TECHnic Mental training, or how to build a winning mindset in sailing


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We continue our column, in collaboration with the professionals at Phi!Number, dedicated to you who want to make your boat run more, so you can take some great satisfaction in racing and have fun cruising, too.

Stefano Zenaboni, a sports psychologist and psychotherapist, has been working for several years in sports and business to optimize the performance of athletes and anyone who wants to get the most out of their profession. With PhiNumber, he works to develop mental techniques for preparation and performance in competitive sailing.

Following the lecture series on shaft adjustment and skidding management by Roberto Spata (here the first, second e third episode), he takes the stage Stefano Zenaboni, sports psychologist and mental training trainer, to talk about an issue that is often underestimated but is crucial on the race courses. Mental preparation. You can learn all these tricks “live” if you join our VELA Sailing Team (at the bottom of the article we explain more about what this is all about).


In Phi!Number workshops dedicated to athletes and sailors, I happen to have to clarify some basic concepts before talking about Mental Training. Let’s start with a premise: what is meant by a winning mentality? In fact, we are all able to tell ourselves that it takes “head” to win in sports, but what is the real meaning of this statement? Let’s open a parenthesis on whatexcellence in sports is using a mathematical formula:

Excellence in sport = technical skill x tactical skill x physical skill x mental skill.

So excellence is achieved through a multiplication of 4 factors:

  • technique: that is, everything you need to know about the sport (the rules, roles, movements);
  • The tactics: that is, the strategies that can be developed;
  • physical skill: the ability to perform the athletic act in the right way and with the right timing;
  • the winning mindset : that is, all those actions that can and should be taken so that our mind makes the action efficient, balanced, perfect, without any hiccups or slowdowns in thought and action.

It is important to consider that the above formula is a multiplication of factors, so if one of them is zero (i.e., not considered important) the result, whatever the value of the other factors, will be zero. In simpler words, if an athlete is technically, tactically, and physically extremely well prepared, he or she may be thwarting all the preparation work because he or she is “not there with his or her head.”

The examples, most striking in Olympic sailing but represented every day on any race course, have been there for all to see so far. In fact, while the first three variables are well known in the world of sports and have been perfected more and more for quite some time, as for the mental aspect (although of paramount importance) it has only begun to be discussed since 1987 through the manuals of Ferruccio Antonelli e Alessandro Salvini o in 1990 with Rainer Martens e Linda Bump.

Fortunately, there is ample evidence today of the extent to which sports psychology is concerned with making the fourth skill more robust and performant.


Going into specifics, let us better evaluate the mental components that are employed in sailing, subdividing, for example, offshore racing from stick racing.

The former, of greater durability and length than the latter, are considered performance where durability becomes one of the most important qualities. Of course we refer to both physical and mental endurance. In fact, in this respect, the resistance is defined as the ability to maintain high concentration for several hours or days under uncomfortable conditions, the ability to resist the thought of fatigue, and the ability to maintain the focus attentional for long distances without getting lost in useless or ineffective thinking.

Depending on the roles-and we will go into this in the next section-this resistance is different for the helmsman who will have to maintain active concentration for a long time, for the grinders who will have to maintain it during physical exertion or for the bowman who will have to activate quickly with each maneuver.

What is different is for stick racing where the needle of the scales shifts toward managing emotion and error. Let us explain: in stick racing, time has a high influence especially when reasoning in terms of seconds gained or lost. Emotions in this case can make the performance more staggering.

How many times have you felt stuck, tense, and under-performing during an important regatta, at a rounding of the buoy, at a crossing, or during the pre-start stages? How many times have you found yourself thinking you had victory in your pocket and then for a nonentity things fell apart not making you able to handle the situation? And again, how many times have you kept mulling over a trivial mistake and lost the ability to quickly and lucidly define a new strategy to adopt? These are just some of the pitfalls your mind sets up to mislead you just when time is short and playing against you. The fact is that regattas are lost in this way.

Managing one’s ability to withstand suffering or loss of concentration on the high seas, or managing emotions and error during stick racing, allows one to make the difference between a good race and an excellent race, where excellence means victory.


Let us examine the psychological differences that exist among 4 roles that characterize the crew on a boat.

