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Sim Racing - Free your mind and the rest will follow
This article will attempt to describe how practice and mental preparation can lead to positive results in the virtual world of sim racing. Especially if you can eliminate the voices in your head whilst racing. Free your mind, keep the “mind monkey” at bay and prosper.

I think everyone is familiar with the expression practice makes perfect, especially if you are an experienced sim racer. You can't just jump into a car, join a race and expect to be competitive, unless you are fortunate and the opposition are weak. To be competitive and improve you need to practice meticulously, so that when you enter a race, not only are you ready to race, but you can drive without thinking.

At first the “drive without thinking” statement sounds somewhat preposterous, but if you have practised enough, you will know your braking points like the back of your hand, so there will be no need to think “where do I brake?” Instincts take over. This will leave your mind to deal with the more important aspects of racing - race craft. You can't race properly and purposefully unless you have the basics, like braking and turn in points memorised. Once they have been repeated and practised enough they will become natural and like second nature to you. If you don't have the basics down, your mind will start to play tricks on you and you'll start to second guess yourself.

For this reason when I practice, personally I am practising for consistency. If you can't lay down lap times that are similar over the course of a race then you probably haven't practised enough. However, more importantly, by laying down lap after lap of the same time/speed you get into a rhythm, which in turn allows you to get “into the zone”. Consistent laps times and getting in the zone are especially helpful when racing – which is what we are practising for – as it allows you to free your mind from the mundane and concentrate on race craft, whether it be defending your position or challenging someone ahead of you. With these situations in mind I like to use practice sessions to ready myself for all race situations. I will run with race fuel, to get used to how the car feels whilst burning fuel and also because if I get into a battle, either defensive or offensive whilst on track, the ensuing battle won't end due to a lack of fuel. There is nothing worse than getting into an intense on-track battle for it to end early due to running out of gas. However, throughout my practising I am not looking for raw pace, if it is there or it appears I won't complain, but what I am looking for is to be consistent. The rhythmic aspect of consistent driving and being in the zone also allows your mind to almost tune out, which increases your chances of keeping the “mind monkey” at bay when you enter a race.

Video clip: Back 2 Back identical lap times at iRacing.

Once you've practised enough – if such a thing is actually possible – next comes mental preparation. I don't mean you need to mediate for an hour before a race or anything like that, what I mean is that when you practice there is no real pressure. You are learning what you can and can't do. You may come up against other drivers, you may not, but what practice doesn't teach you is how you deal and cope with pressure and mind games, your own mind games, known as the “mind monkey”. When you race, your mind will most likely be your biggest enemy or competitor. Being mentally alert is vital. If you let your guard down for a second, bad things can and probably will happen. If you are driving well and in a nice zone, the worst thing you can do is let your mind start thinking, “I'm driving well here” or, “I took that corner really well” because next lap, you'll be slightly too confident and make an error, or your general driving will deteriorate and it will be hard to get back into the zone. Free your mind, is the best advice I can give, trust in yourself and your actions and let your sub-conscious take over, that is why you have been practising.

For me mental preparation is to try to rid the race of emotions, you can reflect on those afterwards. If you can strip the emotions away, you won't get angry or annoyed with other drivers, which will in turn help to keep your concentration. Be confident in your own ability, knowing what your limit is from your participated practice. Always try and remain positive, because anything can happen in a race. Always remain mentally alert and remain calm under pressure, panicking will not help in any situation. Improving these qualities will boost your performance level of consistency; this in turn will boost your ability to maintain focus on the track and ignore your “mind monkey”.

The thoughts that go through your mind whilst racing, in your sub-conscious I have heard referred to as the “mind monkey”. The mind can jump from thought to thought and then linger on one specific thought – sometimes positive, sometimes negative - similar to how a monkey swings from tree to tree, then rests. The idea of the “mind monkey” comes from Buddhism. Learning to recognise this thought process and dealing with it, will help you to become a better driver in my opinion. If you can train your mind to “not think” this should help alleviate the “mind monkey” mentality and let you perform at your best.

The “mind monkey” works internally, talking to you, saying things like, “don't brake too late here” and then as you think this, you brake too late. This tends to happen because the absolute minimum time to do anything that requires conscious intervention is 200 milliseconds (0.2 seconds). This is called reaction time and is very consistent, varying only from about 160ms to 250ms among various individuals. This helps to explain the reason why when your “mind monkey” tells you not to do something whilst sim racing, due to your speed on the virtual track, invariably what you are trying to avoid will occur.

I spoke to a sim racing friend of mine to check that I wasn't the only person who had conversations with my “mind monkey”. Thankfully, it isn't just me. He described the situation of driving and thinking for a split second, “OK, turn 13, brake at 75 metres, 3rd gear. Don't mess this up, or the car behind/infront will gain the advantage.” Because he has thought of this, when he hits Turn 13 it will never go as planned. The “mind monkey” pops in to say, “Hello”. You miss the brakes by a fraction of a second, you run in slightly too deep because of this, missing the apex. The car is not turning, you can not get on the power soon enough... you lose time... you hear the monkey sniggering, “told you not to mess it up!” However, if you hit Turn 13 without thinking, everything works out fine, no problem. This is why practice not only makes perfect, but it allows you the confidence to let your instincts take over, get in the zone and keeps the “mind monkey” at bay.

I have referred to racecraft throughout this article. An example of this would be when driving around another virtual driver I use what could be described as “Jedi mind games”. I use the power of (the) force to make the car I'm battling with, do what I want them to do, rather than letting them dictate to me. Through practice I know where I want and need my car to be positioned on the track, therefore my aim is to make the other pilot do what I want them to do. My intention is to make them place their car on the outside, when they need to be on the inside, or alternatively give them the option to take the inside, when I want the outside of the track. I want to interfere with their thought pattern, making them have to re-evaluate their options or forcing them into a mistake or taking the incorrect line. This seems like defensive driving but I think this falls into another category of racecraft. This technique can be very effective around multiple cars or whilst battling through traffic, especially if you are battling a car in your class in a multi-class race. However, this is quite an advanced driving technique which needs to be honed over time and requires very good situational awareness, otherwise good intentions can have disastrous consequences.

Video clip: Using defensive positioning to dictate to the car behind where they can or can't go.

When you tune your sim racing car it helps to get the best out of it performance wise to suit your driving style. In a similar vein, after you've tuned your car, remember to tune your mind. Concentrate on trying not to think, use the power of your mind and resist the voices of doubt in your head. Manage your mind, quieten the mind. Concentrate on what you have worked on in practice sessions to let your natural instincts take over, it is surprising how effective your natural instincts and gut reaction are.

Some sim racers struggle to produce the same speed in a race as they can in a practice session. This leads me to believe that pressure and the “mind monkey” combine to cause this reaction. Competitive driving is not just about natural ability it is also about mind management, which is something that I believe is quite often either overlooked or not really spoken about. Hopefully these words may resonate with you and allow you to manage you mind better, by “not thinking” and letting your instincts take over. This should allow you to perform at your best. It may not happen over night, but if you know what you have to deal with, it is a lot easier than being in the dark on the subject.

Good luck on the virtual track.

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