Mind management and F1

Most successful sportsmen will tell you that psychology is an important part in winning and in many sports the players have “coaches” to help them handle the pressures and to give them advice. One thinks of tennis, where the big stars of today have former champions to help them under the process of winning. Novak Djokovic works closely with the great Boris Becker and Andy Murray has recently re-engaged Ivan Lendl to help him channel his energy in the right places. And while technique may be part of the discussion, it is largely about psychology. In golf there are are dozens of coaches helping the big name players, led by Dr Bob Rotella, who not only coaches the stars, but also coaches the coaches. Often these folk are called performance coaches, although most seem to be sport psychologists, and some flit from one sport to another with ease. Richard Coop, for example, has helped many athletes in NASCAR,basketball and American football, while Dr Fran Pirozzolo has been the mental-skills coach for the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Houston Texans. When you look at motorsport, however, you see plenty of physical trainers, you see a few driver coaches, but not at races, and you never see anyone “tuning the minds” of the stars. One or two of the trainers understand that getting the mindset right is of key importance but performance coaches are not seen as a necessary requirement. This is interesting.

Why do racing drivers hesitate to get involved with sport psychologists? Is it because they believe that asking for help is somehow a sign of weakness or that if they need to work on their mental game, the sport will conclude that there must be something wrong with them? The only F1 driver who admits to having worked with a sports psychologist is Romain Grosjean and he is much more relaxed than many of his rivals.

This is something that three-time World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart says that he fails to understand.

“I don’t understand it,” says Stewart. “Emotion is a dangerous thing. It creates tension and I don’t understand why in the modern corporate age, with so much more money in the sport, there is not more being made of the mental side of it. I’m amazed that teams are not doing more of it and that sponsors are not asking for it.”

Sir Jackie says that he learned how to control his emotions in a racing car back in 1969, four years after he made his F1 debut. He says that he learned how to do it not from any professional advisor, but rather from working closely with Jim Clark (the two shared a flat in London) and with Graham Hill, his BRM team-mate in 1965 and 1966.

“Jimmy and I spent a lot of time together,” Sir Jackie says. “Neither of us were good in the kitchen, so we would go out for breakfast every morning and dinner every night. He wasn’t ever off the road, he didn’t ever have accidents – he always drove within his limits. Nobody thought Jimmy was ever going to die.”

Stewart believes that good mind management is vital to conserve mental energy, freeing up space to ensure that drivers make fewer mistakes and become more confident in their own abilities. Ask any engineer and they will tell you that a driver who is confident is his car is worth far more than any aerodynamic upgrade. Grosjean says that he was “clever enough to think I needed help”.

“It’s not a proof of weakness, it is more a strong point because you can always improve yourself and that is why I work with a sports psychologist,” he says. “In 2012 I was very quick but I would sometimes make the wrong judgement. They key questions was to understand. Why was I making the wrong decisions? Why was I compromising my race and other people’s races? From there I moved on. It was quite interesting for me to go through that process. It was a tough time but I learned a lot and it’s helped get me to where I am today. It has helped me a lot to become a better driver, a better father and a better man. We use engineers to set-up the car and we use coaches to improve our physical performance. Why wouldn’t you use a psychologist to improve your brain and the way it works?”

With so much energy going into developing machinery, strategies, fitness and nutrition,it is odd that more work does not go on about how the driver is thinking. Indeed with all these areas having become fairly well developed, it is arguable that playing field is now relatively even. Talent and hard work can only do so much and mental training could be one area in which a driver can get an edge by improving his focus, his level of effort and his confidence.

Interestingly, in NASCAR, another area where time is with pit stops. The used to be done by the mechanics, but in the end teams began to realise that by the race they were tired and did not perform as well as perhaps they might. This led to the development of not only crewmen who arrived only on race morning, but also the recruitment of top athletes to be crew members, with speed and dexterity. A pit stop in NASCAR can be the difference between victory and failure and so the teams believe it is a good investment. This is easier logistically in NASCAR as the crews fly in and out on team planes, with relatively little journey time. It is not possible in Formula 1 because of the travel involved, but teams have worked hard on the fitness of their crews and on making sure that they can pull off the most efficient pit stops.

