Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday Ramble - Positive Thinking in NASCAR

Positive Thinking in NASCAR
Imagine you are a NASCAR driver. You’ve been racing since before you could walk, your hand-eye coordination is amazing, your focus has been honed razor sharp, your body is in amazing physical condition, and you have your Sports Psychologist’s number on speed dial. Wait a minute – you aren’t utilizing the help of a Sports Psychologist? Well you better find one in a hurry.

We all know that getting to the top of the racing heap takes a ton of talent and a whole lot of luck in being at the right place at the right time to get noticed. Only forty-three drivers get to take the green flag in Sprint Cup action every week – they are the elite. And out of those elite, you have the super teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing. They have the best drivers, the best engineers, the best fabricators, and the best pit crews.

It’s not easy to be the best, though. It takes money and resources. Those teams have to have a pit crew coach to condition the over-the-wall guys, the machinery for the fabricators to work with, and the computer simulations for the engineers. They also need to keep their drivers at optimal performance levels. The drivers have personal trainers to help them condition for the physical aspect of their sport, but the top level teams also recognize the need to have someone on hand to condition them for the mental aspect of competition also.

Sports psychology has been around for several decades in team sports such as football and basketball. It wasn’t as pervasive in motorsports, but has been gaining popularity in recent years. Team owners are looking for every edge that they can possibly find to beat the competition, and learning the benefits of realistic goal setting and positive imagery, as well as learning stress management tools, can definitely give a driver an edge.

Obviously NASCAR drivers have mastered some of the mental aspects of what they do. The level of focus and concentration that they can achieve for such lengths of time is amazing when you think about it. And whether they realize it or not, they use mental imagery all the time. How often do you hear a driver talk about going over a qualifying lap in their head before they ever get in the car? All the time. This is also why racing simulator games can go a long ways in preparing a driver for a race. They aren’t being put through the same physical rigors of being in an actual car – they are going through the mental aspect of it.

So mental imagery is common among drivers. The question is whether they are keeping that imagery positive, or if they are letting negative thinking get in the way of their goals. It is much easier to think negatively than it is to have a positive outlook. So changing your perception of the situation to put a positive spin on it actually requires more work. This is where the help of a sports psychologist can be invaluable.

Athletes all too often fall into common mental ruts that produce negativity. Demanding perfection – “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Let’s face it, not every driver can win every race. It’s an unrealistic expectation that will lead to frustration and negativity. Striving towards perfection, doing all they can to improve themselves, are good goals. But demanding a perfect performance every time will set them up for failure.

Another common pitfall is focusing on past performance. Thinking about a mistake they made twenty laps ago, a race ago, or the last time they were at that track not only erodes their confidence, but takes focus away from the only thing that they can control – the present. It doesn’t matter if they screwed up a corner in the last lap and lost a position. It doesn’t matter if they had a bad pit stop. What matters is what is in front of them.

Dwelling on the uncontrollable is also a big mental mistake that is hard to overcome for athletes, drivers especially. They can’t control the car handling, they can’t control the track conditions, they can’t control what the pit crew does, and most of all they can’t control the other forty-two drivers on the track. Racing is a total team effort and it also involves an element of luck. A driver needs to focus only on what is in his control.

So how do drivers that contended for the Championship last year, like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, etc. keep that element of focus and positive mental attitude from week to week? Well, I don’t know for certain. Maybe they are robots who are unable to feel emotion. Or quite possibly their team has a Sports Psychologist to help them through the mental rigors required of them.

NASCAR racing has achieved such parity among the competitors that races are sometimes won or lost by mere inches – either on the track, in the pits, or when missing the wreck in front of them. Every tiny advantage that you can gain on the other drivers is a step towards attaining the ultimate goal – winning. So if the top teams are utilizing Sports Psychology to give their drivers an edge, end even if they’re not, other drivers need to step up and give it a try.

It is not a weakness to ask the help of someone in order to achieve a certain state of mind any more than it is a weakness to ask a physical trainer to help them condition their bodies. Coaches the world over have always preached that any game is 10% physical and 90% mental. NASCAR racing is no different. It isn’t just one driver versus forty-two other drivers. It’s also one driver versus themselves and the track they are racing on, and sometimes that is pretty tough competition.

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