I have a challenge for you. No, not the “can you go through turn 1 at MidOhio without braking?” kind – the kind where I challenge you to change the way you connect your body and mind and see what it does for you at the race track, and maybe in other areas of your life.
A recent moment of clarity hit me while I was upside down, holding a yoga posture known as salamba sirsasana (headstand): the mind-body connection is real. Not just that — it’s essential when it comes to improving your performance in just about any field, even performance driving. Much has been documented and written about the impact the mind has on the physical body, and just how crucial care of the physical body is for a healthy mind. I am not a scientist, but my own experience leads me to believe that the mind and the body are not just interconnected, but inseparable.
I practiced yoga for a decade, and throughout this time, I never achieved any inversion without the aid of a wall. I justified my inability to get upside-down on various physical realities: I am almost 6-ft tall, my torso is too long, I have long and weak arms, and my head hurts when I’m upside-down. With such a detailed list of veritable excuses, I convinced myself I really didn’t want to be standing on my head anyway. I could envision myself getting upside down, losing my balance, and hurting myself. Better stay right-side-up. So I did, for about a decade.
Then I got skin cancer, on top of my head of all places. Surgery removed the melanoma, and a 2-cm chunk of my scalp along with it, leaving me with a bald spot and all sorts of tenderness. Once that whole mess healed and the fear of dying of cancer dissipated, I found I had acquired a new sense of freedom and adventure—what did I have to lose? So one day, at the end of my yoga practice, I told myself I would get up on a headstand without the wall to support me. And guess what happened? I did.
And I fell over, just like I always feared.
And it wasn’t so bad.
Pretty soon, I was trying to get upside-down all the time. And I fell a lot, but one day I didn’t.
I also found when I would try to get up there with fear of falling, or believing I would, I usually would topple over. But when I told myself, “you’ll be fine,” and focused on my breath and connecting with my physical body, I hardly ever fell.
It was as if when I took the time to connect my mind with my body, and put them to work together, magic happened. Granted, I practice yoga regularly, and I try to pay special attention to the areas where I am weak so I can strengthen them. But these days, I also pay special attention to the voice in my head that used to say, “no, you can’t do that because (insert excuse here).” The voice now trusts my body, and my body trusts my mind.
So here’s your challenge: take one month and commit to connecting your body and mind, and take your experiment to the track (or the pool or the yoga mat or to work) to see the results. Ready? Go.
Step 1: Treat your body well. Are you paying attention to your body and the physical cues it is giving you, or ignoring it? If your body feels tired and weak, it will be very hard for your mind to get it to cooperate. Investing in what you feed your body, how much sleep you get, how you strengthen it are the first steps in connecting your mind and body. I’m not suggesting you take up the nutritional and physical training regimen that the Audi factory drivers keep when preparing for LeMans. Simply being a bit more mindful of how you fuel your body, how much sleep you get, and whether you make time for exercise will provide you with visible physical results, which will translate into better performance behind the wheel.
- Taking the time to find physical activity which you enjoy is a huge part of treating your body well. Whether you walk, run, bike, or crossfit, connecting with your physical self will increase your confidence and prepare your physical body to connect.
- You may consider bringing healthy food, drinking lots of water and abstaining from alcohol during track weekends. (Ok, ok, you can have one beer. But as my brother will gladly tell you, the same rum and coke that tastes so good on Saturday night won’t taste so great when you go out with your intermediate student on Sunday morning).
Step 2: Treat your spirit well. I’m not going to get all new-agey on you here, but if you don’t nurture your mind and spiritual self, making the mind-body connection will be much more of a challenge. Whether you’re religious / spiritual or not, paying attention to how you feel and what your instinct is telling you is key to how you perform. So often we learn to ignore our gut feelings in everyday life, and even when we drive, but the more you trust your instincts in daily activities, the more you will trust them behind the wheel, and the faster you’ll see results.
