Chasing a dream: exploring mental limits

Recently, I wrote a short post on what I felt was most important to me in the years I've been involved in motorsports. Putting these things into writing has helped me prioritize and reflect better on my experiences thus far, hopefully allowing me to improve on them.

I was 13 years old when I really started to try and take control of what I was doing behind the wheel. The 2006 Canadian Karting Nationals were at my home track in Edmonton, and I wanted to do everything I could to win that race.

At my dad's recommendation, I started reading "Inner Speed Secrets" by Ross Bentley. Over time, it became my personal racing bible. For years, I brought it to the track with me to help re-organize my thoughts and help when I felt I was struggling. If you feel that this type of thing is important, I would highly recommend a copy.

Although I didn't win the Canadian Karting Championship that year, I performed well. However, I felt the biggest step I took in my personal development was later that year in the local karting club championship battle. Essentially, I needed to win the final race that season to win the championship.

I remember my interactions with others that day were very slim. I was a bit pissed off, but more importantly, completely committed to the cause of winning the race that day.

Essentially, I sat in a lawn chair quietly, closed my eyes a lot, and told myself I was going to win that day.

Not for 5 to 10 mins. I sat around in my trailer all of the time I wasn't on track. All. Damn. Day.

I went through perfect laps. I went through perfect passes. But more than anything, I had complete faith and determination that I was going to win - and thankfully, I delivered.

I don't believe my personal success or failure that day was simply connected to the task of winning (many sports psychologists advise against this), but belief that I would be executing at the level I needed to win ensured I was getting the best of myself when the moment came.

It was the first moment where I really realized how powerful training a programming a mind to a task could be.


What's worked for me:

1. Pre-Race Preparation Routine

This is a constant battle. I've tried to get it to a point where I'm able to do this in as short of a time as possible. It's not always realistic to sit around in a trailer all day and shut out the rest of the world. Especially with busy raceday schedules, you may only have a few minutes to get into the "zone".

However, for my own testing, I've began trying to incorporate my pre-race preparation program into other things I do. Since getting in a racecar is relatively "rare", even for those who race, I've found myself beginning to put more focus on attempting to replicate my mental state before a race before I play soccer competitively.

Thus far, I've found it to be helpful, especially when it comes to being "in control" rather than in a "reactive" state. I'm going to continue to tinker with this process and see if I can find other applications where this preparation can be helpful.

Note: Sometimes this process can look stupid to onlookers. In the end, it doesn't matter what it looks like. If it works for you, stick with it. Initially I tried to make sure I did all of my prep in a quiet place (still preferred), but if it needs to be in public, I don't mind.

Tip: Headphones, regardless if you have music playing or not, can be your best friend to stop distractions.


2. Confidence/belief system

Simply put, believing you can do the job you're tasked with has been massive for me. All your preparation and training should leave this area pretty strong. However, if I'm struggling, a quick mental note and recreating as much as possible about previous past successes has been great for me. There's been a ton of times I've actually gone back to the kart race in 2006, regardless of the type of race I was competing in.

Here's some memories that I personally look back on:

1. 2006 Championship race, as mentioned above.

2. "Owning" the racecar. Was taught this in my first racecar test by Gord Bentley of Speed Secrets. If I ever feel like "the car is driving me" instead of the other way around - this helps me a ton.

3. Skip Barber Shootout victory where I used the same mentality as that 2006 race.

4. First Skip Barber win (came from 8th place), same as above.

5. Star Mazda Edmonton 2012. Had a great weekend - especially in the first few sessions. As a rookie, it was the first time I had been towards the front and it gave me huge confidence.

6. Montreal GP 2015. Again, I needed to win as it may have been my only chance to race that year. I went back to these prior successes and my mental state there to prepare.

It doesn't need to be much, but a few experiences paired with an ability to execute have helped me be more consistent in my performances.


Building blocks

In my mental training I feel like there's been a few phases that I distinctly remember changing myself.

1. 2006 karting season: My intro to mental training.

