Recently, my family and I made our way to Bristol Dragway for our first NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League Eastern Conference Finals. Not only was it my son Gary’s first experience on the “big stage,” but it was also really exciting to hang out with about 50 members of our new ThisIsBracketRacing Junior Membership community and their families (many of whom I met in person for the first time after months of zoom calls and online instruction).
We weren’t far into the weeklong marathon that is the Eastern Conference Finals before I began to notice a theme. I was having the same conversation multiple times a day; coaching drivers (and parents) through a very common struggle. Many (perhaps most) of our racers were struggling on the tree.
When you zoom out for a moment, the struggle is really pretty natural. In fact, I’d argue (and I tried to reassure each of them) that it’s the nature of an event like the ECF (which I found to be similar to the U.S. Nationals, the Million Dollar Race, and several other big events that I’m more familiar with). The event is long – multiple days. And it’s spread out – it’s rare that you get to make back-to-back runs within a few hours. As a result, there’s often limited data to build upon for both drivers and tuners. In addition to those challenges, the stakes are high: there’s a fair amount of pressure and EVERYONE wants to win. Those stakes predictably bring out the best of the best; so the competition level is really high: feeding the impression that anything less than a near-perfect performance cannot be tolerated.
Mix that recipe up into one big pot, and it’s inevitable: not only are drivers going to make mistakes over the course of 8 days of racing, they’re going to have too much time to think about those mistakes before they get a crack at redemption. Combine that with the stakes and the stage, and most drivers have a tendency to put even more pressure on themselves following even a single misstep. As you might imagine, I spoke with countless drivers – good drivers – who began to identify with those mistakes; who began to really question themselves.
I’m sharing this story specifically from the mouths of Jr. Dragster drivers, but this struggle isn’t unique to 6-17 year olds… Far from it.
The truth is, we all make mistakes. Peter Biondo might make nine great runs for every mistake.
And Peter Piper may make nine mistakes for every great run.
That, in part, is what separates great racers from the rest. But it’s not the only thing. What allows great racers to make so many great runs is what they allow themselves to believe… how they CHOOSE to identify themselves.
Great racers may make more great runs than mistakes… But to be clear: they DO make mistakes.
Great racers shrug that off; the mistake is an aberration. It’s the exception, not the rule.
In fact, the greatest racers, I’d argue, could make one great run surrounded by nine mistakes. By and large, they choose to believe that the one great run is who they are and what they’re capable of.
Conversely, average racers… MOST racers.. Choose to identify with the mistake. Most racers could make nine great runs, surrounding one mistake. And yet, they’ll choose to view the mistake as the true representation of what they’re capable of.
It’s not their fault entirely; we’re conditioned to do this. Take our Jr. Dragster drivers, or think back to your own school days. Were your correct answers recognized? No, typically they were expected: we’re supposed to get it right!
What about the answers that were incorrect? THOSE were brought to our attention, typically in the form of a big, red X across our otherwise pristine paper. The goal, obviously, is to bring mistakes to our attention so that we can identify the right answer, or the proper approach, and correct moving forward. The inevitable byproduct of that process, however, is an emphasis on perfection. And perfection, as you certainly know if you’ve ever tightened the shoulder harness in a race car, is not a realistic expectation.
The key, without question, is to develop a framework to learn from our mistakes without allowing them to define us. Making a bad run doesn’t mean that you’re a bad racer… It simply means you made a bad run. And truth be known, even the best racers make some bad runs!
If no one, in fact, is mistake-free between the walls, what is it that makes the truly elite racers stand out? Are great racers confident because they’re more talented? Or are they talented because they’re more confident? Ultimately, confidence and talent lock horns in a virtuous cycle: one feeds the other. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone who can force that cycle. I have, however, seen that such a virtuous cycle facilitated and nurtured by many successful competitors.
I would argue that the difference between Peter Biondo and Peter Piper isn’t a huge disparity in talent so much as a huge disparity in mental toughness. Being mentally tough does not mean being flawless; in fact I’d argue that mental toughness includes a component of honest vulnerability: realizing and accepting that we are, in fact, flawed. Mentally tough competitors make mistakes just like the rest of us. Mentally tough racers aren’t flawless; they’re resilient. They choose to believe in the best version of themselves because they realize that if they don’t believe in that, no one else will do it for them.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t… You’re right.”
For all its simplicity, Henry Ford’s age-old quote applies directly to race car drivers… whether they’re nine years old or forty-nine years old.