An interview with Matthew Swindells of 130R Performance on the importance of mental skills training

As I am adding new companies to the Services section of Motorsport Prospects (free registration is required to access) I feel it is important to get a bit more detail as to what these companies do to give context to their listing. The first company to be so featured is 130R Performance, a company that specializes in applying sports psychology and mental skills training to motorsport with a particular focus on young driver development. I spoke with company founder Matthew Swindells.

An interview with Matthew Swindells of 130R Performance on the importance of mental skills training

Motorsport Prospects: Please introduce yourself and your background.

Matthew Swindells: My name is Matthew Swindells and I am the founder of 130R Performance. My background is in sport and exercise psychology, I’m also a qualified triathlon coach. My personal areas of interest in addition to talent development include pre-performance routines and selective attentional focusing, having conducted research in these areas with athletes across several different sports.

MP: What does 130R Performance offer?

MS: We aim to offer the application of sport science and psychology principles in an affordable package to drivers competing at all levels, from karting through to cars (and bikes). Offering a bespoke service, we tailor support to the individual driver and can provide either full trackside support or a programme of ‘distance’ support delivered over a season or specific period leading up to a big event. Through contact on a regular basis we aim to to identify strengths, weaknesses and any key trends which can be tracked to aid in your progression as a driver. Though experience in endurance sports, we’re also able to provide a fully-rounded training service, ensuring that drivers are both physically and mentally prepared to perform at their best ability in every session over a race weekend, right from first practice.

The importance of mental training

MP: We know that physical training is important to a race car driver. Why is mental training important as well?

MS: In the world of motorsport we know that mere thousands of a second can make the difference in a race or qualifying session. With the increase in knowledge and accessibility of sport science principles, your competitors are more likely to be well prepared to a basic fitness level to competently manage the race distance you’re competing in. Therefore, a drivers’ use of well-trained mental skills can be a key performance differentiator; giving an on-track advantage. Research within sport psychology shows that there are a wide range of factors that can influence young athletes’ effective progression through talent development environments. The importance of psychological skills and the way in which they are developed is pivotal in the way athletes can successfully or unsuccessfully manage these transitions in their sporting lives. High level races create a multitude of distracting factors that a driver may not have experienced before, and which training in a simulator or non-competitive test sessions cannot fully replicate. Our aim is to train and prepare you to use mental skills on your own and ensure that these factors do not impact your race weekend.

MP: What kind of techniques do you teach your clients when it comes to mental skills coaching?

MS: The aim is to teach drivers that we’re not looking to make major overhauls to their current routine, just aiming to understand why they do what they do, and how this can impact performance. When working in conjunction with a driver it will often become apparent that relatively minor tweaks to performance can make the difference between tenths of a second, or in extreme cases a good result/DNF. We would start by looking at the existing habits and routine of the driver, and (in conjunction with their team/engineering staff) look to break the race weekend down into minute detail to examine any factors which may have an impact on performance.

Over time we would teach a driver to utilize key mental skills such as track visualization or relaxation techniques in a non-competitive setting, then how to transfer these skills from venue to venue, no matter how different and/or distracting their surrounding environment may be. If we’re then trackside with a driver to act as a point of contact, we ensure that they are applying the mental skills they’ve mastered outside of the race weekend to ensure that every time they hit the track, it’s in their individual zone of optimal performance. Some examples of mental skills a driver may use in competition might be structured and dynamic goal setting, pre-performance routines incorporating scripted mental imagery, positive self-talk and ‘cue’ words, or re-focusing strategies to recover after mistakes/unexpected setbacks.

MP: Is there a difference between the mental aspects of a female driver and a male driver?

MS: Absolutely not. Every athlete is different which is why we always come up with a bespoke programme of mental skills to suit the individual. I would hope that we’ve reached the point where social barriers in motorsport have changed so that a driver with the right blend of commitment, social support, talent, and mental resilience will have all the ingredients to acquire sponsorship and succeed in the sport; regardless of their gender.

Training female vs male athletes

MP: Is coaching a female athlete different than coaching a male athlete in the same sport? Is there a difference between hormones and testosterone when approaching motorsports?

MS: There are some well-documented differences in terms of learning styles between boys and girls from educational psychology, which may be a consideration if working with high-school (UK) aged drivers. However, the essential components of fitness are evident to see from the multitude of female racers now competing on a fully equal footing in top flight motorsport. As social barriers are continuing to be broken at the earlier grassroots level, we should only see the ratio of female to male drivers increase throughout all levels of the sport in coming years.

MP: How do you teach a driver to deal with fear?

An interview with Matthew Swindells of 130R Performance on the importance of mental skills training

MS: This can arise for several reasons and it is important to work with the driver to understand the root cause. There are key differences in how this would be managed depending on whether it is an acute fear (perhaps following an unexplained mechanical failure or unusual driving error) or something more deep-rooted. A more acute fear can be overcome by instilling confidence in the driver in other areas, perhaps by zoning back to similar past incidents with a positive outcome. The ideal situation would be to gradually instil confidence by ensuring that the driver slowly builds up speed again after the incident, although the challenge is that this is often not possible over the short duration of a race weekend. Any intervention would require close liaison with team support/engineering staff to ensure that the reason for an incident is fully understood and accepted.

