Last week in Part 1 of my interview with professional driver coach Ross Bentley we talked about the importance of the will to learn, doing “whatever it takes” and the value of doing your homework. You can read Part 1 here.
This week we continue our conversation and delve into things like the magic of braking, the importance of the mental game and the changing perception of driver coaches.
The importance of the mental game
Motorsport Prospects: What are some of the main areas you focus on in a typical session? Or is there a typical session?
Ross Bentley: I use the “whatever it takes” approach to the client’s needs. The one thing I do that is relatively unique is that I really look at the mental game. You know it’s interesting. I will ask drivers “what percentage of racing or performance driving is mental” and every driver responds with “more mental than it is physical”. That is not taking anything away from the physical training that a driver requires to be at the top of their game, especially in open wheel and prototype cars that have massive physical demands but even those drivers will go “part of the reason I go to the gym every single day is to make me mentally tougher.” And so, it’s the mental game and yet you get most drivers do very little on the mental game part of it is that they don’t know what to do. So for sure that’s a sweet spot in my coaching and it’s something that, because I came from a background with very little money, I needed to find my edge and the one thing that I could do since I couldn’t outspend anybody and I may not have been any smarter or talented than anybody else so the one thing I could do is dig down deeper into the mental game and use that as my edge and that’s what any of the success that I have had in my racing career was because mentally I have an edge.
So, getting to your question of is there a typical session I start out with, whenever possible I start off with a discussion that is kind of a foundation in terms of how we as drivers perform. Having that foundation then allows me to dig into anything from car set up to how to sense the limits of the car to why it’s important to have the right team around you to a drive technique like how you release the brake pedal because it all goes back to what is going on inside the helmet, inside the head. If a driver has that foundation then they buy into it, they are more committed to it and they have a better understanding and use it as a tool.
Utilizing a holistic approach
As much as I don’t like the term because it sounds all “new age” it is a holistic approach to driving. I look at it as a whole. What does it take to be successful in whatever type of driving or racing you are involved in. It is everything. It is the mental approach, the physical techniques, it’s the fitness and stamina, the engineering knowledge, the vehicle dynamics, the knowledge of the track, it’s the experience and being able to play through the various racecraft scenarios, the career building side of it the team part of it, all those things, it’s a big whole.
So if you were to call me to say “ I would like you to coach me” the first questions would be “tell me what are your strengths as a driver” “what are some of the areas you would like to improve” and if there was just one thing you could get out of coaching what would it be?
From there I can then start to dig into areas that we need to work on. If you said “I’m really fast but I don’t race really well I’m not good in traffic” ok, then I know where to work on. If you said “I just don’t learn tracks very quickly” ok that’s a different thing. Or “I don’t have a good feel for the car and what the car is doing so I can’t get it set up properly” that’s a different thing. If it’s “I have a difficult time maintaining focus and being focused on what I need to do in the car” That’s a different thing. If we have that foundation that we can work off of then we have the foundation, we can work from. It makes it a whole lot easier and way more productive.
Again, my job is helping a driver achieve the goals that they want in less time. It’s easy to say that you just need more seat time. Well seat time for the sake of driving around in circles or squiggly circles is pretty inefficient. As a coach part of my job is to strategize. When you look at the greatest coaches in whichever sport, I think they do two things better than the other coaches. One is they are better able to draw out the best performance in people. That’s kind of my sweet spot. The other is they strategize, they come up with practice drills and exercises and things to work on in little chunks that when they are put together, they perform better.
I use an analogy all the time of if football teams or hockey teams or basketball teams, if they practiced the way most race drivers practiced, they would just show up for a practice a play a game because that is what most race drivers do. They show up and they drive around and they try to put the whole thing together as a whole but what do those teams do? The do drills, they do passing drills or running or skating drills or shooting drills, they break the game down into little chunks, practice those and then put them together. So, part of what I do as a coach is I figure out ways to just go and find ways to work on this one tiny part of driving right now, then we will work on this then we will work on this. It could be a driving technique, it could be a mental thing, it could be a car set up thing and, in the process, when you put it all together the driver performs better in less time.
The changing perception of using a driver coach
The interesting thing about driver coaches is that a lot of drivers don’t use them because they see the process as almost a weakness and drivers don’t want to admit that. That’s changed and is changing. When I started coaching, when I switched from instructing to coaching in the mid-nineties, 15-20 years ago there were almost no coaches. Now if you go to a junior formula event most drivers will have coaches. And in certain series you see a lot of coaches so they have become a lot more acceptable and there is less of this message of “you have a coach then you must be weak” but that still exists to a certain extent at the upper levels of the sport.
