Mind gains

Author

Joe Dunn

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

Current page

157

Current page

158

Current page

159

Current page

160

Current page

161

Current page

162

Current page

163

Current page

164

Current page

165

Current page

166

Current page

167

Current page

168

Current page

169

Current page

170

Current page

171

Current page

172

Current page

173

Current page

174

Current page

175

Current page

176

Current page

177

Current page

178

Current page

179

Current page

180

Current page

181

Current page

182

Current page

183

Current page

184

Current page

185

Current page

186

Current page

187

Current page

188

Current page

189

Current page

190

Current page

191

Current page

192

Current page

193

Current page

194

Current page

195

Current page

196

Current page

197

Current page

198

Current page

199

Current page

200

Current page

201

Current page

202

Current page

203

Current page

204

Current page

205

Current page

206

Current page

207

Current page

208

Current page

209

Current page

210

Current page

211

Current page

212

Current page

213

Current page

214

Current page

215

Current page

216

Current page

217

Current page

218

Current page

219

Current page

220

Current page

221

Current page

222

Current page

223

Current page

224

Current page

225

Current page

226

Current page

227

Current page

228

Current page

229

Current page

230

Current page

231

Current page

232

Drivers at the absolute limit say they experience a strange sensation on their way to perfection – but what is it?

David Brabham remembers asking his dad Jack what it takes to be a truly great racer. It was a big question for the young driver, but if he was expecting an elaborate answer from the triple world champion, he was to be disappointed. 

“He was a man of few words and I remember he looked at me and then pointed to his head and said: ‘David, it’s all up there.’ He knew through his own experience that you get to perfection through your head.”

It wasn’t long before Brabham Jr discovered what his dad had meant – but the extreme nature of the experience took him completely by surprise. “It was a round of the Australian F2 series supporting the Grand Prix in Adelaide,” he says. “The main prize was an Australian Gold Star – it was something dad never got, so I really wanted to win it. But I had fallen out with him just before the race and I’d sworn at him, telling him to F-off. 

“I remember I jumped into the car and channelled all my anger and determination into driving. I started in 35th place in that race, right at the back of the grid, but I was in such a rage and had such a level of intent that something really strange happened. I just knew I was going to win the race.  

“I remember I judged what was happening perfectly, every gearchange, every bend, every kerb. I was racing on a different level. I won the race. Afterwards I sat down and thought to myself: ‘Jesus, what just happened there, it was like someone else was driving that car’.” 

It wasn’t the last time the sensation occurred. Years later Brabham was struggling during qualifying in the LMP675 class at Le Mans in 2004. Then from nowhere everything changed. “Suddenly it all started happening, I went from P11 to P1. Again I was literally watching myself drive. I felt a complete detachment from where I was. The only way to describe it is that I was a witness to my own driving. It was a lap of the gods.”

Brabham is not alone in finding that his best racing comes with a strange physical sensation. One of the greatest laps – perhaps the greatest – Damon Hill ever completed was shrouded in an other-worldly sensation.  

In 1994 Hill in his Williams had been battling Michael Schumacher’s Benetton for the title all season. A disrupted Japanese GP at Suzuka meant Hill had to win the second part of the race by a margin of more than 6.8sec to claim aggregate victory and keep his title hopes alive. With 10 laps to go Schumacher was taking chunks out of Hill’s lead and hopes began to fade. Then something happened: starting the final lap Hill pulled out all the stops and eventually won by 3.365sec on aggregate.

Ask Hill about it now and he says: “It was quite odd. The thing about it was that I was out of ideas and Michael was catching me on fresh rubber. By the final lap, I had reached my limit; there was nothing more I could do. The game was up. It sounds strange but I remember I appealed to Senna [who had been Hill’s team-mate before his death earlier in the season] as a sort of higher power, call it what you will. 

“It was a last resort and then something happened. From Turn One through to the hairpin on that final lap I became a passenger, with someone else driving the car. I felt like I wasn’t even in the car. It was a really strange experience I haven’t got close to before or since.

“I never really talked about it at the time because you open yourself up to ridicule, although I wrote about it in my book. But afterwards I was just completely exhausted and I think I frightened myself a bit too.”

Say the words “out-of-body experience” and you might expect grizzled racing drivers to look at you askance. In the macho world of motor sport there is little room for mysticism, but in fact the opposite is true. It would be pushing it to say that belief in some sort of out-of-body experience is the norm among racing circles, but ask around and it becomes clear that it is an accepted as a phenomenon. 

Few drivers like to talk about it public (like Hill, Brabham says “It’s not really the sort of thing you talk about in the paddock”), but many recognise it.

Perhaps the most famous example of reaching perfection through an unexplainable power is that of Ayrton Senna’s mythical qualifying lap around the streets of Monaco in 1988. Years after the event, he explained his perfect lap – where he ran 1.427sec faster than his team-mate Alain Prost – by saying was in a different dimension and drove beyond his own “conscious understanding”. 

“I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker, and I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously.

“I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

The exact meaning of the phrase “conscious understanding” is open to debate, but it seems clear Senna experienced something out of the ordinary – and he wasn’t alone. 

