Many of the questions we receive at SAFEisFAST.com concern the mental aspect of racing. This is your chance to receive advice from a true industry leader in this field. Dr. Dallaire’s answers will be posted daily this week. Thanks for all the great questions!!
NEW!! Top three questions as chosen by Dr. Dallaire will receive a copy of his new book – Performance Thinking: Mental Skills for the Competitive World… and for Life!
Dr. Jacques Dallaire
Founder of Performance Prime & Mental Preparation Expert
Dr. Jacques Dallaire, a noted performance expert and founder of Performance Prime, will give aspiring drivers an opportunity to advance their mental game as Online Performance Instructor at SAFEisFAST.com. For over 40 years, Dallaire has helped thousands of individuals in all walks of life improve their mental skills and achieve their performance goals. More than 700 high-performance motor racing drivers from 40 countries have benefited from his Performance Enhancement process that helps to develop a broad set of mental skills to perform in challenging situations and underlies championship performance. His latest endeavor is Performance Thinking: Mental Skills for the Competitive World… and for Life!, an interactive book to help individuals understand how the way they think (directly and indirectly) can influence their performance. Launched earlier this year, the book is already receiving accolades from individuals in both the business and racing worlds including three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who has been with Dallaire’s program since 1996.
Dallaire is a Founding Member of the International Council of Motorsport Sciences and in 2007 was inducted into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame, recognizing his ‘avant-garde’ state-of-the-art performance training strategies. He is also an advisory board member of the Stand 21 Safety Foundation.
Dr. Jacques Dallaire answers your questions!
Many drivers refer to “the zone” as an intense state of focus. What is “the zone” in the competitive world and how do you get into the zone?
The “Zone” is typically thought of as being the state-of-mind associated with exceptional personal performance…when you effortlessly deliver the best you are capable of with a calm, confident, and correctly-focused mind-set. These are in fact a few of the key elements that will help you to get into the mind-set that exists when you are in the ‘Zone’. Getting there on command is what every high performance athlete is trying to figure out how to do, and if I could adequately explain to you how to accomplish this in a few paragraphs, I would be a genius…and I am most certainly NOT! It is kind of like asking someone to explain to you in a few paragraphs, how to make a $million. They can lay out a plan and teach you a series of different steps in a process that can help you get there, but is it something that you have to dig into more deeply to really understand how to make it happen.
The first thing I would encourage you to do in order to figure out how to get into the “Zone” on command is to understand how the way that you think directly affects the way that you perform. Then, you need to understand exactly how you mentally sabotage your own performance so that you can catch yourself doing it and neutralize that process. Then, read about different tools and processes that you can use to take control of your thoughts, especially in the most challenging of situation. The basic ingredient that is a pre-requisite for getting into the Zone is a task-focused mind-set. If you are not fully present, connected to what you are doing and focused on execution, you will not be able to get into the ‘Zone’. Like so many things that relate to the mental game, controlling your thoughts is at the heart of it.
Simulators are now more “real” than ever and are definitely a good practice tool. However, would too much use of this tool on a particular track create the wrong mental references in the driver in terms of braking points, lines, etc., as simulators can never really replicate the real track at 100 percent?
I agree that use of ‘driving simulator’ software and hardware is a good way to develop some of the mental skills that are important as a high performance racer. I think the most important skill that you can develop with these tools is the ability to control your focus and sustain it over an extended period of time. I believe that you can also work on controlling your overall mind-set to create and sustain a calm but intense state-of-mind. I wouldn’t be concerned that a lot of practice on the simulator for a specific track would lead to locking in reference points that might cause problems later on because although the reference points are the same within the game, the driving environment is dynamic and changes as the characteristics associated with the car change. Also, when you get to the actual circuit, walk the track, and then drive the track, you will adjust your reference points as appropriate. These too change as the dynamic characteristics of your car change as well (because of tires, fuel load, grip, etc.). I agree that race ‘simulators’ cannot replicate the feel of the real track to 100% but these race simulators can still provide ‘seat time in your mind’ and help to dial in your performance on a particular track, and test and train your mental skills. They are a tool and like any tool, use them where they fit into your program.
Dr. Dallaire, I was curious about your opinion on the proper pre-race mental preparation process. There are several obvious activities like driving laps in your head, planning a strategy, etc., but I was wondering what you think a driver should be going through in his/her mind prior to getting in the car. Thank you.
The things you mentioned in your question (mental rehearsal, contingency planning) are obvious and important things that you can do as part of your mental preparation process. But you must also learn to dial in the specific pre-event mind-set that is associated with your absolute, best personal performance. In other words, you need to learn how to bring yourself to that state-of-mind that high-performance people call ‘being in the Zone’. Most people don’t realize that you can train yourself to get to this place on command. You must first clarify the behaviors that are associated with excellence IN YOU. If you don’t know what excellence looks like and feels like for you, how can you get yourself there? Once you’ve identified these behaviors, you can systematically model them by enlisting your conscious mind to effectively guide your unconscious mind to deliver that internal environment. I call this process the A.C.T. Model© process.
The “A” of the process refers to the “A” game standards that define excellence for you. You must identify these as a first step if you hope to model them.
