Bruce Deveau Guest Editorial

Are you driving at your full potential?

When it comes to improving your performance, there are two things that matter: Your potential and your actual performance. Your potential is made up of the skills you possess, the experience you have earned, the intelligence you bring to race strategy, and your car’s preparation. Together, these elements add up to your potential for great performance.
Your actual performance is what you make out of your potential. Often I talk with racers who say, “I’ve worked hard to get my car in the position where it’s fully capable of winning…I know I’ve got what it takes to win, but can’t seem to break through.” This is an example of a driver with high potential but low performance. We see this a lot in drivers who execute perfectly in time runs and test sessions but can’t seal the deal when under pressure. We also see it in drivers who occasionally go late in rounds but never seem to be able to reach for the win.
The gap between your potential and your actual performance is explained by your mental game.  The attitude, confidence, and control you bring to competition determine how close to your potential you will perform.
This article is about making the most of your potential. When you drive at or near your potential most of the time, your numbers, your averages, and your chances of winning rise quickly. A driver with little seat time and average race car preparation (Low potential) will rise quickly and build his potential greatly if he makes the most of what he has all the time. This is why the mental game in drag racing is so important.
Here’s an example: “Jack” has been driving for a dozen years. He has a well funded program and a very consistent car. He has lots of seat time and has practiced enough to be very good on the tree. He has high potential. However, he also has poor emotional control and tends to bounce between being over confident and self-doubting. This weakness in Jack’s mental game means his actual performance is going to vary widely.
Another racer, “Joe,” has only been driving for two years. His program is under-funded and he lacks the experience as well as the high tech equipment to assist dialing the car. He has rather low potential.   However, Joe was a high school athlete, had good coaches, and has developed very good skills of emotional control, confidence, and has clear goals for winning. His strong mental game keeps him performing at or near the top of his potential most of the time. He will beat better racers more than you would expect, and as a result his potential will rise quickly.
The difference between these drivers’ potential and actual performance is demonstrated in Figure One. As you can see, Jack’s potential (shown as the red line) is much higher than Joe’s. But Jack’s range of actual performance (shown as the black dotted line) puts him below Joe’s much of the time. This means that Joe, with much less potential but driving at or near his highest level most of the time, will beat Jack roughly half the times they face each other.
 
You can imagine the progress that Joe is going to make…and the frustration that Jack is going to feel. This difference between a driver’s potential and actual performance will come to no surprise to most racers here at TIBR.com. But I make the point because often drivers will put a lot of focus on one area of their racing program while ignoring other vital parts. As I look at all the expert comments on the TIBR lessons and commentaries, the consistent theme is that ultimate success requires a complete package: Mechanical, tactical, and mental.
So how do you improve your numbers? How do you improve your mental game in order to perform closer to your full potential?
Progress along the road to full potential moves in stages:
·         Stage One is knowledge- based. In Stage One the driver gets to know what factors influence his or her concentration, confidence, and control.   However, knowing what to do is not enough. 
·         Stage Two is skill-based. In Stage Two the driver applies his knowledge, puts in seat time, and gains skill of emotional control. His confidence builds. But there’s still more. Knowledge and skill will only take you so far.
·         Stage Three is integration. You need knowledge and skill. Without them you’ll go nowhere. But you also need to pull knowledge and skill together at the same time. In Stage Three the driver clearly defines the path to success and channels all his or her resources to make it happen.
 
