Sean O'Brien is the number 1 ranking Olympic and Formula class windsurfer in Australia and is ranked 11th in the world. Sean has been capturing the world's attention as he competes in Europe and Australia throughout the year. With a psychology degree Sean has mastered the mental science of competing but for those of us not so familiar with the art of windsurfing so much more knowledge is required including aerodynamics, sailing and meteorology.
So let's take a look at what it takes for Sean to be a world champion in his sport in this two part interview. Whatever your sport there is always something you can learn from athletes. Sean O'Briens general attitude of excellence is contagious and can help us with our own day to day decisions in life.
Gabrielle Reilly: We try to analyze champion attributes here for us all to use in our own lives (noticed you have a psychology degree so sure you can relate). What do you think makes you the best at what you do and how much of it is mental?
SEAN O'BRIEN: My sport of windsurfing is extremely mental and the ones who can apply their knowledge and understanding of the "science" behind the sport just as much as the physical side usually do the best on the race course. I liken windsurfing racing to Formula One racing except that you have don't have a team of engineers behind you; you are the sole engineer and mechanic. Each year, new equipment is designed and sold to the public and there are always new developments in equipment and performance. It's our job to test the new equipment against last yearˇ's equipment and then try the multitude of combinations of settings and tuning ideas to find the fastest gear around the course. On top of that, we are allowed (to some extent) to do custom modifications to the equipment so I am often spending a lot of time in the workshop designing modifications to our equipment and tinkering with new ideas.
On top of the physical side of the sport, racing windsurfers involves having to have a deep understanding of meteorology, fluid dynamics, aerodynamics as well as an in-depth knowledge of complex sailing tactics. There is a lot of books written about all these topics, but none of them are specific to windsurfing, so I've spent a lot of time over the years reading books and working out ways to apply the information to windsurfing. Having completed a Psychology degree and studied a little bit of Biomedical Science at University, I have a good appreciation of the scientific research model and I believe thatˇ's given me a very analytical and methodical approach to learning about my sport. Recently I've started a website called www.carbonsugar.com where I've been writing scientific articles about board design, sailing tactics and using modern technology in windsurfing training this has been a good way for me to consolidate my knowledge and I've found by writing things down I can commit all the things I am reading to memory and the knowledge becomes a "reflex" out on the race course.
Windsurfing racing can be difficult at times to piece all the different aspects of the sport together. No matter how hard you train at the gym or on the water you can still be beaten if you don't pick the weather changes on the day or if you haven't tuned your equipment to perfection for that day's conditions. Because we are racing in different parts of the world we often come across new weather phenonemons that don't exist in the parts of the world I live and so there can also be an element of chance on top of all the calculated plans you make on race day. That's what makes the sport so exciting for me; having to be prepared for absolutely anything that mother nature can throw at you on the race course.
Gabrielle Reilly: What training (if you can call playing around in the ocean "training") do you do to achieve such great results?
SEAN O'BRIEN: I basically have two phases of training as I live half a year in Australia and half a year in Europe. In Europe, I'm on the Pro Tour and travelling all the time so I don't get access to gyms and I can't always have my bike with me, so I'm usually sailing a lot more (7 days a week with usually 4-5 hours a day on the water) and just doing some light running to stay flexible. I do a small amount of strength work (just excercises with my own bodyweight) to maintain my strength, as I've usually done a heavy gym program before arriving to get strong for the Tour. When I'm in Australia, I don't live as close to the beach and the conditions aren't always perfect so I'm doing a lot more training in the gym and cross training by cycling, swimming and also playing some other sports like indoor soccer and touch-football to keep mixing it up. I use the time in Australia to set out a more long-term program of strength building and tapering to get ready for Europe the following season.
The windsurfing part of the training is actually interesting, because I have to divide the time up between testing and actually training skills. At the beginning of the season we get new boards and sails so I have to do a lot of tuning and testing to get the new equipment dialed in and also work with my fin sponsors to find the right fin characteristics to work on the new boards. I usually do all the testing of gear by myself using GPS units to track speeds and angles and then analyzing the data on a computer at home. This can either take a few weeks to do, or a few months to do depending on conditions as you need to test all your gear combinations in ALL types of weather conditions. Once the gear is dialed in I can go back to regular training which is more just fitness training on the water and working on technique and fundamental sailing tactics with my coach.
I guess you could say the summer in Australia is my "off season" as I'm only doing National Events in Australia which are non-professional events and I see it as a bit of an opportunity to do less sailing as I'm usually burnt out after 6-months of sailing nearly every day in Europe. When I arrive in Europe to get ready for the start of the Pro Tour, its business time and my training goes in to overdrive.
Gabrielle Reilly: We look forward to bringing you part two of Sean O'Brien's interview next month.