The “C” of the process identifies the need to compare your behaviors on a regular basis with respect to those standards of personal excellence identified above.
The “T” of the process refers to the process of enlisting your ‘inner coach’ (through self-talk) to help you to Transform your mind-set and align it with that associated with your best performance.
When you understand who you are and how you think and feel when you do your absolute best work in a race car, you can learn to model that mind-set and those behaviors. The challenge is to become the person that is the very definition of excellence for you.
This year I am racing in the Formula Skip Barber Summer Series. Looking back on my races I notice that I begin to go into this deep state where my hands, feet and mind all work in unison but I am not doing any thinking aloud as I would if I was walking around town. Would you consider this a negative occurrence, or something that just physically takes place?
I think what you are referring to Adrian is what people talk about as being “in the Zone”…where execution becomes effortless even though you are putting a great deal of effort into your performance. It is almost like you are on autopilot because you are fully connected to what you are doing and not over-thinking the situation. It is typically connected with competitive experiences where you deliver your best performance and as such, how could it ever be considered negative. Remaining calm and correctly focused will help you to establish and sustain this mind-set in the future…so keep after it!
My engineer and I are not on the same page. It is a situation that I can’t get out of and everyone thinks he does a good job. I guess the biggest issue is that he does more talking than listening. What can I do?
Since it sounds like you can’t change the situation, you have no choice but to make the best of what you have available to you because that is what will allow you to achieve the best results possible. Anything other than that and you are not getting the most out of the opportunity (and seat time) in front of you.
Remind yourself that you and your engineer do indeed share the same goal, to win if possible but at the very least, to run as well as your equipment and circumstances will allow. Without knowing your engineer, I can virtually guarantee that this is true because every competitive person wants to win. It’s just that his style or approach doesn’t seem to mesh well with yours at the moment. If you allow yourself to become frustrated by this difficult inter-personal communication challenge, you will end up tuning out your engineer and perhaps even begin to distrust his abilities. Based on the phrasing of your question, it seems like this might be happening somewhat already. Everyone else believes he is doing a good job…but do you?
This may be the first time you are faced with this kind of a challenge, but it probably won’t be the last! In order to try to resolve this situation as favorably as possible, I would encourage you to sit down with your engineer (just the two of you) and talk about his approach and how you are wrestling with certain aspects of how he communicates with you. Let him know that it is clear to you that you both share the same goal but that you don’t feel that your discussions are as effective as they could be. Let him know what will improve your ability to contribute more to the debriefing process. Tell him that you feel as if he doesn’t always listen to you…be clear but respectful. You don’t want to risk mis-communicating and force him to read between the lines. Stay calm, be honest, and usually, reasonable people can work things out.
What would you recommend before getting into the car in order to speed up your reflexes? There are typical exercises like catching the bouncing ball off the wall but is there anything beyond these basic exercises that could be done?
I don’t have any specific recommendations as far as reaction type exercises are concerned before getting into the race car…I think that any number of exercises that challenge your reactions could be useful to loosen up and get ‘sharp’. I would certainly also encourage you to build in some stretching exercises into your pre-race routine, if you don’t have them included already. Being loose/relaxed will improve your reaction times as muscular tension works against fast reactions.
As a race car driver at a young age, I feel that mental preparation is important – to keep a level head in and outside the car. I wanted to ask you what is the best way to do that? I have always been told to stay positive and that is what will come, but is this true? I also wanted to ask you if a race doesn’t go your way, or vice versa, is it better to show your emotions or to just conceal it like nothing happened?
The first thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to “keep a level head” is to stay calm. If you allow yourself to become anxious or upset, these states-of-mind derail your ability to remain in control of your thoughts. Being positive is certainly better than being negative if you want to perform at your best, but in the high performance arena, being positive is not good enough by itself.
How many people do you know who are very positive individuals, but they can’t perform worth a darn! They are positive, happy people but they are scatterbrained and unfocused and you would never give them an important task to do because you know that it probably wouldn’t be done very well. The mind-set that will optimize your ability to keep a level head (and perform to the highest level that you are capable of) is one that is both positive and task-focused. Be the boss of your own mind and you will likely deliver your best work. When things don’t go well, it is fair to say that most people would agree that it is OK (and even desirable) to show your emotions, because emotions reflect the degree to which the goal you are shooting for is important to you. But it is a question of how you show and express those emotions.
It is reasonable to show your disappointment over a poor outcome but you should keep the poor outcome in perspective. Make sure that you can differentiate in your own mind between having done a good job as a driver in the race car and a lousy outcome that occurs because of something outside of your control. If you come across to the people around you as petulant crybaby or a poor sport, you are not doing yourself (or your career) any favors. Ask yourself this question: “If a top team owner or manager was watching me now, interested to see how I handle adversity or loss, what would I want them to see?” I know of a number of situations over the years where the behavior of a young driver after a difficult performance has resulted in two basic responses by these team owners/managers: 1) “That’s the way a real pro handles this kind of disappointment! I’m going to keep my eye on this kid” and 2) Wow, talk about a meltdown…A lot of maturing left to do before he’s ready for big-time auto racing”.
