By Tim L. Kellebrew
OREGON TRAIL RACING
Welcome to this edition of Racin' With Tim--the column that looks at sim racing NASCAR style. What to do, how to do it, and the help needed to put you into victory lane! :-) This edition is about the mental side of racing at least some of it! The standard disclaimer applies here--if it helps you use it! SC and OTR is not responsible for the opinions expressed herein. They are my own opinions--but you should know I do know a little about what I am writing about as I do have graduate degrees and training in psychology and in counseling. :-) Enough said about those unpleasantries! On to sim racing!
Sim racing is a mushrooming sport for racing fans across the world. There are many internet sites devoted to sim racing for either online and offline racing. This month's topic should be of assistance to all NASCAR sim racers whether or not they race offline or online. This month's topic takes a look at the mental side of sim racing--and is perhaps best expressed in terms of mental preparedness and mental toughness--what we shall attempt to hang together under the rubric of cognitive rehearsal.
You've heard many racers in motorsports say that racing is in part--mental. I don't mean you have to be "mental" (as in a nut case) to participate :-) --rather there are mental aspects of the sport. Mental preparation in terms of strategy, optimism, and self-confidence with an "I can do it" attitude is important. Self-efficacy or the belief in one's self or abilities is also important. Realization that "I can do well in my race" before the race is correlated with more of a positive outcome than the self-statement--"I probably won't do well there. I never do well there." The latter belief is a setup for a self-fulfilling prophecy and diaster!! Of course, part of believing in one's abilities is based on the assumption that one has
the necessary abilities to do well. By this I mean, a valid aspect of self-efficacy depends upon an accurate assessment--i.e. a self-analysis of "do I have what it takes?"--and the knowledge or belief that one does possess the necessary and sufficient skills. This is true for any type of racing. Basically, it works like this, you can use the sensory data of your performance in preparation, testing, qualifying, and during the race itself to further boost your self-confidence, inoculate your stress, and directly impact your race results as a result. Likewise, if you are even just a beginning student in changing your thinking--there are strategies you can adopt that will help you even if you did poorly in testing or qualifying.
Consequently if you know you have a good setup, have done well in practice, qualified high, are very familar with the track etc., these are all factors that can influence your thinking and boost your self-confidence. If you don't have these, you will have to work harder to psych yourself up--but it can still be done. Anyone can win a race starting from anywhere in the field. It is true that on some tracks strating further back makes it harder, but you still can overcome this with pure performance and perhaps pit strategy, not to mention driving ability. (And let's NOT forget the car!) Still, if you have the objective evidence of good success it does make it easier; that is, you will have more grounds for your self confidence. Even having just some of these things is helpful. For example, you have practiced
well, know the track, have a great setup--but you go out and hit the wall or otherwise have a poor qualifying session. Well, there are ways to rebound from this and to not let it deflate or defeat you before the race even starts. One way is to draw from your experience--have you ever started from back in the field before? Have you ever won from there? Have you deliberately practiced starting from the back with only 25 laps to go? (Sort of like practicing the two minute drill in football!) The other way to do this works even if you haven't done any of these things. In short, can you imagine yourself doing it? Can you picture or visualize yourself moving to the front?
Can you anticipate a probable outcome of your action right before you take it? If you can do these things this is what cognitive rehearsal is all about.
COGNITIVE REHEARSAL FOR SIM RACERS:
The best racers are quite capable of preparation beforehand, and more importantly are in a state of readiness to respond to a given situation as it unfolds during a race. They may have been in a similar situation before--as nothing can quite replace experience or seat time--but they may be encountering something new also. Human learning as a studied concept has shown the propensity of humans to encounter, problem solve, and even achieve a state of mastery in novel situations. Consequently, the best sim racers will be able to rebound, modify their thinking and strategies, and come up to the level of performance the task demands--based on whatever cards they were dealt.
Racing in all forms is about anticipation and reaction. Attentiveness to what is happening is mandatory or your day is done. Reacting sometimes before you even can think is a reflexive and adaptive response. Part of reaction is reflexive and doesn't require thinking. At least the thinking occurs afterwards. Some of our reactions are thankfully from the gut level--i.e.--recall the last time that car spun at you and you got around it and wondered afterwards how you did it? That was reflexive reacting. (It can also be as basic as a rush of adrenaline). Anticipation, on the other hand, is based on prior experience, observation, and knowledge about probable outcomes. One then carries this knowledge into action by acting in a manner that is beneficial based on the accurate perception and appraisal of the current situation. You can enhance your anticipation through cognitive rehearsal but thankfully you do not have to give up your reflexes! A good racer wants to close the gap between action and thinking by learning so much about anticipation that anticipation in and of itself becomes almost reflexive. Perhaps this is partly what is meant when one states--he or she has an 'instinct' for racing!