The Helmsman

Those dedicated to this role should have some important mental skills, for example, good emotion management, good error handling skills, and above all, good listening skills. In technical terms, an attentional focus that can range from the broad one of observing the environment (the boat, the work of the trimmers, the numbers on the instruments, or the variation of the course with respect to the wind) to the detailed one in perceiving the messages that the boat conveys to us (the speed, acceleration, or the general behavior of the boat in waves and in gusts). The helmsman’s skill and mental training should be focused on maintaining a state of inner serenity that allows him to handle error with greater clarity, as well as in maintaining as much as possible a steady trim and balance of conduct. An excellent training for coxswains turned out to be square breathing characterized by four phases: inhalation, exhalation and two latency phases implemented with the same execution time, helping the body to oxygenate and the mind to remain calm.

The Tactician

The tactician’s role is to stay focused on wind evolutions and the positioning of opponents, devising decisions that will prove crucial to the success of the competition.

During these continuous mental processes (created, moreover, on the basis of information that is far from reliable and therefore insidious), continuous scenarios are created in the mind of an experienced tactician, which are useful in predicting the most diverse situations and new possibilities. This crew member is then responsible for enabling effective communication with his or her team for the purpose of sharing information in a clear and easily perceived manner, while simultaneously coordinating work during performance. In addition, when things do not go right during the race, the tactician has to deal with his crew’s frustration or their lack of confidence while still maintaining his mental clarity.

The figure of the tactician must therefore undergo enormous psychological pressure.

The mental demands of this role are again to maintain an attentional capacity throughout the competition. For him, the visualization technique, which, to simplify, is to create repetitive mental movies with scenarios that can replay past experiences and provide future predictions, has yielded excellent results.

Sail regulators

In addition to choosing sails best suited to the weather conditions, trimmers adjust and change the shape of the sails with each change in wind strength and wave type. However, their task is also that of “sentinels.” Particularly, during carrying swells, when sailing looking for the best angle and speed (VMG) with the sheets in hand, the downwind sails controller signals perceptions to the helmsman about changes in wind strength and angle through what it senses in the hands, arms, and body. Therefore, he must have an excellent ability to recognize any change in sheet tension by knowing how to communicate it quickly.

The goal, for those racing in this role, will be to train the body’s perceptual and proprioceptive listening skills, keeping the attentional focus within oneself to improve the sensitivity of perceived change.

An excellent technique for trimmers (but not only) is that of the “Body Scan,” which allows one to go over all parts of the body, increasing sensitivity and attentional focus on precisely those parts that affect sports performance.

The Bowman

I do not know whether the name bowman comes from the fact that this sailor works on the bow or simply because of the feats he is called upon to accomplish, but what is certain is that a good bowman must generally be strong, fast, agile, and courageous.

The mental skills for this role are related to minimizing rational thinking and speeding up execution time: I don’t think, I do! Therefore, the bowman must know how to act without slowing down the action, and for this, limiting thinking, which can create obstacles, blocks and errors in execution, must be minimized.

Sailors engaged in this role will also need to be able to activate quickly, almost explosively, and again the goal is to train so that the mind creates automatisms to make the body work quickly. Once the action is over, however, he will need to know how to return to the state of tranquility, again quickly, in order to recover the energy expended and prepare for future actions.

Mental training focuses on reactivity with both physical (to train the body) and mental exercises related to arousal or arousal resulting from the stimulus, as well as training the ability to deactivate quickly.

As demonstrated, each role in the boat has its own field of psychological intervention. Everyone must be able to cooperate and everyone must trust each other to make maneuvering and decision-making synchronous and high-performance.

Excellent communication, sister to mental activity, will make any action during performance effective and increase serenity on board. The rule is always the same: happy crew makes fast boat!

Stefano Zenaboni


I want you! Would you like to participate in a racing season with an optimized racing boat, alongside the experienced professionals at Phi!Number?

Throwing yourself into a project like this will make you grow technically by participating in the most important offshore and between the buoys events in Italy! The boat is a bomb: Cheyenne, a Rodman 42 optimized for racing that has been the protagonist on the offshore courses and between the buoys in recent seasons. You will also be able to attend free educational appointments and technical lectures on sailing-specific topics (tuning, setting, communication, mental, etc.) given by Phi!Number experts! Selection is open.

Are you ready for the challenge and want to get involved co see the VELA Sailing Team page and write now for information and reservations to The first available board seats are for Pasquavela (April 10-13, Porto S. Stefano); then it will be the turn of the VELA Cup (April 24-26, Santa Margherita) and the 151 Miglia – Cetilar Trophy (May 30-June 1, Livorno and Punta Ala).



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