Performance and State of Mind: Lessons Learnt from Sports

In this post, we slightly sidetrack from Project Management, so we hope you see this as a nice distraction.
I once read a quote that said: “All I ever needed to know in life, I learned from sports”. At the time, I categorized it as “interesting but for no immediate use”. However, in light of recent experience, I think it deserves a spit and polish.

We can interpret this quote in many ways, and Google is firstly vague about its origins and secondly tells us there seems to be a lot of satire attached to it. But still, from own experience, I believe it contains a fair amount of truth.

I am not a competitive person; as a matter of fact I am probably the epitome of non-competitiveness. There is one exception however: until I step into a race kart. Here’s why:
I started go-karting, or simply karting, about 8 years ago, at the ripe young age of 45. In racing terms, that is about 40 years too late if I ever wanted to reach a serious competitive level. It had been a life-long dream that had always been pushed aside by more urgent and important things: starting a business, marriage, parenthood, building a house. But with these minor compulsions finally out of the way, I bought my first kart and started driving. I had previously enjoyed doing stints in rental karts, and the calculations I tabled to the powers that be in order to justify this expenditure, showed that it would be cheaper in the long run to own a kart.

So, my intention was to drive, not to race. But as anyone could have predicted, this became boring very, very quickly. So I entered my first race.

Luc-Bauwmans-Vice-President-Kart-RacingI clearly recall driving onto the track from the formation grid for the first time, at the back of the pack of course, thinking:  “Wow, this is it, this is my first race”. After being a race aficionado for 25 years or so from my TV room couch, I was finally in a race seat.
My first few years were a humbling experience. From the trackside, never having tried, it looks easy. “Yeah, I can do that” resounds in one’s head. I even thought that I would be a front runner, if not a winner, after six months.

Truth is, even with this simplest form of motor racing, there are many, many things to know. About driving as well as setting up the kart. And information is dear. When asking around or reading up on performance improvement, everyone is wary about sharing. Sometimes people just lie, while other times information is correct but simply doesn’t work for someone else. Setup should be in function of equipment, track conditions and driving style. In turn, driving style is then adjusted to make the most of the package in a particular heat. It is not a positive science. Setting up and racing are very intuitive, and a lot of gut-feel decisions are made. The real trick is to remove chance as much as possible and become consistent.
It is not unusual when talking to racing drivers on race day that one says: “I went 3 tenths faster because I put more pressure in the tyres” while another tells you the opposite, and neither is lying. There are perhaps 20 or 30 individual settings on a kart, but the thing is one has to find the combination that works best. And combinations run in the millions. Add to that the track conditions, which change literally race by race, even though they are only one hour apart, and one starts getting a glimpse of this black art.
It took me 4 years to win my first race. That was a great boost, as I had started to wonder if I would ever taste victory, no matter how small. At the end of that day I ended second overall, and the trophy I won has a special place, not just in the trophy cabinet, but in my heart. “I can win” had not been a convincing phrase in my vocabulary until then. Now it had gained substance.
When getting out of bed at 5 am on race day, I sometimes wonder what keeps me going, and always arrive at the same conclusion: I am learning something new every time I step into the kart; I enjoy competing in a sport that I am good at, and I get tremendous satisfaction out of a good race day. But most importantly, the confidence that I can be the best on the day has done wonders for me. What makes it really great is that I can use all this experience and pass it on to my son.
Of course one also learns to deal with painful and costly failure, but mostly I am solely to blame for these. On one occasion a silly mistake like not cleaning the needle seat in the carburettor may have cost me a race win, and in retrospect perhaps even a championship. After this particular occurrence Giuliani’s words “sweat the small stuff” and “prepare relentlessly” have taken on a whole new meaning.
I am slowly starting to learn something else, something important. I am starting to see that, all things being equal, performance is strongly influenced by state of mind. A quiet mind masters the biggest challenges. Samurai spent days meditating before going into battle.  We each need to find our own ways to find our quiet mind.
The quiet mind will engage instinctive action, action too fast for conscious thought. I believe all top performances originate from the subconscious. A split-second overtaking move in a motor race, a lightning reaction on the tennis court, an impossible save by a goal keeper… I have no doubt that they are all executed by the subconscious mind. But this instinctive action is made possible only by years of relentless and boring, repetitive training.
This is reflected in sayings like: “the harder I work, the luckier I get” and the incredible apparent ease with which champions apply their trade. Otherwise said: they have reached “simplicity on the far end of complexity”.

That is the secret, not just in sports, but in life. In a next blog I will try and explore how these principles could help us improve performance in organisations.

Tags: processes, sport, learning