So, understanding that reactions are based both on reflexes and anticipated action, how can cognitive rehearsal help you, the sim racer? What is the definition of cognitive rehearsal anyway? Basically, the construct of cognitive rehearsal can be defined as imagining what one is going to do in a given situation in a step by step manner before the event occurs. For a racer this can be a visualization of a series of discrete steps or actions that one will take in a given situation. This can be as basic as the complete memory of a lap in the groove at a particular track. Can you imagine that--do you know the track well enough to imagine it? It has been written elsewhere that the best racers in motorsports can do laps on a track in their head! Once you get into the groove and find your rhythm there is a movement if you will--a complete memory of the physical aspects
of the lap too. What is that track like when it is hotter out? Can you remember how it affected your setup? Better yet--what did the lap feel like with your favorite setup? If you can visualize these things you can anticipate what the track is like before you run there. You know what to expect there because you have practiced there and run there long enough to anticipate through cognitive rehearsal what line you are going to drive.
If you have done enough work to help you anticipate your actions beforehand, you will be much more ready to refine that perspective into what you need to do in the here and now on the track. Cognitive rehearsal may be particularly helpful on the road courses, or any of the tracks that you have found to be difficult for you. Cognitive rehearsal equips you with a mental plan of what you can do there. Cognitive rehearsal is thinking you do beforehand that helps you be at the best of your performance during the race.
Ancillary to cognitive rehearsal may be working with thoughts that have troubled you in the past in given situations. You may not be able to recognize them as hinderances but they do hinder you--negative thoughts can rob your self-confidence, your attention, and beat you even before the flag drops! Also known as coping self-statements, restructuring these negative thoughts into a positive thinking pattern can boost your performance, increase your skills mastery necessary for the task, as well as enhancing your self-confidence. Working with these thoughts--a sort of cognitive therapy for sim racers--should be part of your pre-race experience. Finding your way to relax is another. We shall look at both aspects below.
Putting On Your Helmet and Robbing those Negative Thoughts of their Power!
Studies have shown that successful racers have highly adapted to a very stressful environment. The situations that they find themselves in scare the average person greatly--but racers have been flooded with fear. They have found a way to deal with it, they are masters at focus and attention. They scan the perceptual field looking for and reacting to the subtlest cues related to the race. Psychologists and other researchers were amazed when they measured physiological changes of major racers while they were in the cockpit.
found was that drivers were more anxious before a race than during! In fact, quite the opposite was discovered from what the researchers thought--instead of being in a high state of arousal and anxiety the racers were relaxed most of the time during an event. The exception to this was the normal flight or fight response when the racer encountered an accident or other event that was
NOT anticipated. Again, it is good to have this reflexive reaction--indeed, it is a normal response to help us get out of harm's way.
Ideally, the best performance (according to learning theorists) is not due to overarousal in a situation--but due to just enough arousal to enhance responding to stimuli. Consequently, as a sim racer, you should not go into a race too anxious or too relaxed either. Relaxation that leads to passivity and slow responsiveness can be undesireable traits in a racer. Relaxation that allows attention to roam fairly free is what is desired.
Let me draw an analogy from the research on test anxiety. It is normal to feel anxious right before taking a test. Individuals who are not prepared and know they are not typically have more test anxiety than those that have studied. There may be some individual differences here, i.e., individuals who believe they may have more at stake with doing well may feel more anxious also. Typically, individuals who have prepared are more successful with dealing with their anxiety and focusing on the task at hand. Test anxiety is the reason why most learning theorists state it is practically useless to cram for a test just minutes before the test--but everyone does it! Basically, too much anxiety can interfere with memory and learning. If we are reacting out of anxiety we may not remember how to best respond, nor are we able to process information into memory where it can be retreived later.
Self-Statements to Fire You Up:
Coping self-statements can reduce anxiety and increase relaxation! A long time ago, psychologists learned something about anxiety. In short, they learned that relaxation inhibits it. Wolpe was one of the first to mention this--in his theory of psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition, he proposed that there is no way that the human nervous system can be totally relaxed and anxious at the same time. (This does not mean that the racer cannot switch for the relaxed state to the aroused one quickly). Basically it works like this, there is a branch of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is further broken down into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branch. The parasympathetic is the branch that restores balance, or homeostasis to our bodies AFTER we have been exposed and responded to a stressful event. The sympathetic branch on the other hand, kicks in when we are exposed to a fearful or stressful event. This branch is what produces the fight of flight response--similar to what Selye termed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Basically, racers do not want to be overanxious because it can lead to increased and early exhaustion. Also, racers do not want to be so relaxed that they do not heed their natural sympathetic response. Good racers always have the readiness to respond while knowing the importance of relaxation for better performance and attention.
