Mental Skills

Mental Skills

Driving a racecar is primarily a mental exercise. Mental skills are the most important to develop and the most difficult to comprehend. The mental skills needed for racing require considerable insight, planning, and practice. A plan for mental skills, which are created, implemented, evaluated, and modified, will become the road map for reaching important goals.

Mental skills include, driver inputs, paying attention, concentration, anticipation, visualization, and emotions. To become a winning race driver requires a complete commitment to learn and refine mental skills.

Driver inputs:

Driver inputs are any information that flows to you from the outside. Inputs include the status of your car, other drivers and their cars, race circumstances, the track, the environment, and you. It is best to just let these inputs flow, and spend no time consciously analyzing the information.

The most common driver input is visual. Your eyes take in more information more quickly than any other human sense. The most important areas for visual inputs are those requiring action at some point in the near future, where anticipation is needed.

You must constantly decide where to focus visual attention. Advanced planning is crucial, or attention can easily be diverted away from the highest priority areas. For example, looking at the bumper of a leading car in the braking zone takes away the full visual picture, making the ideal visual path difficult to find and follow.

Noise can be very helpful. The primary noise input is mechanical – in monitoring engine speed, tire squeal and overall mechanical condition. Sounds usually require reaction. The ability to hear trouble occur ahead of or behind you allows you to anticipate or react to potential problems. Some sounds lend themselves to anticipation, such as engine speed for shifting, especially when visual monitoring of the tach is not possible or desirable.

The sense of feel and balance is used primarily in circumstances that require reaction. It is through feel and balance that we sense acceleration, braking, steering, understeer and oversteer. As with other sensory inputs, you must have sufficient data to know what the traction limit “feels” like. The more experience, the more likely you can stay near the limits.

Paying attention:

Attention is the act or state of applying the mind to an object of sense or thought, involving a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity. The fast effective driver spends most of his attention on the priorities that will reap the greatest rewards. Every aspect of driving requires some level of attention.

The need for attention changes as situations change. Different portions of the track and various segments of a corner require altering attention priorities. How do you determine attention priorities? Depends on the following:

Driver experience: If you know a track layout thoroughly, less attention is needed on driving the course. A newer driver will need a larger percentage of attention on the track layout.

Vehicle performance and condition: If damaged or handling problems occur, more attention is diverted to this.

Strategy: Strategy is the creation of a game plan prior to an event based on one’s best estimates of the probable occurrences. Strategic considerations require the use of considerable attention. In qualifying, more attention is spent on traction and paths than in a race situation. Race starts require more attention on other cars more than on the fastest line.

Tactical considerations: Tactics involve judgment and reaction to situations unfolding during an event. When planning and executing tactics, more attention is diverted away from driving.

Traction sampling: Traction sampling is a crucial part of driving at the limit, and requires attention whenever the limits of traction are approached.

As situations change, some percentage of attention must be shifted from one priority to another. As you approach the end of a straightaway, attention will shift from such things as gauge monitoring, checking mirrors, etc., to the turn in point and braking. Paths and traction sampling become higher priorities.

If the situation is a tactical one, where defensive or offensive considerations must be made, attention will shift more to those areas, as they become a higher priority. In order to quickly shift attention, you must have a clear mental picture of the priorities at any given moment on the track. This requires attention priorities become part of your goal or plan.

Possibly the most difficult job during a race is to maintain concentration and focus. If your attention is diverted to extraneous areas, focus is taken from important priorities. It is important to regain focus on the important priorities as quickly as possible. The longer this process takes, the more time is likely to be lost, and the greater the risks of errors.

Paying attention means knowing your situation on the track at all times. It means knowing your surroundings, watching your mirrors, how far ahead or behind you may be from your closest competitor. It means looking ahead for potential problems and how you might react should something occur. Paying attention means keeping your concentration.


Means to bring or direct attention toward a common center or objective. Concentration is maintaining focus. Breaches in concentration on the most important priorities cost time on the track and effect consistency. One clear sign of a lack of concentration is inconsistent lap times. One fast lap requires anywhere from 15 seconds to two minutes of intense concentration, most drivers can muster this level of focus. The best drivers can maintain this level of concentration for the duration of a race, up to five hours of intense focus on pre-determined priorities.

