Sports psychologist Gavin Gough talks to Simon Stiel about how karters can turn their form around by mental coaching and how drivers up to and including F1 could benefit from driver coaching...
When and why did you get interested in the psychological aspect of motorsport?

Gavin Gough:
A lifelong interest in motorsport started when I was a child and the bug was in me from a very early age. I became very, very interested in Ayrton Senna watching him. I began to wonder why is this guy that much better than anybody else out there. I picked up a book on motorsport psychology and then I began to see where the answers lay. It was his application of his mental strength and his skills that produced a difference in him. At that time my son Phil was running a kart team and I begun to think about this a bit deeper in relation to his own drivers. That spurred me on to get myself qualified as a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Sports Practitioner and Sports Hypnosis practitioner.

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How did AlphaSport come about?

Gavin Gough:
AlphaSport is the child of that thought process and it came about in 2007 when I qualified. The A and the S are from Ayrton Senna. The Alpha comes from the alpha waves of the mind which are predominant during hypnosis and the Psychology comes from the application of the mind to the sport essentially. We just developed it from there.

Our first great success was with Alex Magee. Alex came to Phil and I as a thirteen year-old having never raced karts at MSA level. Three years later, he's club champion and one of the quickest drivers in the UK. Phil took him out to Spain in 2009 and he qualified fifth having never been there before. He won one heat having never ever seen the circuit before in his life. We just develop certain interventions and certain methods of driver training that give the driver the edge.
You have a particularly powerful influence since you're dealing with children who are still dependent on their parents and you're impacting on their lives outside motorsport. How do you deal with those obstacles?

Gavin Gough:
I don't see them as obstacles. It can be challenging and the reason for that is every son is his father's son and every son picks up certain characteristic traits of the parents. At times you are working with a parent. At times, the most challenging thing is working with a parent rather than with a child. Generally speaking, we've always found that when we work with kids and we're usually talking about ten to fifteen year olds, we find that what we teach them in mental skills for racing, they transfer into the rest of the kid's life. When the parent sees what's happening and see the benefits of what we teach, I think it gives them a reassurance that what we're doing is of help. It can help outside of the seat as well. My view is that the earlier race drivers learn these skills then the better they'll be not only as race drivers, the better they'll be as human beings.
One technique you specialise in is visualisation of the circuit before they visit it...

Gavin Gough:
Yeah, that's why Alex was so good when he went to Spain. We teach visualisation and mental rehearsal skills. What we do is in my view better than driving a simulator. The reason I say that is with visualisation and mental rehearsal, we're working with the unconscious mind. That's where the driver is working. When a driver is totally in the zone, he's working purely at the unconscious level. We work with the unconscious mind to create that relaxed state and that functioning of the unconscious. Let me illustrate it this way, if you walk into a darkened room in your own home and you reach out your arm to find the light switch, generally, without looking for it, your arm finds the light switch. It's imprinted into your unconscious and you know exactly where it is. We use the same technique in teaching a race driver mental rehearsal of a circuit he's never been to or a circuit he has been to. He gets there and he knows it intimately.
One talent of the racing driver is to use as little of the brain as possible, is that the object of mental rehearsal?

Gavin Gough:
Pretty much in terms of the conscious brain - the conscious mind is the driver's enemy really. Let me give an example. The driver is driving quite well, but he needs to find some more pace. If he begins to think about that consciously, and thinks push harder, push harder, push harder, he will begin to interrupt the unconscious processes. There is a tendency to outbrake himself or to leave his braking too late. We kind of imprint the circuit in the unconscious and allow the unconscious to do the job for him.
On the subject of simulators, there's iZone at Silverstone. They use them to reawaken memories of circuits, do you think that's the right approach?

Gavin Gough:
I work with iZone on GT Academy and I've been very impressed with it. I see what I do as working with iZone. In terms of the simulator the driver is working at the conscious level in my view. What I did with Jann Mardenborough and Bryan Heitkotter, in 2011, they did driver training in the simulator and I did the mental training with them later. Basically I back up what iZone do. When I go to a team or I talk with a driver coach, quite often I'm met with at best curiosity and at worst hostility. A lot of people see me as a threat to what they're doing. I complement what they do. For example, a driver coach is working with a driver who's having difficulty with a corner. The driver coach is looking at a conscious level: 'I want you to break a bit later in this corner and turn in earlier.' If the driver's unconscious mind is unhappy about doing that, it's not going to happen. What I can do with my interventions is take the driver through mentally rehearsing the change the driver coach wants him to implement. The idea is to create an environment in the driver's unconscious mind where he sees himself doing exactly what the driver coach wants him to do and as he's doing that, to feel very strong and feel confident.
It's important to keep that mind intact when other members of the team may not be performing well or something happens on the circuit that's not expected...

