How Alex Albon's F1 driver coach takes lessons from the boxing ring to the track

F1

Patrick Harding coaches boxers, Olympians and racing drivers. He tells Chris Medland why the athletes have more in common than you might think

Alex Albon and Patrick Harding

Alex Albon with his performance coach, Patrick Harding

Red Bull

“It’s awesome that he works with other athletes,” Formula 3 title contender Oli Caldwell says. “I’ve gone to a boxing gym a few times with Alex Albon – Patrick coaches a few boxers – and honestly that was the biggest mindset change for me, seeing these boxers. The way they train is unbelievable; mental resilience, pushing themselves to the max.

“I’d never done boxing before and when I tried it it was much more physical than I ever thought it would be. So training with them is insane and it’s so fun, it’s a different type of training away from the gym to do boxing. So really fun, really good to see other athletes and to see where different sports have different physical abilities as well.”

Caldwell is talking about the work of his performance coach, Patrick Harding. The Irishman is probably better known to those in motorsport circles as Albon’s trainer, the man regularly seen stood alongside the Red Bull reserve when he was competing, preparing him for each race. He now does similar with Caldwell in F3, too.

But looking after Albon and Caldwell is not all Harding does. He also works with professional boxers – including the undefeated Michael Conlan, who is in line for world title shots in two weight divisions – and more recently was in Tokyo as part of Team GB’s coaching staff with Liam Heath and the canoe squad.

So when it comes to understanding what makes elite athletes tick — and how to improve their performance, few know better than him.

Alex Albon training with Patrick Harding

Harding was a familiar figure in the Red Bull garage with Alex Albon

Red Bull

“Boxing for me is one of the sports where the athletes have to work the hardest in terms of just making it, plus the physical demands of being successful across 12 rounds, the technical components, the tactics of it, being able to control your emotions…” Harding says.

“I’ve brought Alex and Oli down there, because without being harsh to them I think in certain ways they won’t have been challenged much in their lives, and the boxing environment is a really challenging environment to be in. I said it to both Alex and Oli, ‘When you come down there be ready to work, because they won’t judge you off your technical ability but they will judge you off your effort, and if they don’t see you putting effort in they will rip you to shreds’.”

It’s not just the physical aspects that Harding works on with the drivers. In fact, with all athletes, it’s a far more rounded way of looking at things.

“A lot of what you’re actually doing in that space is the mental management and the emotional support”

“If anyone ever asks me what my title is I say performance coach,” Harding says. “I’m a chartered physiotherapist, I’ve got a masters in strength and conditioning, and I’m a qualified mental coach. And I guess what performance coaching to me is, is putting that skillset around individual athletes to aid their development in terms of their maturity as an individual and their progression and performance within their own elite sport.

“My philosophy has always been – and will continue to be – that it’s about the individual first. Certainly one of the big things I work on with Alex and Oli and particularly younger athletes who perhaps don’t have the maturity in their sport is: ‘You are just a good individual who happens to be very good at doing something, and you’re just lucky that something is something that other people want to watch’.

“So there’s people out there who can bake an incredible cake but nobody will ever hear about them. You can’t bake a cake but you can drive a car around a track very quickly. But that’s not who you are.

“Your identity – and I say this to Alex, especially in tough times – you’re just a really good guy, really good sense of humour, you’re a brilliant brother, you’re a good boyfriend, you’re a good son, you also just happen to be a very good driver.”

It’s an admirable approach to be looking at elite sport as only a small part of what makes an athlete who they are, especially as the person who is initially employed by them to help them deliver their peak performance.

Liam Heath in the 200m single Kayak event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Albon’s move to Red Bull reserve allowed Harding to travel to Tokyo with Liam Heath

Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

But where Harding’s story is an even more interesting one comes from the variety of athletes he’s coached and situations he’s worked in, having been at Arsenal for the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign and guided British Olympians to gold medals in Rio 2016 – or more recently a bronze for Heath in Tokyo.

“It’s not how I saw this year going but the fact that Alex was made a reserve made it just about manageable to be able to disappear for a month in the middle of the season to Tokyo, so it all worked out,” Harding says.

“Liam is Britain’s most successful canoeist in history but he could walk down the street and nobody would know, and he would never tell you. If you look at him, he’s every meme you’ve ever seen about the guys who miss leg day at the gym – he’s an absolute unit up top and then he’s got these little chicken legs! But he’s got four Olympic medals across three Games.

“I was with canoeing in Tokyo and we had four athletes – Liam, Deborah Kerr, Emily Lewis and Katie Reid – and while for Liam it was about the latter part of his career, for the three girls that was all their first Olympics and a stepping stone to Paris and getting comfortable with that environment.”

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While the Olympics will rarely involve the influence of machinery in the same way motorsport does, the way of judging your own performance in the right context – rather than solely against others – is a specific aspect Harding prioritises with racing drivers as well as Olympians.

“In the history of the Olympics there has only been 3,500 representatives from Great Britain, out of a population of what, 66 million? When I was having conversations with the girls about their performances and not being happy with their finishing position but the time they set, would they be happy with that?

“We had a girl who got a PB in her semi-final but didn’t make the final and was actually really disappointed with that but the reality of her performance was: ‘That was the best you’ve ever done at the biggest competition you’ve ever been at’.

“Two of the girls came into their competitions, had two races in one morning and then their Olympics is over. And it’s: ‘I’ve dreamt about this my entire life, had four hours of competition, two races that lasted about 40 seconds each and now I’m finished and the Tokyo Government are telling me I have to be out of the country in 48 hours!’

