28 Jul Psychological and Emotional Preparation for Offshore Sailing – Part 5

Emotional reactions and responses

It is true that our cognitive system and emotional system are closely linked, and yet we can treat them as discrete systems. Some of the discussion above certainly applies to the emotional system, however, it is important to devote attention to this system on its own.   Here it becomes a question of “Can I control my emotions in times of stress?” Can I respond and react appropriately so that I can function well when things get difficult, when I’m fatigued; when I’m frustrated or when I’m bored. The good news again, is that we can learn to be more emotionally robust or resilient.

The question I’m often asked is “how do I become more mentally tough?” The answer to this is both complex and simple. The complexity involved with this answer is beyond the scope of this discussion. The short and simple answer goes like this. Dry land training is a term used to describe any additional training one does – like going to the gym or going running for example – that will make one better equipped to perform well in any sport. This same principle applies to developing mental toughness. In this case, because we are talking about developing the skills to manage our thoughts and emotions, literally any waking moment is an opportunity for dry land training for mental toughness. Literally any situation I encounter in the normal course of my day is an opportunity to test my reactions and responses.

I can start with asking simple questions like “is my reaction or response to this situation helping or not helping?” If the truthful answer is its not helping, well then I’ve just given myself the opportunity to determine what a better reaction or response might be and then systematically work at making the alternative (better) response the typical response.

Does this seem simplistic? It is. There is no mystery to this strategy. It simply requires me to be more mindful of how I function, truthful in terms of understanding fully the results of my reactions and responses and disciplined in changing my reactions or responses if I recognize my current ways of reacting or responding are not helpful. In the same manner as any training, we need to know where our current thresholds are, and then consciously seek out situations that are more and more demanding. As I learn to manage myself in one context, I will learn what works and what does not, and then use this information to function well in more difficult or more challenging situations.

In other words, the training and preparation required for offshore sailing is learning to be okay with the unknown. Learning to be okay with being out of our comfort zone. Learning to embrace challenge and adversity.

One final thought, based on my experience of sailing across the Atlantic with one other person, that is, I found I had to come to grips with my mortality. This was an unexpected line of thinking for me. Early in the voyage, I realized that there was a point at which I was literally beyond help – unless some random rescuer happened to come along. I spent two days coming to grips with the fact that no matter how much preparation we had done, and how well prepared we thought we were, random and unexpected things can and do happen from time to time. Things we simply cannot prepare for. It was this realization I had to come to grips with and make peace with. I had to accept the fact that something beyond our control might happen and that a series of events could possibly lead to my death. And I had to be okay with that. It was a difficult thought process to work through, and yet the result was highly rewarding. A level of peace settled in that has remained with me to this day. I know that it contributed substantially to my feeling a sense of calm and clear thinking in times of challenge.

In conclusion, we must remember the purpose of this discussion, and that is to understand the emotional and cognitive dimensions of performance. The purpose of this discussion is to get us thinking about how we can prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for the challenges of a long offshore passage. In other words, how can I manage myself well emotionally and cognitively when I lose sight of shore.

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