Sport Psychology in F1 – The difference between life and death1 Opinion
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About James Bedford
MSc Graduate. Experienced in golf, bowls & football but interested in all sports.
“The mind is everything” Sir Jackie Stewart admitted in a 2004 interview. “All the boys in Formula One today have gifts from God and there’s 20 of them. Then there’s the top six, then the extraordinary three. But the genius is the one who takes it to another level. That is Michael Schumacher today, just as there once was Fangio, Clark, myself if you like, Lauda, Prost, Senna – the absolute multiple champions. And it’s always the head that took them there.”
Picking oneself up after a bad performance is a regular feature of an F1 driver’s career. Some drivers however have to endure a difficult season full of bad performances. Felipe Massa recently expressed how close he came to quitting the sport during the 2012 season, “Yeah I thought about so many things. I thought maybe I was finished. I thought about not staying in Ferrari. I did not know what would happen. So many things were inside my brain.”
The Brazilian racer only managed four top 10 finishes in the first 10 races, and out of those only one top five. Meanwhile, Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso recorded eight top five finishes with six podiums. Consequently, Felipe Massa experienced much criticism and his confidence took a hammering. At the halfway point of the 2012 racing season Massa started visiting a Sport Psychologist. Usually it takes time for an athlete to improve their performance whilst working with a Sport Psychologist, but with rumors going round that Ferrari were ready to drop Massa at the end of the season, the pressure was on for an immediate response. What followed showed just how effective a Sport Psychologist can be. Felipe went on to post 10 consecutive top 10 finishes with six in the top 5, including two podium finishes. As a result, Ferrari has decided to stick by Felipe Massa for another season.
I think Michael Schumacher sums it up brilliantly how important it is to have the right mindset if you want to be successful in Formula 1. “In our sport we are privileged to drive these cars and for us it is a big excitement to be involved in this sport and it’s natural that you want to do the best that you can do,” explains Michael Schumacher. “‘It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday’ is something that you learn very quickly. It only matters what you do at the moment and you might do in future. That’s what it’s all about. I guess it’s a school that you go through in the early days in karting and that’s what you grow up with. Partly it’s a character that you have or build up, so to all of us I guess [staying motivated is] very natural.” Schumacher makes it sound very simple, however the outcome of driving in Formula 1 without the correct mindset can sometimes be fatal. When a footballer ‘switches off’ briefly they concede a goal or a foul, however in Formula 1, whilst travelling at 100mph+ speeds, it will more than likely lead to serious injury and possibly death. Jody Scheckter who was F1 champion in 1979 describes how he felt as a result of not having the right mindset. Changing gear whilst still pressing the accelerator, breaking at high speeds and turning too early into corners were just some of the dangerous actions taken by Scheckter whilst not thinking straight. Consequently he decided to retire from the sport in fearful for his life.
Scheckter tried to convince his good friend Gilles Villeneuve to follow suit in the days leading up to the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, Villeneuve tragically ignored Scheckter’s advice. In the previous race Villeneuve’s Ferrari team mate Peroni had ignored team orders and overtaken him to take the chequered flag. Villeneuve was furious and vowed to win the Belgian Grand Prix “at all costs”, something which worried Scheckter. As expected Villeneuve started the race with his decision making impaired and fuelled by rage. When he came upon Jochen Mass’ slower car, Villeneuve refused to lift off and suffered the devastating accident which took his life. Villeneuve died because his dangerously confused state of mind interfered with his sense of judgment, something which could have been prevented by consulting a Sport Psychologist. Whilst I acknowledge that the number of fatalities in Formula 1 has reduced as a result of safer equipment, cars and circuits, it is no coincidence that the awareness of psychology in sport has also increased. Consequently as the 2013 Formula 1 season approaches today’s drivers may find it productive to have their heads examined. It may just save their life…