“So a lot of what you’re actually doing in that space is the mental management and the emotional support. The physical stuff in that time is pretty much easy. That’s what you do for Alex and for Oli in those race weekends as well. My job in those environments is to be a really consistent delivery of emotion to those guys. So when things are going well and things are going badly they get the same consistent level of emotion from me.”

Alex Albon with Patrick Harding

Albon’s situation at Red Bull can be compared with making your debut at the Olympics, says Harding (right)

Red Bull

Harding had to particularly rely on that experience at the end of last season as Albon’s F1 future was up in the air and the Red Bull youngster eventually lost his race seat, something he says he drew comparisons from when working in Tokyo.

“It’s very comparable. you take a driver in motorsport who is in their rookie season – or in Alex’s scenario has been promoted to a top team halfway through his rookie season – or you take somebody like an Oli who has moved from a mid-pack team to Prema in F3, and suddenly there’s an expectation there.

“Then you take these three girls who are coming to their first Olympics and irrespective of where they’ve been at in terms of world timings, there’s an expectation that ‘I’m at an Olympics’ and we can all daydream about having the race of our lives and winning a medal. I think there’s massive consistencies across all of those.

“For me in those scenarios it’s about always bringing them back to things they can control. Because one of the attributes I see in really successful people is self-responsibility and ownership. The perfect example of that is looking for excuses. I have never been involved in a sport where there’s the availability of excuses as there is in motorsport in terms of tyres and tailwinds and contact and traffic… It’s incredible.

“What I’m always trying to do with those individuals is ‘what did you do in that scenario?’ because that’s the determinant of how we’ve viewed the context of what happened.”

Alex Albon in training with Patrick Harding

Harsh judgement on training regimes is a key part of the Harding philosophy

Red Bull

Things like sleeping patterns, hydration, nutrition, warm-up routines – stuff that can’t be influenced – is where Harding says all athletes have to judge themselves harshly. Beyond that, variables that might appear on-track are only of limited value, and it’s an area he saw clear improvement from Albon through 2020 and into this year.

“Alex is probably the most critical guy I’ve ever worked with in terms of self-analysing how he’s performed, but actually the biggest learning for him over the last couple of years was ‘At what point do I stop that because I’ve learned everything I can from that session and now I need to move on?’.

“From my perspective, his last four races were probably his strongest and most consistent race weekends at Red Bull, and when I get asked about his mental resilience, I don’t need to see any more than that itself.

“Because that to me shows a young kid who has demonstrated a huge amount of growth in a very short space of time in what can only be described as one of the most pressurised environments in sport – with huge media scrutiny, expectation from himself but also from the team around him, with a benchmark of a generational talent – but actually still being able to go to himself ‘What do I need to deliver today? Let’s focus on that, control what I can control’.”

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And noticing these consistencies across athletes all feeds into Harding’s own knowledge that then shapes his approach to working with Albon and Caldwell, as well as Conlan and fellow boxer Josh Kelly.

“I use different sports in bringing about a training effect, but there’s more you can do. Take Alex Albon and Michael Conlan: Mick grew up in West Belfast, working class family, he’ll happily admit that if it wasn’t for boxing he wouldn’t know where he would be right now.

“He’s a very intelligent guy, very street savvy, but wasn’t particularly interested in school. There probably wasn’t a lot of avenues for a guy in his environment at the time in terms of developing a career, but he always said ‘I’m just going to be a world champion’.

“Then you take somebody like Alex, obviously he’s had some difficult times in his life, but will admit he grew up in a very privileged background initially, private school, motorsports, if you don’t go into racing then there’s probably a lot of other avenues in terms of University or business etc.

“But if I put Alex and Mick together they hit it off like a house on fire, because they can see a lot of each other in each other in terms of their attitude towards sport, their willingness to do whatever it takes to be successful; their drives to be successful are very different but actually they can recognise that drive in each other and that’s what brings that relationship together.

“I thought some of the mentality that Michael brings to boxing would be something Alex could incorporate into his attitude towards a race weekend. That’s not criticising Alex’s attitude in any way, and he’s a beast in the car, but more around elements of the aggression he needed at certain times and just in terms of his general demeanour.

“And vice versa there’s a calmness about Alex and a precision about how he operates that the boxer could do with sometimes in terms of how he approaches scenarios or fights.”

Michael Conlon Adeilson Dos Santos 2018 fight

Michael Conlon (right) and Albon can learn from each other, says Harding

Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

There are other things Harding believe drivers can learn from other sports – but particularly boxing – too. For one, he had to teach Albon not to show up at the boxing gym in a Ralph Lauren sweatshirt featuring a teddy bear on the front, but he also left Caldwell under the supervision of boxing trainers while he was in Tokyo.

Seeing the setbacks that all athletes face whether it’s in the ring or on the water, chasing Olympic medals or motorsport trophies, it’s actually the mental aspects that are most applicable even if Harding sometimes tests them together physically.

“I don’t think there’s a better analogy for any sporting career than a fight. Because that’s what it is. There are very few people who are successful in any sport who start their career, it gets exponentially better, and they end their career at the top. Name one person who’s had that career.

“The reality of a career is you have ups and downs, and it’s your ability to deal with the downs that will create the ups. At the end of your career when you look back, it’s more about the ability to deal with the adversity than the success for the majority of people in sport.

“With boxing it could’t be any clearer; you’ll win some rounds and lose some rounds, but at the end of the day you’re judged off how you dealt with those bad rounds and how you came back in the round after. It is a fight. Every career is a fight.”