When coaching high-performance drivers on a racetrack, you encounter a variety of skillsets, decision-making abilities, and fear patterns—all moving at high speed.
Driver mistakes are sudden and expensive.
When leading employees in a high-performance company, you encounter a variety of skillsets, decision-making abilities, and fear patterns—all moving at high speed.
Employee mistakes are also sudden and expensive.
Here’s the interesting part…
The things that work in coaching high-performance drivers are the same strategies that are effective in high-speed work environments. See if you notice the parallels:
1. Learn to shut your mouth when the driver is taking the corner.
For drivers to learn to increase their speed, they have to learn to take corners—fast. Of course, this is also where drivers lose control and slam into walls.
Advise the driver before they get to the corner. In the corner, the driver’s brain is fully absorbed in the task—and splitting their attention radically increases cognitive load. This can result in drivers freezing in indecision, or overcompensating and losing control. In a high-pressure situation, our brains can’t process extra input, so when the driver is in a high-pressure moment adding data is a terrible idea.
If you need to say something, simple words of encouragement can help the process. Yeah. Awesome. That was it. You’ve got it! It rewards the driver without coaching them to do anything different.
2. Ignore the corner behind you.
Once a driver is out of the corner and onto the next corner, don’t talk about the corner behind.
When moving at high speed, the next corner is coming up quickly. A coach can’t waste time or divide the driver’s attention on what has already passed. To repeat the famous quote: “There is a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror.” Focus on coaching the next steps. Save the debrief for when you are off the track.
3. You usually don’t have to tell the driver what they did wrong.
Most of the time, repeating a litany of mistakes is unhelpful. Once a coach is off the track, often you only need the question: “Do you know what you did wrong there?”
The driver will usually repeat everything you were going to tell them, and because they are the ones generating the information, they will own it. If the driver doesn’t know, then you have the opportunity to interject some wisdom, but most of the time, they have it covered. Close the conversation by asking for their intended strategies for the next time they go on track.
4. People can only follow 1-2 instructions at a time.
When a coach gets on the racetrack with a driver, they have to deliberately limit the amount of instruction they are going to give. If you give the driver six things to fix—they cannot do it.
“Working memory” is where we store information used to plan and carry out behavior—but it can only hold so much at a time: 4-8 chunks of information. And the holding time can be as short as six seconds. Scientific Americanreports that working memory is the gateway into long-term storage, but the information has to be rehearsed to get there. The best driving coaches help drivers improve one skill at a time. A data dump of information rarely changes behavior.
5. Help the driver remember to set their eyes on where they are going.
The most important thing in high-performance driving is to learn to look far ahead of the car. The next few feet are irrelevant as your trajectory has already been set a while back, it’s the corner ahead and the one after that which matter.
In Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, Chapter 17 starts with a single sentence: “Your car goes where your eyes go.” If you want to go faster, you have to learn to look far ahead.” This takes practice and frequent reminders.
6. Tell people what to do. Never what not to do.
Coaches of all sports have long known that it’s difficult for athletes to act on the word “don’t.” It has to do with the way the brain processes visuals. If a coach tells a driver, “don’t go off track,” the mental picture is of the car going off the track.
Visualization is an important tool in helping people improve performance. The way we structure our sentences matters. Tell people the actions you want them to take, so they can visualize the successful action. “Brake early and lightly. Carry speed through the corner. Be smooth with it.” The driver can mentally see it, which makes the instruction much more effective.
7. Use a pre-race checklist to get everyone’s head in the right place.
Racing is not about instinct. It’s about preparation. Every time we get in the car, there is a “preflight check.” Atul Gawande, in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, shares that there are two types of checklists: a READ-DO checklist where people carry out the things on the list and check them off—like a recipe; or a DO-CONFIRM checklist, where people perform their jobs from experience, then then pause to run the checklist to confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done.
As a coach, you are experienced and could survive a DO-CONFIRM list. But a less experienced driver likely needs the prompt of the READ-DO list. It creates preparation, increases the feeling of safety, and trains them how to think about themselves and the car before pulling onto the track.
8. People can only adjust performance when they feel safe.
When coaching high-speed driving, inevitably, drivers go off track with the coach right there in the passenger seat. It is incredibly important for the coach to remain calm, because if the coach freaks out, the driver will never get faster or will quit entirely.
Fear prevents the brain from learning. We’ve all experienced it. When fear grips us, our survival instinct kicks in. Our brain becomes consumed with whether to fight, flight or freeze overriding the logical centers in our prefrontal cortex. It is the coach’s job to ensure drivers are safe not only in reality, but that they also feel safe.
Dr. Paul Castle in the Psychology of Motorsport Success, writes,”Your perception of the challenge is therefore vital in controlling the level of cognitive anxiety that you experience. If you lose it in your head, your body will tense up, this information will feed back into your head, and you will interpret it in a negative way. A vicious spiral then emerges and a so-called ‘catastrophe’ will ensue.”
The coach has the power to prevent this spiral by controlling their reactions in a tense situation. If the coach is relaxed, the driver will relax.
9. Coach to the driver.
The thing about coaching—both in racing and in life—is that it isn’t the driver’s job to make communication clear.
It is the coach’s—which becomes an art in assessing people quickly.
In about four minutes, with a few questions, you will know if you are working with a CPA, engineer, HR director, or surgeon. With some basic information on how people are wired, you can tailor your communication and coach accordingly.
The temptation as a coach is to play to your own ego unloading all of your knowledge and skill—however, that isn’t useful. You achieve nothing. Every word has to be tailored to that particular driver.
Did you see yourself in the advice above?
Driving at high speed is a risky endeavor, but then so is leading any team in a high-pressure environment. The stakes are high when you deal with people’s livelihood, managing resources, and investing in human capital for long term success.
By applying the coaching strategies above to your context at work, you can improve your people-leading skills immediately. It just takes a little bit of understanding on how people process information, and a willingness to get out there and practice.