The mental game

Ken Way is a prominent English sports psychologist who brings experience of many different team and solo sports to his work in extreme solo and short-handed round the world and Transatlantic racing. The challenges of racing as a duo, not just seeking to perform at the highest level over a period of 90 to 100 days but actually co-habiting in a small, confined space whilst also experiencing extremes of discomfort – wet, damp, tired, hot, cold, emotional and physical exhaustion –, are all part and parcel of the Barcelona World Race. Here he gives an insight into how he helps the relationship between the two skippers work.

Articles DEC 21, 2014 10:22

So where do you start Ken? You say that conflict can be made to be a positive?

The starting point are the values that both of the skippers bring to the race, in terms of their behaviours. There are differences in personality but in the case of the team I’ve been working with their values are so very similar. So, competitiveness is one shared attribute Expertise, collaboration and cooperation are very much the same, they are common to most skippers. There is a real essence of understanding that this is a team sport and it is vital that they get on. Whether it is a team or 11, 15 or just two, most people think that conflict is a bad thing. So there may be a desire to cure conflict as soon as it arrives. I don’t see it like that at all. Handled properly conflict can not only be productive, but it can be really, really effective in terms of team development. So I say don’t shy away from conflict. But be open with one another. So even if it is just a tinge of ‘I’m a bit pissed off with what you did’ bring it up. Don’t sit on it. Bring it up at the right time. That’s the way to understand each other.

When should issues be brought into the open?

That is usually when the sailors are best rested and nourished and there is a volition. So ideally you do some individual work beforehand (before the race) so they can recognise how to manage their mood states and emotions. But then in terms of the conflict, it is important to recognise how you each act in a certain circumstance, this is ‘how I react’. We use a four box graph, tired and pressurised and grumpy on one axis- just so they learn to recognise their moods. It is as simple as asking: “Am I just tired and grumpy?” before ‘aunching into one’. Hopefully when you deliver that ‘I’m a bit pissed off about’ there is the corresponding introspection before  they (the other party) reacts, as simple as realising that they are not so much complaining as asking for help. So, just leave it for a moment, then respond as an adult.  

What is the essence of making it work?

Sharing the same goal… People say it is like a three month marriage. And there is a certain truth in that, but does it have to be happy above all things, do you have to keep the energy positive the whole time? The research, for rugby teams for example, says you don’t have to all like each other. The task is paramount, sailing A to B as fast as possible. So you have to shoot for the same goal and to have time for each other to reach that shared goal. Of course it is nicer if there is the ‘I am really happy to have you here looking after my welfare’.

So what kind of work do you do in advance?

An awful lot is just talking about these things in a structured, safe environment. With me they have had a three page paper. And through this we work through with different processes. Some of it is immediately obvious… ‘Consider some of your closest friends and just write down their attributes that you warm towards’, and then we look at what each of them warms towards. Part of the role of the Sports Psychologist is I am not paid to be their friends. Sometimes I have to put myself in an ‘ugly’ position. And one of the things we bring to the fore is their confidence in different things, the routing, each other, the boat, navigational experience. We score them in advance on these things. It is really good to know these things with numbers applied. And things like the tipping points for decisions, at what point do you want to wake your co-skipper, and how these points change over the race.

What about if there is a major fall out?

Remember when emotions are present then logic goes out of the window. And so how do we manage these emotions. I am then asking how happy am I about deferring this until the emotions are back under control. Literally counting to ten…Can we defer the decision for ten minutes? And then you are also back to the key values we spoke about at the beginning, yes he’s about competition, it is about collaboration and expertise, but needs to revert to the fundamental of caring, looking after each other.


See the Barcelona World Race weekly video (in English):

See a video about the technical preparation (in English):