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January 13, 2006 11:37 0 comments

The Psychology of winning

Louay Habib intervews Ben Ainslie for Yachts and Yachting magazine.

Ben Ainslie needs little introduction, his amazing ability to win at European, World Championships and Olympic events, over and over and over again is quite frankly astounding. His phenomenal achievements reached new heights this year when he won the Finn Gold Cup an unprecedented fourth time and that whilst he was earning his spurs in the America’s Cup with Emirates Team New Zealand.

Ainslie is most definitely one of the superstars of world yachting, few would argue that his one of the best helmsman in the world and one of the greatest sailing talents that the UK has ever produced.

Louay Habib met Ben and was surprised to find a relaxed almost shy person, certainly not the ruthless competitor that has dominated the Laser and then the Finn class for the last ten years. Ben spoke freely about his past and his future and answered some questions about what makes him one of the most dominant forces in world yachting.

When and where did you start sailing?

I was born in Cheshire and my parents had a small cruising boat in Angelsea so I was in the cot on the boat at one or two years of age along with my sister. We moved to Restronguet in Cornwall when I was very young, there was a really good sailing club and it was very close, I could just sail from my home on the creek round to the club and sail home afterwards, it was a perfect set up for a young kid into sailing.

At school I also played cricket and hockey and I always enjoyed all sports but choosing sailing as my sport was never really an issue for me, I started sailing on my own in Optimists when I was seven and I quickly got into it and started racing when I was about eight and I was just sort of totally hooked.

I remember one issue when I was about eleven when my cricket master said I needed to chose between cricket and sailing because I was missing a lot of matches and it wasn’t a hard decision, I really wanted to go sailing and I have always been lucky in that respect, I have always wanted to sail, I have never lost interest in the sport.

Who influenced you the most in those early years?

Phil Slater at Restronguet Sailing Club was a great influence on me earlier on, he was a great Firefly sailor and his kids were the same age as me so he started up a sailing group at the club. The progress was dramatic we went from being a squad at an unknown club to the best squad in the country. After a couple of years we had three people in the top five in the country. Through my success with the Optimist, I got involved in the RYA programme and started sailing Lasers under the watchful eye of Jim Saltonstall and Jim is a great guy and a superb motivator.

What advice would you give a fifteen year old who wants to sail in the Olympics?

First of all you have to pick which boat you want to sail which will depend on your body weight and also if you want to sail a double-handed boat or not and then it is about setting out a plan. Find out what events you will need to do to get to the top of the fleet and ultimately get selection for the Olympics. You will need to plan out; coaching, physical development and boat development.

Also it is worth pointing out that the more international competitions you enter the better.
Experienced gained in this way is very useful for handling the pressures of the Olympics. The Games are a unique event. Even world champions can find the pressure too much to bear. The Games has a habit of chewing up the favourites and throwing them out the back because there is always something totally unexpected happening.

Although there may be not as much depth in talent in some of the Olympic fleets as World Championship ones because the Games are only every four years, there are not many opportunities to be successful and that definitely can play games with people’s minds.

Did you enjoy racing on the Irish TP52 Patches in Sardinia this year?

It was the first time that I had sailed on Patches but I had seen how they had done through the season and they had done very well winning just about everything under IRC but it was always going to be quite daunting going up against the rest of the fleet who had been sailing against each other in TP52 measurement mode.

It was good fun, Patches has a really good team and some of the Irish boys were a great laugh. It is always great to sail with Ian Walker. I have sailed with Ian a couple of times including the Admirals Cup in 2004 as part of Peter Harrison’s Sailability team and it was great to get back on the same boat with Ian and also Stir Fry (Simon Fry).

I went into the TP52 event in Rotunda totally blind, I had never sailed a TP before but I had heard a lot about them and I had no idea how Patches was going to go against the competition but I was pleasantly surprised by the end of the week. We had spoken to several of the TP52 teams who said that at their first events they were very much out the back door and were struggling to catch up whereas we were not that far off the pace. We struggled a bit for upwind speed in the light airs under ten knots for a number of reasons but other than that we were quick and especially quick downwind.

What was it like going into the TP52 event as an underdog that must have been unusual for you?

Well, I had just been in Russia with the Finn Gold Cup and that had taken up all of my concentration so I honestly really hadn’t thought about it that much, I had got on a plane out of Moscow after having a party at the end of the Finn Gold Cup I’d had no sleep and flew to Milan and on to Sardinia. It is one of those things; you step in and try to do as good a job as you can. As I said I had know idea how good the boat was going to go, I had an idea that they were good fun boats to sail and it was just a matter of trying to do your job as well as you can and you see how you get on.

The TP has a lot in common with a Cup boat, there are similarities in setting it up; sail shapes, mast rakes; foil positions, rudder size are big issues for both on the technical side but a TP52 is comparatively quicker down wind especially in breeze, on the practice day we were doing eighteen knots in twenty knots of breeze downhill which was a buzz and I can imagine in thirty knots it would be an awesome ride, it would be really interesting to do a whole event in that sort of breeze.

I remember watching you helm John Merricks Trust, the Farr 45 at Cowes week this year, you were over the line at the start and having a lot of difficulty restarting, was that a grin on your face or a grimace?

