If you've ever experienced the SCCA Runoffs, you know that for the serious competitor, the event extends for a week-plus, and that makes for an easy setting for mood erosion. Imagine, a short practice session one day, and then an entire day or more to stew over whether or not you're doing the right things. Some claim that golf is such a difficult sport because you have too much time to think between shots. Well, add in the risk involved in driving fast, and the Runoffs may be one of the biggest mental challenges in sport.
As a coach, Jim Kearney has an enviable record. At the 2010 Road America Runoffs, he made his driver coaching debut, and his driver, Rick Shields, won the FV National Championship. Rick was also named the Most Improved Driver of the Year (Kimberly Cup) - in his six prior Runoffs starts, his best finish had been ninth. Since then, Jim's drivers have won 6 Runoffs championships, in five different classes (and other podium finishers in more classes). Guess who I'd get to coach me if I was racing in the Runoffs? Why? Because Jim "tunes the helmet."
Managing one's thoughts is a critical component of tuning the helmet, as Jim points out in this week's feature.
Thirteen Bad Thoughts
by Jim Kearney
It gets very quiet on the false grid. You are strapped down like a prisoner but your brain is thinking jail break. After the hubbub of getting the car ready, you are alone with your thoughts. The question is – are they friend or foe?
There is a lot to think about at a racetrack. Hundreds if not thousands of decisions are made from where to paddock, to the rubric’s cube of set-up choices, to on-track moves. Some thoughts may go unnoticed, bubbling up like so much swamp gas. Negative thoughts come up unsolicited and may slip by unnoticed, on the grid, and any other time as well. You might be resigned to them always skulking about. Don’t settle for that.
Our brains are always scanning. Are things going alright? Am I in trouble? Racers, however, are more aware of the condition of the car than their mental state. They obsess about tire pressures but fail to ask: Is my brain in the right gear? They just hop in and hope they are in the right mood.
Ironically, racetracks are cesspools of negativity. What should be a glorious sporting outlet becomes a place of disappointment and frustration. Nobody disputes that the more upbeat your frame of mind, the more likely it is that you will perform well, but racers are particularly adept at self-sabotaging. See if these mindsets sound familiar. I’ve had them all, but I didn’t let them stay for long.
1. “What did I forget?" You can’t feel like a superhero if your cape is back in the trailer. You need an established process to complete your car prep without fail, allowing you to switch from mechanic to driver mode. The mechanic looks for what can go wrong and prevents it. A driver needs to think that nothing can go wrong. If you are sitting on the grid, worried to death that you forgot to torque the wheels, confidence is not a state you are going to visit. The list of things to be forgotten is lengthy. A checklist lets you do the work without worry. You want a strong sense of being ready, not a question mark.
2. “I’m just not that good.” Many drivers harbor the notion that they are permanently doomed to wankerdom. Instead of fretting that others are naturals, why not think about how you can get a bit better? The evidence is overwhelming that successful performers aren’t naturals; they work hard at their chosen craft. And the more frequently they put in quality time, the better they get. Lamenting that you didn’t win some genetic lottery is the ultimate excuse. Where are you weak? What is your plan to do something about that? Like virtually every other task known to man, driving a racecar is a learned activity. Wouldn’t you like to discover how good you can become?
3. “I’m really nervous. Does this mean something is wrong?” Not necessarily - everybody has nerves. Some drivers are as cool as cucumbers, others are hot tamales, while most are in-between. Getting pumped up is rarely necessary or helpful. I followed Jackie Stewart’s model, letting nervous energy out like a deflating balloon. I withdrew from interactions and aimed for a quiet, emotional flat line. It is about discovering what works best for you. I tell drivers that nerves should be viewed as allies, not enemies. They are alerting you to be on your toes. Pay attention but don’t freak out. It will feel better once the car rolls off the false grid.
4. “I’m confused. Is the problem me or the car?” Drivers often make multiple changes to make the car better. Uncertainty breeds tenuous inputs and takes you farther afield from your baseline. If you made multiple changes, there is no way you can ascertain what did or didn’t work. Go back to your most basic set-up sheet and try things one at a time. It takes longer, but then you know what works. Confusion is kryptonite to confidence.
