Elite motor sport is fiercely competitive, driven by supply and demand economics with a tight supply of seats available, and high demand from drivers wanting to occupy one of those seats. This places significant pressure on incumbents to consistently perform week in, week out to maintain their seat. As Melbourne city sports chiropractor Dr. Shannon has discussed before, elite racing drivers endure a myriad of physical and mental demands throughout a race weekend. Making the pressure to perform just one source of stress elite drivers must contend with.
As we found during our research for the blog on the physical and emotional demands of elite motor sport, it became quite evident there is a paucity of literature looking at the mental demands and stress elite racing drivers endure. Coupled to this, is the lack of public attention and awareness to this area of elite motor sport. Where we routinely see the media and fans quickly criticize a driver for a bad performance, often with little apparent consideration for the internal and external stresses elite drivers face at race meets. Nor consideration to the everyday human stress an elite racing car driver faces outside of their job such as relationships, families, and/or business stress.
In light of this, and with the enduro rounds about to start as we build up to the Supercars Bathurst 1000, we talk with Bathurst winner and Supercars ace, Nick Percat to discuss how he handles the mental demands and stress of racing, to give readers an insight and appreciation into the mentally demanding world elite drivers like Nick endure.
Preparing For a Race Meet
Race meetings in their own right are stressful places, fuelled by environmental noise and pollution from the cars, long days, as well as driver nerves, anxieties and adrenaline. From our own experience working in Supercars with Nick and in other race categories, on a given race weekend drivers and crews can be at the track as early as 6am and leave as late at 9-10pm (sometimes longer for mechanics). On any given day during the race meet drivers can be under highly demanding schedules which is highlighted by the packed agenda Nick has kindly provided from one day of a Supercars race meeting. These additional commitments outside of the car place added stress on drivers, with Nick noting it “is difficult, I find some nights I am exhausted but the adrenaline keeps me sharp in the races.”
So how do drivers prepare for such challenging and demanding weekends? When we asked Nick he states “I use a sports psychologist, who I have worked with for 15 years now.” Together their objectives are to put strategies in place which allow Nick to be calm, relaxed and in the right mindset so he can focus on performing at his best across the race weekend. Furthermore, they work together on allowing Nick to be present time conscious and adaptable if unexpected events occur. For Nick, this approach of creating a comfortable mental space that keeps him relaxed, focused and flexible, allows Nick to prepare for a rigorous and demanding race weekend. Moreover, the successful deployment of this strategy has led Nick to multiple race wins including Bathurst 1000, Clipsal 500, and podiums.
Staying Focused Over a Race Weekend
Handling Pressure from the Team
Leading into and at the race meet, drivers and teams will have expectations of how they hope the weekend will unfold. These expectations will primarily be driven internally by the team, and the goals they set for both the driver and team. However, there can be added performance expectations from the team’s sponsors, media and the fans. This creates a multitude of mental demands and stress for the team, which often falls onto the driver who will ultimately feel responsible for the teams on track performance.
Elite drivers therefore need to manage both the expectations and goals set by the team for their own performance, as well as those expectations of the team. To mitigate the external distractions, Nick says Walkinshaw Andretti United works hard to create an environment that is “very focused personally and from a team perspective.” They do this by “setting realistic goals” for both the drivers and team, while fostering a positive yet accountable work environment. This allows Nick to understand the team’s expectations of his performance, and allows him to set his individual goals, all while knowing he is supported by his team.
This team approach of creating a space where the driver and team are positively congruent is consistent with the framework Nick and his psychologist have been building on at a personal level; creating that comfortable, calm space, easing the stress on the driver and team. On a more personal note, knowing Nick has the support of his team he says that “if I have a bad race or day, it’s about leaving that in the past and focusing on the next time (he) is in the car.”
Enduring Scrutiny From the Media and Fans
Both drivers and teams are not immune to the scrutiny of the media and fans, resulting in an additional source of mental stress, particularly in the 24/7 news cycle, and with the accessibility of drivers via social media. Sadly, in a world driven by “likes”, “page views”, and “clicks” media content, including consideration of an athlete’s health and wellbeing are disregarded for a clickable headline. More often than not the scrutiny athletes (drivers) are under from the media and fans is unjust and ignorant of the human aspect of the individual.
