Iain Percy said an extraordinary thing to me once; “I don’t really care about the winning. It’s the process of improvement I enjoy.” For a three-time Olympic medallist (two gold and one silver), it seems strange that such a born winner wouldn’t be that bothered about winning.

I challenged him, “So if you didn’t win, you wouldn’t really be that bothered?” When he thought of it like that, suddenly there was a nasty taste in his mouth. The thought of not winning, when pushed to think of it in a different way, was too much to bear. So he made a slight correction. “OK, so of course the winning’s important, but the winning is only a by-product of going through the right processes to make sure you are the best you can possibly be.”

That made a bit more sense. It comes back to what so many top athletes talk about when they talk about setting goals. There are the ‘outcome’ goals, and there are the ‘process’ goals. Outcome is all about the result, maybe winning a regatta, aiming for the top 50% or whatever your ultimate goal may be. These are the goals that most of us weekend sailors tend to focus on, hankering after the result rather than being mindful of the steps it will take to get to a desired outcome.

The difference with professionals; the Olympic athletes, the America’s Cup sailors is, they ask themselves, “What do I need to do better in the next regatta, or the next race, then I did in the last?” If their starting ability is poor, they will target that as the main area for focus to improve in the next competition. Sometimes sailors will even nominate a less important event as an experimental competition, where practicing and working on a weakness can take precedence over the finishing result.

For example, let’s say you’re going to race at Lake Garda next summer in the World Championship. The Italian lake is famous, or notorious (depending on your point of view), for a condition to sail in towards the cliffs on the right-hand side, certainly if you’re racing out of Riva in the north-western corner of Garda. Being able to start at the committee boat and finding a clean lane out to the right-hand side of the first beat is a key skill. If achieved, even a middle-of-the-fleet sailor can hold onto a top 10 finish in a race; just by executing the start successfully.

So maybe you should practice your committee-boat end, starting at your next weekend open meeting or in your next club race. Work on a few dummy starts before the actual start, practice slow boat-handling and get an idea of your time-on-distance. Then, see how well you can perform the start when the gun fires. If you muck it up, no worries. Just analyze what you did right, what you did wrong, and what you might do differently next time.

If you can analyze your biggest weakness, break it down into a few key elements, and work on improving each of those elements, you have a great chance of turning a weakness into a strength. By focussing on the process rather than the outcome, the improvements will start to show. Adopting this habit; the results will follow.


Andy Rice is a successful sailor who started his career in journalism in 1992. He writes write regular columns for Seahorse, ShowBoats International, Yachts & Yachting and Boat Internationall.