Gavin Gough:
It's coincidental you raise that point. Only last Sunday I had a phone call from one of my kart racers and he had just lost his head. On Saturday he was three-tenths off the pace and on Sunday morning he qualified well but he qualified three-tenths off the pace. During his first heat, the red mist came down and he drove into another driver. He phoned me and we went through a couple of interventions on the telephone. He went out and he led the final for a while and ultimately finished second, setting the fastest lap. They also made a couple of changes on the set-up but I got his mind back to where it needs to be.
As well as Magee who are the other karters that have turned their form around?

Gavin Gough:
There's Ben Willshire. There's a young lad called Chris Setterfield who's made some seriously strong moves forward. Rossano Bhandal, who went out to India to do the Force India Academy. He qualified second in Mumbai and in Goa, he couldn't get into the top twenty. Quite what went on there we're not really sure. Rossano's a class act, very strong mentally as well. Oli Myers comes to mind who's a class act. I've got a lot of time for Oli, lovely kid, lovely family and he's a super driver, an instinctive racer.
We see the FIA Driver Academy and Alex Wurz joining Williams as a driver coach, do you think your ways are getting more popular now?

Gavin Gough:
Yes. I hold Jackie Stewart in great esteem. For a number of years, I've heard Jackie Stewart say there's a lack of driver coaching in motorsport. Is it because motorsport is so macho, so hard-headed or people think you don't need it? Jackie Stewart recognises a need for driver coaches even at the level of F1. The drivers take physical fitness coaches, they take dieticians with them but very rarely do they take a mental coach with them. My view is, in NLP terms, what one person can do, the rest of us can learn to do, provided we've got the will to do it and we can create that will, by NLP techniques.

Another intervention we teach at AlphaSport is using the race helmet as a trigger to access the zone. Forgive me if I don't tell you precisely how we do that. We are human beings and we react to triggers, either positive or negative reactions. We use triggers to trigger positive feelings. We use the helmet to feel good and to feel a certain connection in the mind where you just let it happen, all the good stuff just flows.
And you feel this should be introduced in karting?

Gavin Gough:
Absolutely. I think what you learn as a child, the positives and the negatives, can be with you for a lifetime. In my book, when you teach these youngsters in karts these mental skills, those who are really serious, those who have got a chance to get all the way in motorsport, whether it'll be in GTs, Formula One or whatever, the earlier they learn the mental skills, then the better off they're going to be, the quicker drivers they'll be and the better feedback they'll produce, the more they'll feel the car.

We've been teaching about the lower vertebrae of the spine for three or four years. It's not only making the drivers aware of all these separate nerves that come up from the feet, through the backside into the spine and all come together in the spinal column and download into the unconscious. We teach them ways of actually feeling that and experiencing it in the unconscious mind through hypnosis and to visualise that happening. It's purely this seat of the pants thing. The more they can visualise it at the unconscious level then the stronger chance they have of actually utilising that. By doing that, they can intensify their feel of the kart or car working underneath them.

Oliver Rowland is a driver I rate very, very highly. I watched him at JICA in 2007 at PFI. His control of the kart was so fine that I had the idea that he's feeling the kart at that level. Because he's got that sensitivity at his lower vertebrae, when the kart begins to break loose, he's feeling that before it breaks loose and he's feeling that transition from full grip to minimum grip, he's making very tiny adjustments on the steering and on the throttle so the kart never actually breaks away. It always remains in that fine balance of traction and breakaway as Senna did. He was able to judge that fine balance of the kart and that's just a mental skill.
The remarkable thing is this isn't your full time job is it?

Gavin Gough:
It isn't yet. I retire in December this year and I'm going to carry on doing this. For one thing, it's given me another lease of life. It's just opened my world and I've found additional doors inside my mind. When I talk to a driver I say, 'All I do is open doors in your mind and let you see what's inside.' The same is when we're changing technique and I'm working with a driver. I'll ask him if he's got a problem with a corner. I'll take him through the intervention we use for changing technique and let him find the answers. One of the interesting things about human beings is we do not like being told what to do. So in NLP and hypnosis, we work with suggestion. If the individual produces the answer himself, then it's his answer, it's not mine. What I do is open the doors for him to find the answers and that works.

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by Simon Stiel