It is interesting because I know a lot of pro drivers who have a coach, but they don’t call them a coach. They are a spotter, or they are a friend. I know drivers who have somebody who goes with them to every single race and the team refers to them as “so and so’s friend.” But you know that at the end of the day they go off quietly somewhere and the person is coaching them. It’s almost a macho thing. It is changing and it will continue to change and one day very soon somebody is going to stand on the podium at the end of the Indy 500 or Monaco or Le Mans and stand up there and say “I really want to thank the team and my sponsors and my coach so and so.” At that point it will become even more acceptable. It’s almost like, who is the person brave enough to do that because they are out there!
Evaluating a driver coach
MP: How does a driver or parent evaluate a potential driver coach?
RB: The first thing is fit. For some people, the connection between how they communicate and the common goals with a coach and all that kind of stuff makes for a better fit. The problem with that is it’s hard to tell whether you fit until you actually start to work together. Obviously having those conversations and talking about what the goals and objectives are and your approach and all of that kind of stuff, that’s going to help you narrow it down to “this could fit” but then I would say certainly don’t walk up to a coach and say “I would like to hire you for the next two years, here’s a contract.” Try a coach out and see how the fit is. I think that is part of it.
Part of it also depends on the driver’s needs. Some coaches are very, very good with video and data analysis and if all the driver really needs is somebody to help them interpret that and analyze that and review that with them then that could be a good fit. If that same driver also needed more on the mental approach or how to build a team and the career part of it and all that kind of stuff but the coach is just focused on “let me show you the video and the data” in that case the needs don’t match. That is certainly a part of it.
Certainly, look at the results the coach has had so far but look at that with a grain of salt because some coaches have a different approach to their coaching and the clients that they work with. There are some coaches who are fantastic coaches and they choose to work with, and they love the challenge of working with drivers who are maybe not necessarily going to win a lot of races. There are other coaches who are very, very selective about who they coach because all they care about is getting the result. One is not better than the other It’s just a different kind of thing. So, you kind of need to look at the results in a couple of different ways. Results could be “Did they win? Did they win a championship?” Or the results could be, “Did they consistently improve?” If they were a back of the pack driver and they moved to the middle of the pack, that might be just as good a coach as somebody who’s got drivers that are winning.
The other part of it is I think and I have to be careful as to how I say this because I don’t want somebody to take it the wrong way, but there are a lot of coaches, people who call themselves coaches who are really just under-employed race drivers and the reason they are coaching is to be close to the track and close to their next ride or drive. I think if you really want the best coaching, you want somebody who is committed to being a professional coach. And there are coaches out there who don’t care whether they are going to drive again. What the priority to them is that the drivers they work with improve and perform better. That to me is a professional coach as opposed to a coach who does it on the side, seeing that they have an off weekend so “let me go to the track with you and coach you and I will hop in the car and show you a lap then you can see the data and video and copy me.”
So, if a parent asks me who should I hire as a coach for my son or daughter, I would say hire a professional coach who is committed to the career and profession of coaching.
Should you talk to former students?
That goes to the results part of it. If you talk to previous students, previous drivers they will be able to tell you a lot in terms of “did this coach help you improve?” “How did this coach work with you?” “What areas did they work with you on the most?” If you have the opportunity to talk to somebody essentially that is akin to getting references. Any coach who is a real coach, I mean if somebody called me and said, “I’m interested in hiring you to coach me can you give me some of your references?” I would be more than happy to say, “call these drivers.” The downside of this is like any job interview they are not likely going to give bad references, people who don’t think highly of them or who fired them. Maybe you’re better off doing your own homework and finding out who they have worked with in the past. You just have to be careful and use common sense.
MP: You write extensively with your Speed Secrets series and eBooks, you have a podcast and you are all over social media. How does this all contribute to your overall goal of teaching performance to drivers?
RB: The best place for people to connect with me and see what I have to offer is at SpeedSecrets.com. All my social media links are there and you can get information on everything from my coaching services, books, the podcast and everything else I have to offer. It is all part of my mission to do whatever it takes to teach drivers how to achieve their motorsport potential.
Underestimating what it takes off the track
MP: What is the one thing in your experience that new drivers underestimate when they start racing as far as technique?
RB: The first thing that popped to mind that was not necessarily a technique thing but the area they underestimate the most is actually how much effort this takes off the track. A lot of drivers think “I just get on the track and I drive” and they work on the technique part of it and the skills part of it, but you know it is the work off the track that they underestimate the most. And when I say work, it’s not a bad job! It’s not like digging ditches or picking up garbage! It’s going to the gym and getting fit; it’s working on vision and reaction time and training and exercises. Its working on the mental game doing mental imagery and visualization, its studying data and video and understanding the engineering and car set up and vehicle dynamics. So, I would say the area that they most underestimate is that “work”.