If you delivered the best you’ve got but are denied the outcome you want, be classy in your post race interview. Remember that you have 100% control over the effort you put into the task and 100% control over how you respond to the result that is achieved. Let your audience know that you plan to come back strong as an individual and a team, and that you will continue to focus on doing your job, to the best of your ability.
If I have a bad race, it stays with me for days. I keep focusing on it and can’t pull anything positive out of it. How do I get out of this mindset?
Rule #1 of the Mental Road© states: “If you want to climb out of a hole, the very, very first thing you must do is STOP digging!” If you were in a hole that is ten feet deep, charged with the act of digging, it would be impossible to continue digging and climb out of the hole at the same time. Mentally, what this means is that if you want to think positively and productively (with task-focus), you must actively stop thinking negatively and destructively. You can rely on Rule #2 (“The mind can only actively process ONE thought at a time”) to help you to accomplish this task. Intellectually recognize that you are impeding your forward movement and your future performance by dwelling on the past and take control of your thoughts. Focus on the process that is laid out ahead of you and engage it fully, directing your mind to execution of the different elements in that plan. If you are focused on moving forward, you can’t be focused on what is behind you at the same time!
Also, it may help to recognize that mistakes are simply part of the learning process so long as, 1) your learn from your mistakes, and 2) you don’t give up. Mistakes are the signposts on our path to progress that allows us to recalibrate our actions and behaviors. Draw the lessons that are appropriate from the situation, suck it up, and then move on. There is no benefit whatsoever to crying over spilt milk!
We all know sponsorship is a big part of racing. How can I be more relaxed when I have to make a call to follow-up on a presentation or to cold-call someone?
The first thing to do is to intellectually recognize that you can’t determine the outcome going in. Since you can’t control the outcome, don’t waste central processing capacity worrying about it because it is counter-productive in two ways. First, if you are worrying about something over which you have no control, your mental anxiety (and tension) will be higher and it is a fact that you never do your best work when you are anxious. Second, if you are worrying about the outcome of your discussion while you are engaged in the discussion itself, you aren’t fully connected to the process of what is going on while you are in execution mode. As a result, you leave something on the table because you are not correctly focused and the person you are interacting with will sense this.
As much as you might desperately want the result, realize that the result is a consequence of what you do in the moment, influenced by the many factors that you can’t control. The best way to get what you want is to deliver the best performance you are capable of and to do that, stop worrying about the outcome and just focus on the process of the interaction itself. Connect with the person you are speaking with, listen attentively to what the other person is saying, or not saying. Relax, smile, and remind yourself before you engage that person that the worst that can typically happen is that they might say no to your request. Don’t take it personally. Understand that many of the people you speak with may not in a position to help you now but see the exchange as a chance to plant a seed that may bear fruit down the road. Be persistent and be bold in putting yourself out there. It will be great practice for the time when you are a professional driver at the top level of the racing ladder.
Are there any techniques to snapping out of a negative thought quickly? I try to think about something else but the thought creeps back in anyway.
Here is a simple (but effective) technique that you can use to shut down negative thoughts and redirect your mind to positive and productive (task-focused) thinking. We refer to it as the “5Rs Protocol”.
Recognize – The first step in this process is to recognize that you are having a negative thought. If you don’t recognize that your thinking is negative, you won’t be cued to change it. The sooner you realize that your thinking is negative, the shallower the mental hole that you are digging will be. “Eavesdrop” on the quality of your own thoughts and be vigilant for the slippage that occurs as your thinking starts to become negative.
Refuse – Refuse to go there. Don’t allow yourself to continue on this train of thought. Picture a STOP sign in your mind or do something that will arrest the negative thought. Take control of your mind chatter and STOP it.
Relax – Take a deep breath and relax. When your mind is calm, it is more susceptible to redirection.
Reframe – Choose to see the situation differently. Put a new frame around the picture! You can’t control what you can’t control, but you do have 100% control over how you choose to see it. Look for the opportunity that most often presents itself, even in moments of adversity, and your mind will turn to positive and productive thoughts. If you can’t find the silver lining in the dark grey cloud, you can always use my old standby: “Well this sucks and I can’t think of anything positive in this situation. But, it does present yet another opportunity to see what I am made of; to see if I have the backbone of a Champion and can rise to the occasion and give my absolute very best, even in the face of this lousy situation.” This perspective, all by itself, will change how you mentally approach the challenge in front of you.
Resume – Re-engage the task in front of you with a positive and productive mind-set. Get back to what you were doing and exercise control over your thinking.
If you practice this technique on an ongoing basis, you will be surprised how good you become at shutting down negative thoughts. Do it deliberately at first and with continued practice you will be able to stop negative thoughts with a simple breath and control your thinking to be positive and productive. The more you exercise control of your thinking in this way, the better you will get at it!
I work with a driver coach and try to execute what I am being taught. However, I am not getting the maximum out of the great direction I am given. I have made some progress but not at the rate I would like. How can I step up my mental game?
