In every physical adventure mental toughness plays an important part in your eventual success. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account of Kiwi Scott Donaldson and his 62-day solo kayak across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. There were several key points that can be applied your everyday life and every physical adventure; I have summarised these at the bottom of this post by Jane Matthews who spoke with Scott about ‘what it took mentally and physically to conquer the 2200 kilometres between Australia and New Zealand’ for Stuff.co.nz
There wasn’t a single moment during Scott Donaldson’s 62-day solo kayak journey across the Tasman Sea where he considered quitting.
Not after spending 40 minutes many mornings dressing his blistering wounds with whatever mesh he could find, before he began paddling for the day.
Not after his father-in-law and a family friend died while he was isolated out at sea. Not after being stuck in his cabin for days on end while storms rolled past, and currents ripped him off track, dragging him back toward Australia.
Not even after a shark tried bite off his rudder.
“That’s never an option out there – well never an option for me,” Donaldson says of quitting. “If you’re wired that way, you’re playing the wrong game.”
Donaldson is the first person to successfully kayak solo across the Tasman sea – on his third attempt. He left Coffs Harbour, Australia, on May 2 and arrived on Ngāmotu Beach, Taranaki, on July 2.
He says it’s a physical challenge, for sure, but being able to keep his mind in the right space was the only way he crossed the finish line and stepped foot on New Zealand shores. “You’re constantly trying to manage everything to keep going, including me, in terms of my body. But my brain was never one of those things I had to manage,” he says. “So long as your boat’s floating, the only dangerous thing is that you make poor decisions then you get into trouble. If you make good decisions, you’re never going to get into trouble.”
One thing is clear about Donaldson the minute he sits in front of you – he’s a man with piercing eyes and an attitude to match.
“I think people struggle to comprehend how focused I was out there,” he says. “It was a race, and when you’re racing you have to focus. And that’s what it was like for me for 61 days [with] 16 hours of focus a day.”
There was an “innate motivation” in the fact that if he wanted to get to the end, he had to do one thing – keep moving.
“You have no choice, if you want to get to the end, you’ve got to paddle,” he says. “Out there you’ve got to look for every goal post you can, and use it.”
Donaldson would speak to a meteorologist and his wife Sarah and son Zac, 8, on the phone once every few days. In between he would send a text with his location twice a day while he paddled, completely alone with minimal sleep, looking at nothing but sea and sky. The GPS was the only way Donaldson knew he was moving out on the deep blue sea, so he’d set distance goals to feel a sense of achievement.
“It’s a goal setting system of making sure you’ve got a bottom line for the day, and step up line for the day.” And that was only on the days he was able to row.
“When you go into the cabin, you’re at the weather’s discretion as to when you can come out,” Donaldson says. “At one point I was going backwards for days. So it’s really tough to have a whole set of goal processes in place – strong, good goal processes that motivate you to do 16 hours of paddling – you’ve got to throw them out the window.”
Despite all of this, Donaldson remained completely sane.
“You needed to be able to paddle 16 hours a day and recognise that at 16 and a half hours a day, you’re compromising your mental facilities which is getting you to hallucination, which you can’t afford to do.”
He calls his mindset a mix between a military and elite sport way of thinking.
“When you’re out there it’s a very military frame of mind in terms of, ‘are you tired?’ Yeah. ‘So – doesn’t matter, carry on’,” he says. “‘Is it going to affect your thinking? ‘Yes’. Then you have to manage it, you have to deal with it, you have to do something about it’.
“It’s about maximising performance and mitigating risks or issues that might slow you down. That’s how you cope with everything.”
Five lessons on mental toughness from this post by Paul Lyons
1. Manage your mental state
By “switching on” and actively managing your mental state you can better control the quality of the decisions you make. For Grant this was the key to staying out of trouble as he reflected “If you make good decisions, you’re never going to get into trouble.” This absolutely applies to everyday life too.
2. Learn to mentally switch off
When you are switched on you are on full alert, which takes concentration and focus. However it is equally important to be able to actively switch off to rest mentally and also sometimes to become distracted to ‘rise above’ the physical pain you are experiencing. This latter point was integral for Grant who said if he focused on the pain too much it was exhausting.
3. Adopt the mindset of “don’t give up”
In this situation Grant had set a goal to complete the voyage and he was going to do everything he possibly could to achieve his goal. His baseline was his mental strength and his internal belief that “quitting is never an option”. This commitment to achieving goals despite being distracted or diverted is a key skill is getting things done and making progress within the Mental Toughness 4C’s framework.
4. Focus on setting goals with milestones
An important component of not giving up is to creating goals with milestones and then focus on achieving these milestones. Grant was paddling for 16 hours every day and so needed to stay focused. As he said “You have no choice, if you want to get to the end, you’ve got to paddle,” he says. “Out there you’ve got to look for every goal post you can, and use it.” In Grant’s case these were distance goals that if achieved would signal momentum and progress.
5. Reframe failure as an integral part of success
You win some, you learn some. The greatest successes are often borne from previous failures and the ability to use these prior setbacks as added motivation and understanding what it takes. This was the case for Grant as this was his third attempt to kayak across the Tasman. Everything he had learnt practically, physically and mentally in his previous two trips equipped him to finally achieve his goal.
View Jane’s full article on Stuff.co.nz together with some great photographs of Grant’s voyage and homecoming.
For more on developing resilience and mental toughness contact us.