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How to keep calm under pressure

Faced with the prospect of losing out on an Olympic Gold Medal, Anne-Marie Rindom had to dig deep to stay calm under pressure and move on from mistakes. She explains how to Andy Rice.

After sailing a brilliant qualifying series during the Tokyo Olympic Games earlier this summer, a moment of indecision put Anne-Marie Rindom’s grip on the gold medal in jeopardy. But the Dane managed to put her mistake into perspective, keep calm under pressure, and did what she needed to do in the medal race to secure the Olympic title. That moment when it all looked like her regatta was unravelling, she now refers to as ‘Black Friday’.

However, Rindom had worked hard on her mental processes going into the Games, and her resilience against setbacks, not least because she’d lost the European Championships in similar circumstances a year earlier.

Few of us will ever know the kind of pressure that Rindom was feeling at Tokyo, but the mental processes she uses are applicable to any racing at any level of the sport. Her first tip seems almost counterintuitive. But when you think about the pressure of measuring the whole of your Olympic campaign, possibly eight or 12 years or your life, against the final day of a single competition, you can see the sense in what Rindom is saying.

Her advice has echoes of another great Dane, the four-time Olympic Champion Paul Elvstrom, who once said: “You haven’t won the race, if in winning the race you have lost the respect of your competitors.”

Prioritise values

The further you go in your career, the more you can end up putting pressure on yourself to achieve the results you have worked so hard for. In the Danish team we talked a lot about values.

A good exercise is to ask yourself: what do you want people to say in a speech about you when your career is over? Do you want to have them to say, ‘She did this and that result, a gold here and a world title here?’ Or do you want to have people say, ‘She won the respect of her competitors. And she was able to take some decisions that nobody else was able to take.’

If you can define those values and work towards honouring them, that can help take the pressure off the relentless focus on results.

Routines are important in all forms of boat racing

Simple routines

When I started sailing, I didn’t pay so much attention to my mental preparation. It’s easy to tick all the boxes on physical preparation, because you can measure your strength and fitness at the gym.

Mental preparation is a bit harder to quantify, but to have some routines is very important. I work with my sports psychologist on doing small exercises, every day doing five to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice using an app on my phone.

It’s basically noticing what kind of thoughts I have, what kind of feelings I have, and then practising releasing those feelings, and coming back to refocus. A helpful way to refocus is by concentrating on your breathing.

You’re in charge

One of the pictures I hold in my head is imagining I’m the driver of a bus. The passengers are all your thoughts and feelings. It could be other sailors are sailing really fast. So you start thinking ‘Oh no, why are they sailing so fast? Did I train hard enough, or am I strong enough?’ Or it could be if you’re on the start line and you’re thinking it’s a bit scary to start at the pin end, because all the good sailors are down there.

So all these negative thoughts – along with your positive thoughts – are the passengers on the bus. And you have to just say to them, ‘You’re welcome on the bus, I’m not going to push you off, but I’m driving this bus and I’m deciding where we’re going.’ You have to be strong enough not to be affected by them.

Rehearse scenarios

At the end of ‘Black Friday’ my coach and I talked through what happened, what went wrong. We pointed fingers at each other, we screamed, we cried. We even laughed.

And then on Saturday, we just ran through all the scenarios. So if Marit [Bouwmeester] does this, if Josefin [Olsson] does that, if they do this, I should act like this. I think we came up with seven different ways to respond. And that helped me be a little bit more calm in the medal race.

I knew exactly what the plan was going to be. Rehearsing scenarios in your mind is almost like doing it for real. The more often you rehearse before the event, the better prepared you’ll be.

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There is always a winner in every race, but losing can be valuable too. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi / Rolex

Nobody’s perfect

At the 2020 European Championships in Poland, I was leading with 22 points going into the final day. We had two races, so I just had to finish above 14th place, and I would win. But I didn’t manage to do that. It was windy, it was wavy – my favourite conditions. But I just saw myself completely falling apart.

I learned a lot from that day. I was happy that it happened last year because it set me up to be able to respond to the big setback of ‘Black Friday’. I helped me to see that even if my situation was not as good as it could have been, it was still pretty good. After all, I was still going into the Tokyo 2020 medal race with a seven-point advantage.

The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and take the positives away from the experience. Don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes, take them as learning opportunities.

Anne-Marie Rindom

Anne-Marie Rindom won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Laser Radial at Tokyo 2020. The Danish sailor also won Bronze at Rio 2016 along with world titles in the Laser Radial and Europe. The 30-year-old is currently studying for her Masters in Sports Science.


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