Racing certainly has its ups and downs, and unfortunately sometimes those downs can really take a toll on you—not only financially, but also mentally. It’s important to learn from your mistakes and bounce back stronger. Here’s a unique perspective from a coaching client of mine.

He had a situation arise at Road Atlanta recently, and the following are his thoughts on how he’s going to move forward from it. I thought it was very accurate and I like the logical path he recommends. It’s worth sharing because I hope you can take these great words of advice and apply them if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Crash, Recover, Drive!

A phrase often heard around the paddock is there are two types of drivers, those that have hit the wall and those that are going to hit the wall. This message addresses those that have hit, and offers a prescription for repairing the psychological side of the incident: the driver.

What most drivers hear from their coach or track friends is that they should jump back in a car as quickly as possible and put the incident behind them. While this might be the perfect medicine for the professional, for most amateurs this is not always possible. Time, finances and a car that needs repair are often constraints. Many amateurs only get to the track every 4 to 8 weeks, which is a long time to second guess oneself and dwell on what happened. And as we all know, focusing on the negatives eventually leads to a loss of confidence and being tentative on track.

So what are the amateurs to do? How do they address their psyche? Much like a race weekend or upcoming track day, one needs a plan, one that is well thought out, actionable and addresses all aspects of the trauma including the mental, physical and structural sides. Like any other recovery from a major traumatic event, there are steps to this plan and it is important to go through each one to come out on the other side feeling as strong as you did immediately prior to the event. This plan is about building a better you, a more confident and capable driver that picks up where they left off.

Step 1: Accept and Analyze
Without a doubt the day of the incident is tough. There is the ride back to the track medical facility, which is a terrible way to leave a track, the checkup by the medical staff and dealing with a few minor pains (hopefully nothing more serious). Perhaps the worst part of the day is that long walk back to your paddock space where bent metal and the long faces of your friends await. It feels like everyone is looking at you. No one wants to be you and most are afraid to talk to you.

Facing this brutal day however is an important step toward your recovery. Sure you need to figure out what to do with the car, and for some it means figuring out how to get home. In the midst of all the new plans and decisions to make now that you no longer have a car, you also need to figure out what happened and why. This is the best time to pull your data, review the video, ask questions of witnesses and reflect on why what happened did. Don’t be afraid to ask others what they saw or if they have video. Like any investigation collect the facts, write them down and formulate a hypothesis on why. Go over this theory with anyone you trust, especially a professional if one is around. Most pros have seen it all and are more than happy to share their experience and opinion on what happened.

Leave the track with a clear head and an understanding of the situation. Don’t place blame or second-guess as that only prolongs the healing process.

Step 2: Mourn at Race Speeds
That night and the next day are going to be anything but fun. A range of emotions sweep in and take over your typical logical thought process. You might question your talent or wonder why you ever got into the sport in the first place. You may even think about quitting. This is expected, and like going through a death of someone close, you want to embrace the pain. If you want to have a pity party, this is the time to do so. Just don’t stay here too long.

Soon you want to stop dwelling on what happened and move on to what you are going to do about it; corner exit speed matters. Think about being in that tight, slow corner just prior to the longest straight on the track. Just like that corner, you want to maximize exit speed out of the depression phase and move on to the next. Many professional athletes have a 24-hour rule where it is OK to be depressed after a loss, but only for a day. This is a hard rule to follow for the amateur when the next track day is weeks or more away, and as a result negative thoughts and feelings can linger for days or even weeks and months. This is a very unhealthy place to be and can affect ones performance the next time on track. Steps 3 and 4 are the answer for making sure you put the power down and leave this phase behind.

Step 3: Circle the Date
The addiction to the sport is strong and many of us live from track date to track date. When we finish one weekend we often plan the next. It is what we look forward to. As McQueen said, racing is life; anything that happens before or after is just waiting. If this sounds like you, then pull out those event calendars, find the next date that works for your schedule and then start working on the track day plan.

Ideally you want a date where you can take your car back to the track where you had the incident, and do so on a weekend that is free of work and life stress. While not essential, going back to the scene will help you to face your demons, deal with any lingering PTSD and ultimately rebuild your confidence. And building confidence is the final step to putting the incident in the rearview mirror.

Step 4: Punish the Track
Now that the track day has finally arrived, it is time to demonstrate what you know you can do. The purpose of this weekend is to sort the car of any rebuild issues, refresh your skills, get your confidence level back to where it was and most importantly have fun!

As you have plenty of time, don’t be in a hurry to set your fastest time. Follow a progressive plan that might look something like this:

  • Start with a track walk to get up close to where it happened and take a moment to reflect on what you learned about the incident and yourself; face what you have been through.
  • Refresh your mind on the goals of the day and your plan to accomplish them.
  • In session one feel the car and sort out any open issues. Now is not the time to drive at limit as any lingering mechanical issues could land you right back at square 1.
  • In session two focus on awareness by being in tune with your senses. Pick a couple of your favorite corners and challenge them to build your confidence.
  • Finally, use the rest of the time to just drive the car. Forget about it all and take what the car will give you. It is OK to not set your fastest time as long as you are driving to your standard. Laps should be consistent, smooth and free of mistakes.

By the end of the day you want to be fully recovered, you want to be better than ever. After all, you just developed a new muscle you never had before, which is the internal strength to learn from and overcome a major setback.

See you at the track.