Captain Your Ship: Distinguishing Between Controllables and Non-Controllables In Sports

Picture of By Jesse Engelbrecht

By Jesse Engelbrecht

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INTRODUCTION

In sports, as in sailing, the key to building resilience is learning to differentiate the controllables from the non-controllables. This blog is a straightforward look at how this concept can enhance your mental game. Picture yourself at the helm of your yacht: you can’t command the sea or the weather, but you can master the sails and the wheel. That’s what we’ll focus on—taking hold of what’s in our power to steer through the sporting seas.

The approach is simple. We don’t waste energy fretting over the choppy waters or the gusting winds; instead, we’ll learn how to adjust our sails—our efforts and attitudes—to glide across them. Want to build a resilient, focused mindset that keeps your performance on course? Stick around. What follows is a practical toolkit for your mind, the kind that keeps you sailing true, no matter the weather. Ready to learn how? Read on.

SET A CLEAR DESTINATION

Every voyage begins with a destination. In sports, it’s no different. You need to know where you’re heading. Goals are your North Star, guiding you through the darkest nights and the roughest seas. Without them, you’re just drifting, a yacht without a port.

Now, pinpoint your endgame. Is it to shave seconds off your best time? To outscore last season’s points? Make it specific, measurable. A destination vague as ‘get better’ won’t chart a course. Precision is your map.

Here’s the thing, your destination should stretch you, sure, but make it reachable. Set the bar high enough to inspire hard work, yet within grasp with sustained effort and persistence. It’s about striking that balance—aiming high, but not for the stars.

Once you’ve set it, keep it in sight. Write it down, plaster it on your wall, make it your screensaver. Let it be the first thing you see in the morning and the last at night. Your goal isn’t just a point on a map; it’s the reason you’ll push through when the waters get rough.

So, ask yourself: what’s my destination? Once that’s clear, you’re ready to sail. Every training session, every competition, every decision off the field—it’s all part of the journey to that very spot on the horizon. Stay focused, stay determined, and keep steering towards it.

THE FORCES AT PLAY

Out at sea, two forces are at play: the ones you can battle and the ones you must ride. Understanding this is key to becoming a skilled sailor in the sport. It’s not the smooth sea that sharpens your skills, it’s learning to sail through the relentless waves and deceptive calm.

First up, the external forces: the winds and tides. These are the unpredictable elements of your sport—opponent’s tactics, referee’s calls, difficult playing conditions. They’ll buffet your ship, trying to throw you off course. But here’s the truth: you can’t control them, and you don’t need to. Your job isn’t to command the sea; it’s to navigate it.

Now, the internal forces: your sail and your rudder. These are your domain. Your training, your focus, your strategy—these are the controllables. Adjust your sails to catch the right wind, angle your rudder to ride the tide. Here lies your power. These are the tools at your disposal to steer towards your goal.

Remember, those external forces? They’re neutral. They’re not working against you or for you—they just are. Labelling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is where stress creeps in. Accept them. Work with them. Sometimes the wind is in your favour, and you’ll sail swiftly. Other times, you’ll face headwinds, and progress is a grind. That’s not failure; that’s navigation.

And when the storm hits, as it inevitably will, you might need to drop your sail, pull up the rudder, and wait it out. Don’t resist the storm. Learn from it. As Marcus Aurelius said, “This too shall pass.” Both the gales and the calm will move on, and so will you.

This mindset isn’t just powerful, it’s essential for riding the ebbs and flows of competitive sports. It’s a mental toolkit to keep you rational, focused, and moving forward, no matter the phase of your journey. Your race is yours alone, different from all others. So, no comparisons—they’ll only steer you off course.

Keep this close: do your best with what’s in your boat, where you are. That’s all you can ask of yourself. It’s not about controlling the uncontrollables—it’s about mastering your response to them. Remember, we don’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond. Let that be your guiding star.

STEERING WITH STRATEGY: PRACTICAL TACTICS FOR CONTROLLABLES

Tune Your Instruments: Start with self-awareness. Every day, check the condition of your internal ‘instruments’ – your thoughts, your mood, your energy. Just as a sailor checks their compass and maps, you check your mindset. Are you focused? Are you dwelling on the uncontrollables? This is your daily ritual to ensure you’re always aligned with your goals.

Set the Sails: Now, take that awareness and set your sails – the actions you can control. Tailor your training to your personal metrics of progress. Adapt your techniques to the day’s conditions. Keep your eyes on your own lane, your own performance. Let your rivals worry about theirs – you’ve got a ship to sail, and that’s a full-time job.

Ride the Winds: When the uncontrollable winds blow – a sudden schedule change, an unexpected defeat – lean into them. Use these moments to practise flexibility and adaptability. Adjust your mindset like you’d trim a sail, finding the angle that turns a headwind into a helpful breeze pushing you forward.

Steady the Rudder: Your rudder is your long-term strategy. Keep it steady. Not every training session will feel productive, and not every performance will be your best. That’s not a sign to change course. Trust in your strategy, in the small, consistent actions that steer you towards your destination.

Brace for Storms: When the storms come, and they will, know when to hunker down. Sometimes, dropping the sails is the wisest action. Accept the storm’s presence, let it pass over you, and prepare to sail again once it’s gone. Stoicism isn’t just philosophy; it’s as practical as it gets in sports psychology.

Chart Progress, Not Perfection: Keep a log. Not just of your times and scores, but of how well you stayed within your controllable realm. Did you keep your composure? Did you adjust your strategy effectively? Progress is in these small victories, not just the numbers on a scoreboard.

Captain’s Log: Finally, at the end of each day, reflect on your journey. Write down what you controlled well and what you didn’t. Then, let go of the latter. This log is your personal reminder that the journey is yours, unique and incomparable. Use it to bolster your confidence and keep your ship sailing true to your course.

CONCLUSION

As we dock at the end of our journey, let’s take a moment to glance back at the sea we’ve traversed. ‘Captain Your Ship: Distinguishing Between Controllables and Non-Controllables in Sports’ isn’t just a phrase—it’s your compass and chart for the challenging waters of athletic pursuit. You’ve learned to set your destination, identify the forces at play, and navigate through storms with strategy and foresight.

Remember, the seasoned sailor isn’t made in calm waters, but in the rolling waves of adversity. You’ve now got the toolkit to distinguish between the gusts you can harness and the squalls you must endure. With a steadfast hand on the rudder of controllables and an accepting eye on the horizon of non-controllables, your journey in sport is yours to command.

Take this manifesto with you as you sail forth. Let it remind you that while you cannot calm every storm, you can adjust your sails, sharpen your focus, and steer with courage. Your ship—your athletic career—is as strong as your conviction, and as resilient as your ability to adapt.

So, chart your course, sail with purpose, and know that every challenge weathered brings you closer to your destination. Your journey is unique, and your path is yours alone to sail. With the wisdom of the sea and the wind at your back, may you navigate towards your goals with confidence and the quiet strength of the tides beneath you.

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Jesse Engelbrecht

SportMind Founder,
High Performance Coach,
& Squash Professional

A professional and dedicated coach full of enthusiasm and passion for helping and teaching.

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