This is a hard question to answer because it doesn’t really point to a specific problem…only that you feel you need to step up your mental game because your progress is not at the rate that you want it to be. Is the difficulty you are having because of lack of confidence, poor focus, anxiety, confusion, etc. and is your expectation regarding progress reinforced by your driving coach as being realistic, or unrealistic? Patience is not generally the long suit of most competitive people and you may simply have unrealistic performance expectations given your experience. Sorry I can’t give you more feedback here but I don’t have enough information to go from.
Last March I had a crash at Sebring and will be racing there again very soon. I was so comfortable racing that track previously and still am for every corner but (Turn) 17, where I crashed. How do I reconcile that and be able to be at the limit for that corner without getting scared, psyched or choke through that corner? Thanks for your time.
This kind of situation happens much more frequently than you might think Matthew. Let me start by sharing Rule #3 of the Mental Road© with you. It states: “You can’t NOT think about whatever is on your mind!” The more you try not to think about something, what do you end up doing? The answer of course is, you think about it even more! So how do you avoid thinking (worrying) about the crash you had in turn 17 at Sebring. It is certainly NOT by trying not to think about it because what you picture in your mind is exactly that, and your unconscious mind will attempt to deliver what your conscious mind tells it. Instead, during your mental rehearsal of the Sebring circuit you should simply but ruthlessly focus on hitting your marks with precision in every turn, with 17 being no exception…a perfect approach, followed by a perfect turn in, followed by a perfect apex, followed by a perfect exit.
If you direct your thoughts during both your mental practice and during the actual performance itself to the act of execution, in the moment, your central processor will be preoccupied by those thoughts. Your mind will not be able to focus on any thoughts associated with the previous shunt you might have had. Think about it… when you are fully focused on the task in front of you, in the moment, there is never any anxiety because anxiety/fear only occurs when you shift out of the act of doing and slip into judgment mode, wondering how well you are doing or fearing that you might not be doing it well enough. The simple solution to not think about something is to systematically and purposefully direct your thoughts to think about something else. Again, you have to exercise control over your focus of attention… While it might be simple in concept, it certainly is not easy in execution! This is what mental toughness is all about.
As drivers move up the ladder, the race distances get longer and longer. What advice do you give to help drivers stay mentally strong and keep a high level of concentration as they make the move up to races much longer and more physically demanding than what they’re used to?
It is worth keeping in mind Spencer that your ability to control your focus of attention is a skill and as such, it can be improved by understanding how it works and by quality practice. The real secret to optimizing your personal performance is to exercise control over how your focus of attention is deployed in the moment of that performance.
To ensure that you sustain your focus of attention for as long as necessary (even when the races get longer), become more aware of how your focus of attention is directed. You accomplish this by ‘eavesdropping’ on your own internal mind chatter to recognize what you are actually thinking about and when you determine that your focus of attention is not appropriate, purposefully and deliberately redirect your focus to the right thing…to hitting your marks and to the act of driving. Use your internal coach (self-talk) to keep you centered on the task in front of you. Then you must remain vigilant for the ‘slippage’ that occurs as you begin to lose focus (i.e. when your focus begins to shift to something that is not task-relevant). The sooner you can catch your focus shifting to something that is not appropriate, the easier it will be to redirect your focus to the right thing.
Many drivers use racing “simulator” systems as training tools to develop their concentration skills (see my answer to Matthew O’s question). With these driving video systems, you can put yourself into a ‘race’ situation where you must maintain a correct focus for an extended period of time in order to get a good score. Almost any activity that demands that you sustain your focus for a long period of time can be used to develop your concentration skills. The key is to catch your focus drifting as soon as it begins to occur and simply redirect it to the task at hand. Over time, you will develop the ability to sustain your focus for longer periods of time before ‘drift’ begins to occur.
It also is worth remembering that there is an important link between physical fitness (stamina) and mental focus. Think about how difficult it is to stay mentally focused when you are physically fatigued! We have all experienced how challenging it is to stay mentally focused when we are physically exhausted and the reason for this is simply that it takes energy to stay mentally focused. The more physically fit you are as a driver, the less likely you will ‘fall out of the seat’ and suffer brain fade!
What is the best thing to help yourself to get in the zone right before getting into the car?
Thanks for your question Kiel but if I could formulate an answer in a few paragraphs that would solve this dilemma, I would be a magician and not just a performance specialist!
The first thing I would offer is that you must be clear of what “the Zone” looks like and feels like for you. If you are not clear on what that state of mind is for you, how can you model it deliberately? Identify the standards of excellence that define who you are and how you execute when you do your best work in a race car and then systematically model (mentally rehearse) these behaviors. This is where you enlist your conscious mind to direct your unconscious mind to become the individual that is defined by your model of personal excellence. I call this methodology, the A.C.T. Model© process and it does take time and some diligent work to develop this kind of mental toughness.
An integral feature of this mind-set people call “being in the Zone” is a state of mental calm, even in the most challenging of situations. One of the best things you can do before you get into the car is to calm down. Remind yourself that as much as you want good results, you can’t control results. Because you can’t control results, recognize that there is absolutely no benefit to worrying about them. Instead, just focus on the job of hitting your marks and driving the race car to the best of your ability and let the results look after themselves. Easy to say, but not so easy to do! If you take this approach Kiel, you will have a much better chance of driving “in the Zone”.