Almost all racing errors stem from ineffective concentration. Either you lack the necessary intensity of focus, or you focus attention in areas other than the most important ones on the priority list. For example, concentration on braking in the braking zone, when concentration should be shifted to speed and vehicle path, will not allow you to be fast and consistent. The degree of concentration may be high, but is misplaced.

The biggest key to maintaining concentration is living now. If your goal is to win a race, you must set aside the goal during the vent, and focus attention on the job you must do right now to win the race. Focusing on the goal is the wrong priority if you want to reach the goal.

Practice concentration by practicing driving. This is the best practice exercise of all. Visualize, run laps mentally. Meditation teaches you to clear your mind focusing on nothing, possibly the most difficult of all concentration exercises, and therefore the most valuable. It is difficult to practice concentration to become more proficient at it. It is something that must happen more naturally. To truly reach the necessary level of concentration to become a winning driver, you must be totally absorbed in the activity, living in the present, and loving every second of it.


In racing, looking ahead is paramount for both speed and safety. Anticipation is nothing more than taking a look into the future, and making at least an educated guess, or at best a precise evaluation, about what will occur. If you’re looking ahead, you have more time to take in data, process it, and draw a conclusion about what you may expect. You should not drive with your visual focus just in front of your hood. A broad visual field is crucial for good powers of anticipation. Simply put, the more you see and the farther you see ahead, the better you can react. Your ability to anticipate what’s going on up ahead of you will allow you to adjust to the situation at hand.

In racing situations, the key to success and survival is your ability to anticipate what occurs outside your vehicle. The more input you receive from the outside, the easier it is to anticipate dangerous situations and avoid them. A broad field of vision is required. Selecting and processing that information requires experience, both real and visualized. Increase your field of vision by looking ahead. Instead of focusing on the bumper of the car directly in front of you look ahead going into a corner.

Anticipation can also be used as a tactical tool. In passing situations the ability to anticipate what the other driver will do can aid immensely. Developing this skill requires practice and experience, which can be attained any time you drive. The key is to watch what the other driver does. Attitude changes of the car, consistent driving mistakes, inconsistent lines, & braking points can all offer clues. Previous experience with the other driver can enhance your anticipation. A big part of planning tactics is knowing when to attack and defend, it’s knowing who you’re dealing with and what their personality is-their driving personality. You need to store up this knowledge of whom you’re driving against. You watch him drive, and after awhile, you can anticipate how his car will move. If you don’t know a driver, you better me more defensive than if you know him.

Another valuable input is to watch the interaction of a group of cars. Often, the interaction is predictable, and creates passing opportunities in unlikely places. This is especially true if the group has slowed behind traffic, but has not seen that options exist. When a car is well below the limits in a turn, many optional lines are possible, and anticipating the possibilities of off-line passes when traffic has slowed gives you many opportunities.

Anticipation skills can be developed. Work first on your visual field; change its length and direction, including your mirrors. Take in as much information as possible. As you improve these skills, you’ll find it much easier to anticipate the actions of other drivers on the track and the easier it will become to drive at the limit on the race track, to make decisions that allow you to race with a higher degree of safety and to gain a tactical advantage.


Visualization is defined as the formation of mental visual images. Visualization is simply structured daydreaming. To visualize requires clear mental images, sharp mental focus, and considerable concentration. To become adept at visualization requires mental discipline and substantial effort. Visualization can be used in many ways to reach goals and improve performance.

It is crucial to use visualization in a very positive way. Otherwise you will become proficient at all the wrong stuff. The best way to practice visualization is to go through a bunch of practice laps. The idea is to run a series of laps around a track, timing the laps with a stopwatch as you visualize them. Here’s how to do it:

Fire up your computer and load up NASCAR Racing 2003. Under options make sure you have lap display set to time, not speed. Run ten practice laps on the track of your choice. Nobody should be on the track but you.

Take careful note of your surroundings, braking & turn in points, shifting and braking markers etc. With your F1 display on notice your lap times and take the average time of your ten practice laps just driven.