Let’s take a look at each of these three stages.
Stage One: First things first
In stage one you build knowledge about yourself. As you study what works and what doesn’t, the mystery behind what makes great concentration and focus becomes clear. 
The best drivers I know have developed a zone of peak concentration. This zone is the state of excitement, confidence, and courage they build in themselves by the time they stage the car. They know what their unique zone is made up of and they work hard to get into it.
For most drivers, the zone is made up of the interaction between the thoughts they think, the emotions they feel, and the physical state they’re in (such as heart rate and adrenaline load). From self study and experience looking at their best performances, they recognize what the zone is, and they know when they are out of it.
Stage Two: Mastering the art of control
This is the bridge between knowing what you should do and actually doing it.
Once you understand the basic elements of concentration you need some experience with them in order to gain control under pressure. While there’s no real substitute for seat time, there are ways to make the most of that time, speeding up your progress. The best way to master control is through a solid routine and deliberate practice.
Developing a routine
A pre-race routine is an organized system of thinking and behaving in the moments leading up to competition. Most drivers understand this and have a relatively consistent approach to each round. But to get the most out of your routine, it should contain certain elements.
Recall that for most drivers, the zone of peak concentration is made up of the thoughts you think, the emotions you feel, and the physical state you’re in.
Your best performance comes when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. A routine should include positive, aggressive thoughts back at the trailer and in the lanes so that you can operate on the track in automatic mode, without having to think.
Emotions spiking out of control are a major source of errors. A routine should also include refining your emotional state so that you are under control and bringing the same package to the line every time.
Your body’s excitement level has a direct influence on reaction speed. A routine should also include skills of physical control so that you are excited, relaxed, and in control (not always easy to achieve)…your heart rate and adrenaline are at just the right level for consistent performance.
A good routine is in service to your zone of peak concentration. In order to work for you, a routine must be consistent and you must be dedicated to sticking to it in order to give it a chance to work.
All this adds up to your best sense of control under pressure. Control under pressure is what makes you perform with confidence no matter what the condition. There was an online discussion recently on dragraceresults.com in which Luke Bogacki and Scotty Richardson were being asked about the number of easy wins they get. Clearly, the best racers get free wins through red lights and other mental errors because their opponents tend to change their game when they come up against a heavy hitter. This is most evident when a good driver takes himself out of a perfectly good routine and tries too hard. 
Control under pressure means you confidently know exactly what you want to do under pressure and have the confidence to pull it off. A solid routine supports your knowledge and confidence. That leads us to the second part of mastering the art of control: deliberate practice.
Deliberate Practice
Confidence doesn’t come free. It’s the result of smart and deliberate practice. That’s how the best racers gain their high level of skill. It’s hard work. But lots of racers work hard but still don’t get results. How can you make the most of your hard work?
Deliberate practice is about complete learning. Learning happens in all sorts of ways, both at the track and away. If you take a deliberate approach to learning and practice you will make the most progress. Deliberate practice has three elements: 
1.       Goals or targets
2.       Feedback
3.       A system for charting progress
When you have goals or targets, you know where you are going and you don’t waste time getting there. Each time you practice, whether it’s on the practice tree, a test day at the track, or spending time observing other racer’s on-track behavior, you want to have a goal in mind…a goal of what you want to learn. Having a goal focuses your learning and reduces wasted time.
Feedback is the most ignored aspect of the learning process. The best athletes in the world are always getting constructive feedback from coaches so they know what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and what to do instead. Good feedback always includes all three.
You also have to be open to feedback. The most confident racers I know are open to constructive feedback. They really want to learn and aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know. They don’t take comments personally. We all know racers who think they know it all….
When you do something that doesn’t work, often the only lesson you learn is what not to do next. Knowing what not to do is not enough! Good feedback tells you what not to do, and also tells you what to do instead: It points the way to what you will do in the future…that’s complete learning. 
Finally, concentration in drag racing can get complicated. Charting your progress keeps your mind organized and motivates you to keep moving in the right direction. Some examples include keeping track of your reaction time practice stats or logging your emotional state after each run. You want to really know what you’re doing right.
In review, you gain control of the essential elements of concentration by treating yourself just like you treat your car: Paying attention to all the critical elements, collecting and organizing data, and working hard to bring the same package to the line every time. 
Stage Three: Pulling it all together
Ok, you know what to do and you’ve mastered the skills of concentration and control. These skills increase your potential. But as we’ve been discussing, your potential does not equal your performance. Bracket racing has become a very tough environment and winning big races takes more. In addition to knowledge and skill, you have to also develop the ability to perform at your potential on a consistent basis.