5. “I’m pissed off and I’m going to rip everyone a new one.” This approach works well in the movies but in the real world, anger is like a drag chute handicapping your performance. For short bursts of time there may be some gains as you push past prior levels of commitment, but driving while enraged results in serious inconsistencies and has a major adverse impact on your judgment. You want a sense of firm resolve behind the wheel, not a red mist of anger and desire. Cool down.
6. “I’m tired.” Pay special attention to this one. This is more of a mental idiot light than an anxiety balloon, but it is not to be discounted. Racers are often unrealistic about how much they can accomplish in any given time frame. They believe they can tow ten hours and be fresh in the morning. You need to acknowledge your condition and stay within yourself until you get rested. In the throes of the event, this can be a very tall order. Some of my biggest wrecks occurred when I was exhausted, but stubbornly refused to recognize it. Persistence is grand, up to a point. “I’ll be fine when I’m in the car” only works to a degree. Arriving exhausted is simply no good.
7. “I’ve never been any good at _______.” It could be any piece of the racing puzzle: starts, braking, high speed turns, technical turns, strategy, etc. Condemning yourself to some supposed genetic or mental limitation doesn’t help the learning process, it just gives you a ready-made cop-out: “I suck at _____.” Do something about it. Make a plan to address your shortcomings one at a time and evaluate your progress. Nobody magically gets better just because they are dissatisfied.
8. “I’m afraid I’ll lose focus.” Some people have a laser focus and others don’t. A good tool is a trigger word or phrase, such as “back to business.” If you feel your focus waning mid-session, you can quickly utter or think the trigger words. Often, the fact that you have a solution up your sleeve prevents the issues from even arising. Everybody loses focus on occasion; the question is how quickly you regain it.
9. “I’m going to be perfect this time.” The search for perfection is its own punishment. It doesn’t make you faster, just more anal, and slow. Every fast lap has a few sloppy moments in it and every good race has some messy bits to it. Shooting for new personal bests inevitably brings you to moments of great pucker which require a deft catch. You aren’t trying to be sloppy but having perfection as a goal is a recipe for frustration. Focus on improving specific skills, don’t worry about perfection.
10. “Everyone else is cheating. Everyone else is outspending me.” Exactly how does either of these thoughts aid in your attempts to improve? Getting fixated on the equipment of the competition is shooting yourself in the foot. Perhaps they have more power, a superior aero package or handle better. Maybe they are driving better than you. Whose car are you driving? Your focus should be on driving better and improving your car.
11. “I’m unlucky. I never catch a break.” Instead of this toxic notion, you should congratulate yourself for being in a racecar. Most of the world would kill to be in your position. Make something good happen and enjoy it. As Pratt & Miller’s Steve Cole says, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
12. “I’m scared.” If the car is so unstable that you can’t handle it, you must park it. Driving scared in traffic is a non-starter. Your inputs will be stiff and awkward, adding to the bad behavior of a car. The car must be sufficiently compliant to allow you to survive the moments of panic that are bound to arise on track. If the car feels dangerous, don’t go out until it is fixed. Do not ignore this blinking red light.
13. “I can’t afford to crash. I’m hemorrhaging money as it is.” The overwhelming majority of racers are stretching their resources to the limit. Still, racing’s version of tough love is if you can’t afford to fix what you race, you shouldn’t be out there in the first place. The only way to eliminate risk is to stay home. When we are learning car control we are told to look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. Similarly, focusing on crashing is the ultimate bad thought. It makes you timid, fearful, and uptight just when you need to be calm, smooth, and courageous.
Racing is like life - sometimes you need to make adjustments. Successful athletes in all sports have developed routines that enable them to stay in charge of their thoughts and their moods. For every negative vibe you catch yourself thinking, pave over it with a positive thought. Over time it becomes a habit, a good habit. Whatever your level of motorsports, you can change your mindset as you would change a chip in an electric control module or a jet in a carburetor. But first you need to be aware of the need for a change. It doesn’t have to be a complex process. Step one is to recognize bad thoughts that may be trying to rock the boat. Step two is to pitch them overboard and replace them with helpful thoughts. You want to access your best performance mode. It is your job to discover what that is. Keep track of what works for you. Think: I’m taking specific steps to address my issues and I’m having fun, too.
- Jim Kearney