I am a bit on the shy side, especially when it comes to introducing myself to influential people in the paddock. I often get extremely nervous which doesn’t come across well. Any tips to help in this area would be appreciated.
This is a very common problem for a lot of people…being comfortable approaching someone who you don’t know or who you judge to be important, and engaging them in discussion. The reason we are reluctant to do so is usually because we fear that we might not do a good job, that we might mess up and be thought of poorly by the person we seek to engage. This fear of failure causes us to imagine all the ways we might mess up and we become anxious and our performance suffers. In many ways, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if we are thinking about messing up, we can’t be fully connected to what we are doing in that moment. Focus correctly…and that means on what is happening “here and now”.
So how can you negate this normal tendency to be nervous engaging strangers. There are several things you can do to help yourself in this situation. Remind yourself that you are at your best when you remain calm, and try to enjoy the experience. People are essentially the same and the person you are looking to engage also wants to have a comfortable exchange, they certainly don’t want to be uncomfortable because you are uncomfortable and they really don’t want you to be nervous. Stay calm, breathe, and just focus on the interchange. Remain engaged and stay in the moment…if you are fully present and engaged with what is happening at that moment, you won’t be worrying about what others might be thinking. Define your confidence around simply giving the best you’ve got in that situation and accept that it is the best you can do. Slow things down – find a comfortable rhythm and have fun. Remember, everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and we all mentally sabotage our performance in essentially the same way…
To what would you attribute the decline in performance some drivers seem to experience in their second year of competition in any given series, commonly known as the “sophomore slump?” What steps should a driver take in order to prevent slipping into that slump?
This is a hard question to answer Brandon because success or failure is the product of two things…what you bring to the party as a race car driver (your skills, knowledge, and experience at the moment of your performance) and the many factors that are simply outside of your control.
The “sophomore slump” you referenced in your question could be caused by a number of things but one thing that I know does frequently get in the way of a sophomore’s performance is what I refer to as the ‘demon of expectations’. Since it is their second season in a given series they have an expectation that they will do better than they did the previous year…after all, this is their second year, right? The problem then surfaces when the driver starts focusing on the results that he expects to accomplish and, if factors outside of his control get in the way of those results, he becomes frustrated and disillusioned at the fact that the expected performance seems to be slipping through his fingers. Then the downward spiral begins. The more the results don’t materialize, the more he tends to focus on results (or the lack of them)… and the less he focuses on execution, in the moment, on the task at hand. And this is what corrupts his performance the most.
So what is the solution? It turns out that the solution to this problem is the same as the solution to many other performance problems. If you focus on hitting your marks, corner by corner, lap by lap, race after race, the performance that you will deliver will be the best that you are capable of in the moment. In the end, if you focus on execution with a calm and confident mind-set, you will deliver your best performance… and the results will most often look after themselves. If you allow yourself to focus on anything other than this, you will leave something on the table.
How would you describe mental imagery in racing? Should racers use it prior to races?
Mental imagery is, in my definition, more than just ‘visualization’. Where visualization is the term that is often used to describe what one “sees on the canvas in our mind’s eye”, imagery adds the other senses into the mix, beyond that of visualization. It involves a mental rehearsal of the correct actions that not only includes “seeing” what we want to do and how we want to do it in your mind’s eye, but what it feels like and sounds like when you do it the right way. I have seen many instances over my career where imagery practice (mental rehearsal) of a performance has had a meaningful, positive, influence on that performance. In one way, mental rehearsal can be thought of as a form of ‘contingency planning’ where you can consider different options in a particular scenario and by so doing, optimize the chances of executing a more correct action, more quickly, simply because you have rehearsed this type of response prior to the performance itself.
This doesn’t mean that you should just mentally rehearse your actions in only one, fixed situation but rather, that you think about different options for the scenario that you are considering. For example, don’t just mentally rehearse taking the perfect line into a corner (which of course you should do), but also examine how you might want to adapt your line under different conditions (tires going off; traffic; damp conditions vs. dry; etc). That way you will not be ‘stuck’ with only a single response in that situation but will be more ready to adapt to whatever the racing environment throws at you. Whether they recognize it as such or not, every racer I have ever met uses some form of mental rehearsal in their preparation for a race. Don’t leave this tool in your toolbox…take it out regularly and use it.
I recently started writing a reflection after each race on what can be improved. Among other things, that led me to try taking a different approach – trying to be a lot calmer and not so much in an “attacking mode,” but this, I think, has been counter-productive. In the last race I was very consistent but not quick enough. Thinking back to that race, I’m saying to myself, ‘Why didn’t you start trying to push harder?” I’m probably answering myself by saying I have to balance these two approaches, but what input or recommendations can you give me on that? Thanks.
I think that your analysis is correct Jose, you must learn to balance aggressiveness with patience and control. But I would encourage you to clearly distinguish in your own mind between being calm and being too ‘laid back’ or hesitant. It is good to be calm because our best performances come when we have a calm mind, but you must remember that you can still have a high level of intensity while still being calm. What you are looking for here is ‘emotional’ calm combined with the right level of mental and physical intensity. You must develop the self-control to attack appropriately and at the right time without overdriving the race car…a common error for many drivers who desperately want to create results – to win.
