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.