Psychology in Motor Racing and the Need for a Mental Toolkit

The global focus and expansion of motorsport and the pressures that it brings are leading competitors to talk more about mental health in the sport.

And yet, it is still seen as a taboo in many areas. In an excerpt of a conclusion from a study soon to appear in World in Motorsport, Leigh O’Gorman briefly examines pressures within motor sport and how they can be counteracted by building an efficient support network and ‘mental toolkit’.

There is little doubt that sport psychology is a topic that is beginning to gain very real traction, but it is still not one that has truly become part of open conversation in racing paddocks.
Some of this may be due to lingering ‘old school’ attitudes of masculinity that still permeate through the annals of motor sport; however, a lack of knowledge regarding the complexities of psychology and mental health has also slowed progress.

It is important to acknowledge that while athletes can be hugely famous stars, they are still people and can endure the same mental ill health and frailties that affect the general population – a distinction often forgotten when stars fall under the microscope. Athletes, too, possess strengths and weaknesses and work hard to caress the spell of belief, while grappling with the various stresses of their occupations.
And like ‘real people’, athletes experience stressed emotions that can affect their ability to delivery in their work and by that same measure, can also embrace joyful feelings and positive moments that can bolster performance.

Yet the concept of decompartmentalisation divides many. There are reasonable arguments on all sides to debate the degree of which one is affected by circumstances outside of the sporting arena and whether or not one can separate their ability to perform from significant personal stress points. Sport psychology is not something that should be examined in isolation and such an approach does not come easily – engaging in such a heightened level of state management requires effort, commitment and a healthy dose of self-awareness.

We must acknowledge too that sport psychology and mental health preparation should not start when one becomes a professional, paid racer, but the push for youth at the top-level means competitors are starting at very young ages. Generally, young racers are supported by parents, but there are those adopted into manufacturer-backed driver development programmes. Such levels of pressure heaped onto the shoulders of youth can do much to rob them of the fun that can be derived from such youthful passion.

These pressures tend to exaggerate tensions and push the concept of winning in every category, with focus on junior drivers diverting from development, education and maturity to that of victory above all. While winning is important, it is debateable as to whether one can grow in a healthy manner without development, education and maturity, as victory for victory’s sake alone is hollow when state management is not cared for.

Young racers require the right support and management if they are to develop into well-rounded people as well as successful athletes. That will not always come from parents or manufacturers with financial interests, but from sport psychologists and mental health coaches that can open the door to the kind of preparation needed to allow young drivers to grow and mature in a healthy way.
Part of this development also requires learning about outside influences and how they can prejudice emotions. Media influences, such as tradition news sources and social media, can be viewed distractions; however, the context in which they operate differ greatly from each other and therefore, the effect upon athletes also vary.

Add to this a growing lists of commitments, which include expansive and expanding sporting calendars, extensive PR duties and commercial partner activities and it is not difficult to conjure an image of an athlete being pulled into multiple directions simultaneously. Managing all these outside influences is critical to obtaining the balance between a healthy life and career, but it requires the correct support.

Given the ultra-competitive nature of motor racing, relationships within teams must also be managed if one is to operate in a healthy manner; however, it can be very difficult to exert control over the atmosphere within a team, particularly when that atmosphere turns toxic. If one is to acknowledge that an athlete has limited ability to change the behaviour of others, then developing coping mechanisms and employing techniques that can reduce the effect of that toxicity can go some way to alleviating the pressures on mental health. Ultimately though, such a relationship cannot last.

Even for the best, a final day must come eventually. Although unfashionable, athletes need to prepare for life after competition, or face acute shock when the series they were affiliated with leaves them behind. Numerous racers move to other categories, but others find work in driver management or coaching, media, while others leave the sport altogether. Having a post-motor racing plan is critical and finding opportunities that provides a similar spark – albeit at a slower pace – can provide not just long-term financial security. Alongside that, the correct advice can also help an athlete discover the correlation between the spark that ignited a love for competition and the spark in transition that ignites after the gantry lights have gone out.

Out of all of this, the optimum way to achieve a healthy balance may be to create and utilise a mental health toolkit, allowing one to meet challenges head-on and tackle them in a manner that yields positive results in both a personal and profession context. Ensuring that one’s psychological health is maintained or even bolstered, despite the significant pressures of competition and its ancillary factors, will go some way to achieving a robust mental balance before, during and after their career has concluded.

Life is complicated and emotions can be too, but the right support and preparation can alleviate many of the complexities that come with highly pressurised competition.

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