One way that you can begin to get a handle on the right intensity that optimizes your performance in the race car is to use the analogy of a tachometer to determine what that ideal intensity looks like and feels like for you. Imagine that you had a tachometer that measures your intensity in the race car when you do your best work, where the maximum range of this device extends from 0 to 10,000 rpm. 0 rpm means you are unconscious – no intensity whatsoever – and 10,000 rpm represents the absolute highest level of intensity that you are capable of, on the peg! Now before you respond that the correct answer is 10,000 rpm, let me caution you that 10,000 rpm on our “intensity” dial represents severely overdriving the race car, way too aggressive for most situations. So what is the correct intensity for you when you deliver your best performance in the race car? I’ve asked this question of many drivers over the years and on average, drivers tell me that for them, the ‘correct’ intensity is somewhere in the 8,000 to 8,500 rpm range…intense for sure, but not overly intense. You need to figure out what the right level of intensity is for you and then have enough control to execute consistently at that level of intensity. The key is to be just patient enough…
There are many racers who strap into a car with very different fears. How do you determine what emotions a driver is feeling before, during and after a race? How does your program analyze those emotions and help drivers to combat the negative emotions?
Fear is a relatively common response in the high performance environment (not just in racing): fear of failure; fear of crashing and ending your day; fear of getting injured; fear of not performing well enough to keep your ride; etc. It shouldn’t be surprising to most readers that worry dominates the mindset of many people, and high performance racers are no different.
I begin to better understand the emotions and issues that a driver wrestles with before and during a race event by using a series of questionnaires that are quite revealing, and through straightforward and honest discussion. There is no reason for them to not be truthful with me because my job is to help them and anything that we discuss is completely confidential. I deliver my role primarily through education. My job is to help my clients to understand exactly how they mentally sabotage their own performance and how they can learn to control their thinking in order to optimize their personal performance. Once you understand how the way that you think directly influences how you perform, you can more effectively guard against the negative and incorrect thinking that corrupts your performance, regardless of in what area that performance might be. It is a straightforward process that uses my Rules of the Mental Road© as a framework for this “Performance Thinking”. I hope this helps you understand how I approach the issue of mental skills and performance, with the ultimate goal being to help people understand how to bring their best performance to whatever they do.
Jack Mitchell Jr.
What in your opinion is the biggest mental mistake made by a driver?
Jack, I would say that the biggest mental mistake often made by drivers is the same as that made by other high-performance people generally…and that is: to worry about, and focus on, RESULTS too much! Now let me go on record right now and make something perfectly clear: RESULTS are important…in fact in some situations, they are absolutely critical. With some of my clients, RESULTS don’t just mean winning or losing athletic competitions; they sometimes mean the difference between living and dying. Good RESULTS (and this is epitomized by Winning) are clearly the goal of any competitive endeavor, but RESULTS shouldn’t be the object of your focus.
Let me explain what I mean here… Almost every day when I speak with people who operate in the competitive world, they share with me the fact that often, even while they are engaged in the execution of their performance (whatever that might be), they worry about how well they are doing, what their lap time is, or their position on the charts, or whether they are fast enough, and often even catch themselves fearing that they will fail and worrying about the consequences of that failure! In other words, while they are actually engaged in the act of execution (in our case, driving the race car), they are often focused for significant periods of time on where they are relative to RESULTS and on the outcome of that execution (how fast they are, how well they are doing, or whether they are winning or not). Let me remind you here of something that I am certain you have come to realize already – you cannot control RESULTS, no matter how badly you want them or wish that you could. You cannot control RESULTS because you cannot control the many variables that are quite simply outside of your control – weather conditions, mechanical problems, what other competitors do, punctures, etc.
So why is it a mistake to focus on RESULTS while you are driving? Quite simply, because if you are focused on the outcome, you cannot be fully and completely connected to what you are doing…right here and right now. This is critical because the quality of your performance is defined by what you do in the moment, and not by anything else. What happens to a driver who is thinking about the corner he just messed up while he drives into the next corner, or who is paying attention to the lap time counter on his steering wheel display while he is executing a qualifying lap? In both cases, he is not fully focused on the task at hand and is more likely to make an error in execution or at the very least leave something on the table, and his performance will not be as good as it could be. As counter-intuitive as it might be, in order to achieve the best possible result, stop focusing on (worrying about) results and instead focus fully on the process of execution itself (as every driving coach you’ve ever had has told you, just drive and hit your marks!). The RESULTS will look after themselves in most cases…
Dr. Dallaire, after refining my techniques for track visualization and mental practice, I have found myself able to break down each of my laps and figure out where I need to improve, where I can gain time, where the car can be better, etc. this has proved extremely useful IF I can reach a mental state where the car, myself and the track are all I focus on before I go out for a session. I have found great success through simply picturing a blank white screen in front of my eyes, but I cannot always get my mind to this clear place. Do you have any suggestions to improve the consistency of this focus? Thank you.
Aaron, it sounds like you have made some great progress so far. Based on my experience, you are correct in having come to the conclusion that your performance is optimized by getting rid of the mental “noise” that so often gets in the way of our best performances.