The magical art of braking
Once you are on track, I think the fine detail in terms of the technique that most drivers underestimate is braking, but not where most people think. Most drivers think that braking is all about how late I can start braking and how late and hard I can get on the brakes. It’s actually the other end of the brake zone that matters the most and where the real finesse happens.
When drivers ask me “what is the secret, what is that trick that a Lewis Hamilton and whomever your favourite driver is, what is that they do in the car that makes them so good consistently?”
Their line is pretty much the same as everybody else’s. Where they get on the throttle coming out of the corner is pretty much the same as everybody else’s. Where they begin braking is pretty much the same as everybody else aside from some subtle little differences. But where the biggest difference lies is from the turn in point to the apex and that is where the driver is releasing the brake pedal and balancing the car so that they are able to carry 1 mile an hour more into the corner and do it in a way that allows them to actually get the full throttle just a fraction of a second earlier than everybody else. People will look at it and say well they are getting into the throttle earlier, yes but why? It is because of what they did when they released the brake pedal. That’s where the magic is, that is where all the magic is.
Having the right mindset
For sure the devil is in the details, but you know I can’t tell you the number of drivers who I have coached through the years who at one point will go “Oh I get it! It’s the brakes that make you fast!” And again, not from the “how late and how hard I can get on the brakes.” When that big “a ha!” realization happens with a driver from a technique perspective, they really start to drive. Obviously if a driver’s mind set, if their confidence, if their openness, their open mindedness and their ability to visualize at speed, if all of that mental game part of it is not there, they will never be able to do the right stuff with the brakes.
I guess maybe the other thing I think is what drivers underestimate the power is of what they have in their brain, in their head. It’s what they are able to do in terms of tweaking their mind in a good way. Our brains are very plastic. There’s this whole area in neuroscience called neuro-plasticity and it’s the ability of our brains to morph, to change and to constantly be reprogrammed, deprogrammed and reprogrammed. Our brains are amazing tools and I think a lot of drivers just think well, I’m, just going to get in the car and step on the gas harder and turn the wheel and step on the brake hard. If you put the time and effort into the mental game, you will be miles ahead of everybody else.
Really wanting it
The mental game is so important. If you said to me “I don’t think I can do that” my response to you would be “then you are right” because if you think you can’t, you can’t.
The other one that I get all the time is when people ask me what do I do and you always hate to answer race car driver because people tend to go off on weird tangents like “how fast does the car go” and things like that but a lot of people will go “I have always wanted to do that” and there is a side of me that wants to but I have never actually said it but I have been really tempted to respond by saying “no you haven’t”. Because if you really, really wanted to you would have. That’s the difference between those who do this and do it well is that they do it! They don’t sit around saying “geez I wish I had that opportunity; gee I wish I got an opportunity to race for that team gee I wish …” No, the best drivers hustle, they work their butt off and they do what it takes to get there.
There are all kinds of examples of drivers who came from very, very modest to less than modest backgrounds who have made it. Most people look at racing and go “oh you just have to be rich” well look at the starting field of the Indy 500. How many of those drivers came from an extremely wealthy background? I bet you that you will find that very few of them actually did. Most came from modest financial backgrounds; some had a little bit more that got them their start but some of them started with absolutely nothing. The thing that made the difference and to why they are driving at the Indy 500 is because they worked their butt off to get there.
Know the value of your worth
There is always a way. I know some drivers who, because they came from very wealthy backgrounds and families, they never made it as a pro for a number of reasons. One is maybe they didn’t have that work ethic. But some of them with the work ethic got branded as a driver with money and people look at drivers like that and say, “I wish I was that way oh they are so lucky!” Well guess what, those drivers fight a different battle. They fight the battle of “oh they’ve got money let’s take from money from them” and they never get to the point of being a paid professional race driver. Some drivers say “I will trade for their problems” but the grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s too easy to take that road. That’s when I go “focus on your own performance and the results will look after themselves.”
Just having more money is not always the answer and that is the other reason. It might give you a head start but as I said it comes with a whole other host of issues. One of the best things you can do is you have to learn to say no. You have to be willing to sit out an entire season and not drive and say “I’m not bringing money” because at some point you need to set the stage and say “no I am no longer a paying driver; I get paid to drive.” It is not until you are willing to do that that become a true professional. Know the value of your worth.
MP: Anything more to add?
RB: Two things. When you are testing for a team, it is important to understand their feedback because sometimes a team will tell you what you want to hear. Since you are potentially writing a cheque, they may be very wary of telling you that “you are never going to make it” because they know that would jeopardize their chances of getting that cheque. Therefore, it is necessary to read between the lines as to what they are really saying.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to be willing to do the work. That is what will define whether you are successful or not and can make this a career.