‘Psychology on the Limit’: Sports Psychology in Motor Sport

subaru_wrx_sti_rally_jump_wallpaperTravelling at over one hundred miles per hour, Sport Psychologist and co-driver Rupert Barker, and his driver David, hit a big crest, launching their rally car into the air. As the car lands it skids from right to left and right again, with David struggling to regain control … but the harder David tries to correct the skid, the worse it becomes, veering from one side of the course to the other, with ditches and trees inviting damaging and dangerous contact. At this point Rupert and David have no time to dwell on fearing for their lives as overlearned thoughts and behaviours control their destiny. The car finally gets back on the track after about 100 metres, with Rupert stopping himself from distracting his driver whilst control is regained but then issuing the pace-note call for a looming tight chicane, interspersed with hasty encouragement for the driver’s efforts … “Well held!”

In reviewing what went through their minds, and linking it with other driver’s experiences, Rupert revealed a process model of change that he uses to train drivers to rapidly cope with extreme, and potentially life-threatening, incidents in competition. Derived from original work on loss (Kubler-Ross and others), the transition curve develops understanding of the phases of individual response to change – denial (this isn’t happening!’), resistance (‘this isn’t like me!’), steps to recovery (‘what needs to be done?’) and refinement (later actions based on self and external encouragement). With experience and psychological development coaching, this change process can be significantly ‘compressed’ into the extremely short time frame needed to avert a crash – detailed incident analysis comes later, as the crew work to understand the causes and make changes to their preparation routines to guard against it happening again.

‘Psychology on the Limit’ by Rupert Barker in Exeter was a fascinating review of his experiences and applied examples of how psychologists need to be a good ‘fit’ with the motor sport culture to work in the dynamic environment of elite sport, from entry level to World Class and beyond. In becoming a top driver, a wide range of demands progressively increase and personal pressure rises. The main focus in performance development is three-fold: outcome, performance and process goals. An outcome goal might be an event or championship ranking, a performance goal could be specific lap times and the process goals (usually the most important starting point for specific coaching) e.g. the fastest line out of a corner, are the ‘building-blocks’ that merge to achieve the other goals. Accurate and balanced cognitive appraisal when reviewing progress is also vital, especially with individuals who perceive themselves as worse, or occasionally better, than their actual performance. Realistic goals need to be coupled to realistic reviews.

Rupert also discussed situational exposure techniques for injured competitors, creating an habituation programme to re-develop confidence and performance routines, as well as decreasing post-accident anxiety. The way back from injury, both physical and psychological, after a crash is to eventually ‘get back on the horse’ … or in this instance, back in the driver’s seat … but this needs to be done methodically, safely and in a planned manner, rebuilding the skills that enhance process goals that will lead to regaining optimal performance.

Written for The Psychologist, reviewing Psychology on the Limit by Rupert Barker.

Written by Jon Rhodes