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Chess at 100MPH

Motor racing is more than just being able to drive fast, it’s about consistency, preparation, strategy, mental stamina and more. Excelling at anything, at work or home, calls for these keystones.

When I started racing at 11 years old, I very quickly realised that I would need to deal with disappointment: being pushed off the circuit; not achieving my goals; and not being on the top step. These setbacks all called for mental resilience, not that I knew what that was at the time.

The resilience I developed from this young age helped me understand that life is bigger than that one moment, even though it may not seem like it at that time.

Despite the title, racing is more than just being fast, you need to have the ability to react to ever changing circumstances, with more than one opponent to consider in your strategy for passing them with the aim of winning. 

Almost all of the mind work is undertaken off the circuit. You know that there are drivers who will use different techniques to try and unsettle you. You blank that out.

Simulation runs help with getting the circuit imprinted into your sub-conscious. This is reinforced with quiet “visualisation” and “mindfulness”. The visualisation is not just of the circuit and racing around it, it is also thinking of opportunities and options, identifying how to make a move and what to do when this may not work, maximising the input of limited time on the track.

These techniques can drive areas where you need a focus into your subconsciousness. Combined with the mindfulness it creates “normality” in your sub-conscious freeing up space in the conscious brain for the out of the ordinary, sudden things. Lots of people have this sub-conscious operating state without realising, how many of you have driven home and not remembered what happened en route? It was your sub-conscious that got you there.

Meditation and yoga help to clear the mind, centre you and control your breathing. They can help to remove and block out the negative thoughts, keeping emotions in check, stop the mind wandering and train the sub-conscious to focus on the task in hand. 

I work on pressure training, created through artificial pressurised states. I develop an internal rhythm with that pressure state so that my mind learns to adapt to it, working and controlling it is all part of coping with pressure.

Fitness levels enhance the ability to control and stay focussed in the car as well as mental ability, so weights and cardiovascular workouts are part of my day to day life off the track.

You need to have continuous self-belief without being arrogant. Internalised self-proclamation and belief adds to your positive mental strength and wellbeing.

All of this preparation helps to free up space in your conscious mind to deal with the unknown variables in the multi-player chess game of the race.

At the race meeting elements of the above are recounted in my head, just to provide final preparation. I use music to help me focus and get my mind into the “zone” for the race before I head to the grid and get into the car.

With an installation over and before the lights come on, I sit there with the mind free and the car set up ready to go. Once the lights go red there is nothing else in my mind or vision, my sole focus is on them and my reaction time to get off the line.  

Lights out – “go go go” the brain kicks into the zone. I know what is coming up circuit-wise but not what may happen with the competition. There’s no adrenaline rush, whether on pole or at the back, as the mental training and control puts me into the right space and focus on the task in hand with no nerves. So begins the first move of the chess game, look at what is happening in front and behind, assess what others are doing and maybe thinking of doing, have no fear as to what may happen and make your move. You only know if you have it right when you get out of the corner. That’s why you need a clear mind as to the “normal” and a consciousness that is at its optimum for “out of the ordinary”.

Incidents happen, it’s racing. This is where the mental strength comes in. It’s happened, blank it out and keep a positive statement of mind focussed on what needs to happen next. What has happened is gone and consigned to history on that lap or maybe the whole race.

It may be worth a brief mental review as you approach the location again or more than likely only worth the analysis of what has happened to learn for the next race.

Matthew Cowley is a professional Racing Driver/Driver Coach – Mustang British GT4 Driver – and mental health champion at Shaw Mind