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Sport Psychology and Formula 1

Having just returned from a trip to watch the Formula one in Spa, Belgium, I thought I’d write about the effectiveness of sport psychology within F1. The pressure and speed that the drivers have to make decisions at mean that mentally the drivers have to be at top form - with the added risk of death if they make a mistake!

In 2014, Mercedes F1 ream employed a renowned sport psychologist to work with their drivers. However, Lewis Hamilton refused to work with the sport psychologist stating ‘I’ve never had it, never needed it and will never have it. So, we’ll never speak of it again unless I start going crazy.’ This brings up the age-old stigma of not wanting to work with a psychologist because it’s a sign you are mentally unwell or ‘crazy.’ Hamilton went on to win the F1 championships that year.

However, there have also been cases of F1 drivers who have utilised sport psychologists. Sir Jackie Stewart (arguably one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time) revealed that for him ‘the mind is everything.’ He describes that all F1 champions have a gift, yet the ones who take it to another level (Schumacher, Lauda, Senna) get their mentally: ‘it’s always the head that took them there.’ Stewart was perhaps before his time with his recognition of the importance of having the mental edge within sport.

More and more F1 drivers are utilising the help of sport psychologists (despite Hamilton’s view). French driver, Roman Grosjean, has been using a sport psychologist since 2012 after crashing early on in a few races In 2016, he said that seeing a psychologist has helped him becoming ‘a better driver, a better father and a better man.’ Grosjean also went on to say that ‘we use engineers to set-up the car and we use coaches to improve our physical performance. Why wouldn’t you use a psychologist to improve your brain and the way it works?’ This is a stark contrast to Hamilton’s opinion that one should only seek the help of a sport psychologist if you are ‘crazy.’

Felipe Massa is another example of a driver who has utilised the help of a sport psychologist. In 2012, he was struggling after a run of poor performance, finishing only 4 times in the top 10. After seeking the help of a sport psychologist, Massa then went on to post 10 consecutive top 10 finishes including 2 podium finishes. This ultimately saved his career with Ferrari.

There are also a number of drivers who don’t work with a sport psychologist, yet use some of the principles within sport psychology to help them. The most common one is building mental strength to be able to bounce back after a poor performance, which Michael Schumacher describes as ‘building the character that is learnt from karting.’ Daniel Ricciardo talks about trying to ‘control your breathing’ at the start line in order to get the best start possible. He also states that if ‘you’ve got self-belief… that’s all the psychology you need.’

With all that in mind, it will be interesting to monitor the situation in the future to see if more F1 teams do employ sport psychologists or if more and more drivers come forward to work with a sport psychologist to give them a mental edge over the rest of the drivers on the grid.

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