How to actually get better

How many self-help books have you read? Did any make a noticeable impact on your life? I hope so, but I doubt it. I want this one actually to have that big impact, for the better and for the long term, not just for next weekend. Which means that, before we get started on the sailing, we need to explore (briefly!) something else: evolution and your brain.

Just like a computer, we have short-term memory (RAM) and long-term memory (disk). This is a good thing – not remembering your partner’s name, for example, would be a serious evolutionary mistake. Retaining memory, however, requires energy and your average caveman, just like us, had no need to remember precisely what he had for breakfast three months ago. In fact, it might clutter up his memory and obscure something he did need to know – like where he actually found that breakfast.

The gatekeeper between our short and long-term memory is the hippocampus, which goes back a very long way in evolutionary terms. It is a pretty strict sentry too and very little gets past it – simply reading a book, for example, is unlikely to do the trick. Even worse is that we form very strong habits that can overcome the regular inputs that tell us they are not a good idea – excessive gambling for example. Hence most self-help books fail – the hippocampus prevents the new data from being assimilated properly.

Researchers have identified five steps necessary to get messages past the hippocampus into long-term memory, so overcoming ingrained habits and replacing them with something better. These are:

Pre-contemplation Before you picked up this book.
Contemplation Reading this without doing anything else, which will only deliver a fraction of the potential benefit so please do not stop here.
Preparation Creating an action plan AND committing yourself to seeing it through.
Action Implementing the plan. The hardest part is consistently repeating the new process until it sticks in long-term memory.
Maintenance Relapse could be a danger for a long while; it takes effort to keep doing the new, right thing – but look on the bright side, we are not talking about giving up an addiction like smoking.

The good news is that you can boost your Action stage without even leaving the house. Use visualisation, an extremely powerful technique used by top sports stars. It is one of the things Jonny Wilkinson is doing when he lines up to take a penalty kick.

Consider this experiment in the value of visualisation: in a University of Chicago study, a sample of basketball players was tested for scoring accuracy and then split into three groups. The first group practised getting the ball through the hoop, the second group did nothing extra, and the third used visualisation to imagine themselves scoring cleanly. The ‘practised’ group improved performance by 24%, the do-nothings got a bit worse, but the visualisers improved by an astonishing 23% without picking up a ball. Amazing, eh?

Another example: when Sally Gunnell won her 400m hurdles Olympic gold medal, she had not only practised for real but she also ‘ran’ the race in her head a dozen times a day for nine months. If she was not visualising winning (it happens) she stopped and ran it again in her head until she did.

This reminds me of an adage I first heard about musicians; an amateur practises until they get it right, a professional until they cannot get it wrong. With visualisation, you can practise your roll-tacks, gybes, whatever, in the bath, on the train, whenever you get a few moments. Doing so will not only make you better in the boat but also the repetition will help push a new process past your hippocampus. Cool, huh? Just do not start yelling ‘Lee-Ho’ aloud in the quiet carriage of the 7:35 to London Waterloo.

Final trick, for now. Your brain cannot process a negative (don’t think about your sailing hero now – oops, you just did.) Always couch key messages in a positive way in your action plan and visualisations. The thought going into a tricky windy day gybe should be ‘Stay upright’ rather than ‘Do not capsize’.

If you truly want to improve your sailing results, commit to using this knowledge and these methods to build and implement your Action Plan.