Having worked with many athletes, across different sports it is a fair statement to say the harshest critic of an athlete is the athlete themselves. Nick is no different, stating “the pressure I put on myself has been there since I was probably 16 years old”. Pushing him to be the best he could be, and to unwaveringly commit himself to achieve his goal of having a long career as an elite racing driver. It is no surprise that Nick chooses to “block out the noise of the media” knowing the only scrutiny that matters comes from himself. As Nick knows that “if (he) has done the work off the track, that the rest will be ok and that keeps the pressure off.”
Maintaining Concentration in The Car
Once all of the off-track demands and pressures have been dealt with there is the business of racing, which as Melbourne chiropractor Dr. Shannon has previously discussed, is a complex, multi-tasked activity undertaken in a physically demanding cockpit, resulting in both physical and mental stress demands.
To cope with the physical demands of racing in a cockpit where cabin temperatures can range from 32-580, and to remain completely focused over anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours in the car, strength, condition and nutrition work is imperative. Nick’s approach to these demands has seen him partner with his long-term trainer Heath Meldrum, who keeps Nick’s body conditioned through endurance aerobic training which includes cycling, swimming and trail running, in addition to strength/resistance training.
To make sure Nick is adequately fuelled and hydrated while training, leading into and across a race weekend, Nick consults with a sports dietitian. Nutrition and hydration is particularly important during a race weekend especially in the car, as drivers have high calorie burn rates across a race. Added complexities for drivers to remain adequately hydrated and fuelled in the car comes from the limited and temperamental fluid reserves and fluid lines, as well as the challenges of eating in the car, especially over longer races.
Additionally, Nick says having a “routine with sleep is very important” to allow him to remain focused in the car. As we have previously discussed, having a good sleep habit is essential for maximizing athletic performance. Sleep is an area which is challenging for many elite athletes who can often be anxious or nervous the night before their event, and in Nick’s case can be impacted by the adrenaline of a race weekend, evening sponsor commitments, late night data analysis etc. To help switch off at night Nick likes to “watch a good tv show or movie”.
Once in the car, to maintain that calm, relaxed, present time conscious space, Nick works off the “keep it simple, stupid” mantra, which allows him to remain calm and focused when unexpected events occur, or if he is enduring a difficult weekend where the car is struggling with setup. This includes taking a corner-by-corner approach, where his attention remains fixed on the upcoming corner. Keeping grounded in the present, allows Nick to forget those frustrating, stress inducing incidents that may have occurred, while also avoiding any anxieties and nerves that may arise from thinking about how the future of the race may unfold. Sometimes though it is the simplest of things that allow an athlete to refocus, and for Nick it can be “as simple as looking at a photo of (his) dog”.
Wrapping It Up
The key theme that flows through Nick’s approach to managing the mental demands of elite motor sport is the importance of having the right team around you. For Nick to create that calm, relaxed space enabling him to remained centred and present regardless of what might get thrown at him over a race weekend, has been built from the work he has done with his sports psychologist, dietitian and trainer, in addition to the team environment Walkinshaw Andretti United has created, Furthermore, Nick’s partner Bayley, and his dog Nelson are there to provide a sanctuary and distraction from a physically and mentally draining race weekend. Nick’s wholistic approach to managing the physical and mental demands of racing is one young drivers and athlete’s should look to learn from.
Moreover, the media and fans need to understand athletes are human beings, who have good and bad days. As Nick stated, there is no-one putting more pressure on an athlete or driver to perform than themselves. Therefore, if an athlete or driver has had a bad performance or a string of bad performances, negative commentary will do little to help the mental health of that individual, and in some cases may actually be destructive to the individual’s mental health. If we want to see our athletes and drivers perform at their best, the media, sponsors and fans need to be a positive contributor within that team care approach to managing mental stress, building up and supporting our athletes and drivers.
To read more of the Shannon Clinic – Melbourne Chiropractic and Sports Care blogs you will find them here. If you would like to book an appointment with Melbourne city chiropractor Dr. Shannon or our Melbourne remedial massage therapist Paula Pena, you can book online below. Our practice is located on the corners of Collins and Swanston Streets, opposite the Melbourne Town Hall in the CBD.