It sounds like you have been successful getting yourself into this mind-set by directing your thoughts to something that is simple and uncluttered…in this case, a blank white screen in your mind’s eye. What you are actually doing by using this technique is taking control of your thoughts and by directing them to something that is neutral, occupying your central processor with a specific task. Since Rule #2 of the Mental Road states that “The mind can only actively process ONE thought at a time”, it is a fundamental truth that if your mind is processing one thought, it cannot process another at the same moment in time. By focusing your thoughts on a blank white screen, you effectively deny your mind the ability to process other thoughts that might cause you to become anxious or at the very least, distracted. Once your mind is clear, there are no longer any conflicting thoughts to interfere or compete with task-relevant thoughts that contribute to your ability to perform. It is then easier for you to direct your thoughts to the kind of task-relevant things you identified in your question. How can you improve your ability to clear your mind and direct your focus? The first thing to do is to be clear on what it is you are actually trying to accomplish. The goal you are consistently working towards is to control your focus to be on the right thing at the right time and this demands that you first be aware of how your focus of attention is deployed and second, take control over how you direct it. You can gain consistency in this skill through quality practice. But remember that the old idiom that says “Practice Makes Perfect” is not actually true. All practice does is that it makes something permanent, through repetition. Rather, you should remember that “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”!
We all know mental preparation is the most important thing out there! What steps do you advise in order to be ready? I only race once in a while, so what should I do from a couple months out to a few days before? Mental exercises? Meditation? What do you find to be the best?
Let me start by reinforcing that the mental side of the performance equation is very important… without a strong mental game your performance will certainly be inferior to what it could be, and inconsistent. But I also want to caution you that it is only one part of the success equation. Physical preparation (check out the Q&A by PitFit President and expert Jim Leo elsewhere on this website); nutrition; learning about the setup of the racecar and about marketing, sponsorship, and the development of partner relationships (view some of the technical videos on this website as well) are all important components in the success equation. Even though you may be only racing occasionally, each of these elements is worth investing some energy and time to develop in order to be as successful as you can be.
In my experience, the single most important mental skill (and as such, the thing that gets asked of me the most) is to be able to control focus so that it is directed correctly, fully connected to execution of the task at hand. If you are not fully focused on the task in front of you, you will not deliver the best performance you are capable of. It is as simple as that. So how does one develop this skill? This is the big question that every high performance competitor is looking to answer.
In the lead up to a race event (and in your life in general), be attentive to how your focus is deployed and practice controlling it. Be aware of what kind of things that you are focused on by ‘eavesdropping’ on your own internal thoughts and practice redirecting your focus of attention if it isn’t appropriate to the situation in front of you. Controlling focus is a skill, and as a skill, it requires correct practice to strengthen the skill and be able to effectively use it, especially when things get tough and the environment is distracting. Meditation or relaxation techniques can be very helpful because our best performances are always delivered when we have a ‘noise-free’ or quiet mind. When you are “in the Zone”, is internal calm not a hallmark of that state of mind? Strengthening the ability to quiet your mind when you are away from the chaotic environment of racing will help you to access that skill when you are gearing up to go race…and the pressure to perform invariably spools up.
You might also consider using a ‘driving simulator’ as a tool to force you to exercise control over your focus of attention over an extended period of time. While they are not really driving simulators in my mind because you do not truly “feel” what the car is telling you through your own kinesthetic sensors as you do in a race car, they are excellent visual and tactile tools that can help you to train your focus attention and develop the ability to sustain a task-focused mind-set over a relatively long period of time. With the fidelity that many of these video driving systems have today, you can also learn something useful about the ‘geometry’ of a variety of tracks. In the end, there are many ways to develop your mental skills… you just have to find the ones that work best for you and use them regularly. The real secret is to practice controlling your thoughts on an ongoing basis.
Is it possible that a driver who is better mentally prepared may out-perform other drivers, even with worse equipment? And does it work the opposite away around, too?
The short answer to your question is YES, on both counts, but I’m going to qualify my answer a little. I would state it this way: A driver who is better mentally prepared is more likely to actively bring that mind-set to bear in the racing environment and because of this, may very well outperform other drivers, even though he/she might have inferior equipment. Have you ever seen a driver who is in the best equipment make mistakes out on the track because of anger, poor judgment, brain fade, etc. and crash the car, or at the very least put wheels off and finish back in the pack? I have, many times. A correctly focused driver on the other hand may be able to overcome inferior equipment by not putting a wheel wrong or making an error the entire race, and could very well finish in front of drivers with better equipment. The ideal situation of course is to put yourself in the best equipment possible and develop and execute the mental skills of a champion! Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible but your job as an aspiring/professional driver is to deliver the best possible performance you can with the equipment you are given on the day. Remember that you can’t do better than the best you can do…and that is your job, regardless of the quality of the equipment you are racing!
Dr. Dallaire, the great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said: “Baseball is 90 percent mental – the other half is physical.” Do you think a baseball legend has anything to teach us in motor racing?
