emotions from the first error to create a second."
Embrace the pressure
In 2006 I sailed my first Youth World Qualifier - the C420 Midwinters in Jensen Beach - with Oliver Toole. The event was our first out of state regatta, and we were blown away by how many boats were competing. We knew it was a qualifier for something, but we didn't really know what the ISAF Youth Worlds were. For four days, we battled it out around 20th place, stoked to be racing at the top of the fleet, especially in the breezy conditions. Eventually finishing 18th, we were dimly aware that there was a battle going on for the Youth Worlds slot, but mostly we were just stoked at a good first performance.
At the 2007 Youth World Qualifier, we entered the event with confidence in our training, but with no goals except just sailing well. Judge and Hans had won most of the West Coast circuit and had been to CORK, Worlds, and other international events while Oliver and I had only been sailing the boat together for a few months, training mostly by ourselves at home, and competing in a handful of local events. There were some "big name" opti kids who had bought boats for the qualifier, and lots of teams had high powered, private coaches with them on the water. Again, we felt like small fish in a big pond. It wasn't until half way through the regatta when we were leading the boys division by a comfortable margin, that we started to feel any pressure. At the point that all eyes were on us, we had already established our rhythm, and the pressure just added fuel to fire aggressive tactics, and confident execution.
In a competitive year, probably only the top 10-20% of the fleet will have a shot at winning the event. When you start to feel the pressure, embrace it! Not many people make it to the point where they get to compete in those high pressure situations, so have fun in the spotlight, and let it build on your confidence.
Do what needs to be done
I have seen this lesson over and over again at this regatta, and solidified it both the easy way, and the hard way on occasions. When you have done the work to be at the top, and you are confident in your training, you have the opportunity to win the event, but in a fleet of boats who are all gunning for the top spot, staying on top of the pile while the target is on your back can sometimes seem like an impossible puzzle. While it might seem obvious, one of the most challenging things to do is to keep the goal in mind, and do what needs to be done. If you need to start near your competition, don't be tentative - be confident. If the only way to win is to split sides and take a risk, send it hard. If you need to win a match race, go get in the battle as soon as the prep flag goes up. Trust your skills, and execute the correct strategy, even if it seems difficult.
If you can manage to keep racing straightforward and stay confident in yourself, you will maximize your chances of sailing to your potential, and ultimately that's all you can ask of yourself and your teammate.