Alex Thomson

November 14, 2023

Setting sail mentally

In 1998/99, I participated in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. At that time, the technical aids of today did not exist, no autopilot or anything like that. We sailed from Hawaii to Yokohama, had to sail through the trade winds. I had prepared a plan to pitch to the team. But there was this one guy, the one with the least experience, who suggested a different way. I thought about it and – honestly – he was right. Finally, I agreed, and we won the race.

If you want to  succeed as a  team, you have  to create an  environment  where each  member can  challenge one another.

The most important thing is to use all the minds around you. Your ego has to be put at the back of the queue. It’s solely about finding the best solution. Of course, conflict plays a part. I am not talking about quarrels, problems, insults, rather the importance to question one another and learn from each other.

I am extroverted, wear my heart on my sleeve. I have a hard time not acting through emotion. When I’m out there alone, without a crew, like in the Vendée Globe (single-handed regatta that goes once around the globe), it can be challenging. That’s why I worked with a sports psychologist for 20 years (with Ken Way). Together, we’ve worked on a box of mental tools that I can fall back on whenever I need them.

For example, when things are going very badly for me in a race, I forget everything and just work harder.

I lose discipline. Don’t sleep, don’t eat. I just want to make up the miles. Complacency has an even worse effect on me. This is when you’re most vulnerable, when everything is going well. I can’t recommend it to anyone. There’s no room for complacency on these boats.

To deal with this, Ken and I recreated an aura of instability in my head. The idea was to associate complacency with a closely avoided car accident, through visualizations and practice. Every time the feeling of invincibility kicked back in, this gave me a rush of adrenaline that made me perceptive, and laser focused.

Another challenge is staying motivated when things go bad. ‘Would you agree,’ Ken asked me, ‘that a happy person performs better than a sad person?’. ‘Yeah sure, Ken,’ I said, ‘but if something breaks out there in the ocean, how am I supposed to be happy?’. Alex, no problem at all,’ he replied, ‘you just start by looking happy’. And it’s true, numerous studies prove it. When we smile, chemical reactions occur in the brain, dopamine is released and we feel happier.

We humans are simple-minded – it’s the same with goals.

My goal was to win the Vendée Globe. In 2016  I was in the lead, clearly had the fastest boat, then my foil (curved wing-like hydrofoil under the hull, note) broke. I moved from thinking ‘I can win this race’ to ‘I won’t even cross the finish line.’ That day, I wasn’t concerned. I was content with the simple things: changing the sail, or eating a meal. When we achieve a goal, it feels good. With flexible goal setting, we can stay motivated.

It’s great what simple tools like this can do, isn’t it? When you think about how much time we spend in the gym trying to look good. It’s clear we should probably invest a lot more time working on our mental health.

Alex Thomson

Professional sailor