What role does mental toughness play in solo sailing and is it innate or can it be trained? A new study aims to find out

To enjoy sailing you need an element of mental toughness. That seems obvious, as much of what is considered a luxury, glamour activity – particularly offshore passagemaking – is anything but.

But could mental toughness be among the most important factors and is it something we are born with or could it be cultivated?

This question is particularly relevant to solo sailing, one of the harshest of all sailing disciplines and where, despite all the shore teams, sailors have to rely on themselves, their own ingenuity and dogged persistence.

So I was interested to talk last week to Dr Neil Weston, principal lecturer in sports psychology at the University of Portsmouth. Since beginning his research into the attributes of solo sailors in the Velux 5 Oceans race in 2006, he has been examining how solo sailors cope with difficulty and stress.

“We have been looking at the mental toughness attributes of eight solo around the world ocean sailors from Britain, past and present,” he tells me. He won’t say which ones, but given that there aren’t too many round the world solo sailors in the UK it’s not hard to guess.

Dr Weston looked at the characteristics they needed to perform successfully and remain safe. The main elements that he determined as mental toughness are:

1 Discipline
2 Careful attention to detail and creative with solutions
3 A disciplined mindset
4 Relentlessness and determination
5 An ability to overcome all obstacles
6 A positive and optimistic attitude despite problems
7 Complete self-belief in in ability
9 Good and effective decision-making
10 Being able to manage themselves, e.g. food and sleep, but also cognitively with emotions and expectations.

In trying to work out whether these are innate traits that can’t be changed or if it’s possible to develop and train them, he has most recently been working with the Artemis Offshore Academy, which is seeking to select the next generation of solo sailors.

To identify mental toughness, the candidates this year were put to the test. “They were set some problem based and demanding tasks, some of them overnight, and we observed to see their discipline and attention to detail,” he says.

“By working with the Artemis Academy we are hoping to see if we can train people and, if we can, how you do that to make people more durable and robust.”

The outcome of that work will be interesting, because training in mental toughness is something with great relevance to all endurance sports and, you might argue, to life in general.

What we are perhaps a little short on in the UK is top-performing solo sailors. They have them by the dozen in France, but here we have really had only Ellen MacArthur and Mike Golding at the top level, consistently on the podium in most of the events in which they raced. So that makes it more difficult to distinguish between attributes required at the adventurer level and the elite performers.

While this is clearly no scientific observation, the attribute beyond mental toughness that I’ve noted from numerous interviews and interactions with some of the top French sailors is high intelligence. Sailors like Michel Desjoyeaux, the Peyron brothers, Jeremie Beyou, Jean-Pierre Dick and others shimmer with seemingly high IQ. I am sure this is a key factor in high-level technical understanding and the ability to learn quickly without repeated experiences.

This factor would explain the success, so young at the age of 23, of Ellen MacArthur (she was clearly capable of absorbing in a huge amount of information quickly) and could explain why, conversely, other solo sailors with decades of experience are not in the elite pack and are perhaps unlikely to get there.

As for ordinary sailors like the rest of us, the requirement for mental toughness is one of the reasons why family sailing can be so tricky. We might be up for it, but what about the rest of the gang?

Mental toughness is something that may be needed but equally has to be moderated as part of a crew. The extreme mental toughness of many successful solo sailors I suspect might make them quite hard to live with. Single-minded focus can be just a shade away from obsession and self-absorption.

 On a crewed yacht where cohesion and compatibility is all-important you need a mixture of talents and characteristics. Yes, you need a few mentally tough individuals, but you also require people with a sense of humour, some practical skills, and one or two who are easy to get along with – and never get seasick.

But when you’re picking a crew to sail with for any extended period, what characteristics do you look for?

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