Life On The Breeze with Phil Muller

A South Florida native and world-class athlete reflects on competition, a life on the water, and training the next generation of America's best sailors.

Phil Muller might have been born on land, but he lives for the water. "Storm or shine, if I'm breathing the salt air I'm reminded of how lucky I am to have this life," he told us. "I grew up in Ft. Pierce, a sleepy fishing town just north of Palm Beach. We lived two blocks from the beach and one block from the river, so we had plenty of water to play on. Back then, windsurfing was the most popular water sport, and both of my parents were really into it. Eventually my dad bought a van and filled it with gear and we would spend all of our weekends at the beach windsurfing and hanging out. Then finally, once I got old enough, I got my own." Just like that, Phil was hooked.

Phil took to windsurfing like a fish takes to water. And in addition to having plenty of natural talent, he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. "Ft. Pierce was the Olympic trials venue for the ‘96 games in Atlanta, and Mike ‘Gebi' Gebhardt lived down the street from us. He'd already made it to the Olympic medals podium twice for windsurfing, in ‘88 and ‘92. Not only was he an Olympian, but he was a friend and mentor. I would tag along with him all the time when he'd go out, use whatever equipment was lying around, just try to keep up. I broke into his garage so many times and took his gear to the beach," Phil told us with a laugh. "Then in my mid- to late-teens, I traveled through Europe with him and trained with him."

This early exposure to top-level athletes gave Phil a unique perspective on things.

"Because the sailing world is so small, you get to a point where your heroes are accessible. They're real people," Phil told us. "Growing up with a neighbor and mentor like Gebi made competing at the top of the sport very tangible. It made me view the sport not only as something I wanted to do, but something I could succeed at," Phil said. "But of course, I didn't."

While Phil has been near the top of the windsurfing world since his teens, and has done three Olympic trials, he's never made it all the way to the games. But he doesn't search for excuses as to why. He's taken his lumps, owned his mistakes, and used the experience to make him one of the premier youth coaches in the sailing world today. "When you're young don't know what you don't know," Phil told us. "I do have regrets, some of the decisions I made, and times when, as an athlete, I didn't rise to the occasion."

A lifetime of experience has made Phil a sort of Mr. Miyagi of the racing world. "What I've learned is that we can't think of competition as one event, or a series of events down the road. We have to show up everyday and compete with ourselves," Phil told us.

"I try to make our practice days as hard as possible, so regatta days are easy. We use training methods that focus on a growth mindset, rather than everything being based on results. Each race is an opportunity to build skills. You have to shift your focus, reframe it. We're developing hindsight in the moment with these athletes. Racing becomes pattern recognition and executing on plans we already have in place."

Phil sees developing hindsight in the moment, training his athletes to anticipate challenges and prepare solutions, as key to success on and off the racecourse. "There are only so many decisions that can be made on the racetrack. My goal is that the athletes have already made those decisions and have a high confidence in those decisions before the starting gun even goes off," Phil says. "Lots of people talk about talent. Talent is cheap. Discipline is what pays off. You need the discipline to go through the steps, the protocols and the challenges during every practice so you're prepared. Success can be viewed either as an assessment of your skills, or it can be seen as an opportunity to develop skills in a controlled environment. I typically ask my athletes, ‘What is this regatta preparing for you? What's next?' We often think about competition like it's the top of a mountain. But the goal of climbing Everest isn't just to make it to the top—you also have to get down. What I try to focus on with these athletes is to show them their successes along the way so that they carry those with them through the challenges. Challenges are just opportunities for learning."

Phil may thrive on intense competition and training, but at the end of the day, he's a laid-back Floridian who loves long days on the water with his family and friends. "Being in South Florida, the Bahamas blocks a lot of the swell, which is both a good and a bad thing. I love it when there's a cold front that has just moved off New England and there's 20 knots of breeze kicking up the waves. As a windsurfer and a surfer I live for those days, they're really fun," Phil said. "We also have such a variety of conditions in Florida—Biscayne Bay is inshore, with flat water and thermal breezes. Anything from Miami to Jacksonville is just open-water sailing. It's a great place to learn how to sail because growing up I got to spend time inshore in the sheltered waters and get offshore. Offshore makes you grow up real quick and get your shit sorted. It's challenging and a good lesson. It teaches you to respect the ocean and the elements. That's what makes it fun. For me, everyday I'm on the water is a day that makes me think Every day should feel this good."