Here are some examples of negative thoughts and their counters:
Because you are including yourself in the assertion--in short because your sense of identity is wrapped up in either negative or positive self-statements--they can be powerful determinants in what you believe about yourself, your abilities, amd consquent behaviors!
Examples of Negative Thoughts
Examples of Positive Thoughts:
"I'm a loser."
"I'm a winner, no matter what I do!"
"There it went, I'm cooked now!"
"There is a way out of this."
"But my engine just blew!"
"We'll get 'em next time!"
"My setup sucks!"
"We can adjust it at the next pit stop."
"I can drive it and still do well. I know what to improve for next time."
Basically, any thought once identified as a negative thought can be countered by another positive thought. This approach is more than just the power of positive thinking, or mind over matter--it is from the annals of cognitive therapy--a powerful therapy that has been shown to be very effective with clinically depressed individuals and others who have been victimized by their negative thoughts and consequent moods. If it can help them--it can help you! Be leery of any thoughts that say to you you can't do it! Instead, restructure them with your own statements that are positive. While some of these may seem to be merely opposites of the negative statement--if you believe them--rehearse and say them until you do--they will become automatic in a given situation and context. Indeed, they will become almost unconscious in the way they spring to your lips, exist and become predominant in your thinking processes. Many of us have had such negative automatic thoughts-barely conscious to us-for years. It is time to replace them with positive ones!
Being a sim racer, or any type of racer has its challenges both on and off the track. Off the track we are sometimes our own worst enemies (and on it too). It is up to you to become a disciplined racer concerning practice, qualifying, and in your racing. Part of this process is the mental side of racing--something that we just barely introduced you to here today. Another aspect is being aware of the physical side of racing. How tense is your body while you're racing? Did you
know that being too tight and tense can increase fatigue? In closing, let's look just briefly at the importance of muscular control versus relaxation while racing.
RELAX AND DO IT!
When you sit down to race, be aware of your body. If you're too anxious--try getting up and walking around before starting your race session. Shake the stress off with body movement. Couple this with the inoculation of good positive self-statements. When you are ready, sit down and run your race.
If necessary, spend a few minutes in quietness, perhaps with your eyes closed. During this time, imagine the track, and think over any race strategies you have. Then spend just a few minutes not thinking about the race--just relaxing.
It is very important to be aware of your muscles if you are a racer. It is here that racing comes closest to being athleticism. The strength and endurance needed in the cockpit of a real race car is well known. Here the heat is unbelievable, and the stamina required is taxing--just to finish the race. Sim racing is very much less realistic than this--but still requires good eye hand coordination, positive thinking skills, and good muscular control to drive a consistent line. This is particularly pronounced if you are using a wheel and pedals which will require leg movement as well.
Decades ago, Jacobsen and others discovered the concept of progressive relaxation. Basically this means that individuals can learn how to voluntarily relax themselves--by flexing their muscle groups and then relaxing them systematically one group at a time. The idea was that an individual could learn both how a muscle feels when it is tight and how it feels to them when it is relaxed. In a way, this is how biofeedback also works. Let me give you an example, say you're leading a race and well into it, or say that you are behind and trying to catch the leaders in the waning laps of the race. It is during these times that you may notice that your neck, shoulder, and especially, your arm muscles are very tense. If you have practiced progressive relaxation then you will notice the tightness, and if you have practiced how to deliberately relax these muscles you will be able to do so. If you are in a place to do so, and don't feel like your continuity or rhythm would be disturbed--you can pause the simulation and relax your muscles. I have found though that I can also do this while driving. Working with my breathing--by slowing it down just a hair may also be helpful during times like this.
Sometimes by relaxing you can do it--and do it better!
Well that's it for this column. Hope you found it helpful. The next edition of RWT will be the promosed feature on shock theory! In the meantime, I
wish you the best in all your sim racing endeavors and I'll see you at the track!
This Edition of RWT has been sponsored by:
Simulator Cyberworld and Steve Smith Autosports (www.ssapubl.com)
It has been cosponsored by:
OTR Promotions "Sponsorship Services in Motorsports"
This column is not endorsed or sponsored by NASCAR or Papyrus/Sierra. These are registered trademarks. Mention of any sim racing team, organization, or cosponsors in this column does not imply endorsement by Simulator Cyberworld. The opinions expressed in this column are soley the opinions of the author and those quoted. The appearance of organizations, teams, and any sponsors mentioned herein does not necessarily imply they endorse one another--unless it is clearly stated.
Copyright, Jun. 2, 1998--Oregon Trail Racing Promotions.