Speed Secrets: This Is Easy

By Ross Bentley

December 26, 2013

Do you remember your first driving experience at a track event? For most people it was, "Wow, what an eye opener." For me it was even more. It became an identity crisis. 

Approaching the event I was full of confidence. After all, I am a man. Therefore, I know how to drive. (I know several women who would correctly say the same, but with the obvious gender difference.) Ten minutes into the event I knew one of those two statements was wrong. (It was the driving part!) I was unconsciously incompetent. I didn't know what I didn't know. And when I did figure out that I was in over my head, I was truly disappointed. Any sense of "cool" was gone.
Anyone who has spent time on the track has experienced that feeling of incompetence at least once. It may not be you who lost your "coolness." If you are an instructor you may have watched your student be deflated or at least dismayed by the difficulty of our sport. It's understandable. Most people, even motorsports enthusiasts, don't understand how hard it is to become truly competent on the track.
As our skill levels increase we tend to forget those early struggles and our memories of those days become less and less vivid. When we do talk about them, it's usually with humor. Why the humor? We humans tend to hide the parts of struggles we want to forget. Come on, we have all had those dark moments of doubt. And if you had an instructor who was really focused on helping you understand your mistakes and errors, he or she surely pounded them into your brain so you would remember them and NEVER DO THEM AGAIN! That probably didn't feel too good.
Think for a minute about a time when you were really young. I'll bet there was someone in your past, a relative, a teacher, a boss, someone you thought was a jerk. Okay, now forget him or her. Flip it and try to remember someone who - maybe only once - told you that you were good at something. Come on, dig deep. You're good at remembering. Got it? I'll bet you can even picture the person or the event. How did that make you feel? And why do you imagine you still remember it today and are willing to talk about it? Because it felt good!
I clearly remember my second race. Starting dead last in of a field of about 35 cars I struggled mightily to pass three cars by the checkered flag. Thrilled with my progress I returned to the paddock and my welcoming crew. I remember the two reactions as if they happened this morning.
First, Dean asked: "Why are you so slow? I always thought you were a fast driver. Go into the corners faster and catch people!" My reaction? "Ouch! He's right, I'm really slow." Then Rob: "Wow, in your first race you finished last but this time you passed three cars. How did you do that?" My reaction? "I have a lot to learn and I'm making progress. This is fun." Both "I'm really slow" and "This is fun" were accurate, but which was the most helpful?
We track junkies or racers tend to be an impatient lot. Unfortunately, the urge to "get better fast" can induce a fair amount of anxiety and disappointment. A racer trying to shave off a tenth or a novice who is trying to stop turning in too early can easily become frustrated. Here's the question: given that you are struggling and frustrated, or the person you are coaching is suffering the same, how can you get past the frustration and provide helpful observations and suggestions?
First, we have to know if you are doing internal or external coaching. Internal means you are coaching yourself. It's that little voice inside your head that offers judgments on your every action. Is yours a critical or a helpful voice? If you are coaching someone else (external), do you tend to be critical or positive? The conversation may be a bit different between internal and external coaching, but the approach can be the same. It's pretty simple: Positive is always better than negative and a frame of reference helps everything.
Here's an example from an external coaching experience:
I was working with a Car Control Clinic driver who couldn't wait to get out onto "the big track." He drove his huge Chrysler 300 with force and gusto. (Thank heavens it was the Car Clinic.) Despite all kinds of encouragement, he became more and more frustrated as the day wore on. I knew he was an attorney, but that wasn't enough information for me. I needed to understand his world. The conversation went kind of like this:
I asked: "What kind of an attorney." 
He responded: "A litigator. A defense attorney."
"Ah," I said. "I know how to do that."
"What? You are not a lawyer. How could you talk to a jury?"
"It's easy. I have watched everything from Perry Mason to Law and Order."
"It's not like that. It's not that easy."
So, I asked: "If I can't be a trial lawyer using the skills I have learned while watching television (and while debating with my wife), how can you expect to be a high performance driver on your very first day? It's not that easy." He got it. He relaxed. And, he had a ball. What do you think he will remember?
As for the internal coaching? Ross talks about it all the time. When something goes wrong, examine it as a learning experience. Don't beat yourself up.
Remember, this is difficult stuff. Then, dig back into the memory bank and find a time when you did something really well. Examine it. Try and get the feeling in it. And then congratulate yourself. 
So, why do we bother with the emotional content? Research shows that whenever there is a strong emotional component to an event, there is a huge increase in the probability that we will remember not just the details, but also the emotions surrounding that event. Even more important, if what we are learning is linked to something we already know, the level of understanding and agreement skyrockets. So if we can intentionally make the instruction and coaching (either for ourselves or for others), a positive emotional event tied to a past positive experience, we could be on the road to real success. Here are some tips to remember:
  • Be the student/ racer - Understand the person you are coaching, whether it's you or the person in the left seat. How do either one of you understand the world? How can you put the concept you are working on into a frame of reference that is very familiar? 
  • Be specific - "Nice job, there," doesn't cut it. Try: "When you did 'x' you did a much better job of 'y,' or "When I did 'x' I got a really great result. How did that feel?"
  • Repeat - Recall a previous success and attach it to what just happened. "Last time through here (I was) (you were) as smooth as possible, and it just happened again. Nice work." 
  • Don't ignore reality - If something is wrong, think and talk about it. And make sure you recognize that part of the reason you or your student  are making mistakes is because "this is difficult." 
  • Honor the smallest success - It may not seem huge, but even a tiny step of progress is important when we are struggling. Remember, "Celebrate early, celebrate often."
Go ahead. Try these. We already know you are smart. (That's because you are reading Speed Secrets Weekly.) Now have fun building some positive memories.
- Frank Greif
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe.