Monday, 28 December 2009

The Pecking Order

I've decried my lack of experience in endurance sports ad infinitum in previous posts, but there is one great similarity between sailing and cycling, and that is the pecking order. By this I mean the proclivity of competitors to act a certain way to other competitors based upon their perceived superiority or inferiority to them. In both sports, the pecking order can negatively or positively affect competitors. In some cases, a racer who's high up on the totem pole can be marked and his moves stifled. In other, usually more prevalent cases, competitors who deem themselves to be inferior will act submissively and allow those players whom they perceive to be superior to themselves to gain the upper hand. Positioning in sailing is super critical, and your aggressiveness in securing advantageous positioning for yourself is often where the game is won or lost. Cycling is the same way - you tack onto a move at a critical moment or watch it sail away forever. Opportunities lost are not easily regained.

Much of this post is going to be about successes and failures that I've had. My intent is not to toot my horn. Hopefully the general mien of my posts makes that obvious, but if it doesn't, the reason I do this is because I have a ready set of examples of things that happened to me which will illustrate thoughts that I'm having. If it helps, whenever I use "I" or "we," just replace it with "this guy I know" or "some people I know." The fact of my involvement in them is irrelevant but for the fact that as a result I have pretty good knowledge of them and have thought about them over the years.

A commonality between sailing and cycling is that both are sports where the winners are, to a huge extent, determined long before the actual game is contested. Both are preparation intensive, with incremental gains being meted out as the rewards for volumetric effort. Both involve man and machine, creating a blurred distinction between technical and technique- or fitness-based gains. The equivalent of someone changing his TT position or moving his road bike seat position and finding a marked aerodynamic advantage or outsized power gain is more likely to happen in sailing than in cycling, but in both sports they are the exception rather than the norm. Both sports predominantly make you work for it.

There are two experiences I've had with the pecking order in sailing which dominate my thoughts about it. The first was at the very end of my college sailing career. Tufts kind of sucks now, ranked somewhere in the high teens, which is historically not where the program should be. During my senior year, as I recall we never got the #1 ranking but spent the year well inside the top ten. We had five legitimate helmsmen heading into nationals, where four would go - two starters and two alternates. One of the alternates would reasonably have no shot of seeing any action. One of the five would be left home entirely. Heading into the two weeks of practice, I was the fifth. My results in regattas all year had been great - so good they almost didn't seem real. But because I hadn't been doing as well as the others in practice, I was often competing in the second tier events. Is the rider who dominates NRC sprints comparable to the rider who's regularly in the top ten and sometimes on the podium at ProTour level events? But for two very high level wins that year, I hadn't made a compelling case for myself.

During this discussion I will refer to my situation as "we," since in all of these situations I was sailing with other people. In college, it was one other. In the other example, it was four others. In all cases, I was steering the boat. To explain the team dynamic to the level it deserves is beyond the scope of my intent here.

My practice results just weren't good enough to make the coach believe that I was capable of translating my "NRC" race results into "ProTour" race results. Why I was so much better in actual regattas as opposed to practices is up for debate, but the ready answers are that I used practices to, you know, practice and learn, and that I'm competitive. It's often been noted of me that I'm transformed as a rider when I have someone to chase, sometimes taking back riders who I have "no shot" at closing down, and I think it's a valid point.

Anyhow, prior to Nationals we had two weeks of practice, one in Newport and one on the Cape. In Newport, my crew and I got hot and pretty well dominated the first two days before settling into a position of parity with the others. But for those first two days, we didn't compellingly tip the status quo. Objectively, it was "hey, those guys made a nice effort," but not "oh shit, they've just upset the apple cart." On the Cape, we demolished the apple cart. Whether it was the lack of pressure from knowing that our likely best outcome was to be the second alternate or that we had finally merged our academic practice pursuits with our race competitiveness, or the fact that quitting drinking and running my ass off to drop a few pounds (it pays to be wicked light in college sailing, and I was 4 or 5 inches taller than a lot of the better college sailors) had borne fruit, who knows. The result was us winning a huge percentage of the practice races, generally pretty easily. The coach's interesting response was one of anger towards us, and not any garden variety malaise but outright hostility. Clearly we'd made his decision much tougher, an unwelcome intrusion into the order of affairs. Through the week, he became more and more hostile, eventually introducing artificial constraints into the races (ostensibly to replicate conditions in Charleston, SC, where Nationals was to be held) that he thought would be injurious to our strengths. We still won. The whole thing ended about halfway through the last day, when while we were winning yet another race, he motored up to us and just starting yelling a bunch of dopey shit at us - really venomous stuff, beyond what had been going on. I never considered that he may have been trying to replicate the pressure of the Nationals environment to see how we'd fare - I don't give him that much credit - but the end result was that on what may or may not have been the last day of my college sailing career under any circumstances, I quit the team, sailed in, drove home, and got on with the rest of my life. The team had an interesting time at Nationals, one boat did exceptionally, one boat did terribly. Some stranger than fiction stuff happened. All four Tufts skippers ahead of me were named to the All America team that year, and while I was nominated to it I wasn't selected.

The pecking order won that one.

The next instance was a few years later, while sailing in a class of boat called a Melges 24. My team had been slowly creeping up the results, eventually getting to the point where we got third in one race at Worlds and were third amateur team and 13th overall at Worlds. Quite good, but not fully competitive at the top level. Worlds was in June, and there were some important events later in the year, at which we'd have a chance to compete against a lot of the people from Worlds. In August, at the East Coast Championship, we started out by winning the first race. Any blind squirrel can find a nut once, but when we got second in the next race things were starting to feel a little different. Through the three days of the championship, I think our worst race was a fifth or so and we comfortably took the overall. One of the strangest and most powerful things of my competitive life - maybe life in general - was the feeling of transformation that took place throughout the event. I started to recognize situations where I would previously have subconsciously sabotaged myself in deference to someone higher on the pecking order, and realize that my instinct had changed. We were taking full advantage of those situations now. Our results through the rest of our time in that class were very solid (except for Worlds the next year where we only nominally improved on the previous year's finish), and taking a repeat win at the East Coasts the next year seemed like a formality as it happened.

So what does all of this have to do with anything else? I can't exactly say, except that I get really psyched when I see someone break through the pecking order and establish him or herself at a new and higher level. Which makes it all the more disappointing when you read stories like the one that's just come out about Tom Zirbel testing positive for DHEA. It won't ruin my day or affect me more than a bunch of other things which may or may not happen this week. It's just that I think we all have a tendency to root for the underdog to break through and turn over the apple cart. Sometimes you get the bear, some days the bear gets you, and some days it's really obvious that the whole jungle is on 'roids.

More on the actual 'roids thing later, as a project has had me thinking about it tremendously more than usual lately, and it's led in some really unexpected directions.


TerribleTerry said...

"project"? You doing a 10 questions with Tiger's Dr. Galea? Or the Bond's Dr. Halevie-Goldman?

Chuck Wagon said...

No, Cheech and Chong. Sort of a reunion deal - tentatively titled "Greatest Hits From The Bong." But keep it under wraps for now.