Let’s focus on a topic that may be the most overlooked and undervalued aspect of racing, and yet I would argue the most critical: the mental game of competition. Admittedly, if you’re at a very elementary state in your racing progression, the mental game doesn’t have a huge impact: whether or not you stage consistently or have the presence of mind to lift off the throttle when you’re a car length ahead are more important than your self-talk. At least initially. But from a local Saturday night to the final round of the U.S. Nationals, winners and losers at the highest levels of our sport are very much determined between the ears.
Our most recent, and to date my personal favorite webinar on ThisIsBracketRacing.com, was geared toward this topic. Admittedly, it was difficult to compress my thoughts on the mental aspect of competition into a 40-minute presentation. It’s nearly impossible to articulate it in 1200 words here in National Dragster, but I’ll do my best (don’t worry, I’ll share a link to view the webinar at the very end).
First, I want to share a little secret with you. I struggle with my self-esteem as a driver more often than you’d think. I question myself. I don’t always stage with confidence. That often comes as a surprise to people I speak with, because I’ve won at the highest levels. If you doubt yourself from time to time, guess what? It’s NOT just you. Literally EVERY one of the thousands of racers I’ve worked with struggles with confidence on some level. What has allowed me to overcome my struggles (more often than not)? Self-awareness. I KNOW that I struggle with my confidence, so rather than trying to hide it or run from it, I consciously implement tools that help me deal with it. The three core fundamentals that I use to do so are: Preparation, Optimism, & Grace.
The beauty and glory of bracket-style competition is the idea that all vehicles are on equal ground: your 16-second jalopy can, in theory, compete with my 7-second dragster. The only disadvantage in terms of equipment is the perceived disadvantage of the competitor with said equipment. In other words, if you don’t think your car is capable of winning, that’s a hurdle that is self-induced. Don’t believe me? Reference the column that Kevin McKenna penned a few months back featuring Chris Garretson, Jody Lang, and Tim Nicholson: all drivers who have excelled despite what many racers would view as inferior equipment.
Those racers, and hundreds more like them, find ways to succeed without the conventional setup. I’d assume that they do so by paying constant attention to detail, tweaking their combinations, studying trends, and ultimately learning from nearly every run down the race track. That’s preparation: putting in the work necessary to succeed.
But preparation takes on many forms above and beyond the actual race vehicle. Preparatory routines can include regular, regimented practice on a practice tree (something we really harp on within our premier membership community, ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE). Preparation can also entail a mental aspect: What is the weather forecast for the day/event? What is my run schedule (in relation to the weather)? Will there be a lot of time between rounds? How can I prepare myself for the event ahead? All too often, we overlook the physical side of preparation as well. I’ve found that getting proper sleep leading up to an event plays a big role in my ability to execute behind the wheel. Hydration is extremely important, particularly in the hot summer months. The food we put into our body is fuel that provides energy; so it’s another critical, yet often undervalued aspect of preparation and maintenance.
It’s from this preparatory aspect that I’ve personally derived the most confidence over the course of my career. I put in the time, I put in the work, and I pay attention to detail: and that gives me an edge. Do I work harder than anyone else in my class? Honestly, I have no idea. That’s not the point. The point is that I BELIEVE that I work harder than anyone in my class: and that idea has always provided a solid source of confidence!
I’ll start this with a direct quote from noted sports psychologist, Dr. Bob Rotella:
“While the correlation between optimism and success is imperfect, there is an almost perfect correlation between negative thinking and failure.”
Optimism sounds easy. In fact, in our culture, I almost feel like optimism has a negative connotation. But optimism isn’t all sunshine and flowers and “let’s go frolic in the beautiful field and smile.” In fact, I’d argue that often times optimism is HARD. Pessimism is easy. When I lose first round three weeks in a row, it’s easy to say, “Man, it’s just not my year,” and mentally shut it down, accepting this “new normal.”
It’s hard (but often necessary) to flip the script: “My career round win percentage is 78%. So, the more races I lose consecutively, the bigger the ultimate payoff: those numbers will ultimately balance out (quick math: following 3 straight losses, it would take 14 consecutive round wins to get back 78%)!”
It can be hard to choose optimism. But guess what? Optimism IS A CHOICE. It’s 100% within our control. And I for one perform better in an optimistic state.
If you take away one thing from this column, I hope this is it. Racing is hard. Shocker, huh? I don’t care what level you’re at; our game is extremely difficult.
It’s really easy to allow the result (more specifically, the mistake) of one round of competition to impact the next round of competition. It’s really difficult to accept that you just made a mistake, compartmentalize that, and then come back the next week or the next race, or the next round with renewed confidence.
Grace is what allows us to comprehend the obvious: I’m not perfect. Neither are you. We’re going to make mistakes. In a perfect world, we’ll minimize those mistakes. But we’ll never completely eliminate them. So my advice is simple: stop holding yourself to unrealistic expectations. It’s OK to screw up. In fact, I would argue that it’s the only way to improvement.
That idea runs counter to what our culture teaches us. We don’t celebrate what we do well nearly as often as we harp on our areas of imperfection. And while there is value to be derived from failure (learning from our mistakes), there is a very fine line between advancing from our missteps and dwelling on them. Grace allows us to take the value of the lesson without allowing the loss to be an indictment of our (lack of) potential.
It’s why in our ThisIsBracketRacing Log Books, we close each event with a simple question: “What are 3 reasons I’m pleased with my performance today?” Look to those answers for affirmation as often as you reference the follow up question, “What is one area in which I can improve?” for motivation.
Want to take a deeper dive into this subject with me? Check out the full webinar (free to National Dragster readers!) at ThisIsBracketRacing.com/Mental