Now exit the sim. Sit back in your chair; your environment should be quiet, with no distractions to interfere with your concentration. Before you begin, close your eyes, develop a clear picture of the environment, including the pit area, landscaping etc. Use a stopwatch in one hand for timing your laps. Visualize starting in your pit stall, shifting gears, exiting the pits, and pulling out onto the track. Go down the backstretch through 3 & 4 and visualize taking the green at which time to start your stopwatch. Make one complete lap and as your cross the line stop your watch. Many people actually move their hands and feet to operate the controls while visualizing. The entire process is undertaken with your eyes closed. A watch with memory and recall is best for consecutive laps.

The first time you try this make only two or three laps. Look at the times. How close are they to the real laps your just ran in the sim? It is crucial to have a clear mental picture of vehicle paths, apexes, visual reference points, and any other physical features of the environment.

This exercise is a great way to practice concentration. Make a notation of breaches of concentration. How often does your voice try to break concentration? Do the images become fuzzy? Does your mind wander to things unconnected with driving? The accuracy of your lap times is a good indication of the level of concentration you can maintain.

Diligent use of visualization techniques with clear, precise mental pictures can pay big dividends on the racetrack. Visualization will help you develop a plan or goal for fast laps and race strategy variables. How are you going to alter vehicle paths in traffic? How will you defend position? How and where will you try passes? How will you deal with changing car conditions? What will you change for more effective tire management?

Many times I use visualization to “play back” in my mind bad situations I have gotten into on the track, so I can be prepared to react differently the next time I might face it. Having faster reactions would not have gotten me out of that crash, but being prepared for that situation would have.

What do you tell yourself? What should you have been watching for in this situation?

1. Watch drivers that are unfamiliar with the racetrack.

2. Watch inexperienced drivers real closely.

3. Watch the handling characteristics of cars. Check out the guys which are involved in the most accidents. In cases like these, you need to spend as little time behind that driver as possible.

Some of the best drivers are not young people, and as anyone gets older, reflexes slow down. Reflexes are important but that experience gained through visualization can help to more than compensate for slower reflexes. Being able to anticipate circumstances and drawing upon past visualization experiences is what we are talking about when we refer to a driver’s experience.


What do you feel when you are behind the wheel? Do you feel excitement, happiness, fear, intimidation, anger, confidence, hatred, or pressure? Emotions exist in everyone. The control we have over emotions is in how we deal with them, in other words how we cope. The goal in racing is to use emotions as tools in a positive way to enhance performance.

Pleasant emotions, such as satisfaction, happiness, and joy are usually triggered by a positive outcome. There is one downside to specific reactions to these feelings. When things are going well it’s easy to become overly confident. Your inner voice says “I’ve got it in the bag now”.

Watch out, that’s when things change and you loose your focus and find yourself with a DNF.

The most achievable emotional state has two elements:

1. Requires that any stimulus outside the racing environment, which could trigger an emotional state, be blocked. If thoughts wander to other areas, like business or relationships, attention is diverted from the driving of the car.

2. You must develop a plan to cope with emotional responses triggered by the racing environment. The emotions will be there. The key is to cope with them, not ignore them.

Pressure is feeling a form of fear. Pressure comes from feeling inadequate to perform to a given standard. Confidence in your abilities counters the feeling of pressure. If you have not proven your ability to win races, but expect to win, the pressure will be very high. Additionally, if you do not win, self esteem and confidence will diminish.

If your expectations are based on the reality of your self-proven skills and are within the bounds of your control, the pressure is very manageable.

The key elements for managing pressure are:

1. Developing skills to a level where you believe in your ability.

2. Having expectations, which match your self-proven skills.

3. Having expectations only within the boundaries of your control.

4. Maintaining focus on what you can do.

5. Accepting responsibility for where you are now.

6. Living in the present during the event. Focusing on the result increases pressure and reduces focus on the job to be done to achieve the desired result.

Take control of those areas where you really have control, letting go of the things over which you have no control.

All of these areas can build confidence and reduce pressure. The feeling of pressure, or more accurately the fears causing pressure, can best be coped consciously. “Yes this event is very important. I feel very intimidated. I will focus my energy and concentration on performing to the best of my ability. I have worked hard to develop skills, and now I must implement those skills.

