If you’ve experienced even one or two track days, you quickly realize just how mentally demanding racing/high performance driving is. With so much information coming in from so many different senses it’s all too easy to get tripped up trying to process it all.
Ever see a driver just randomly forget to upshift on a straight? Or completely forget to brake for a corner?
As silly as it sounds, these seemingly easy tasks can be pretty difficult in the heat of the moment when the brain is so busy.
I see these mistakes happen all the time.
So how does the performance driver get comfortable enough out on track to efficiently process all the incoming information and elicit the right response to the car?
It’s tricky. But I can tell you for sure that the driver must feel really comfortable and relaxed in the car. The best way to get that way?
Be really good at emotional management while on track.
The Significance Of Emotional Management & Awareness
I make no claims to be an expert on psychology.
But as a racer and coach I can tell you that through my experience there is a strong correlation between those who can handle their emotions well on track with those that win races.
Everyone from the first-time track driver to the seasoned professional racing driver experiences a constant barrage of emotions while on track whether they realize it or not. It’s what they choose to do with these emotions that makes a difference in driver performance.
Emotions will make or break your race, and that’s the truth.
It’s my belief that the “secret” to those who consistently perform at the top of their game lies within their superb ability to manage their emotions on track.
By eliminating the distraction of intense emotion we also are lessening our natural adrenaline & fight/flight response. This is huge! It allows all sorts of complex systems in the body (that you need a PHD to identify) to actually function and enable you to actually feel what the cars is doing! A performance driver’s best friend.
Being keenly aware of the emotions you are experiencing and being able to manage those emotions in a way that manipulates a positive outcome (even if the emotion is negative) is a good example of one with strong emotional intelligence.
Be that guy.
The one who can “stay cool” in the heat of the moment after getting punted off in a brake zone.
The HPDE newbie will live out their feelings of fear, intimidation and uncertainty, drive their mirrors and putt around the track waiting for someone to take them out. Do you know how many times in my coaching career I’ve witnessed a newbie almost drive straight off the track while obsessing over their mirrors?
I’d say literally every other weekend.
The seasoned racing professional has the ability to go off the track, rejoin having lost 5 positions, but still stay “cool” enough to shake the dust off, get back to work and extract the same performance out of the car like it never even happened.
What exactly are they doing different though?
Good Brain Work vs. Poor Brain Work
This is where I introduce the term “brain work.”
So what constitutes a driver with good brain work vs one who doesn’t?
Good Brain Work is thinking exclusively in the current moment.
Poor Brain Work is obsessing over an event earlier in the race.
There are many books, articles and videos out there expressing the “power of the now.” The way I interpret it is that you can’t change what has happened in the past, but you can control the now. And whatever you do in the now will shape the future you make for yourself.
Let’s say you drop a wheel exiting a turn. You lost four tenths, plus it leads onto a big straightaway. A fairly significant mistake.
Now let me ask you this- Immediately after rejoining and regaining control of the car, what happened in your brain?
You likely experienced some sort of emotion, usually anger. What happens next is what separates the pros from the absolute racing gods.
The Golden Key To Maximising Your Mental Game
The key is to really know yourself deep down on an emotional level.
Believe it or not, your life insecurities will show out on the track.
It’s important to know yourself very well. For more reasons than just racing performance 🙂
A racing god knows exactly the series of thoughts they must have in order to keep control of themselves and stay relaxed and focused. It’s almost like a form of self-manipulation, but in good way that elicits a positive outcome.
It’s superior emotional intelligence.
And the way to get there is slightly different for everyone.
Recovering Mentally From A Mistake
Here’s what I do if I’ve made a costly mistake, but managed to rejoin and continue the race:
- Try to stay numb to any emotion from the incident. Stay focused, stay in the zone. If you can remain emotionless through a mistake, this is preferable.
- If an inevitable emotion surfaces, contain it for a few seconds until the next long full throttle zone.
- On the next straight, give one good “****” (insert favorite 4 letter word) and maybe even punch your dash if you wish! Just be careful not to hurt your hand. This will help release the emotion in a spot on the track that will cost you 0 time.
- Move on and convince yourself the mistake never happened. You’ll perform better mentally this way because you can only control the now.
- Regroup, focus forward and get back to work. Your goal is still to maximise the performance of the car.
Get that emotion out as quickly as it came in. Because 99% of the time, that emotion is going to affect your performance in a negative way.
What if I’m capable of channeling my anger and using it to drive faster?
Look. If suddenly you’re able to go faster because you’re mad, all it means is you were under driving the car in the first place. It would mean you didn’t want the speed bad enough to begin with. It’s my belief that anger never does you any good behind the wheel.
A better prescription for improvement in this case would be to find out why you weren’t pushing to begin with.
The Toughest Place Mentally For The Racing Driver: Leading A Race
If you’ve ever been in the lead of a race, you already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, imagine this:
You’re the only one on the track who’s race it is to lose. Everyone else has a position to gain but you exclusively can only lose positions. In order to maintain position your performance is not only held to the highest standard but everyone (both your spectators and competitors) have a front row seat to watch. And since you’re at the front, the slightest mistake will cost you the most out of anyone because it’s the most competitive up front.
Mentally, it’s an enormously fragile position to be in. From a psychological perspective, leading sucks.
I’ve found an internal mental algorithm that I use for managing my emotions while leading a race.
Download it below.
FREE PDF GUIDE
HOW TO MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS
WHILE LEADING A RACE
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Managing your emotions correctly while out on track is crucial for both the novice HPDE driver and seasoned racer.
Your body and brain don’t work correctly under stress.
Reducing emotional stress behind the wheel make you a better driver in every single area of improvement that exists.
If there’s any single trait that would allow you to feel the car better, think more clearly and make smart decisions out on track, it’s this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
From 2006 Skip Barber National Champion to 2015 Spec Miata SCCA Runoffs Champion, and with the 2008 IMSA Lites title in between, I’ve been in the racing scene for quite some time. I’ve been fortunate to race against (and beat sometimes) the best drivers in the world currently racing in various top level motorsports.
I’m very passionate about the art/science of performance driving and want to share that passion with you.
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