Mental conditioning is as important as physical conditioning. Training your mind is as crucial for success on the race track as conditioning the body. In this interview I speak to Carlos Salum of Salum International about the concept of “Peak Performance” and why it is so crucial to the success of a race car driver.
Motorsport Prospects: I have interviewed a few people on the Motorsport Prospects blog about the importance of physical conditioning and how maintaining top physical shape enhances your productivity in the cockpit. But you are more focused on the mental aspect of sport. How did you get involved in this side of sport training?
Carlos Salum: I studied Medicine in Argentina for several years, dropped out, moved to the USA in 1985 and embraced my role as a professional tennis coach. I had the fortune to assist sport psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr in the creation of his international speaking tours, which led to a productive collaboration at the most renowned tennis academies in the world. After the Grand Slam victories of several of our clients in the early 1990s, we transitioned into corporate training and consulting. At the request of friends in the international private banking industry, I formed my own consulting company and trained executives on the principles of winning in sports (mental toughness) applied to winning in business.
Over the past two decades, I’ve continued to coach world-class athletes while consulting senior leaders and multinational corporations. Past tennis relationships connected me with the grandsons of Emerson Fittipaldi. I’ve had the privilege to train Pietro Fittipaldi prior to his conquest of the 2017 World Championship in Formula Renault V8 3.5, all through his IndyCar races, his terrible accident at Spa in Belgium, his recovery and I continue assisting him in his current role as Formula One test pilot for Team Haas. I also trained his brother Enzo during his epic conquest of the Formula 4 Italian Championship in 2018 and continue as his mental training coach as Formula 3 driver for Team Prema and the Ferrari Development Academy in Maranello.
MP: Your key concept is becoming a “peak performer.” What is the definition of peak performance?
CS: Peak Performance is the ability to consistently access your Ideal Performance State (High Positive Emotions), on demand, under pressure. Peak Performance is a learned skill, is the result of training. A Peak Performer is a flexible, versatile, creative and resilient thinker. Peak Performers in sports – and particularly drivers – become “solutions designers” under pressure, considering the enormous amount of factors and variables during a race.
MP: Obstacles are a major part of high-level sport and you give examples of using the “challenge response” and a “Mental Toughness Protocol” to help deal with this. How does a driver build such a protocol?
CS: There are four ways of responding to competitive pressure: Withdrawal (abandoning the fight); Anger (assigning blame); Choking (fear or paralysis by analysis) and The Challenge Response (the most desirable and the result of training). The Mental Toughness Training protocol aligns the Physical Factors with the Emotional Factors to produce High Positive Emotions that allow the driver to operate in The Ideal Performance State (IPS). Drivers access their IPS on cue, on demand and under pressure by training specific ways of Thinking, Feeling and Acting and developing Rituals. Although there are proven patterns that help most drivers create powerful IPS Rituals, I personalize the approach for each driver’s personality, preferences, developmental stage, skills set, racing calendar and aspirations.
MP: Pressure it would seem would be the enemy of all top line athletes. “Choking” under pressure would seem to be one of the toughest challenges that any athlete has to confront. How does an athlete condition themselves from performing their best under pressure?
CS: Choking is a painful experience and sometimes the athlete has trouble understanding “why” it happens. As a coach, I see it as a sign that the athlete is fighting, cares about the outcome, but has not yet fully developed a set of alternatives to win which have been tested under pressure. When you introduce pressure in a system, you can check where it breaks down. Choking is a sign that the athlete’s training is ready to mature to the next level, but the execution under pressure has to become confident, automatic, efficient – and yet allow for alternatives, variations and even creative approaches. Fear and paralysis by analysis are the result of not being able to “win before you win,” to anticipate in your mind what needs to happen, how it needs to happen and why.
MP: Peak performers constantly challenge themselves to be the best that they can be so that they can become peak performers. Without giving away any secrets, what general rules apply to this mental aspect to competition?
CS: The general rule is “gradual adaptation to pressure in a variety of situations that leads to becoming a confident fighter.” In tennis, we train players in mini-games, gradually increasing the pressure until the player masters any challenge. In driving, you can establish stepping stones that lead to increasing adaptation to pressure and complexity as well. For example, I often discuss how my drivers decide to overtake, what their thinking process is and when they make the decision to execute. Not overtaking at the opportune time can be costly, but overtaking at the wrong time or doing it improperly can cost even more. The conditioning process incorporates the intellectual knowledge and understanding of the geometry and physics of overtaking, the visualization in minute detail, the simulation (off-track, with software, and even with role-playing), the on-track practice under different conditions and the improvement of the timing during racing situations. Video-analysis and expert feedback provide the external verification to continue refining the skill set until is mastered under all types of pressure situations, taking into consideration risks and safety.
MP: At Salum International you design Peak Performance Blueprints for your clients. How does this work? What is required of the athlete once they contact you? What kind of time scale is involved?
CS: On every engagement, I consider the client’s situation, obstacles, skill level and competitive aspirations. I assist the client in defining what would be a major Breakthrough and what the steps to get there. This involves understanding their level of performance and the perceived obstacles. The time scale depends on the competitive objectives, the training patterns and the racing calendar. To obtain results it’s important to set S.M.A.R.T. Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound). One key aspect of mental toughness training is that “we manage Energy rather than Time.” It’s more important to consolidate what’s strategically right for the competitive lifetime of the driver (to become an athlete and a Peak Performer) than to conform to elusive timelines. Pietro and Enzo Fittipaldi became Champions because we first focused on becoming Mentally Tough and Confident Fighters, then on the specific approach to win the Championship.
MP: Aside from one on one consultation, do you offer anything to the driver community at large as far as seminars?
CS: I’m prepared to deliver seminars and workshops for drivers, teams, parents, organizations and sponsors on-demand, whenever it might be convenient.
MP: Any closing thoughts on the importance of mental conditioning to a high-end athlete?
CS: The most important aspect of mental toughness training is to become the author of your success. Learning to love challenges and becoming a masterful solutions designer is useful for all high-end athletes. Understanding how to design your Breakthrough at every stage of your competitive life and how to sustain your Ideal Performance State are your capital, the alignment of your knowledge, skills, attitudes and rituals.
MP: How would somebody get in touch with you to find out more about your services?
You can also see my listing on Motorsport Prospects here.