64 thoughts on “Mind management and F1

  1. If drivers hesitate to use psychologists because they think it’s “a sign of weakness,” then that points to a very macho mind-set where strength, power and aggression are paramount. When judiciously applied, those traits would be very helpful in a Formula One driver. But, when they’re not adequately controlled, you would see the results in such misadventures as Lewis Hamilton’s attempted pass of Nico Rosberg on the first lap in Spain. I believe Niki Lauda complained at the time that “Lewis is too aggressive.”

    As you point out, Joe, there is so much money involved with the F1 teams, that one might think employing the services of a psychologist to control such impulses would simply be a good business decision. Particularly, when both of your team cars are out of the race on the first lap.

    1. w.r.t. the “macho mind-set”: I remember a race-driver-psychology-focused article in an American magazine in the ’70s, R&T probably, which among other things concluded that the successful racer is an “exaggeratedly masculine man.”

      1. .. except that nowadays there is plenty of evidence which suggests that the test pilot does much better than the gorilla. Drivers must focus most of their efforts on driving their machines in an optimal manner, even the aggression required to overtake and/or impose yourself on your opponents must be carefully managed.

  2. I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t mention Dr. Aki Hinsta. Here is a nice piece on his approach. [Link removed]. I’ve purchased his book “The Core” and gave it to my son who coaches Track and Field at a small university. Lewis, Seb, Suzzie, Adrain and Kimi become just some of his students.

  3. I would put money on Rosberg having used a sports psychologist. I believe his approach to dealing with defeat has changed significantly over the years and that has allowed him to relax, be more confident in his abilities and thus perform better.

    1. I’m a psychologist. He may have used a sports psychologist, wouldn’t surprise me. But, his change in behavior, thinking, seems to be most temporally connected to having a child.

  4. Jackie, of course, is absolutely right, but even with his chums/helpers in the end the appalling carnage of the time got to him. Happily, and much to his credit for starting the ball rolling, the injuries and fatalities have mostly disappeared.
    In Grosjean’s case it was largely the overly frequent accidents that caused him to seek help, I believe his hand was forced, but the results speak for themselves.
    Someone will start and then all will follow.

  5. I wonder how much Lewis has benefited (mentally) from having Niki Lauda around. I bet it’s not trivial.

    1. I had always assumed that Niki’s role at Mercedes was precisely that – to look after the drivers and make sure they concentrate on the right things to win the race.

      On the subject of pit stops, Sky did an analysis last weekend about Williams and their performance at the stops this year (under 3 seconds in every race!). They had a young lady on the crew who was described as a performance coach, she had been working with the team over the winter to analyse and improve the stops – quite successfully it seems.

  6. Joe, I seem to recall a statement attributed to the sport psychologist-Willy Dungal who helped Niki Lauda after his crash at the Nurburg Ring, that “races are won in the head” .

  7. Sports Psychology is an integral part of sport these days. Maybe our English Football team needs it in the Penalty phase of an international tournament. I know the England’s RFU use them to optimise performance while keeping Anxiety levels at a minimum.
    Wonder if the Prince Of Darkness aka The Head of F1 (B.E.) uses mind management to say one thing and imply something totally different. While pulling the rug from under media’s feet. Then pulling out a Rolex ⌚ while taking a swig of the new sponsors larger🍺?
    Refreshes some megalomaniacal leaders that other beers can reach .

  8. A fascinating subject – thanks.

    Ironically far more conducive to road safety at any level than any of that ‘If You Drive, Never Drink’ waffle but regretfully won’t be taken up mainstream to spawn a ‘drive psychologist’ branch of the profession.

    1. Yes, I remember him saying so. Although I think it was not related to the accident itself, but more to the fact that he was being crushed by Alonso as his teammate.

    1. Think he gets much of his inspiration from legendary people such as Mia “Still I Rise”.
      Ali for coming out for the 15th round in The Thriller In Manilla. And so on.

      1. Inspiration is only a very small part of mind management.
        Sir Clive Woodward created the phrase TCUP – thinking correctly under pressure.

