Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel speaking to Justine Mettraux ahead of the iconic Leg 3 of The Ocean Race, Cape Town, South Africa

The Ocean Race: Mind the Gap – The Psychology of a Team

by 11th Hour Team

People don’t like the idea of other people messing with their minds, which is why an organizational psychologist like Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel must tread carefully when she joins a new project. It wasn’t such a difficult introduction for Anje-Marijcke to 11th Hour Racing Team, as she was already well known to skipper Charlie Enright and team CEO Mark Towill. “I had worked with Bouwe Bekking and Team Brunel for the previous two editions,” says Anje-Marijcke, “so I had seen a lot of Charlie and Mark around the previous races, which makes things easier.”

Building trust is a long-term process, which is why Anje-Marijcke has been working with us for the best part of three years. “I have been with the team since they were finishing off the build of the boat,” she says. “You get an opportunity to chat with people, and then you lengthen those conversations, you go for short walks and that is how you built trust. Gradually they let you in, and that’s when the process really starts towards creating optimal performance.”

When working with a team, building trust is best done from the top down, according to Anje-Marijcke. “You start out with the leader because a leader’s behavior is contagious. So it’s the skipper first, or a CEO if I’m working with a business. Then you move on to crew members, and the third area of development is the team as a whole. Mark and Charlie invited me to be one of the crew members, and that was an important first step.”

Once the trust is there, and people understand that she is there not to undermine anyone, but to help the team members be the best that they can be, that’s when the hard work starts. It’s about challenging assumptions, asking each individual to look at themselves and others from different perspectives.

While Anje-Marijcke is too modest to take excessive credit for the turnaround in fortunes for Team Brunel’s race in 2017-18, her mid-race intervention is widely acknowledged in helping Bouwe Bekking’s campaign find a higher gear. After a lackluster first half of the race, Team Brunel won Leg 7 from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, rounding the infamous Cape Horn. It was the first signs of a renaissance that would endure for the remainder of the race, and which saw the Dutch team only just miss out on overall victory.

“The team had only come together six days before the race start in Alicante, so it was inevitable that Bekking’s hastily gathered crew would struggle to work together as a cohesive unit,” says Anje-Marijcke. “Integrating young America’s Cup sailors with limited offshore experience into the crew required time that just wasn’t available.

“In Auckland we had a big conversation about what it takes to be a good team. Identifying what were the ineffective team patterns. It was also about reaching out to each other, and helping each other, to foster good behaviors and the effective thoughts in our teammates.

“For example, you have some sailors who are pushing, pushing, pushing, who always want to go faster all the time. Which when you’re offshore is not sustainable for the people or the boat, because things will break if you push, push, push all the time. If some people are pushing for high speed, and others are pushing for more safety and less risk, this can create a high level of tension unless there is an honest conversation about these differences of approach. It’s about learning to understand and appreciate the value in other points of view.”

With 11th Hour Racing Team, Anje-Marijcke has had the time and opportunity to address these issues much earlier, although there’s no substitute for the pressures of actual racing in the heat of The Ocean Race itself.

In Charlie and Mark, Anje-Marijcke says she has two clients who are extremely open to new ideas and to change. “They are not dictators, they are not into hierarchies, they like to run the team as a very flat structure where every crew member holds equal value to the skipper. Mark and Charlie are really nice people, they are focused on creating harmonious environments and making sure people are having a great time doing what they do.

“But I brought this up early on, that sometimes there is a danger that we are all too nice to each other. We are all aware of the stories in ocean races where the tensions are running so high that people want to murder each other, so it’s natural that we want to avoid those conflicts. But at the same time we can’t afford to sweep different opinions under the carpet. So it’s about ways of allowing for disagreements and accepting that they will arise, to be able to solutions for complex challenges.”

One thing that everyone can agree on is that sailing on board an IMOCA is a brutal, tough way of life. It’s hard on the mind and the body, more so than any other type of boat in the 50 year history of the race.

“Sailing the IMOCA demands higher levels of resilience than ever before,” says Anje-Marijcke. “All the things we have just talked about, being aware of ourselves and our teammates, appreciating and accepting their different strengths and weaknesses as well as our own, the IMOCA environment asks sailors to come out of their comfort zone more than ever before.”

After winning Leg 4 into Newport, Rhode Island, it certainly looks like Charlie and his team are on the up, but with the high pressure of a double-point leg ahead, there’s nothing more important than trusting each other.




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