Story by E. Paul Dickinson
Let’s suppose that you want to become your own track coach. You shouldn’t expect to learn any new skills, right? Wrong. Driving coach E. Paul Dickinson explains how you can still monitor and critique your own driving using your built-in data acquisition device–your brain. In the end, you’ll be lapping faster and safer than ever.
1. Don’t Allow Yourself to Plateau
Once drivers practice a skill to their own satisfaction, they often stop looking for improvement. Yet your maximum potential is virtually limitless, provided you have sufficient motivation to reach it.
Improvement is there for the taking only if the effort is invested. On track, focus on the present and save the analysis for the paddock. It is the driver’s job to learn to continuously do the hard thing easily, gracefully, efficiently. The beginner practices until he or she gets it right. The old hand practices until he or she can’t get it wrong.
2. Do More Mental Practice
Stretching the mind prior to action raises confidence: With your eyes closed, replay the course exactly as you intend to drive it. Imagine perfect laps until they become fluid. Mentally rotate the steering wheel, shift gears and brake at appropriate locations. Fine skills and complex techniques can be slowed down and analyzed so that the scenes and actions become familiar. The brain makes little distinction between seen and imagined images.
Building and continuously refining a mental track model is important for processing the abundance of real-time information gathered when increasing speed on track. The quality of your mental model is more important than your technical skills.
3. Practice Scanning Techniques
Take a quick visual scan of the area in front of you. Start on your far left and scan across to your far right. Concentrate on seeing everything between you and the outermost point. Briefly close your eyes and take a mental inventory of what you perceived.
Repeat the scan. This time separate your scan into frames–mental snapshots. Compare the first scan to the second, storyboarded images. Surprisingly, unnoticed details are now apparent.
Practice behind the wheel of a street car, then in the track car at speed. Contrasting track storyboarding with the familiar scenes in your mental model radically improves the odds of doing the right thing at the right time.
4. Point Your Eyes Farther Ahead
Vision is your overwhelmingly dominant sense. Your eyes lead the way and control smoothness. Without proper visual perspective, lapping at high speeds can be like driving in a bank of fog, where planning ahead is unthinkable but critical.
Looking ahead not only gets you where you need to be, it also focuses concentration. Of course, scanning at the point of emerging information is not enough. By the time you’re aware of a mistake, it’s too late to change it.
Once it is accurately perceived and maintained, a well-internalized mental model of the track can be used to anticipate. Anticipation immunizes against accidents.
5. Don’t Scare or Surprise the Brain
When your visual depths of field get shorter, escalating speed progressively increases your anxiety. Once your visual focus is inside your reaction distance, your eye movement becomes fixed. You stop scanning for crucial information.
The fundamental result of progressively increasing anxiety is fear. Fear brings panic inputs, and involuntary panic input is always wrong.
A brain that has been scared sends off commands that don’t help lap times: Lift! Look over here instead of here! Brake in the middle of the turn!
Have a good understanding of what you did right. And have a better understanding of what you did wrong.
6. Don’t Be a Sucker for the Adrenalin Rush
Driving is all about making good judgments. Judgment is not a sensation: It takes the form of thought.
Most feel-fast sensations, for example, are distractions that can be quite unrelated to quick lap times. Carrying demonic amounts of speed into a turn may feel fast or gain you a few hundredths of a second initially, but it sacrifices overall speed and can cost you entire seconds.
7. Don’t Carry Too Much Speed Into a Turn
How much speed is too much? Any amount that keeps you from going precisely where you planned.
The primary purpose of braking is to slow the vehicle to target turn-in speed. It’s the speed at turn-in that establishes your planned positions. Separate braking forces from speed sensing–they are two different things.
8. Don’t Overdrive
Doing something inefficiently (badly) requires physical and emotional strength as you continually snatch yourself back from disaster. Beginners should not expect to post times that world champions would be proud to claim. Old hands should expect to spend practice time refining existing skills.
Fatigue, anger and overconfidence all blur judgment and are the most common explanations for overdriving. Relax, you were just testing the limits. Now you know what needs to change. Recognize the need for a coach to extract and develop your next steps.
9. Recognize Fatigue
Become fatigue-aware: Adhere to the Three Mistakes Rule. Once you have identified three successive mental and/or physical mistakes, realize that many more have already gone unnoticed. Break routine: Slow down or go into the pits if necessary.
Why driving leads to fatigue is no mystery: You are poised for flight. Your muscle systems are cocked for emergencies– and releases–that never come. You become tired of being poised, but can’t will yourself to let go.
Fatigue itself is a snowballing mechanism: Tired muscles contract themselves involuntarily and thus use still more energy, generating more fatigue in the uncontrolled effort. Fatigue focuses concentration on your body. If your attention is on your body, then it is not on your driving.
10. Learn to Make Mistakes
Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning. They are, in an important sense, the primary opportunity for learning something truly new.
When you’re on track, pre-plan three different potential mistakes for the same corner. Run the exercise for five successive laps and then evaluate immediately thereafter.
A mistake does not become a failure until you refuse to admit it and correct it. The secret is knowing when and how to make mistakes so that nobody gets hurt and you can learn from the experience.
11. Don’t Be Resistant to Change
Our society tends to be expert-centric, and experts do not make mistakes. Perpetuating that is the attitude that success is driven by self-image, requiring us to be experts rather than learners.
There’s nothing worse than flailing around, trying to fix something you don’t comprehend. You’ll only make things worse. Admitting you need help and asking for it often requires more courage than trying to do it on your own.
The most important lesson of all is to trust that mistakes are inevitable, but that you can constantly challenge yourself to improve.
12. Be in the Zone
When you’re in the zone, effort is optimized, not overstressed, and endurance is increased. You’re performing “within” yourself. Concentration slows time to allow for confidence, the ultimate tool for getting control of the time sequence.
More interesting is what control of the time sequence within the movement does for skill. Different arcs or portions of arcs within a sequence of motion can be moved with brilliant results. It is not the gizmo, not the tool, but you, the tool user, that makes the real difference.