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To start with, I think it’s great that you have the humility to ask for help. Whether on behalf of your athletics or your life skills, doesn’t actually matter. The point is that you did. Kudos.

Looking in is good to do, sometimes, and quietly. Just listen if you know what I mean. There’s a lot there trying to get to the surface. For me, it’s usually the tug of war between “I am my last result” and “I am Kevin, and I happen to have had a recent result of ‘x’.”

Let’s say all we want to do is make x better, that’s our only goal. 

Here’s the funny part about competition, and why they say that in any sport, it eventually becomes all about the mind : the best way to improve x is to not care. During the race. About the result. But, to pour your heart and soul into it as if your life depends on it. 

How the hell do you do that? You’ve done it before, I know you have. It’s just that now, at Yale, in a much bigger pond than you’re used to being the biggest fish in, it’s harder to prevail, so it’s harder to keep your confidence in your skills and yourself, so it’s harder to think about stuff other than the result, because you see it compared to what you want–here’s where it gets tough–not compared to what you’ve probably earned.

So, you’re part of a team. There are lots of ways to keep score besides the scores. 

1. How present were you all day (vs. how many times did you think about the points or class or your boyfriend or the bagel you shouldn’t have eaten?). Develop tricks for bringing yourself back. Dave Perry used to tell me about just “watching the bow wave”. It’s not silly. Plus, is forces you to hike hard. In light air, listen for it, it’s quiet, but it’s there. Or rudder bubbles, same thing. 

Also, a pretty great book still very fresh and relevant is “The Inner Game of Tennis”. Check it out maybe.

another way :

2. How good a job did you do making the whole practice event better for your teammates? (bringing your spare bailer for the day the recruits show up and you know there’s no way they could have one yet (even if it’s not your “job”)) or helping the team behind you pull their boat out of the water at low tide on a windy day, because everyone’s tired,  or ducking a boat when you’re on starboard and giving them the feedback that they were exactly 1 1/2 feet from crossing but you got a little lift right at the end  or ….

Will you do me a favor? Will you send me a list of three more, or even all the ones you can think of ? It’s a really good exercise, because it TRICKS YOU INTO GETTING OUT OF YOURSELF.

Which, is not easy but is the whole game in a lot of ways. The person who races, tacks, starts, gybes, checks the tension, hikes. That person, that M., has to be ruthlessly dispassionate and focused and like a ninja navy seal with no emotions during of after the race. Just sensations, info, odds & risk/reward processing, and output of always fast boatspeed and always wise (percentage based not wishful thinking based) decisions.

I used to keep two little mantras, and when I couldn’t get myself to look at the bow wave I use them–here’s another tricky bit, not dwelling or getting down on yourself when you can’t–anyway the mantras: “Do the right thing” (such has hang in your heinous lane out of the bottom mark until the boat behind you tacks), and “Speed kills”. If you can alternate those in your head and adhere, you will win regattas.

3. Another way to measure : how well did I balance pushing my crew with supporting them. Not fluffy stuff, and not every tack was mahvelous. More, little “nice” es on the Really good ones. She probably knows when it’s a good one. You show you care by not saying it all the time, but by being focused and aware enough that you do say it when it’s true. A corollary. Even stronger, is to “put your hand up”/admit when you’ve made mistakes. It does two things. One, it shows her you know and are willing to be vulnerable, which means you’re in it together. Two, it helps you feel the pain of the mistake, helps you own it, and decreases the chances of making the same one next time.

4. Another way to measure : how much you keep a wry, quietly confident smile-smirk. Even when you’re in fifth. Even when you slip on your ass on the ramp. Even when you are second row in the start. Even when you forget your lifejacket. Very faint, but the one which seems to say “Today may not be my day, but that’s only because I’m practicing getting stronger today. Soon, it will all come together, because I have the discipline and self confidence to be patient and trust that by controlling the things I can control, I’m doing everything I should be.” 

Now. How to do all that without getting lost in your head?

It’s hard. 

Easy to talk about, hard to do. When I’m struggling, I keep setting the goals smaller and smaller and shorter and shorter until I get there. Then I don’t start raising the bar right away, I give myself some time. (As in really small, like five relaxed breaths, or small like less frown more neutral face, or small like slightly softer tone to whomever I’m with). Little things. Baby steps.

The US team sports psych, working with me and Morgan about a year before the trials, did one little exercise that really hit home. I’ll leave you with it to ponder (I hope it doesn’t make you mad at me and you will keep in touch 🙂

He said “Look at all those cars out there on the freeway. Both directions. Just watch them for a little while.” (we watched). About three minutes later, he said, “Do you think anyone in any of those cars cares what place you got in the last regatta? Do you? You’re right. They don’t. You’re about the only one who does. And that’s ok, but what I’m trying to do here is give you some perspective.”

I thought he was a jerk for doing that to me, but I gave it some time and it was really liberating in a way.

Breathe deep. You are by far your harshest critic. It sounds really trite and cliche and super annoying, but the best way for you to improve your results, is probably to pretend there’s no such thing. Pretend it’s a “presence / being in the moment ” contest. Or pretend it’s a smiling contest. Seriously. Just see if you can smile for a whole practice (I can’t, but anyway)

I hope that helps. Please write back if you wish to, and don’t if you don’t (I was kidding about the homework).

Be nice to yourself. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s worth it in the long run to keep learning how. I’m not great at it, but I’m a lot better than I was.

It will also help your results, if you’re patient.

Finally, I think we grow up feeling like we’re doing something wrong if life isn’t always fun and doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. It’s not always fun. And it seldom turns out how we plan. The one thing you always have is the mirror at the end of the day. Somedays it’s painful to look there. That’s when you have to. Just glance. Just for a second. Then forgive. Tomorrow will still come.

With love,