“I am into double figures now of people who have told me that they have had actual out-of-body experiences and have genuinely been looking down on themselves,” says Clyde Brolin, author of In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, published later this month, which explores the psychology of success in sport. “It is surprisingly common and it seems to affect racing drivers more than most.”

Brolin spoke to dozens of athletes – from tennis players to golfers and gymnasts, as well as drivers – and argues that reaching a state of complete concentration puts sportsmen and women into a state that he refers to as ‘the zone’. 

“There are different levels of concentration and it starts with the basic sensation of being on autopilot,” he says. “It seems to happen when all the years of practice and training just flow out and there is nothing stopping it and the athletes let themselves go. It feels as if you are not doing it yourself. This is common to all athletes – not just racing drivers – and has been known about since the 1970s.

“Then there are the absolute extremes – where the person feels completely detached from themselves. This seems to happen more in motor sport and the reason is that motor sport is the perfect setting for it. Because apart from maybe on a straight, your level of concentration is so high there is no easing off for two hours. Tennis players, for example, reach this level of concentration but only in little bursts of half a minute or so, then they stop and start again.”

So is there any scientific basis for the phenomenon and if so is there a correlation between reaching such a state and improved performance?

Don Macpherson, a sports psychologist who has worked with several F1 drivers as well as Ryder Cup golfers and Wimbledon tennis champions, says he is convinced it can result in near-perfect performance. 

“I’ve lost count of the number of drivers that have asked me about this,” he says. “They find it hard to talk about but they should talk about it – it is a wonderful thing. Two elements have to be in place for the phenomenon to occur. The first is high levels of concentration and the second is an element of danger. 

“When there is a significant level of danger the normal mind – which is used to analysing things – jams up, so your natural instinct takes over. Your brain starts working differently, operating on deep memory, which in the case of racing drivers accesses all their training and practice. This is also why time seems to stretch and slow down. In effect what is happening is that drivers are reaching a different state of consciousness and in extreme cases this can mean feeling completely separate from their physical selves. In many ways this is the perfect state to be in when driving – you are channelling all your years of training directly to the car without your brain getting in the way. It can result in the ‘perfect’ lap.”

The element of danger isn’t just a psychological trigger, says Professor David Dexter, visiting Professor of Neuropharmacology at Imperial College, London, and an expert in how different drugs can affect the brain. “Quite a lot is known about the physiological changes in racing drivers,” he says.

“Most familiar is probably the hormonal and neurotransmitter changes associated with the fight or flight response.”

This reaction affects the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls body temperature and other functions, which tells the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol. This in turn causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise. The cortisol also suppresses the bodily functions that aren’t immediately needed to deal with the situation. The overall effect is to increase energy, concentration and agility.

According to Dexter, this reaction can work in tandem with other factors that affect racing drivers – in particular g forces. “When you are travelling quickly and experience increased positive g, blood is forced away from your head – that can affect vision and brain function due to the drop in oxygen reaching it. 

“One common effect, for example, is tunnel vision, which occurs at between 2 and 3g. Working together these physiological changes most probably account for the change in vision and any semi-out-of-body experience.”

So much for the science. But if it is simply a case of gravity and the body reacting to hormones it is pre-set to release at times of stress, how come drivers don’t experience the sensation every time they get in the car and hurtle around the track?

Hill, who as anyone who has read his autobiography will know is one of the most thoughtful of world champions, says he has pondered his experience often and in depth. He says that in many ways the frequency of experiencing such total concentration marks out the good drivers from the greats. The more often you get to the point where training, concentration, natural skill and the laws of physics and biology come together in complete harmony, the better driver you are. 

But there’s more, too: “It seems to happen to people when they push themselves further than they think they can go,” he says, “right to the edge of the branch, which is a huge amount of mental stress.”

Jack Brabham was right all along, then: a lap of the gods is all in your head.

All in the mind?

The brain is in charge, but bodily responses are vital

Doctors and sports psychologists have long recognised the physical and emotional changes that affect racing drivers. Some think that during a race the exposure to danger activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. This is an automatic survival mechanism which prepares the body to take action. In racing drivers, however, this reaction can combine with other elements including the high concentration levels needed during a race and positive g to result in a so-called out-of-body-experience.

Racing thoughts Once activated the fight or flight response speeds up thinking time and decision-making

Tunnel vision High g forces experienced by drivers can result in tunnel vision as blood is forced away from the head

Dry mouth  Entire digestive system, including the mouth, shuts down in dangerous situations as energy is diverted towards the muscles

Concentration Ability to focus on anything other than the immediate danger can become difficult when fight or flight response is activated

Breathing Becomes quicker and shallower in order to take more oxygen to the muscles, but it can result in light- headedness or dizzyness

Heartbeat A faster heartbeat feeds more blood to the muscles in preparation for fighting or running away. Hands get cold as blood diverts to major muscles; muscles tremble in order to remain ‘ready for action’

Adrenal glands release adrenaline This sends signals to other parts of the body, so that they get ready to respond

You may also like

Related products