A grin! I had got to the point were I just had to laugh because I was getting some serious stick from the other competing boats, Cowes week is serious racing but when you start a race in two knots of tide and virtually no wind and end up over the line you can’t really get too upset about it. We had a great team on board though, John Merricks had a lot of crew from the RYA keel boat programme and they did a really good job I was very impressed with them and despite that bad start we really enjoyed the week.

How do you motivate yourself to win event after event?

For example when you were controversially DSQ in the first race at the Athens Olympics and came back to win Gold in the Finn Class.

I was so spitting angry about the situation as I think any one would be because what happened was pretty out of order. People deal with anger, frustration and disappointment in different ways and I think that is very important in the context of any sport. You can use those emotions as a fuel to work harder and do better or you can let them rip you up.

I am fortunate that I have the mentality that I want to try even harder and get back into the event when things have not gone well but that is not to say that I treat every situation in the same way, motivation to win can come from many different sources. Some situations require a cool calm and collected attitude and sometimes you can let anger work for you, especially when it is windy or you are in a one on one situation. It is important to channel your aggression in the right way; if you don’t do that the aggression can work against you and get you so mad you do something crazy because you are not thinking properly.

Also you have to realise that there are times when it really matters and other times that are not so important. When it comes to the crunch that’s when you need to deliver, concentrate on getting the overall result, that’s the trick really.

Are you always extremely competitive?

Funnily enough away from sailing I am relatively not competitive, sailing is everything for me but outside of it I am not really that fussed, I usually relax just like anybody else my age, I go to the movies, play golf… but I don’t have that much time off these days. I get an enormous amount of pleasure from yacht racing, who doesn’t!

Is how you manage your time important to you?

Something like an Olympic campaign can be total takeover, it is important to manage your time and your goals and be realistic in what you are trying to achieve. That is a very important area, some people spend hours and hours changing something about their boat that they really don’t need to do and waste a lot of time.

It is important to use your time in a clever way; too much attention to the wrong detail can be unproductive. This is an area where a good coach is important as well. For myself, Ian Percy and Steve Mitchell we use Dave Howlett; he is great for us as he has so much good experience and he knows when something is really not going to make the difference and can steer us in the right direction.

How have you get on with athletes from other sports in the Olympic Games?

Each of the three Games that I have been to, the sailors have lived outside the village as the transport times to and from the water has been too long which is a bit of a shame in that you miss out on the vibe of village life, meeting all of the athletes and all the rest of it.

But of course I loved mixing with the other athletes beforehand in the opening ceremony and after the competition has finished. The rowers are always a great crowd and are from a similar background and the athletes are always interesting, one of the astounding things is the massive difference in physiques across sports, for some reason I was always talking to Jade Johnson a lot in the last Games. She was a lot of fun, hyperactive as you would expect from an athlete and great fun to be around.

After the sailing has finished, you can visit the village and stay there, mix with the other athletes and watch them competing which is great fun. You can learn a lot by hanging out with other athletes, some of these people are incredibly fit.

Also I have taken a lot from people like Matt Pinsent and Steve Redgrave, in the way that they hold themselves at the Olympics, obviously they are under a lot of pressure from the UK media to get the results and how they handle that is very impressive. My approach is pretty similar to theirs; doing the basics right and not making a prat of yourself, really!

A good thing that I learnt from Matt and Steve is that a lot can be taken from what you say and it is important to be careful about your comments before an event, a lot of people can talk themselves up too much and make more and more pressure for themselves before falling by the wayside, there is nothing wrong with feeling confident but it is best not to shout about it and Matt and Steve have been good role models for me over the three Olympic Games that I have competed in.

Where do you get your mental toughness from?

Role models have been an inspiration for me to be mentally tough, I have always admired the two Kiwi sailors Chris Dickson and Russell Coutts; those guys have always been about winning.

Sometimes you have to be ruthless and you just have to accept that is what sport is all about. When you are on the water your racing and that is all that matters when you come off the water you are a different person, for me the two don’t really mix.

Role models have been inspirational for me but there is no substitution for the lessons learnt from competition, dealing with the pressure of top competition on a regular basis makes you mentally much tougher.

Emirates Team New Zealand- What is it like not being on the A Boat?

It is difficult at times especially this season as there have been quite a few events and I have not been involved with the racing, I would be lying if I didn’t say that was really frustrating.

However the America’s Cup is a whole new game for me as is helming a Cup boat and match racing and I have just taken the view point that I have got two years to learn as much as I possibly can from Dean Barker and all of Emirates Team New Zealand and hopefully by the end of it I will be as good as him and if that is the case then I will have the potential to be one of the top guys out there.

In the meantime I am focusing on doing my part for the team and hopefully making us successful and that is the way I have had to look at it. I can’t think of anybody who has just walked into the America’s Cup joined one of the top teams and gone straight in as number one helmsman.

But it is a bit tough, I am doing the hard yards at the moment and hopefully it will work out for me in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

This year I have been able to do the Finn Europeans and Worlds which has been great but the primary focus is with the America’s Cup and Emirates Team New Zealand and 2006 will be a lot busier with two boat testing in Valencia all through the Summer, so to find the time to do the Finn Europeans and Worlds next year will be pretty tough, I think. Realistically the next thing I will be doing outside the Cup will be Beijing, first of all to try and qualify and see how that goes. I certainly would not go to something like the Olympic Games half-cocked, I am not interested in going there unless I have given it enough time to do it properly and done everything possible to be successful.

This article was produced for Yachts and Yachting Magazine and was front cover story 13th January 2006.

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