August 26, 2012

Are Real Laser Sailors Dumber than Dirt?

by Pam

So, here’s the deal. I’m just 29 (plus 20) and Doug is already in his 60s. So, I’m a bit like a new mother who constantly checks to see if her baby is still breathing. Ok, I do sometimes shake Doug when he’s asleep with his mouth hanging open but I’m actually talking about being concerned with how scatterbrained he is. One minute, he’s brilliant and the next, yep, dumber than dirt. He assures me his brain has operated in this odd fashion since he was in his 20s but, nonetheless, since I didn’t know him then and he wouldn’t know if he was beginning to lose his mind, I decided to get a base line and sent him for an MRI of his brain as well as full blown neurological testing. The results were very telling and absolutely fascinated the doctor but it got me to wondering if he had the typical brain of a real Laser sailor. You see, what I took for scatterbrained and dumb was just an unchallenged and thoroughly bored brain.
The cognitive portion of the tests took all day long. Doug was off the charts and excelled at spatial concepts all across the board but when it came to other cognitive tests, he began as inefficient and below average. However, as the tests sped up and got harder and more intense, Doug’s brain became markedly more efficient and he was then above average. The doctor said he comes across this type of brain about once every two years. Essentially, at the lower end of testing, Doug’s brain is so unchallenged that it just can’t function well but as the pressure mounts and it becomes more challenging, his brain soars with excitement and fully engages. The doctor said most people start out doing well on the tests and then their performance falls as it gets harder and faster. The line on the chart goes down instead of up.
I’ve frequently noticed with Doug’s sailing that he makes all sorts of really stupid mistakes when it’s just a local event and there isn’t any pressure. However, as the event becomes more significant and the competition of a higher caliber, his sailing goes from average to fairly impressive. A nice leisurely sail or race just won’t do for him. He wants it to hurt and be uncomfortable and wants his competition to be ruthless. He lives for that crap. He is most definitely a real Laser sailor. I am the exact opposite. I fall flat on my face and get tangled in lines, spin, tip, crash or fall out of the boat when the pressure is on. Just watching Doug compete at the Master Worlds, I was so nervous my stomach hurt and he had to calm me down. I am most definitely not a real Laser sailor.
So, it begs the question. Has Doug’s brain always worked this way or has it developed over time until it thrives on challenge, pressure, and competition? Meaning, could I, with experience and repeated exposure, actually change my brain to a point where I too come fully alive when challenged? And then, of course, whether the brain can or can’t be changed, doesn’t it make sense for sailors wanting to compete at the highest levels to know whether their brains get high on competition or turn them into deer in the headlights. Not to dwell on the US Olympic results, but did the sailors’ training include a neurological profile that shows whether they will rise or fall under pressure?
Doug believes that his brain has changed and evolved over time in response to his sailing experience. Countless times, I’ve heard him predict the mental crash and burn of a sailor who is in first place on the last day of an important regatta. If they haven’t been in that position before, he’ll take a bet any day of the week that they’ll take themselves out of the competition. Likewise, he’ll always bet on the comeback of a seasoned sailor who is hanging on by a thread. He has just missed winning the Master Worlds many more times than he’s won. Years ago, he held himself fully responsible for the losses. Now, when he’s beat, he knows that other guy(s) were just flat out better sailors and he considers it a privilege to have had the chance to compete with them at that level. That subtle shift, from I lost to he won, would be indicative of an evolution wouldn’t it? Maybe there’s hope for me after all.


  1. The million dollar question

  2. Food for thought. In fact so much food I may have to take time to digest it and regurgitate a full blog post of my own!

    1. It's an interesting subject. Prior to having any medical evidence, I attempted to write about this once before when Doug was doing some coaching at Cabarete and there was a very talented sailor there who had skills to burn so he didn't think Doug had anything to teach him. He was wrong but I'm not sure if he's figured that out yet.

    2. Mike Lindstrom 189827August 27, 2012 at 9:27 AM

      Is Doug up for a Master only coaching clinic? I know the kids need help too but not as much as I do. Not sure about the brain thing; my dad was offered a Rhodes scholorship when he was 17 and turned it down to go to Kentucky and act like a munk. As with most things I think it's the challenge. To some what is hard is boring to others. Motivation is key.

      Are you two going to Austin this weekend, home to the worlds largest piece of grey matter?

    3. Doug will be in Austin for sure but I'm only a maybe. As for a Master only clinic, I don't think he's ever done one of those. I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be up for it. When and where did you have in mind?

  3. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
    I would be curious how Doug did with the traditional educational system. My guess is he was not a star student because much of it bored him.

    There are so many paths to wisdom/success and the more I see of life the more I am convinced that so much of "normal" and "accepted" is not only missing the point but is counterproductive.

    When do you or anyone come fully alive? I buy into the theory that it is when we are in the flow - "a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work."

    A lot of good work on the subject by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - dont ask me how to pronounce his name, but he is worth checking out.

  4. I'll have to check out Mihaly's work. Doug had vision issues most of his life which made him incompatible with traditional education. His path has been one of an 'improper course' for most of his life. We've updated our profile in the right margin with a link that provides a few more details of Doug's adventures.

  5. Pam, content aside, what an amazing piece of writing. Wow.

    I wonder how much of the brain's own drug, adrenaline, has to do with it? How Doug handles pressure situations so well may be that he can use this drug more efficiently than most.

  6. Thank you! You might have a point. I need to figure out how to test that theory.


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