The outcome will take care of itself. My best chance is to do what I know I can do.” It requires nothing more and nothing less.

The alternative: “This event is so important! Everything is riding on this. I have to win it. I hope I’m ready. Did I practice enough? Is the car set-up ok?” This leads to a lot of pressure building and second-guessing. Which scenario do you believe is most effective?

Confidence is the quality or state of being certain. True self-confidence is the state of being certain about your own abilities. False self-confidence is, believing that your abilities are actually greater than reality would dictate. In other words, you lie about your own ability to yourself.

To acquire true self-confidence requires actively participating in an activity and reaching some level of proficiency to gain this confidence. If you build confidence based on hopes, dreams and desires, when the moment of truth arrives, you will be wrought with anxiety and disappointment. It is impossible to perform to the expected level because you do not have the skills to do so.

True self-confidence requires the same elements as for managing pressure, plus a couple more:

1. Be honest when evaluating your skills and their development. Dealing in reality is a prerequisite for true confidence.

2. Make and keep, a commitment to develop skills to the level necessary to achieve honest goals.

Taking responsibility does effect emotions as well as other aspects of racing. If you place responsibility for any situation on external factors, circumstances, or other people, you give up control over your destiny. Accepting personal responsibility places you in a position to take positive action to reach goals and maximize personal performance. Blaming outside factors such as warps, or a fellow competitor has a crippling effect. Auto racing is a contact sport were all human and accidents do and will occur.

When you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, apologize and move on. Learn to respect you fellow drivers. Remember racing online is far from perfect, and chances are good that the other driver may not have seen it the way you did.

It’s easy to make excuses for most anything. It takes courage and conviction, as well as confidence, to cope with good or bad situations. Facing reality and accepting responsibility for any circumstance or situation empowers you to take positive action. Like emotions, ignoring responsibility has consequences.

You can’t succeed as a sim racer unless, when you get behind the wheel, you feel you are the best. It doesn’t matter who agrees with you. You have to believe in yourself. Attitude is one of the most important parts of succeeding in racing.

Mental preparation on race day:

The mental preparation for the race starts just as soon as qualifying is completed. You find out where you will be starting, and who is starting around you. You think about these people and the type of driver they are, and who you need to watch out for. Before you go out and take the green, you need to decide how those other drivers may react on the track. Go up and down the line-up, and think about every driver around you.

Try to get an idea of how the race is going to shape up. Who behind you looks like they are a little faster than you? Who’s behind you who’s looking maybe wild? Who, if your not careful, is going to knock you off the track? Who in front of you, or around you is going to be tough to pass, or be all over the track? Who is apt to spin out or cause a wreck in the first few laps? These thoughts and mental imaging help you to be ready for situations, which might happen on the track.

Of course if you’re running in a pickup race and don’t know those drivers around you, your better off playing it safe and allowing more room than usual in an effort to avoid any potential problems on the start.

The mental process during the race:

You start the race by looking as far forward on the track as you can see. You don’t just watch the car right in front of you. You do everything in quick glances. You have to watch the car in front of you, look where the wall is, look way out in front again, check your mirrors, look for track markers and braking points.

One of the most important things you are looking for and always subconsciously thinking about is an escape route out of any bad situation. Try to always give yourself an out from 90% of the circumstances you are in. Sometimes you don’t have a choice – you can’t leave yourself an out. This is where aggressiveness shows up in some drivers. A more aggressive driver will go ahead and put himself/herself in a situation with no out, where the more conservative driver will back out of the situation. The more important thing to learn here, though, is to be looking for an escape route at all times should something exciting happens in front of you.

Many elements of racing rely on clear, accurate data inputs, which you process into appropriate control outputs. Careful self-analysis of skills and weaknesses will allow you to work on and develop techniques that will help you reach specific goals. Using and refining the mental skills mentioned here should not be overlooked. A mentally healthy driver is a faster more consistent driver.

(This article taken from the SimRacing 102 course by SimRacingInternational)

  1. This was a great read. Thank you!

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