Speed Secrets: Coaching is Only as Good as the Communication
By Ross Bentley
December 06, 2016
Communication is key. How many times, and in how many different situations have you heard that?
Driving and instructing is no different, as Eron Flory describes this week. With engineering degrees in robotics and vehicle dynamics, Eron has spent most of his professional career in robotics and automation, and recently in medical device design. But he loves car and motorcycle racing (something he's done for over thirty years), and coaching with Hooked On Driving for the past six years.
Enjoy Eron's article, as he paints a picture of a great driver coach. – Ross
Motorsports coaching is about transferring knowledge and experience from an experienced person to a less experienced person. But the difference in experience, while important, is not the most critical factor in successful coaching. To be successful, a coach must be able to communicate with the driver in a way which resonates with that particular driver. If not, the coach’s inputs may actually be harmful; these inputs may be distracting the driver from what they may otherwise be doing well and distracting from their enjoyment of driving on the track.
I have been coaching for a while and racing for even longer. I thought I was a pretty good coach, but I found that I had difficulty communicating my intent to some drivers. Being an engineer, I found it very easy to communicate intent and car dynamics to other engineers, but found it much more challenging to communicate effectively with people who had non-technical backgrounds.
It turns out that there’s a lot of value in finding out what off-track life experience a driver has, because this can be the key to good communication. The driver’s previous driving experience is important to know when deciding “what” to communicate. The driver’s other life experiences are important in knowing “how” to communicate.
Over the years I have had the most success explaining basic concepts off the track, and then concentrating on one or two important topics for each particular track session. These topics may be different for each driver, in order to address each driver’s strengths and weaknesses.
My coaching has also become less verbal, and more visual, through the use of a couple of very simple hand signals. The best thing about hand signals, if properly defined before going on track, is that they are almost instantly recognized, providing the driver immediate feedback. And, since hand signals can be given and interpreted very quickly, they provide very little distraction to the driver’s concentration as they are working on the basic concepts we discussed off track.
My favorite hand signal is a “thumbs up,” given just under the inside rear view mirror. This tells the driver that “what you just did, or are currently doing, is the best you have done so far” and communicates “that is what it should feel like.” I have been amazed that some drivers worry that they were not doing something right because it did not feel at all like how “FAST” looks on TV (sideways smoking tires). But once they learn to gauge their actual speed by checking speed or RPM at certain points on the track, they see that they really are going faster when they are driving more smoothly. This is often a revelation to them!
So, now you know why I use mostly hand signals on track… but how do I best communicate the basic concepts off track? A big part of making progress on track is having drivers understand the basics BEFORE going on track. Now, they can start figuring out on their own how to best get around the track, and I am just reinforcing their learning with appropriate feedback. It sounds easy, but this has been the most challenging part for me. Being an engineer, I find it easy to communicate ideas to other engineers. I just draw the traction circle or a force/slip angle diagram and talk about evening out the loading and maximizing the traction of the tires. But what about the rest? I have found that I can typically relate to something in each driver’s off track experience and come up with analogies which speak to their experience. It just takes a little effort and asking the right questions off track.
Recently, I coached a woman in a Porsche GT3. Here was a driver with a VERY Fast car, and not a lot of experience. She was extremely nice and really wanted to learn to drive her car closer to its potential. But she was confused about what “the line” was after having some coaching at another track day that left her confused and intimidated, as she could not keep up with the coaches’ constant commands. We sat down and discussed her off track experiences... mostly work and hobbies. She is a Marketing Researcher, not something I know much about.
She is also a marathon runner. I can work with this concept as I am also a runner, and I can use my “how over-loading the brain during a track session is like working muscles during a hard run” analogy. At some point, you reach its (brain or muscles) maximum capacity and then you need to let it rest and recover before asking it for more.
She is also an artist, a painter… Ah, an idea! Why not compare apexes to points on a canvas? If you connect them with straight lines you have to stop before changing directions and heading towards the next dot (apex). I asked her, “How would you connect the dots without slowing your brush?” Her answer is “a smooth, flowing brush stroke.” I love it! She now has a concept that she can use to recognize “the line.” So we discuss how to paint smooth flowing strokes with her tires from apex to apex. Ah, now we are getting somewhere! So we go back on track, and soon she is recognizing when she is on the line and when she is not. She is also smiling with each “thumbs up” hand signal that I give as she gets it right on her own.
As we pull in to the pits, she comments on how much more relaxed she felt that session than she had during previous track sessions. I was more relaxed too, because I was now reinforcing her learning, rather than trying to stay ahead of her mistakes.
This experience reminded me of how important communication is to effective coaching. All the driving experience in the world won’t help me coach someone, if I cannot effectively communicate with them. Getting to know a driver off the track allows me to know what concepts they already know and decide which of these concepts I can use to communicate driving concepts to them. Knowing how to best communicate with a particular driver also keeps us safer and allows more time for us both to enjoy the on-track experience.