  9. Grosjean is rapidly becoming my favourite driver in any four-wheel series. Give that man a Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull please.

    1. Hear hear. Grosjean reminds me quite a bit of Riccardo Patrese, who was my favourite and quite a good team player with Williams. If I could, I’d sign him tomorrow as Ferrari’s no.2 driver.

  10. You adress a point I always thought about with Minardi – they were slow, but also with pit stops. I thought “if you don’t have the money to develop, at least make sure you’re the fastest in the pits, that doesn’t cost money”

  11. A potentially interesting comparo, F1 vs NASCAR pit crews, and fitness requirements.

    Considering the NASCAR guys cannot be set up and waiting in the pit lane ala F1, I suggest the fitness needs of the NASCAR crews is higher. Especially when the tire changers and jack man have to service both sides of the car. And the gasman has to carry the fuel can to the car!

    A blown 6-8 second F1 pit stop (ala Ricciardo in Monaco) can cost a race win just as much as a 20 second NASCAR stop, where a sub 13 second time is considered an excellent, including a four tire change out.

    Regarding mind management in F1, I only regret that Maldo never seemed to take advantage of such service and I hope Kvyat reads this before he self destructs further.

    Nice piece Joe, thank you.

  12. Great though-provoking note Joe. Is Aki Hintsa no longer working with McLaren and other drivers as well? He’s probably the closest thing to a long serving psychological coach for F1 drivers, no?

  13. On the technique element, it’s fascinating to hear Valentino Rossi is now working with Luca Cadalora. It was also great to see Alonso earlier this year ‘coaching’ Vandoorne.

    1. Alonso showed his class there. Most drivers when signed off injured by the doc, would have been on the next plane home. That he stayed around for the whole weekend and worked with the team and Vandoorne says a lot about the man.

  14. Clearly wise, and hat’s off to Romain. I’m surprised that highly organized teams like McLaren don’t demand this of their drivers–or perhaps they do and don’t publicize it?

    On the physical front, America’s Cup teams have long used beefy types, often ex-(American) footballers, as “grinders” to crank the capstans and haul in lines like the devil. Would F1 pit crews benefit from agility training, parcour experience or even ballet lessons? Not joking–if this might mean a tenth of a second, no one should be embarrassed.

    By the way, Joe, you mentioned Chris Pook recently…is a Long Beach Grand Prix possible again?

    1. My local professional rugby team, through a series of connections, hired a male ballerina to do a training session. It started as a joke, but the players were staggered at his power to weight ratio, his aerobic fitness, his suppleness and agility, and his strength in non-explosive movements, which were all vastly better than anyone in the club. Much mutual respect generated, much learnt on both sides.

  15. Hi Joe,

    interesting article. Do you think that one of the issues is that of a driver’s ego?

    One of my interests is meditation, and this has recently become a trend, generally referred to as “mindfullness” these days. One of the most critical parts of true meditation is letting go of the ego or “thinking mind”. I’ll never forget how the late, great Ayrton Senna (anyone remember him? 😉 ) used to describe his races: often very similar to a spiritual, Zen-like state of being totally alive and in the moment; seeing everything and responding directly and swiftly as only someone who doesn’t have a “thinking mind/ego” in the way can do.

    Are you aware of any drivers who have taken to meditation as part of their mental training?

    1. Mary: I’ll never forget how the late, great Ayrton Senna (anyone remember him?😉 ) used to describe his races: often very similar to a spiritual, Zen-like state of being totally alive and in the moment; seeing everything and responding directly and swiftly as only someone who doesn’t have a “thinking mind/ego” in the way can do.

      I know this is going to sound a bit silly, but I used to have exactly the same thing sometimes when playing pinball back in my youth. Usually I’d just blunder through doing my best, but on a rare few occasions, I would suddenly enter the state you describe and it would become the most easy, natural thing in the world, racking up absolutely ludicrous scores with ease, making one 10p last nearly an hour. Totally zoned out. It was blissful.

      I am absolutely not a Star Wars fan, but I suspect George Lucas must have experienced something similar himself to come up with all that “use the force…let go your conscious self…feel [it] flowing through [you]” stuff.

      First time I ever read the quote from Ayrton Senna about that experience he had round Monaco, I recognised what he was talking about instantly…

      1. “Pinball Wizard, he can beat my best…..” And here I thought it was just a great song and album! 🙂

      2. Ambient Sheep, you are not too far wrong; there is a “Universal law” centred on “faith” and Ayrton (was) one of many whose mind was open enough to learn how to “tune in” to it. The majority refuse to accept or believe this “law”

    2. Jim Clark used to say he didn’t try to drive fast, he just concentrated harder
      and then he became faster!

      Senna’s pole position qualifying lap for the 1988 Monaco GP springs to mind…

      1. Nice that you mention Senna’s qualifying lap at Monaco. Thanks. That is one of my all-time, favorite bits of video footage in Formula One.

        I remember that, as the video rolled, it was immediately evident that Senna was keeping the car barely — barely — under control. It was the very definition of “overdriving.” And, Jackie Stewart, one of the commentators, appreciatively said, “This is a fast lap.” Yes, it was.

    3. Mary, What you are describing is known popularly as being ‘in the zone’; meditation is just one of a number of ways of reaching this state of mind.
      My wife is a professional musician and she has developed a series of simple mental and physical exercises which help her get into the zone and to stay there throughout any performance. Just as important, she has also developed processes which help her to escape from the zone when it is no longer necessary !
      I agree with your suggestion that it takes a certain amount of humility to explore new ideas which might help one to improve.

  16. I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that Bottas worked with a psychologist in his first season or two.

  17. The last thing successful sports persons want is someone fiddling around in their head, for fear of breaking what was working. So, only people who are at a loss to why they are not winning or just failing to be their best, employ the sports shrink. That is why it is seen as an admission of failure. But there is also some corporate propaganda in this. Why do teams have to employ mandatory shrinks to assess and treat their staff and stars? How do we know exactly how drivers deal with the pressure? Maybe they are doing just fine. Maybe they go fishing or skiing. Maybe they don’t need a mind readjustment for the sake of it.

    1. Maybe you use the wrong term “shrink”, I think a sports psychologist does exactly the opposite.
      Gary Player said when questioned about his work ethic “it’s a funny thing I find the more I practice the better I get”.The same should be said for mind management. When millions are spent for fractional gains and the drivers are all superfit physically it would seem obvious that the mental state should receive the same attention. Might not work with Kimi though.

    2. Wouldn’t the same reasoning then apply to every aspect of their performance? Why does Djokovic bother with a coach when they could undo the reason he’s winning – is that seen as failure? The one thing successful sports people want is more success and if they see their mind as a component of their success it makes sense to train it. Fishing and skiing are great for relaxation but how do they help improve a split second decision making process?

    3. That’s a load of cobblers if I can say so. If you look at the All Blacks rugby team, they have employed sports psychologists for years, and the players often will refer openly to the help they have been towards achieving their end goals. Now go and google “world’s most successful sports team” and see what result populates the front page.

    4. How can you know whether or not your mental approach is the best one possible unless you do something to find out ? Gather some evidence – try some of what the sports psychologist suggests, see how you feel, see how your performance is affected. Only when you have done that will you be in a position to say whether any ‘mind readjustment’ is necessary.

      1. Why don’t you take some lessons in how to ask questions, then you’ll be in a position to understand more about how to get the best possible answer

  18. And what about Aki Hintsa. I am just reading his book. Look at how Hamilton and Vettel were talking after the finish of the Canadian GP, boyish but you could see they are feeling good. Both Hintsa customers. My view, Rosberg will never be a world champion because he didn’t have the mental training at the beginning of his career. That’s why Hamilton is so strong after a terrible bad season start, he knew mentally to focus 100% on the future and not on what just happened. A great champion.

  19. There are a couple of driver coaches in InypdyCar that attend races. Rick Mears with Penske and Dario Franchitti with Ganassi but I don’t know how much of their time is soent discussing driving skills and how much on mental approach. On the fitness front, Ganassi has taken it a step further and the whole team has fitness training at least once a week at the factory. They believe it improves everyones performance.

