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Motorsport Driver Coaching - why bother?

In a world where competitors spend money (almost) freely on marginal gains and sometimes short term performance upgrades, why does the influence of the human controlling the machine often get overlooked?

Coaching is something embraced by pretty much all sports at all levels around the world. Coaches are used at grass roots level to improve skills and help new participants in their chosen sport, and also at World No1 level where the best want to remain the best and trust the feedback and support of coaching professionals to help them stay at their peak for as long as possible. Sometimes, the coach input is a mechanical help, ‘’change your golf swing like this’’, ‘’swing the racket like that’’. But sometimes it is more of a supporting situation, ’’forget yesterday’s performance’’, or, ‘’you’re smashing them all, keep going!’’ Coaching isn’t always about telling someone what they should do, but being the person there for support, encouragement and advise when it matters.

I recently completed my Level 2 Driver Coaching Qualification with Motorsport UK to help develop the coaching element of my business. I’ve done coaching / consultancy on the quiet for awhile now and have worked with drivers and teams in single seaters and tin tops, from grass roots to national level, and been lucky enough to provide a small amount of (hopefully valuable) info to them along the way. Whilst I knew that coaching was important to helping any participant of sport, there were some elements, new and known, that I found were increasingly important whilst taking part in the coaching qualification. It’s only when you have your eyes opened to these elements that you begin to realise that the application of coaching at ANY level in motorsport really can give that long term edge. I’m not talking solely about going through data and video to improve lap times. There are other things that seem obvious when you point them out such as race day diet, mental state and quality practice. Then there’s preparation, time management, physiological and anti-doping (yes it does heavily matter in motorsport!). And if you are lucky enough to have a healthy budget and on a career path, there’s assistance with career management, training camps…. This list of coaching benefits is endless.

The top level of motorsport is really starting to embrace coaches now. The drivers are benefitting from anything from a friendly face that helps with a pre-race workout, to someone who can bounce driving techniques off of them, manage their time and diet, and give them psychological support when they are winning or losing. The tenths are often found right away from the race track in places that most driver’s don’t even look. Race teams even use coaches for their pit crews now. Formula 1 mechanics are away from home for weeks on end working massive hours, so having someone to keep their body and brain as healthy as possible is essential for giving the driver a fast, reliable car. So why do the drivers at grassroots and non-professional levels rarely consider coaching? From the few conversations I’ve had about this question, it seems like egos and budget are common factors (obviously there are others, but these seem to be reoccurring ones in conversation.) On that basis these are the two I shall talk about. In an apparently confidence driven macho (sometimes aggressive) sport, individuals don’t feel like they need help. I’ve heard MANY drivers say they couldn’t have driven any faster, or the car let them down, or any of the other 999 excuses from the book of 1001 racing driver excuses. I can count on one hand the driver’s I’ve heard say, ‘’if only I learnt a technique to drive better on old tyres’’, or ‘’I should have asked someone to teach me some data skills to analyse my testing.’’ If the driver really is that good, why aren’t they winning every race? I’m exactly the same as these drivers when I go to the driving range to hit golf balls. I hit the ball as hard as I can, but it usually falls short and to the right of where I want it to go. It’s not my fault though, so I buy a new club with different weights in the sole so the ball goes a little straighter. Great! I put a patch over the issue. One day a friend from school who could have gone pro but for an illness offered to give me some tips. I sent him some video of me at the range and he gave me some tips. They sounded obvious but nothing I’d been able to apply myself. The next visit to the range was vastly improved. A higher, straighter, farther ball flight. With the ego to one side the coaching worked.

The other factor is budget. Motorsport is expensive, everybody spends the most they can afford. Sometimes that’s £10k per year, for some people it’s £1m, but everyone maxes out their budget to race the fastest or most appealing thing they can. Quite often budget doesn’t stretch to the extras like a spare human to mechanic the car, let alone another human to be there for you and coach you should they feel the need you ‘need help.’ At grass roots driver’s sleep in the van to save money on hotels so I completely understand why many people can’t justify a coach. But how about if you manage your time and budget more effectively? Some people are lucky to have a budget that allows them to test. The old saying about ‘’all you need is seat time’’ has a little validity, but what if your seat time was more effective? Don’t forget, I spent years aimlessly going to the driving range to hit golf balls, yet 1 hour of targeted practice was more effective than anything else I’d tried! I digress, so… more effective seat time. There’s a theory in sport and work, that it takes 10000 hours of practice to master a skill or sport. 10000 hours! If you apply that to motorsport trackdays, assuming you run a full 6 hours at each one, will take you 1667 trackdays to become a master driver. At the current average trackday price that’s around £500,000 in trackdays alone. Add your fuel, wear and tear, tyres, hotel etc etc and it becomes ridiculous. So how do you get the most from your trackday and maximise your money? Here’s a theory. 2 drivers attend trackdays pre-season. Driver A completes 10 trackdays alone. Driver B completes 5 trackdays with a coach who costs the same as a trackday. Driver A goes round and round and gets in lots of practice and becomes familiar with their car. Driver B has targeted practice to learn new skills. Whilst Driver B completes less miles than Driver A, B learns new skills and gains confidence quicker, and spends less money on fuel, brake pads, tyres and breakages than driver A, therefore saving money and learning faster. In my opinion Driver B has used their budget more effectively.

One of the things I’ve seen with my regular and long-term car setup and race support clients is that mental state plays a huge part in driver performance. Having completed my Motorsport UK qualification, it has opened my eyes more to the mental state of an athlete and as a result of this I have recently enrolled in a Level 3 Sports Psychology Diploma to further learn and understand the workings of the mind to help drivers more. Once you start to learn a little about this area, you notice A LOT of characteristics within different drivers that can be a benefit to them. Coaches aren’t just for data and video, but having a coach there who can really help them with their mind can be the difference between winning and losing.

I think it’s going to take awhile for a large proportion of drivers to admit there can be gains from using a coach every now and again whether they can afford it or not. I’ve been involved in this sport for 20 years now, and whilst some things stay the same, the guys who progress tend to be more open to trying new things and then evaluating them. For the ones that do give it a go, I believe that the majority of these will feel a gain in themselves and hopefully their laptimes. It took a number of years for motorsport to acknowledge the benefit of data and setup tools, now nearly everyone has an item in their car that can give them data feedback!

So how about cancelling your order for a new set of tyres for testing and giving me a shout to coach you for a trackday or two, it might just be the long-term performance upgrade you were after!

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