The danger of overconfidence

MP: What about overconfidence?

MS: One of the biggest issue with overconfidence can occur in terms of injury management and a perception of fearlessness or ‘invincibility’ that can lead to unhealthy behaviours (e.g. hiding ongoing injuries or issues of discomfort in the car). In working with a driver over multiple contact points, we’d aim to instil the knowledge that this behaviour can be detrimental to performance in the long term, and perhaps conduct a longer term or ‘bigger-picture’ goal setting task to emphasize this. Working with the driver’s engineering team could also be beneficial in understanding the nuances of their driving skillset, and how overconfidence (perhaps through one particular corner of a track) can be broken down without impacting raw speed.

MP: What about techniques in preparation for mind set at the grid?

MS: As mentioned previously, one of the most important mental skills is the ability to transfer individual pre-performance routines from venue to venue, regardless of distractions or environment. It’s important to work closely with a team to ensure that a driver’s individualized warm-up routine can be worked into their operational procedures on the grid. This may be something as simple as finding a quiet place for a driver away from the hustle of pre-race activity, or something more involved such as instilling a complicated routine of pre-performance mental and physical warm-up exercises at a key point before the start. Once again, the main consideration is that every driver/athlete is different, and while one may require relaxation to calm nerves before a big event, another may require ‘bringing up’ to ensure that they are suitably prepared to give 100% as soon as the lights turn green.

MP: What about recovery on track after an incident?

MS: This is an area that we’ve also worked extensively on in other sports (most notably rugby, working with players to minimize the effect of ball-handling errors). We train drivers to use positive self-talk and ‘cue’ words to quickly invoke a pre-arranged set of thought processes, allowing them to instantly re-focus and recover after a mistakes or unexpected setback. This is a skill that is worked on mostly through off-track work with a driver, but then supplemented with further training in testing/practice sessions where possible.

Red mist and how to prevent it

MP: And what about dealing with the infamous Red Mist?

MS: This is a challenge, we’ve all seen drivers express anger after a retirement or a decision that hasn’t gone their way. However, providing this isn’t carried over into actual aggressive behaviour on track and is limited to just expressing frustration, it can be healthy in allowing the driver to ‘let off steam’ or experience catharsis after an incident. This is an area where again it can be useful to have a set plan in place which emphasizes long term goals and contingency plans, to remind the athlete of these in (or just after) the heat of the moment. It’s an area where we must work closely with race engineers, who may be the first point of contact for a driver in these on-track situations.

Mindfulness and visualization

MP: How important is mindfulness? And visualization?

An interview with Matthew Swindells of 130R Performance on the importance of mental skills training

MS: In the context of sporting performance, mindfulness (as on the state of focusing awareness on the present moment to achieve a sense of calm) would be closely aligned with what is known as zone of flow state performance. Visualization is a major factor in the ability to achieve this state, in what is known as a narrowed focus of attention and a maximum readiness for competition. The most famous example of a driver in flow-state performance is Ayrton Senna, who out-qualified Alain Prost, his McLaren teammate, by a margin of 1.427 seconds around the streets of Monte Carlo in 1988. Ayrton claimed that he had achieved the perfect lap, was not conscious of his actions and saw himself outside of the car in what some at the time called an out of body experience.

What we now know is that many athletes have reported this feeling during competition, and this perfect pinnacle of performance can in fact be induced through careful application of rich and specific mental visualisation. It all comes down to achieving the perfect blend of relaxation and arousal for an athlete before a competition, to allow to them to apply their high-level skills in an autonomous manner. One of the main factors in achieving this flow state of performance is to train drivers to focus attention purely on the present in a task-based manner. This allows them to disregard any thoughts to prior performances or thinking ahead to possible outcomes, which can be detrimental to performance and take up valuable mental capacity in competition.

MP: Anything else you would like to add?

MS: Our overall aim is to make mental skills training financially accessible to drivers at all levels of motorsport and help everyone be the best driver that they can be, whether they aspire to reach top-level motorsport or simply become a good club racer. We feel strongly that participation in motorsport should remain fulfilling and enjoyable, whatever level the driver is competing at. Our cross-discipline work with high-level athletes across a wide variety of sports ensures we know what it takes to make sure you are as prepared to perform at your best ability in every session, at every race.

You can view the Motorsport Prospects listing for 130R Performance containing full contact information and social media links here.

Mark Boudreau
Author: Mark Boudreau

Mark is the publisher of Motorsport Prospects. As a former lawyer, he applies his legal background and research skills to assist race drivers by showcasing the resources they need to make their motorsport careers happen.

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