When most people think of sports, they think of traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, American football, soccer, etc. When people think of sport psychology, they often think of these same sports plus Olympic disciplines such as golf, gymnastics, track, and swimming, etc. For me however, when I think of sports, I think of auto racing. I grew up with my dad at the drag strips in Iowa and then married a drag racer. For the last twenty-five years my husband has driven a rear engine dragster in NHRA classes and I have been the pit crew. As a professor of psychology at Mc Kendree University and an AASP certified consultant, I have been able to identify unique aspects of the sport psychology in auto racing. Many of these aspects are not completely unique to auto racing, and when I work with bowlers, equestrians, and gymnasts we are able to talk about some similarities. Below is a brief glimpse inside the helmet of auto racers, and specifically those who participate in drag racing Eggleston TJ .
The first aspect that is essential for understanding auto racing psychology is the difference in practice time. Auto racing is expensive and auto racers have little practice opportunity. Unlike a sport such as basketball, auto racers don't have the option for hours in the gym practicing their sport. Most racers don't have the time, money, equipment, or location to practice very much, in fact, many will be allowed only a few time trials or practice laps and then has to be ready for competition. This means that auto racers must take their practices extremely seriously. The old adage of "practice like you play" is essential. In addition, racers may be more likely to need to use visualization or simulators. Many auto racers use various simulators (e.g., practice reaction time equipment) to help with their practice. If racers tried to adhere to the "10,000 hour rule" that states you need that many hours to be world-class in any field Gladwell , then they would have to use visualization and simulators.
In auto racing, like in sports such as gymnastics, there is very little room for error. In some sports there are chances to make a mistake and recover and move on, where as in auto racing a small mistake will likely make you lose or even worse cause an accident. In drag racing, drivers have to react to a light at the start and a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing - consequently reaction times are critical. Losing by such small margins can also be difficult on an athlete and can lead to burnout, especially if they focus entirely on winning Weinberg and Gould . Working with auto racers (and other athletes) that can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by the consultant, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
In most sports, there is some degree of danger and risk of injury. In gymnasts, equestrians, and auto racers, the risk of injury is almost always present. Once again, this risk needs to clearly be identified and discussed. Most athletes are keenly aware of this potential for injury. Discussions about safety precautions, avoiding unnecessary risks, handling emergency situations, mentally preparing for injury, and simply acknowledging that the rewards of the sport outweigh the potentially negative outcomes are essential for racers.
In auto racing, there is a partnership between the car and the driver. For those who are not "car people" this anthropomorphism of the car may seem unusual. But most auto racers talk about their car in terms of their partner, and will say things such as "She (the car) was perfect tonight" or "The Old Nova really got it done today!" Auto racers rightfully understand that they have a mechanical partner who will help them to win or lead them to lose. This partnership may seem odd to those outside of the sport, but the feeling toward a car may seem similar to that of the love an equestrian has to their horse or the respect a tennis player has with their doubles partner.
Finally, some fascinating things about auto racing are the family dynamic, age and gender desegregation, and the lifelong participation aspect of the sport. Some of the best auto racers come from a long line of auto racing, while many of the pit crew is dads, brothers, wives, children, family, and friends. This is particularly true at the non-professional/level. At race tracks, entire families attend the events together. Additionally, in auto racing, men and women compete directly with one another, meaning there is no separation in competition by gender. Finally, racers can start in different classes as young as 8 years old and very successful drivers can race to 70 years old. In auto racing, it is not unusual to find people who have been participating in the sport over 50 years! Once again, most classes do not separate by age. Therefore men, women, young, and old all race in the same classes together. Therefore, auto racing is truly a lifestyle and athletes need to develop ways to stay motivated over what may be a very long career in the sport.
For me, auto racing is a lifestyle. I enjoy the competition, setting goals, the friends, the commitment, learning new things, and having the motivation to participate over many years. As a sport psychology consultant, working with auto racers is a rewarding adventure and there is a lot to learn inside the helmet.