At the start of a macro training cycle - a 4-8 month period leading up to a peak event or project goal - the first priority is to focus on putting some polish on boat handling techniques and mechanics. Whether a team is an experienced international powerhouse, a couple of great sailors forming a new team, or a team transitioning into a new class of boat, drilling down into the basics of boat handling again at the beginning of a training cycle will really help to raise the team's potential, and will prevent plateaus later on in the training cycle.
Robot vs. Superhero
Look at the top teams in any fleet, and the best sailors will pull off some impossible looking maneuvers, executing with strength and coordination in the face of challenging conditions. These sailors have probably been at it for a long time, and the wisdom that you'll hear from the initiated is that if you spend enough hours in the boat, you'll end up with those super hero skills too. But our goal is to defy the wisdom and cut hours out of the learning process, and for that, we need another type of skill - we need to master a set of instructions like robots, knowing exactly where and when each step takes place, how to coordinate handwork through the boat, and how all of these things relate to steering, sail trim, etc. In the last several months of a training cycle, no matter what your boat handling mechanics look like, you will develop super hero skills to help execute your maneuvers consistently, so in the polishing phase, we want to focus on the robotic parts, to ensure that the foundations are as simple as possible looking forward. Here are a few things to keep in mind when polishing up your boat handling:
There Will Never Be A Better Time Than Now!
The more hours or reps you log doing any technique, the more that technique will become your default operating mode. This includes bad techniques! Many teams plateau because they become really good at techniques that limit their eventual progress. The better you get at a technique, the harder it will be to change down the road, so make sure it's right NOW to avoid reinforcing a bad habit with thousands of reps!
Minimize steps, minimize handwork, etc. Watch video in slow motion and find spots where you are taking more steps than necessary. We call this "happy feet" and having happy feet is is a sure way for your boat handling to crack under pressure. Former Olympic Team coach, Skip Whyte says, "Tune into the station before you turn up the volume." In other words, eliminate the noise and the extra movements before you add in any flashy superhero moves.
Keep Weight Low and Locked In
One of the most common pitfalls when practicing maneuvers is developing techniques that work in flat water or low pressure situations, but fall apart when variables like big waves start intruding. One of the biggest pieces of advice to ensure that you are developing universally applicable techniques, is to keep weight low, and stay locked into the boat with as many points of contact as possible. When you practice, imagine that you have an imaginary ceiling over your head any time you cross the boat, and figure out how to stay under that ceiling without hitting your head.
Know Your Process Inside and Out
Without looking at a video or being in a boat, can you articulate where your hands go in a tack? Where your feet go? Which moves first? Second? What the ques (sails luffing, turn starting, teammate doing or saying something) prompt which movements? If you can't, take some time and give it some thought. Many of the best teams have "boat handling playbooks" that outline all of this and more, so that everyone on the boat knows exactly the process that is expected. This sets the foundation for consistent, reliable boat handling.
Categorize "Styles" And Select The Best
Often times people talk about different "styles" in boat handling, and while top teams definitely make many things work, usually there is a best way for each team. When you see different styles of the same maneuver, categorize them, figure out all of the good styles, and then systematically test them to find the pros and cons of each. By doing this, not only will you be building better techniques and a better learning process, you'll be building a level of confidence that will allow you to look at differences in the fleet and say, "My way is the best way."