The Road to Recovery

June 23, 2017 by V.R.M. - No Comments

The track season couldn’t have come soon enough this year. I had been looking forward to a break from the intensity of attending grad school while attempting to parent and work. Most of all, I had been looking forward to the thrill of driving at speed and spending time with our fun- and car-loving friends. In addition, I’d begun instructing late in the previous season, so I was also excited to improve my teaching skills.

T at work behind the wheel of her Miata. Photo (c) Wes Nardoni.

After our first track event of the year at Waterford Hills in May, I asked my friend T how the day had gone for her. She mentioned she felt like she had forgotten everything from last year, and wasn’t too pleased with her driving. T is a passionate student who is completing a Ph.D in education. I love checking in with her because she doesn’t just want to be a better driver – she wants to understand how she can learn to become a better driver. She is mindful in her approach to learning to drive on track, drinking in every bit of knowledge and wisdom she can gather and putting it to work in the learning process. Our relationship is mutually beneficial; since I am a relatively new driving instructor, T’s insights help me understand the student’s mind and what I can do to become a better teacher. She is also one of the funniest people I know, which makes all this mind-blowing learning not just useful, but enjoyable. “We all feel rusty when we first come back to the track,” I told T, “just keep driving and you will shake it off.”

My conversation with T reminded me of the time, years ago, when I asked my instructor brother the same question. Why did I feel like I had forgotten everything I’d learned about driving? He affirmed it happened to all of us and added one more bit of insight: “the difference is, the time it takes between feeling rusty and feeling in your element gets shorter and shorter the more often you drive.” In other words, as experience and skill increase, the recovery time shortens.

Over the last few years, I have come to recognize this as truth. This year, my ninth behind the wheel, the discomfort of strapping into my car and getting out on track on our first event lasted perhaps a couple of laps, and by the time I hit our 4-day event at Grattan Raceway, I had no driving jitters, even though 12 months had elapsed since I had last driven that track. Experience and repetition had shortened my recovery, and I felt confident in my skills.

T, who had never driven Grattan, arrived at the track one day before she was due to drive. In her usual, thirsty-for-knowledge way, she began to systematically pursue information to help her prepare for the weekend. She asked for ride-alongs from different instructors at different speeds so she could get a sense of the track layout. She asked questions unabashedly, and took the day to process the information she was gathering. And by the time she got in the car on Saturday, she was ready to drive. Her instructor, F, mentioned he loved her as a student because she “approached learning from all angles, both the feel and the technical knowledge” related to driving. Behind the wheel, she worked hard all weekend, improving considerably and adding another race track to her driving portfolio. Between the first and second track events, T had thought about what she needed to do to feel more confident and pursued it aggressively. By identifying what was making her uneasy behind the wheel and working on it, she was able to move past it.

The way in which experience and skill shorten “recovery” time doesn’t just occur at the macro level when students identify barriers to becoming better drivers; the process is also very apparent at the micro level in the best drivers. One of my favorite things to do on track is to go for a ride with my husband, who is a supremely capable driver. While he pushes the car to the limit, I let the experience sink in: the physical feedback of the tires and chassis, the throttle, brake and steering inputs, and the micro-corrections that he delivers lap after lap. These micro-corrections are little recoveries, and after years of work, they are now so efficient and quick that he has confessed he doesn’t even notice them. His ability to recognize that the car needs a correction is so fine-tuned, that he is able to implement it earlier and way before many of us even notice something is amiss. These early and consistent recoveries mean several small events never become a “big one.” He has acquired this knowledge about recovery by mindfully pursuing it each time he gets behind the wheel. As he drives our car around the track, he’s constantly pushing, constantly testing, seeing just how little to brake, how much to turn in, just where the best placement for the car could possibly be. (I have joked that he is like a shark, tapping a prey with its nose to “feel it out” before he takes a bite). He does this every single time he gets on track – the man does not ever take it easy on track. But he does not push hard to tempt fate; like T, he is constantly engaging in mindful learning, drinking in a myriad of details that can help him improve. (Check out the video below to see these “recoveries” at work)

Lately, I have been reminded just how much this kernel of truth – that experience and mindful learning make for a quicker recovery from adversity — applies to not just motorsports, but to just about everything we do. Many beginning students fear spinning on track, for example. But if you drive long enough and with increasing speed, chances are that you will eventually spin. Having the experience of spinning actually de-mystifies it. If the student approaches a spin as a learning experience, he or she can learn what led to it and how to avoid it in the future. Eventually, a mindful student starts recognizing the signs of an imminent spin, and is able to identify and correct it sooner and sooner, closing the recovery time and developing increasing car control.

Now let’s substitute the feared on-track spin for just about any experience in life – an angry outburst, a heartbreak, an interaction with your child or spouse, bad news – you name it. The event we are uncomfortable about itself is nowhere near as important as what we learn from the experience and how mindfully we consider what actions we can take to overcome the emotions that derail us from functioning. That learning is the recovery.

In an excellent On Being podcast, scholar Robert Thurman and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg discussed how to apply mindful learning to when we feel overcome by anger. Thurman illustrated the concept of shortening the recovery period in a story about the Dalai Lama, who “…also loses his temper” but “…nowadays it only lasts for a second and he doesn’t hold the bitterness about it and it very often doesn’t last.” Like the spin, you can let the experience frustrate you, or you can engage with it mindfully so you learn how to lessen the recovery time. If we “…work with ourselves, with our own minds and hearts,” says teacher Sharon Salzberg, we “become really actually transformed in a real way.” We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can get better at identifying how we respond to what happens, and at mindfully learning how to lessen the time it takes us to recover.

Over the past few months, I have noticed that each time I allow myself to see a mistake or a life challenge as a learning opportunity and allow myself to work through the myriad of emotions that the event may bring, I shorten the amount of time it takes me to recover and get back to living a good, balanced life. And like on track, the more I practice the recovery process, the faster I manage to recover, and the faster I am able to move past a mistake and toward the next challenging turn life brings.

Do you like music? This is the song that inspired this blog post, BROODS’ “Recovery.” Give it a listen and tell me what you think.