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The psychology of the 24 hours of Le Mans


The psychology of the 24 hours of Le Mans

The historic Le Mans 24-hour endurance race is back this weekend! The ultimate endurance test, with a simple rule: the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours wins.

This event is demanding, and racing at such high speeds with so much fatigue puts the lives of the drivers at risk. As four-times winner Yannick Dalmas says: “The slightest mistake and you lose the car.”

So, in such a high-pressure sport, the use of sports psychologists has become more and more popular, helping drivers and teams to perform better and more consistently, and deal with the unique demands of ultra-endurance events.

We have looked at the research into this area, and found some of the most popular and beneficial psychological skills used by drivers.

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What psychological skills should drivers be using to help their performance?

Focus on the right things

Due to the danger of motor racing, concentration is literally vital. There are many things to pay attention to, and even more things you should not be paying attention to. One mistake can lead to a catastrophic outcome, so there’s no time to lose your focus, even for a split second.

F1 driver Sebastian Vettel talks about staying in the moment: “Once you start the lap, there’s no time to think so you clear your mind and you have to be in the moment. Even if you make a mistake, it’s important not to think about it. You just focus corner by corner, ideally, let it flow.

So, how do you ensure you are staying focused on the right things for such a long time?

  1. Control the controllables – This means focusing on what you can control and accepting situations or problems that you have no influence over.
  2. Be where your feet are – Target your focus on what you have to do in that moment: for example, get around each corner as quick as you can. This will help give you a sense of certainty and confidence.
  3. Talk to yourself – Keeping simple cues in your mind can help you to perform better. Ask yourself: what three things do I have to do to perform at my best? Whatever the answers are, keep them in mind from the beginning.
  4. Cut out distractions – In the research we read, some drivers mentioned that in high pressure moments, talking in the earpiece was distracting. If you know that specific things make you lose your focus, figure out if and how you can stop them when necessary.
  5. Aim to reach a flow state – This involves being fully focused on what you are doing, so focused that everything else disappears and your mind goes quiet. This heightened attention allows your actions to happen with ease and is associated with many benefits. Check out our blog here for tips on how to reach a flow state.
  6. Stay focused on the process – Focus on what you need to do next, don’t think about the outcome or what place you are in. This will bring up emotion and could throw off your concentration. This leads onto our next tip…


Manage your emotions

A race like Le Mans has a high level of risk – and what comes with that is fear and emotions. Drivers will be feeling stressed with high levels of adrenaline. Being able to manage your emotions and stay calm is important in this context, so that you don’t make bad decisions or risk too much.

Some of our top tips for managing your emotions:

  • Use music to your advantage. Listen to songs that get you in the right state of mind.
  • Take control of how you talk to yourself, making it positive and rational.
  • Challenge thoughts that are self-handicapping or negative.
  • Develop your self-awareness. Know when you are getting emotional and change your focus back to where it needs to be.


Goal setting

But the pressure isn’t only on the driver – the team around them needs to perform at their best, too. To ensure that everyone in the team is staying focused and avoiding mistakes, teams need to have a clear game plan.

Mistakes happen when people are indecisive and don’t have a clear game plan. Therefore, the whole team needs to be on board with the same plan. Create goals as a team, as this encourages a sense of ownership and lets people know they are supported.

Remember how drivers say that the earpiece can be a distraction? Having a clear plan allows the crew to select the appropriate strategies and tactics to feed back to their driver, and to keep it immediate and specific. This ensures they don’t overload the driver and throw off their concentration with too much information.

Teamwork is vital here, as a high level of trust is needed in each other. The drivers need to trust in the mechanics and the crew and vice versa. People work harder on achieving a goal if they trust the person that has set them. Setting clear goals will also help you to reach a flow state!


Work through pre-race nerves

The danger of motor sports means that drivers can get extremely nervous before races, to the point where they can feel sick. So, here are our best tips to get around this:

  • Relax your body – By clenching and then releasing your muscles, you will feel calmer.
  • Take deep breaths – Lowering your heart rate will help you relax.
  • The way you that you view the race matters – Seeing the race as a threat leads to nerves, whereas seeing it as a challenge to rise to can turn those nerves into excitement.
  • FocusResearch shows that focusing on what you can control rather than what could go wrong helps athletes with competition nerves.
  • VisualisationVisualise yourself doing the perfect lap and also encountering different scenarios so that you are ready for when they come.
  • Boost your confidence – Use past performances to remind yourself of previous successes.


Fuel your brain

Research in motor sport racing has attributed a lot of the fatal accidents to fatigue. Therefore, it is important for the drivers to ensure they are fuelling their body and brain. This includes staying hydrated, eating the right foods before and throughout the race, and getting enough rest.

With the race lasting a whole 24 hours, tiredness is a big factor. Drivers should be ensuring they are resting and taking naps between driving. Sleep is important for concentration (it impacts on thinking and our behaviours), so it is vital for both the safety and performance of the drivers.


Bounce back from mistakes

There is no way to drive a 24-hour long event without making a mistake along the way.

Therefore, drivers need to know how to bounce back and refocus straight away. This is where self-talk comes back in, as well as focusing on the now. Having something you can say to yourself to bring your focus back into the moment and not what has just gone wrong is important.

After the race, athletes can then shift their focus to reflecting and asking for feedback. This is an essential part of learning, and helps athletes find areas to improve.

Final thoughts

Le Mans is a tough endurance race with high pressure and high speeds.

Being able to focus on the right things, talk to yourself in a positive helpful way, and control your emotions are all crucial skills that every racing driver should strive to incorporate into their routine. These strategies will help each driver reach their full potential and perform at their best when it really counts.

 

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