  20. Do you not think pitstops are an area ripe for coat cutting. Standard jacks guns and pit gantries could be supplied and why not have a smaller pit crew with one team member per corner ala NASCAR. Does it really matter of the stops and 2s or 12s so long as it’s a level playing field……

    Just a thought.

  21. JS: “Why do racing drivers hesitate to get involved with sport psychologists?”

    If by “hesitate” you mean “don’t” I think they do, but perhaps not scientifically trained ones with PhD’s. There is a long list of drivers who have sought to improve their mental approach to driving using “alternative” methods. They include Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton.

    Might I suggest that the reason they don’t talk about it is to keep the “secret” to themselves.

  22. I think it’s more to do with the difference in environments – there is so many more variables in F1 than in, say, Tennis for example.

    Every F1 driver on the grid absolutely believes they are the best – or at least are capable of being the best at some point. If they are not, there are loads of reasons for this – the car isn’t as good, the strategy wasn’t as good, the tyre wear was calculated wrong, fuel saving etc. etc.

    In Tennis, you can believe you are the greatest all you like, but if you keep getting beaten, there is nothing else to blame. It’s one on one. So bring in the psychologist…

    For Grosjean, there was a specific issue that could not be blamed on cars, strategy or tyres so he looked at himself – very commendable.

    However, as long as a driver believes that he is the best, and it’s other things that are stopping him, a psychologist is going to be the last thing on his mind, so to speak…

  23. Don’t know if he’s still around in F1 but McLaren employed Dr. Kerry Spackman for a while. He advised on their simulator too, being a doctor in neuro-science. He worked with Lewis in the less succesful part of his F3 career, to get him back on track, and I think he was involved in McLaren’s young driver program and later did a project in British tennis during the build-up to London Olympics. He is a Kiwi who started in automative with Ford, where he worked with JYS, and was very much amazed by JYS’ feedback levels. I think there he got interested in the mental part of sports. His book is called The Winner’s Bible.

  24. One remembers Ayrton Senna and Nuno Cobra. Nuno wrote a book about it: “A semente da vitória” (Portuguese) which is very interesting. His approach is body, mind and soul. He also maintains a website with more details about his method.

  25. it’s well known that the brain can’t differentiate between experiencing something and vividly imagining it. There isn’t a driver (or any other sport an I know) who hasn’t visualised perfectly what they want to do. You’ll see many drivers in a quiet moment eyes closed and imagining the lap- trying to get every last and microscopic detail.
    So when it’s said many drivers don’t use the techniques then I suspect that’s not strictly true.

  26. Thanks for the interesting article, Joe. did you personally interview Jackie for this article? I’d love to find out more detail about what he discussed and learned from Jim Clark (and Graham Hill), if possible.

      1. Yes. The discussion was not about specifics. However, he said that their behaviour taught him how to focus and how to exclude emotion from driving.

  27. In the dim and distant past I was aware that both Senna, Prost, and others, had been to see a sport psychologist based in Paris. I was also involved with a guy in the USA that was the “guru” of the Moto GP world, 500cc championship as it was then, now if ever there was a reason for such a person on a team, its bike guys, because if you think of the times they throw it down the road and then get back on, that would need someone to convince me that it would be “OK” the next time!
    If you look at Lewis Hamilton’s helmet it has “Still I Rise” on the back of his helmet, you don’t think that’s part of a sports psychologist’s input?
    I don’t think drivers and riders talk about these things because its perceived as a weakness by others that don’t use every available tool to be ahead of a fellow competitor.
    Its clear that as the level rises, then every possible means can and will be used to try to be the best.

  28. I remember a quote from Stirling Moss in an article on driver coaches years ago in (probably) Racecar Engineering. He said something to the effect that there are two physical activities that no man ever wants to admit that he is less than perfect at. Driving was one of them.

    1. He’s the anti-something! But you make a good point, carrot is good but some respond to stick better. Sometimes known as “towards” or “away from” motivation strategy.

  29. The most powerful thought that any competitor can have is “Whatever happens, even if it’s “bad”, it’s to my advantage”.

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