I think it is fair to say that Mr. Berra, while seemingly not very good at math, understood that mastering the mental side of the performance equation is critical if one is to be able to deliver championship caliber performance. As a successful professional athlete, he had to figure out over his career how to control his thinking in challenging competitive situations, just like all the other players he competed against had to do. His vantage point as a catcher may have given him some extra insight into the thought process of the batters who came to the plate because he could closely observe their body language…and if you know what you are looking for, it is pretty easy to spot someone who is ‘under water’ mentally. In my experience, since I have worked with thousands of high performance people from many different walks of life over the past 40 years or so, we (human beings) effectively sabotage our own performance in essentially the same ways. It doesn’t matter where we come from or what we do, we seem to shoot ourselves in the foot the same way! So, to answer your question directly, I don’t know that Mr. Berra can teach you much about motor racing but I would bet that he could teach you something about developing and sustaining the mind-set that optimizes the likelihood that you will deliver the best performance that you are capable of. Keep working on your mental game and I’m certain that you will reap significant dividends for the time you invest.
Most days I don’t have too much of a mental problem (relatively speaking). What can I do on those “off” days to clear the cobwebs and be able to focus properly?
Jim, if I’m interpreting your question correctly, what you’re saying is that on most days you don’t have much trouble controlling your focus but on some days, you struggle and can’t seem to focus correctly. Based on my experience, this is ultimately the single biggest problem that the majority of high performance competitors (not just racers) consistently wrestle with. In fact, I am convinced after decades of work in this area, that our ability to control our focus so that it is directed to the right thing at the right time is the single most important mental skill associated with successful performance, and I have often referred to this mental skills attribute as the ‘Holy Grail’ of the performance equation. When people tell me that their performance suffers because they have a lot of “trouble focusing” or that they “just can’t focus”, I usually tell them that that is probably not the real problem that is hurting their performance and that they are wrestling with. I believe that what they should say to be accurate is that they have trouble controlling their focus so that it is directed to the right thing at the right time. They ARE actually focused but they are often focused on the wrong things! I take your comment about being “focused properly” to mean that you are indeed NOT focused on the right things on those days where it feels like you have cobwebs in your brain.
The first step in gaining better control over your focus of attention is to ‘eavesdrop’ on your own internal mind chatter and recognize, as soon as you can, when your focus of attention is inappropriate for the situation at hand. The sooner you catch yourself being incorrectly focused, the sooner you will be able to redirect your focus to the correct things…the things that are relevant to your performance in that moment. We can use the analogy of a flashlight as a way to describe the process associated with the control of your focus of attention. The beam of light from the flashlight is like your ‘beam of concentration’. You can choose to direct that beam of light to one object or to another, just by exercising control over where you aim it. Similarly, if you recognize that your focus is inappropriate for the situation in front of you, in the moment, you can redirect your ‘beam of focus’ just be exercising control over where you direct it. It truly is that simple, but it is not easy to do, especially when you are dealing with a great many distractions in your environment (and in your head)! If you remain calm and exercise control over your thoughts, you will become increasingly more effective at controlling your focus of attention so that it is directed to the task in front of you. The more you are able to do this, the better your performance will be.
I have a tendency to brake (too) early. I am constantly told my car control is excellent and my lines are excellent but that I am over-slowing the car based on both my ability to handle the car at an increased speed and the car’s capability to brake and then turn. I feel like this is a mental thing and a lack of confidence. How can I overcome that hesitancy to brake later yet still within a range that is safe for both my ability and the car’s ability?
This is probably one of the toughest things you must do as a racer (figure out just how deep you can go into the corner and execute precisely that action) and it is at the heart of what road racing is all about. If you only had to drive fast in a straight line and didn’t have to negotiate corners at all, the task would be much simpler indeed. But your job is to be safe while negotiating corners at the fastest possible speed. You are correct in that confidence in the car and in your own abilities plays into this issue and the challenge for you is to gradually develop the capacity (and trust) to become comfortable being uncomfortable.
If your driving instructors are telling you that your car control skills and line choice are good and you yourself feel that they are, you must trust in your skills and relax. It is possible to be both calm and intense at the same time and this is the state you are looking to achieve while in the car. If your thoughts are preoccupied by worry about not being able to slow down sufficiently to navigate the corner while you’re driving into the corner, your focus is not correct. Furthermore, anxiety (worry) makes you more tense and your reaction times are slowed by this increased state of physical tension. Rule #2 of the Mental Road states “The Mind can only Actively Process ONE Thought at a Time”! You must come to rely on this rule and recognize that if your focus is purely and exclusively on hitting your marks (as deep into the corner as you judge you can go while still maintaining control of your car), your feet and hands will execute what your mind tells them to. This is where imagery of the correct execution can be really helpful and by using your conscious mind, you can guide your unconscious mind to execute the specific actions associated with the correct response. According to Rule #2, if you are focused on hitting your marks, it is not possible to be focused on outcome at the same time, or on the fear you might have that the outcome might not be as you want it to be. Relax, let the data acquisition system and input from your driving instructors inform your decision as to how deep you can go in the corner, and then trust that your car control skills will take over if you need to make adjustments. Learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable and you’ll find that with quality practice, you’ll solve this problem correctly.