How to Break Through Mental Barriers

Three things that performance and race drivers never struggle with are fear, self-preservation, and a lack of confidence, right? Okay, I bet you recognized just a bit of sarcasm there.

 It doesn’t matter what level you’re at with your driving, there will be times when you’re going to question whether you can do something (often, something that you think that only other drivers are doing). Those thoughts may be accompanied or triggered by self-preservation, and consequently, either early braking, over-slowing, lifting of the throttle, not getting to full throttle soon enough, or not using all the track.

Which comes first, the ability to do something, or the belief you can do it? If you don’t believe you can do something, what’s the likelihood of you physically being able to do it? If you need the belief before physically doing something, where does that belief come from?

 Let’s take a look at a model of how this works (I’ve borrowed some of the following from various neuroscientists and sports psychologists).

Thoughts-to-Results Model

This is critical: Thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to beliefs, which lead to actions, and ultimately to results.

 Here’s an example:

Thought: “I just can’t seem to keep my foot flat to the floor through Turn 5”

Emotion: Tension, anxiety, fear

Belief: “I’m not good at really fast corners”

Action: Lift off the throttle

Result: Slow through Turn 5


As my friend Dr. Shannon Irvine then points out, “Our RAS filters out what doesn’t match our beliefs.” Huh?

 In your brain is something called the Reticular Activating System, or the RAS. Its job is to make sure we see what we believe we should see – or not. If you’ve ever visited a friend who lives near a loud roadway and wondered how they can stand all the noise, that’s the RAS at work. Your friend has become used to the noise, to the point where they don’t believe it is noisy, and their RAS makes sure that is the case. In fact, the RAS is so good at its job that your friend really doesn’t hear the noise like you do. It’s being filtered out because the belief system says it doesn’t really exist.

 Of course, the opposite is also true and happens all the time.

 If you’re approaching a very fast corner, and you believe you’re not good in that type of turn – and that you’ll lift off the throttle – your RAS will ensure you’re right. As Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” Your RAS will make sure your brain tells your right foot to ease off the gas.

 You’re not alone here. Even Fernando Alonso has a RAS, as proven when he went to Indy and had this to say, “At the beginning I have to be honest, the right foot, how do you say, had a mind of its own and was not connected with my brain, so I wanted to be flat out, but the right foot has its own life.”

 The good news is if you can change your beliefs, your RAS will work with you, rather than against you. That’s what elite performers do. It’s what your friend living next to the noisy highway does.

 Think about this: Could it be that you don’t see how you can do something because your RAS has filtered out every bit of information that could tell you that you can? You turn into a fast corner, and because you don’t believe you can flat it, your RAS makes sure of that by filtering out sensory information that could actually tell you that you can. What would that sensory information be?

·        The sense of g-forces building... and continuing to build (and not drop off, as they would if you were going beyond the tires’ limits).

·        A visual picture that aligns with a line through the corner with adequate track at the exit.

·        That perfect “at the limit” higher-pitched growl from your tires, combined with the engine note that says you’re not slowing.

·        Feedback through the steering wheel telling you that if you turn sharper the front tires will exceed their limit and begin understeering; but not so much grip in those tires that you know you’re below the limit.

If you believe you can flat this fast corner, your RAS will not get in the way of that valuable sensory information, and you’ll be told you can flat it.

Once you flat it, you know you can do it; you believe it. Then you’ve got your RAS working for you, instead of against you.

But until then, how do you start to believe you can do something before you’ve actually done it? Go back and look at the model: Thoughts-Emotions-Beliefs-Actions-Results.

 With enough of the right thoughts, your beliefs will change. No, I’m not talking about standing in front of the mirror and telling yourself, “I’m good enough...”. But I am talking about being aware of the thoughts you have, what you focus on and have stick around in your mind for any length of time more than a tenth of a second. Because any thought that sticks around will trigger an emotion, which will create or reinforce a belief, and then produce the actions and results.

 By simply being more aware of your thoughts, you can impact your beliefs – in a deliberate way.

Manage Thoughts

When you have a thought, stop and ask yourself whether it is helping or hurting. I will admit that that can be harder than it sounds. So what you need is a trigger, something to help you recognize when you’re having a thought that could be counter-productive. You can think of a trigger as the icon on the desktop of your computer that you click on to launch a program. Or, it’s the rubber band that some people have on their wrist to snap them out of, or into, a habit.

 “Help or hurt?” There it is. That’s your trigger. Each time a thought pops into your head, ask, “Help or hurt?” Practice this in your daily life. Make it what you do - who you are.

If the answer to “Help or hurt?” is “It helps,” then great. Carry on.

 If the answer to “Help or hurt?” is, “It hurts,” then stop. And I mean stop. Take stock of what you’re thinking about. Can you turn it around?

 “I always lift for the fast corners” is a thought. Stop. “Help or hurt?” It hurts. So, can you turn it around? “I used to lift for fast corners,” “I look ahead, balance the car, and keep my foot in it – the car sticks better when at full throttle.”

 Are you now thinking what I’m thinking? “What about physics? Isn’t there a limit somewhere? What if I think my way past that limit of physics and crash?” Stop. “Help or hurt?” That’s not helping, but it could stop you from hurting (after a crash), so that’s not a bad thing. So think some more. Think through the process of what’s going on with your RAS; think through what’s going on with the car when you lift out of the throttle (the balance changes, and you’ve reduced the physical limits of traction; stay in the throttle and the car is better balanced, and therefore has more traction). When you work your way through the process, it may become logically obvious that physics is not limiting. In fact, you may find that physics is on your side (this is Why it’s so important to think deeply, and have a thorough understanding of what’s really going on).

 Obviously, some of this process can happen at speed on track, but some can’t. You don’t always have time. That’s why mental preparation before going on track is so critical. We all know how expensive and limited track time is, so you want to make the most of what you get. Doing as much of this mental work before you get on track will make your on-track performance better.

 Remember, you do what you do because you’re mentally programmed to do so; you don’t do what you want at times because you either don’t have the right mental programming yet, or you accessed the wrong program.

 This process – Thoughts-Emotions-Beliefs-Actions-Results – can be programmed so you go through it in nano-seconds. It becomes a mental program. And so can the Thought... Stop...”Help or hurt?”...Turn it around process. That becomes a program the more you do it. In fact, one could argue that the more mistakes and bad programming you have, the more practice you’ll get at using this process, and therefore, the better you’ll get at using it.

 You can use mental imagery to practice this process. In fact, you should, if you want to really make a difference with your mental game. I started using mental imagery, or visualization as it’s usually called, way back in school (in 1972, if you really want to know the year). And guess what? Every scientific study of the effectiveness of this mental game tool that have been done since, as well as practical results by high performers in every activity, have proven that the view of mental imagery in 1972 has not changed – it works. If anything, it’s even more accepted than ever as a tool you should be using.

 Turn your thoughts around to give you the result you want.