Q&A: ORACLE TEAM USA’S Philippe Presti

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A veteran of three America’s Cup syndicates, Coach Philippe Presti is poised to lead ORACLE TEAM USA, Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup, to its most exciting victory to date. The French sailor first made waves during his competitive sailing years with a relatively late debut at age 20, quickly gaining speed by winning championships in three different classes. Now, he’s pushing the boundaries of the sport again–this time by coaching, as he says, “like a sailor, but off the boat.” For Presti, that means relying heavily on technology that helps the sailors gain immediate insights into their performance, saving time, enabling quick recalibration, and most importantly, facilitating the kind of agility and autonomy that the team will need to claim the Cup.

Presti talks with One Medical Group about innovation, leadership, dealing with stress–and the challenges he faces in coaching this team.

How would you describe your coaching style?

My goal is to observe and give a broader view, because when you’re on the boat, you have tunnel vision. I try to organize the video and audio information so I can present the facts to the sailors. I know what I want them to do, but it’s much better if they realize it on their own. These are talented guys, so I can’t dictate what they do.

Why do you emphasize evidence so much in your coaching?

For change to happen, you need to sell an idea. That is where evidence becomes important. Sometimes the guys have another idea. Looking at the evidence is like watching a movie, but without the emotional part. And it helps the team’s concentration when they can see what’s wrong.

You can’t just tell someone what to do and expect it will happen. But when an idea becomes that sailor’s own mental property, he will do it perfectly.

What kind of technology do you use on board to help improve team performance?

I have a couple of GoPros on board, so we see the boat sailing along, the driver driving the boat, the wing coming in and out. We hear the onboard voice, and the communication from the driver to the sailors. We also see the display and the speed of the boat.

How do you present the audio and visual from the boat?

It’s a lot of work to make sure we provide the right information. We have to synchronize it to the video, broadcast it to the sailors, pick the right spots. But that’s why, as a coach, I think like a sailor; I’m really connected to what these guys are doing. That helps in choosing the information we need to present.

What are the biggest challenges you face in coaching this team?

The language is tough. Anglo-Saxons talk quickly, they’ve got their private jokes; you can lose track of a conversation pretty quickly. So I try to improve my English, that’s my first challenge.

Cultural differences can also be challenging. For example, Kiwis are different than Aussies and Americans and South Europeans. To coach a team, I need to understand the character of the people on that team and the way they approach things. That helps me choose what path to follow in order to prove an idea to someone.

What was going through your mind during the capsize last October?

This job has the potential to be life-threatening. We know we might lose people. So when it happened, first we had to get everyone on board to safety. We weren’t thinking about the future. During the action, you’re reacting–you’re throwing ropes, getting people on board, counting the guys, making decisions, communicating with people, and minimizing the damage.

Saving the boat was second. Obviously, we were not prepared to save the boat, and we lost equipment and time.

How do you recover from a setback like that?

I was in charge of the recovery, and there was a lot of frustration across departments. So I sent a questionnaire to everybody–from the cleaning guy to Russell Coutts–and asked for their feedback on how to avoid such a crisis in the future. Everyone watched the video, so they knew what happened. I received hundreds of pages of comments.

It was a good lesson. With these high-performance boats, you’re pushing hard. Everyone realizes it could happen again. But if it does, we will be more prepared this time.

How do you get the team to continue to innovate?

Every day, I try to come up with something new, to vary the routine and continue to improve. Sometimes it’s small–new ideas, or a question, or another way to present things. I do this also for my mental integrity. For example, someone requested a display where you could see the video but you could also see the motion of the boards during the straight lines. So I went to the designer to build this software, and this morning I presented it to the team.

How do you inspire your team to do their best?

There’s no one piece of advice; it has to be based on the individual. When I talk to Jimmy Spithill or John Kostecki or Kyle Langford, my message will be different. When Jimmy says something to me, for example, I know exactly what he wants; sometimes there’s no need for conversation.

What’s a challenge unique to sailing as a competitive sport?

On a big team like this one, you need really good leadership–the boat has a driver, but it doesn’t have the throttle or the brakes. That’s where the sailors must work together as a team. It’s a big orchestra, and strong leadership helps sequence the things you want.

How do you mentally prepare for a competition?

As a coach, it’s much easier than it is for a sailor. When I arrive at a competition, 90 percent of the job is done. I check that everything is right and at that point, I become a spectator again. For sailors, it’s different because they have to perform. They need to build a routine, so when the time comes and the pressure is on, they just do the routine.

How important is chemistry on the boat?

It’s huge. It’s a demanding sport, with different roles; some require hard physical work, others are more mental. These two worlds have to work well and understand each other. If you have the wrong chemistry, it won’t work. Two words might be too much–or might not be enough–to describe the situation, or you might be too late or right on time.

That’s why recording audio on the boat is so important. Voice is very personal, and the way you communicate–the words, the tone, the speed–makes a difference. This is a very important part of the coaching process, to ensure that the team communicates well.

How do you deal with stress?

My biggest improvement in life was realizing I needed to deal with stress and emotion differently than I did when I was younger. Even now, I work on my mental side. Emotion is great, emotion is creativity, but it can kill you when you have to perform. Performing should be subconscious; you don’t want to think.

All my life it’s been a continual discovery of how to manage emotion and performance. To perform, you have to be locked, self-centered–emotion gives you an opening. Being a coach is much easier, because you don’t have to deal with the stress of the performance like an athlete does.

When I competed, I was technically as good as some of my competitors, but I had to learn what they already knew: how control my emotions in order to perform better. Back then, on the morning of a race, you could have said something and it could ruin my day.

What keeps you balanced?

My family keeps me balanced, my kids and partner. At one stage, I was about to stop this job because it was too hard without them. So I made arrangements so they could be here, with me, as I was working. Nothing is worth it if you don’t have this piece of the puzzle.

What legacy do you hope to leave one day?

Everything is oriented on my family. I want to make my kids, my family happy.  I want to put them on the right path.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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