To start, think of your favorite professional athlete. One of my heroes is New England Patriots’ wide receiver Randy Moss. Like so many other star athletes, he has the ability to do these super-human feats. He runs full-tilt down the field, he’s surrounded by defenders, he doesn’t seem to even look up, and suddenly, like magic, he’s got the ball.
If we were to chart Randy Moss’ potential as we did for Jack in figure 1, the bar would be very high. We’re talking about a very high level of potential. In order to operate at that level on a consistent basis it takes everything Randy has. 
But what if Randy didn’t quite give it everything? Imagine his potential with a little bit of self-doubt; Or a question about his commitment to the play; Or a creeping distraction from his home life; Or a dispute over his contract. All of a sudden he’s having an off day. 
The obvious point is that top performance and reaching full potential requires all your energy and skill and determination to be channeled into one place…the win. The world of professional sport is littered with great athletes who possess great knowledge and skill but fail to reach their full potential. I want you to operate at your full potential.
Before moving on, I want you to think for a moment. I want you to think of a race that you have yet to win. Make it a big one…a race that is within your potential and you really want to win. Make a mental note of that race and we will come back to it.
Putting it all together and reaching your full potential involves three elements:
·         Always learn from mistakes
o        There is much more to learn from a mistake than a random victory…that is, if you look at the mistake without judgment and commit to not making the same mistake twice. Notice the connection between this point and the feedback from Stage Two.
·         Always show up at the track ready to win
o        Anything less than a goal to win the race will leave part of your potential on the table. Some racers will say this goal is unrealistic and a set up for disappointment. I say no. I say you need to arrive at the track with two goals: An ‘outcome’ goal and a ‘process’ goal. Your outcome goal is always the win. Nothing less. Your process goal includes the things you must do in order to win: for example, complete your pre-race routine every time, use your precise staging technique, etc. Having an outcome goal keeps you charging forward. Having a process goal gives you the feeling of success along the way.
·         Let go of whatever holds you back
o        Most drivers harbor some kind of fear if they are willing to admit it. Fear of losing, fear of winning, fear of disappointing others, fear of embarrassment. The list goes on. Fear is your enemy. Fear holds you back. Some drivers think they should fear losing in order to stay hungry for winning. The two are not the same. Fear of losing causes stupid mistakes, poor judgment, and sometimes even unsafe driving. Hunger for winning leads you to race aggressive, smart, and safe.
The way to channel all your energy, learn from mistakes, and let go of what’s holding you back is through imagery. Imagery is mental practice. In imagery, you sit and mentally rehearse a run in your mind. You close your eyes and imagine the sights, sounds smells, and feelings of competition.   With imagery you have the chance to repeat perfect runs time after time. You build on seat time, solve problems, and gain confidence.
How does imagery accomplish all these amazing things???
1.       Imagery organizes your mind. It takes all your potential and directs it in a way that serves you. When you can see something, really see and feel it happening for yourself, a thousand little decisions fall naturally into place…each of which moves you closer to full potential.
2.       Imagery builds confidence. Most racers gain confidence through results. But what if you are trying to break through? What if you are trying to build the kind of results that lead to confident driving? You can see and feel the results that build confidence when you repeat perfect runs and see win lights in imagery.
3.       Imagery points the direction to your big win. It’s like an internal ‘GPS.’ As we talked about above, it’s never enough to say what not to do. Your mind needs very clear direction if it’s going to move past fear and limitations. Imagery gives you a clearer path to victory.
So let’s walk through an imagery exercise.
Recall the race you would really like to win. Sit down in a private space with no distractions. Imagine yourself sitting in your car, rolling into staging for the final round. Bring all your senses to the image: the sights, sounds, smells, feelings. Imagine your whole pre-race routine as you move to the starting line. Complete the run in perfect fashion and see the win light come on in your lane. See your friends and family jumping up and down as you get to the scales. See yourself holding the trophy.
Keep repeating this image over again, adding detail and feeling. Have fun with it. Let it inform you of what you need to do in order to make this dream a reality. Get used to the feeling of ‘no fear’. Learn from it and let it point the way to your big win. 
In summary, your mental game is the bridge between your potential and your actual performance. Think about these three stages and see where you fit. Look for ways that you can improve knowledge of your mental game as well as your skills of control. Keep building your confidence and control just as you build your race car.   And then work hard to pull all your skills together without fear in order to reach for your next big win.
 
Bruce Deveau is a licensed psychotherapist and mental skills coach who has been in and around drag racing for 40 years. In 1995 he developed and published The Racer’s Mind, a concentration skills workbook and CD just for drag racers. He has since published The Total Motivation CD, a ’30 minute mental tune-up’ for drag racers, and The Peak Performance Newsletter. He is also a monthly columnist in National Dragster on the mental game in drag racing. To learn more visit: theracersmind.com
Bruce can be reached at: brucedeveau@theracersmind.com 
 
 

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