Sleep, Communication and teamwork

Trainingkickstarter - Performance with heart and brain
Trainingkickstarter - Performance with heart and brain
Sleep, Communication and teamwork

Sleep, Communication and Team Work in Ocean Racing

This blog is the written manuscript for a special edition podcast for the Round Zealand Sailing Week, commencing from June 10th to 18th 2023

Ocean Racing can be fun, challenging and a great way to train and sharpen skills at sea while participating in a competition governed by gentleman rules. Sailing into the night days in a row however, ocean racing usually takes its toll on every participant. Tiredness sets in.

Commands tend to be shorter, and less precise and perhaps lacking the required patience to ensure everyone feels appreciated for their effort. As one long distance race sailor put it, “you haven’t felt tiredness until you’ve seen the come up over the horizon.

No matter if you’re the leader of the pack finishing in 36 hours or less or you’re in the rest of the field where finishing is the main challenge spending up to 72 hours crossing the finish line, everybody will experience the effects of both acute and accumulated sleep loss. This affects your cognitive level of functioning and affect the mood and the ease at which you and your team can stay motivated and keep performing through aversity.

My Name is Robert Benjamin Andersen, I’m a psychologist for 18 years and in charge of the Sleep Clinic at the private hospital Aleris Psychology Department in Copenhagen.

In this podcast I will speak on how to understand and deal with sleep loss and strategies to counter act the negative effects. I will address how the skipper can focus on being the role model and help guide the crew’s attention and keeping motivation and spirits high.


From a behavioral point of view, sleep can be described as a state where the person is quiet, unresponsive to the surrounding environment, typically laying down and being able to reverse this state to full alertness within seconds or at the minimum minutes.

Sleep is governed by our circadian rhythm with a wake period for odd 16 hours and a sleep period for 8 hours. The body autonomous nervous system awakens round 4 a.m. starting to produce alertness with wakefulness starting from 6 a.m. to 10 pm.

This also means that the body will be at its lowest point 4. a.m. and it’s a know fact that most traffic accidents happen between 4 and 6 in the morning. Timing of sleep and wake may differ depending on being a lark rising early and going early to bed or being an owl staying up late into the night and preferring to rise late.

Feeling sleepy is a response to the circadian rhythm releasing melatonin and ceasing releasing high levels of cortisol in the evening. This is reversed in the morning where cortisol levels rising driving arousal and attention for the coming day.

Tiredness is a result of time awake where several neurotoxins build up in the brain primarily in the prefrontal cortex, hampering neurotransmission and there by our alertness, response rate, ability to plan and execute actions in the correct order.

At the same time our ability to motivate ourselves and stay aware of other people’s needs, will decline as our need to sleep, pressures us towards a place where we can lay down, be quiet and disconnect from the environment for a while.

Most people will need 7-8 hours of sleep on an average basis to maintain cognitive and emotional functioning. That said many will sleep somewhat less during the week and catch up in the weekend and experience no ill effects.

15% of the population though report in various polls that they do not get sufficient sleep due to work and family responsibilities, and in my experience perhaps have some questionable habits leading to sleep curtailment where short sleep becomes the norm. This will lead to accumulated sleep loss that have similar negative effects to cognition and emotional wellbeing as acute sleep loss.

Preparing for an ocean race this is an important thing to note, and the Skipper should request that crew do their best to show up with no accumulated sleep loss or acute sleep for race day. On the day of the start of the race, if possible, the crew should sleep as long as possible so that the process of building up neurotoxins in the brain is delayed as long as possible.  

An Italian study on regatta sailors chronotype, showed that most sailors were larks. Having everybody up in the morning at the same time can be great for a day race, but when the crew is planned to work in shifts of 4 hours on/off duty it can be helpful with both larks and owls to counter the effects of prolonged wakefulness.

Getting sleep when off duty will off-set the effects of prolonged wakefulness by clearing out and recycle waste products in the brain. Planned right this could help offset the effects of prolonged wakefulness until the early morning helping when the circadian rhythm will help rising alertness again to higher levels.

For this strategy to work best, sleep cycles of at least 90 minutes should be prioritized letting the brain have a cycle of deep sleep and some REM sleep.

Keeping up performance

It’s a common know fact that best time of day for physical activity and performance is during late afternoon and early evening. In the morning our body is still building up arousal levels, and during the night arousal declines.

Another way to look at this, is to observe a relationship between arousal and performance on an X-Y plot. Yerkes Dawson model of performance assumes and inverted U relation between arousal levels and performance assuming an optimal zone of arousal for performance on a specific task.

A Skipper will prefer the crew to be alerted to upcoming tasks while executing them in a calm and coordinated manner without undue stress or sudden exaggerated behavior.