Step 3: Connect your body and mind in mindfulness as often as possible. Our minds are inherently scattered by input brought in by each of our senses. On top of that, our busy lives means we are rarely mentally where our body is – often we are planning activities in the future, worrying about problems or thinking of something else to make unpleasant experiences pass.(1)
You don’t need to sit down cross-legged and meditate to engage your mind–you can practice mindfulness in almost every aspect of everyday life.
- Instead of dreading your post-work commute and thinking of ways to distract yourself, consider being present on your way home. By present I mean, be aware of the cars around you, the sunset, or anything else that is right there. If you have music on, listen to it attentively. This may seem like a fruitless waste of time, but what you are really doing is connecting your physical body and your mind on a mundane task. Tell yourself, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here”(2) Practicing this connection will increase your focus and carry over onto your performance driving. Like anything else, when you practice a skill you become better at it; if you teach your mind and body to connect, they will do so with increasing ease, and you’ll reap the benefits the next time you’re at the race track trying to squeeze another tenth out of your lap time.
Step 4: Silence the negative thoughts, replace them with affirmative statements. The next time you’re about to try something new, something difficult, or something that you’ve never done before, banish the voice that says, “I can’t do that,” “I can’t exercise consistently,” “If I’d only started younger, I’d be a faster driver,” etc. I tell my daughters that when they hear those voices, they should hush them the way you’d hush an annoying, barking dog making noise. Now, I’m not suggesting you throw caution to the wind – listen to your instincts when it comes to taking risks, please. But there is a big difference between a negative, self-defeating voice and your instinct. The self-defeating voice is your fear of failure, whereas your instinct is there to protect you. Listen carefully and you’ll know the difference.
Try the four steps above for a month and see what happens.
Now it’s time to take your connected self to the race track. As you prepare to go out for your next on-track session,
- Take a moment to evaluate the signals your body is giving you. Hopefully, you have found that being more attentive to your body’s need for nutrition, sleep and exercise means that you feel stronger and more alert than before. But it also means that if you feel tired or off, you’ll acknowledge that perhaps you should drive 7/10ths on the next session, or skip it altogether.
- Visualize your upcoming track session. Close your eyes and envision the track before you, with you driving each corner easily and hitting every apex cleanly. See yourself driving smoothly, shifting cleanly. Believe that when you get out there, your session will be a great one. Let go of the nervous intensity and uncertainty and get comfortable. My husband and I call this driving your zen. The calmer he is when he gets behind the wheel, the faster his lap times, and the cleaner his racecraft.
- Heighten and hone your senses. This exercise requires finding a buddy to drive you around for a few laps.(3) During your first lap, focus only on seeing: look at the track and at things you normally don’t see while you drive. On the next lap, close your eyes and take in the feel of being in a car at speed, visualizing the track and paying special attention to how your body feels as it moves through the lap without visual cues. Lastly, enjoy one last lap taking in the scents and sounds of the car you are riding in, evaluating which sorts of cues the car gives you at different stages, limits of grip, etc.
- Connect your body and your mind before heading out. Whether you stretch or do jumping jacks, calling on your body’s physical self to join your mind will prepare you to perform your best. Physical movement will increase your acuity and alertness in the car. Deepening your breath also contributes to priming the body for performance, so try taking a few deep breaths. As you wait for the green flag, realize that the discomfort of the HANS, belts and driving gloves will all go away as all your senses shift focus toward driving.
- Keep your mental dialogue positive. While you wait for your session and while you’re out there on track, keep your mental dialogue positive. Negative thoughts such as, “the car feels terrible,” “the belt is too tight,” or “that a****le won’t let me pass” are very detrimental to the ultimate goal of being on the race track: fun. If you find your thoughts shifting toward the negative, use the trick seasoned meditators use: tell yourself, “thinking, now back to driving,” and bring your senses back to the car and your driving only. I am not suggesting you don’t think during your drive, just that you don’t allow unnecessary thinking to clutter your driving experience. Thinking and data analysis can wait until you bench race later.
Give these tips a try, and let me know if they make your experiences on and off the track more enjoyable. Ready? Go!
(1) From Peace in the Fast Lane By Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun
(2) It’s All in Your Mind By Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun
(3) I suggest you choose a smooth and capable driver, or the results could be messy