Inside the Helmet of Extreme Sports: The Psychology of Auto Racing
When most people think of sports, they think of traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, American football, soccer, etc. When people think of sport psychology, they often think of these same sports plus Olympic disciplines such as gymnastics, track, and swimming. When I think of sports, I think of auto racing. I grew up with my dad at the drag strips in Iowa and then married a drag racer. For the last 25 years, my husband has driven a rear engine dragster in NHRA classes and I have been the pit crew. As a professor of psychology at McKendree University and an AASP Certified Mental Performance Consultant®, I have been able to identify unique aspects of sport psychology in auto racing. Many of these aspects are not completely unique to auto racing, and when I work with bowlers, equestrians, and gymnasts we are able to talk about some similarities.
Below is a brief glimpse inside the helmet of auto racers, and specifically those who participate in drag racing. It is my hope that this brief summary will be beneficial to athletes involved in extreme sports and consultants who work with these athletes.
The first essential aspect to understand in auto racing psychology is the difference in practice time. Auto racing is expensive and auto racers have little practice opportunity. Unlike a sport such as basketball, auto racers don’t have the option for hours in the gym practicing their sport. Most racers don’t have the time, money, equipment, or location to practice very much, in fact, many will be allowed only a few time trials or practice laps and then have to be ready for competition. Racers must take their practices extremely seriously. The old adage of “practice like you play” is essential. In addition, racers may be more likely to need to use visualization or simulators. Many auto racers use various simulators (e.g., practice reaction time equipment) to help with their practice. If racers tried to adhere to the “10,000-hour rule” that states you need that many hours to be world-class in any field (Gladwell, 2008), then they would have to use visualization and simulators.
In auto racing, like gymnastics, there is very little room for error. In some sports, there is a chance to make a mistake, recover, and move on. In auto racing, a small mistake will likely make you lose or even worse cause an accident. In drag racing, drivers have to react to a light at the start and a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing – consequently, reaction times are critical. Losing by such small margins can also be difficult on an athlete and can lead to burnout, especially if they focus entirely on winning (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). Working with auto racers (and other athletes) who can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by consultants, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
- In most sports, there is some degree of danger and risk of injury. In gymnasts, equestrians, and auto racers, the risk of injury is almost always present. Once again, this risk needs to clearly be identified and discussed. Most athletes are keenly aware of this potential for injury. Discussions about safety precautions, avoiding unnecessary risks, handling emergency situations, mentally preparing for injury, and simply acknowledging that the rewards of the sport outweigh the potentially negative outcomes are essential for racers.
- In auto racing, there is a partnership between the car and the driver. For those who are not “car people,” this anthropomorphism of the car may seem unusual. I recently posted this question on a sport psychology list serve and this anthropomorphism does happen in other sports such as sailing and even with some golfers and their special clubs. However, there is a particularly strong bond between most racers and their cars; they may talk about their car in terms of their partner, and will say things such as “She (the car) was perfect tonight” or “The Old Nova really got it done today!” Auto racers rightfully understand that they have a mechanical partner who will help them to win or lead them to lose. This partnership may seem odd to those outside of the sport, but the feeling toward a car may seem similar to that of the love equestrians have to their horse or the respect tennis players have with their doubles partner. An athlete and consultant may want to be aware of what they can control or can’t control with this mechanical partner and ensure that proper attributions are being made. It is doubtful that a car “has a mind of her own” and intentionally wants to lose (although it sure feels like it sometimes!).
- Finally, some fascinating things about auto racing are the family dynamic, age and gender desegregation, and the lifelong participation aspect of the sport. Some of the best auto racers come from a long line of auto racing, while many of the pit crew are dads, brothers, wives, children, family, and friends. This is particularly true at the non-professional level. At race tracks, entire families attend the events together. Additionally, in auto racing, men and women compete directly with one another, meaning there is no separation in competition by gender. Finally, racers can start in different classes as young as 8 years old and very successful drivers can race to 70 years old. In auto racing, it is not unusual to find people who have been participating for over 50 years! Once again, most classes do not separate by age. Therefore men, women, young, and old all race in the same classes together. Auto racing is truly a lifestyle and athletes need to develop ways to stay motivated over what may be a very long career in the sport. Topics such as balancing work, family, and racing are important considerations for these racers. Consultants may also need to help these racers think about very long term goals (where do you want your racing to be in 5 or more years?).
For me, auto racing is a lifestyle. I enjoy the competition, setting goals, the friends, the commitment, learning new things, and having the motivation to participate over many years. As a sport psychology consultant, working with auto racers is a rewarding adventure and there is a lot to learn inside the helmet.
Eggleston, T. J. (2015) Auto Racing Mental Skills Video. http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/blog/2015/02/auto-racing-mental-skills/
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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