2. USF2000 preparation: Prior to my 2013 season, I'd completely shaped my life to execute mental and physical training and the elimination of almost everything else for a couple of months. I think that intense period of time has left me with a much more steady baseline going forward.

3. Now: I'm at a point where I believe I'm more cognizant of where I can be better and I'd like to use this to challenge myself further. After some personal testing, I believe sometimes there can be one extra skill - that if developed - can have massive implications on your overall performance. To help uncover what that skill would be, I'd suggest trying out an 80/20 analysis. That's a full topic for another day though.


Keeping Curiousity

In short, guys like Tim Ferriss and David Blaine interest me. They're willing to go so far with their tests that it's quite inspiring. With Tim, you'll be sure to get a report on the things that worked/didn't work, and how to best replicate the results (see Tools of Titans). With David, there's a lot more mystery but he does open up on a TED talk.

Following these guys and others who push limits, like Danny Macaskill, always make me hungry for more.


Other Quick Notes

  • Depth of training. I find you can make more progress with a short period of extreme intensity (like I had before my USF2000 race season), than over long stretches of time. Consistency is obviously still a key factor, I just believe going over-the-top on learning or practicing a new skill in a shorter period of time will generate more results - even long term.


  • Using mental prep for other activities. For me, I do it in a competitive scenario at least once every week at my soccer games (something I've been more mindful of lately). I try and replicate that feeling of flow before I get in the racecar, including my pre-race routine, whenever possible. I'm also trying to see how reliant I am upon certain things to get in that zone. There's no sense in cutting down preparation when there's time for it, but sometimes circumstances aren't conducive to a full 30 minute wind-down before performing.


  • I've found pushing mental limits of what's possible is always easier in-season than in the off-season. I see it in 2 phases:
    • a) In-season is where you compete against yourself (or others) to push the limit more consistently. Thus, it's easier to find more within yourself as you develop a better rhythm. If you're challenging yourself or being challenged by someone consistently, I believe your baseline limits increase more dramatically.
    • b) The off-season is where you prep and gain the capacity to keep pushing yourself further. It's what I did in 2006, in 2013, and I'm working on making another shift now. The stress testing and things you can do to prepare likely won't show up initially, but ideally will withstand and make you more capable to push yourself further when the next season comes along.


  • You still need the skills. All the prep you want can help, but if your capabilities aren't up to par, it's tough to parlay into results. Try learning a new skill and see if you feel as though you've maximized your performance. Unlikely. However, the right prep may allow you to get in a state where you're more receptive to acquiring a skill. In the end, you want to have things slowed down and fluid in your mind. Ex. Lionel Messi makes other professionals look silly in his sport. He may be incredibly quick, but it's how he processes the game that makes him so magnificent. It's the same for motorsports (and all sports, I'm certain).


  • Get over the "names". I was guilty of this at a younger age. I would look at entry lists and be up against these drivers I had heard so much about. In the end, it doesn't matter. With confidence in your own abilities and process, things work out much better, regardless of who you're up against. Rather than channeling these things negatively, I've now found ways to use my competition as leverage to try and ensure I'm getting the most of myself.


  • Lessons from high-stress: For an amateur, learning and adapting to a new circuit can be challenging. Forcing yourself to do something in a short period of time ensures you figure it out quicker. Want high stress? Try being a junior formula car driver and be given 30 mins of track time, your first time on a new type of circuit (like a street circuit), before being sent out for qualifying which essentially dictates a major portion of your race (and maybe your career path?). I think these lessons from the junior formula car world are invaluable tools for me, and the value of "just figure it out" in these scenarios removes any excuses from the picture. I truly believe having this capacity is one of the biggest differences between track-day and amateur drivers from the guys who do it at the top level consistently. They've trained their brains to process, feel, and understand what's going on so quickly that most others can't keep up. Imagine if you're still feeling out the track while your competitor is already making real adjustments to his car so he's able to get more out of it when it counts. Starting a step behind is a huge undertaking, especially at very competitive levels.


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