Lack of sleep though will lead to “jittery responses” and exaggerated executions and difficulty on planning the correct order of tasks. This is because the body is stressed from the lack of sleep and prefrontal cortex is not functioning optimally. The brain will need help in guiding attention and staying motivated, confident and competent.

Skippers’ role is both to keep the crew alerted and primed to the next task, while at the same time avoiding stressing the crew to a point where skills and performance will decline.

Albert Banduras model of building self-efficacy can be inspiring for the skipper.

The model suggests that self-efficacy and achievement occurs when tasks and goals are presented in a way – where the person feels 100% certain that he or she can execute them.

That means that goals and task should broke down into manageable and understandable actions. An successful executed task will result in a feeling of mastery. Successive mastery experiences build on each other and strengthens a belief of self-confidence.

The second point is to utilize different skill levels among the crew and make certain everybody participates in passing on what they have learned in a friendly manner. This will help set expectations both on skills but also necessary attitudes and norms for performance on different levels of experience and skills.

Many skills in sports are tacit and best learned through observation and imitation. The more experienced crew therefor are important role models in passing on knowledge and skills.

This can be an important point to address continuously especially when the situation is tough and full of adversity, when tiredness, hunger or cold sets in. Shared goals that go beyond podium positions can help keep the crew – everybody should strive towards not just being a winner, but a champion.

I often find inspiration in Muhammed Ali. His goal was to create a platform on which he could address black people’s rights a goal going much further than just winning the next fight. I would suggest that every skipper should communicate his or her goal on participating and winning and why this goal goes way beyond the finish line.  

This leads to the third principle in building self-efficy. Feedback on task execution should always motivate to make yet another effort of mastery and build positive emotions of respect, concern and appreciation. Successive attempts should at the very least should be followed with an acknowledgement with a task well done.

And forth attention should be guided to “stay in the zone” both cooling off and warming up to a task. This is relevant both in a single-hand task, shorthanded or with a full crew. Peptalks are helpful to warm people up to the challenge, building up energy and focusing attention on the task and the order in which to execute it – and afterwards appreciation is helpful to calm people down after maximum effort with high levels of adrenaline.

Controlled breathing is an excellent way to tell the body “I’m safe again – dangers over, I can calm down and refocus”.

Let me summaries, everybody on board can help create an atmosphere of “seamanship and confidence” by setting tasks that are within peoples grasp to solve.

By being a role model both for task execution and team culture, motiving each other to keep trying and last helping each other building energy levels and calming down again.

The skipper can help guiding the crew’s behavior though observing these principles.

Guiding attention under pressure

When stress, cold, tiredness and exhaustion set in – attention narrow, skill levels decline and cognitive impairment for lack of sleep hampers concentration. In sport, this effect it also known as “choking”.  

Choking can be counteracted by using Nideffers Model of Attention which is effective a self-talk procedure for single-handled sailors or a guided discussion with a full crew. The Model of Attention Intuitively states, Attention can be either broad or narrow focusing internally or externally.

Plotted on two dimensions we get a grid with first “Broad External Focus” where we assess the situation based on our reading of the environment.

Second, we dive in “broad Internally” and analyze our options based on knowledge and experience.

Thirdly we narrow down internally and plan and prepare the order of actions we deem necessary and fourthly go narrow broadly again and execute the tasks at hand.

As a guiding principle, this can help staying focused and avoiding choking, by nudging our attention in the right direction. Also, it can be framework to use between tactician, pitman, navigator and skipper to facilitate shared attention before tasks are executed.

Last remarks

In this podcast, I have talked about the importance of sleep, both before a ocean race event to make sure the crew is not carrying sleep-debts on aboard as this will compile on the effects of prolonged wake-fullness that is an inevitable part of long distance ocean racing.

Prolonged wakefulness will have an impact on both cognitive and emotional resources. This is due to the circadian rhythm that regulations attention during the course of a day and a homeostatic buildup of neurotoxins that needs to be cleared with processes happening during sleep. 

The negative effects of prolonged wakefulness can be somewhat off-set with sleep-cycles of 90 minutes. This can be monitored and planned with a “sleep-log” paying attention to total sleep time.

Prolonged wakefulness will take its toll at some point for everybody. Paying attention to communication can help keep the crew feel motivated, appreciated and confident.

Sports specific self confidence occurs when tasks are experienced and 100% manageable, when role models are available and feedback is focused on building positive emotions, where peptalks builds energy and appreciation helps people calm down.

Coordination on a task can be assisted with a 4 step process – Assess the situation with broad external attention, then Analyze prober action going broad internally, Narrowing down internally planning and preparing and finishing broad and narrow with executing the task.

If you found this podcast interesting, you can head over to and find the written manuscript of this podcast as a blogpost with pictures of the models I have presented.

I hope you have found some inspiration for your next ocean race, and I wish you God Speed and a Safe journey.