Pete Burling: Public Pressure, Performance & His Private Life – How NZ’s Most Successful Sailor Keeps His Cool

Peter Burling and his teammate Blair Tuke’s sailing successes speak for themselves, but now the dynamic duo are fronting a new kind of sailing, SailGP, to NZ early next year. We caught up with Pete to talk about how he prepared for getting out on the water, his rituals and daily practices and what it’s like taking on the world with your best mate, one race at a time. 

Pete, we all know about the many triumphs in your career, but I want to know you pull yourself out of a hole when things are just not going your way.  How do you keep your mind in the right place and drop back into flow? 

Firstly I’ve always been quite lucky with the support group I’ve got. I guess I really enjoy the challenges of it all. More than anything, I just lean on my preparation. You put so much work into that one moment, but there’s so much hard work that’s gone on beforehand, before you’re ever really in the public arena. Having said that, it’s definitely tricky at times. That’s part of our game, it’s sort of why you love sport, isn’t it? You’ve got to be able to really enjoy, well, enjoy is probably the wrong word, but really be able to deal with those kinds of moments and love the challenge of it all. 

As a young fella, was there a sense at the beginning that you were going to be able to take it to where you’ve gone to, what were your aspirations back at your beginning?

When I was young growing up sailing, my main thing was just trying to see how good I could get and where I could really take things. I look back at the early days, I was very fortunate I had a few breakthroughs quite early on. I managed to get to my first Olympic games before I’d left high school at 17, that really gave me a taste for it and a good understanding of what it would take to get to the top of the sport. 

Those amazing experiences early on are things that are hard to get at times, to be able to do that at such a young age was pretty special. It’s an incredible amount of hard work, it really does dominate your life and there are things you have to go without and if you’re not really enjoying what you’re doing, it sure makes things a lot harder.

Mental strength and mindset is such a huge aspect of a professional athlete’s life I’m intrigued – over the years or especially in the last few do you have a mindfulness practice? You talk about preparation – what are the tricks or practices that you’ve given a go? 

It’s a huge part of sport and actually being able to put your best foot forward on the day. You talk to a lot of people about high performing sport and whether people are losing medals or whether they’re winning them – it’s quite an interesting way to look at it. If you go to a high-level sporting competition, your goal should be to get a PB and the biggest thing that influences that nine times out of 10 is your mindset and being able to get yourself mentally prepared. 

From a personal point of view I really try to look at getting the mix right – the right level of excitement or adrenaline. It’s quite an interesting one, you look at so many people and when they go into sporting competitions they are too excited, shaking a little bit and making kind of too many split-second decisions. That is fine and of course there is a nice balance in the middle but figuring out how to get yourself to the spot that works for you is crucial.

People see you are a great athlete but of course, you’re a person as well. You’ve been through the challenges of the last few years just like all of us, I’m interested, how has your training has helped you show up for those people?

It has definitely been interesting! You look at certain milestones you set for yourself, you do the preparation and there are some things you think are never going to change, like the date of the Olympic Games. I was incredibly lucky we had the America’s Cup at home so at least I had a really cool task to be able to focus on and put a lot of our energy into. 

But then life after that got quite complicated again. Straight off the back of the America’s Cup, we had to get up to Europe to try and get ready for the Olympics. Then it got even weirder when we went away to the Games, we [myself and Blair] put together a really good performance which we’re really proud of obviously, but we were incredibly gutted to not be able to get a gold medal, especially with the margins being so so close, we literally lost it by by a metre. 

From there we literally didn’t come home for another six months, just because we had SailGP events that we were needed to compete in and we couldn’t figure out a window to actually get back to celebrate with friends and family with MIQ. That was a really tough period jst to be away from friends and family for so long.It was incredible as well, but looking back that sure was a tough time for us. 

Before we get to the amazing Sail GP, I’m intrigued to know how you look after yourself. You’re someone that seems cool and calm most of the time, how do you get to that place?

The first one for me is just making sure I do enough exercise. Obviously I love getting out on the water, I’ve really got into wing foiling at the moment, which if people don’t know what that is, we’re on a hydrofoil with a small sail and you surf waves – it’s an incredible amount of fun and to be able to learn a new skill as well, I love it. When I’m not doing enough exercise and getting enough challenges in my life, that’s where I tend to start to struggle a little bit. 

I just really try and keep it simple, keep moving, keep myself fit  and healthy and then more than anything, keep looking after one another.

I think when you talk about support, one of the coolest things us as Kiwi love about your journey is the fact that you and Blair have been doing this together. For a lot of sports you are alone and somewhat isolated, but how good is it to have a mate that gets it – all the media scrutiny, the public stuff and the pressure? 

It’s definitely great to be able to take on these challenges with one of your best mates. That kind of makes the good times that much better and also the bad times that much easier to bounce back from. Probably the one other thing I haven’t really talked about today is something I’ve really enjoyed over the last couple of years is being able to give back a little bit with Blair. We started a marine conservation foundation a couple of years back together, it’s been something that’s been really, really enjoyable to be able to use the platform we have through sport, to do a little bit more and to really help shine a light on some of the issues that our playing field is facing. We’re both really passionate about being a positive change and being part of that movement together, had been one of the the most rewarding thing of all. 

You’re someone who’s pretty private – how do you find the public side of your job, is there an expectation that you weren’t prepared for?  

From a personal side of things I still like having a private life that isn’t played out fully in the media, I don’t want to be an athlete where literally everything plays out through Instagram. I definitely find it a bit tough to have everyone knowing everything about your life. I really enjoy having those private times to get away and just be able to switch off and relax and enjoy what you’re doing. 

I’ve tried to find a balance that I’m happy with where you can be under public scrutiny for your sporting performances and that’s something that I really, really enjoy is being able to front up to what we’re doing in the sporting sense and really take on that challenge for lack of a better way of describing it. That essentially is what I was always brought up to understand, your kind of role as a sports person was to be able to step up in those moments when there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of public scrutiny. 

Anyone that follows the sport in New Zealand knows that when things don’t go so well, the public scrutiny grows pretty quickly. It’s something that you’ve got to be able to keep improving on, keep learning and at the end of the day, keep getting good performances. best. 

Finally, you and Blair and the New Zealand team will be bringing SailGP down here for the first time in the event’s history! You must be super excited to have the first event in Christchurch next year?

I think when people see  the event live they’re really going to be blown away – you’re watching these boats race so close to shore. We really love the racing, we love kind of what it’s trying to do for our sport and just grow it. It is an incredible sport, how we’re powered by nature and it’s incredible to see how quick these boats are going now and for everyone that has been getting behind us SailGP, we really appreciate the support.

We finish every interview with a bit of gratitude, what shows up for you?

Yeah, well, I’m just grateful to be at home right now you know! There’s obviously so many weekends you’re away from home and so now I’m busy doing things for myself and just enjoying having a relaxing one trying to recharge the batteries, and we’re back off soon enough in just over a week’s time. I’m just trying to be present and happy that I have some time to myself.  

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