Visualisation methods have long been used in sport psychology to help professional athletes stay at the top of their game.
Their specialist methods of coping with stressful situations are now entering the mainstream as more people recognise how small changes can make big differences to their lives, especially in an increasingly digital world.
In the past, testing the effectiveness of these mental training techniques has proved tricky, which is why Ford Performance, the motorsport branch of the US car maker, has teamed up with King’s College London and tech partner, UNIT9, to carry out a pioneering study that will explore the brain as the next frontier in performance.
The research is designed to investigate how people can boost their mental performance in everyday life using the visualisation and mental training techniques favoured by Ford racing drivers.
“We are living in a complex society where we cannot easily just take a break, so a mental training technique can open up a way for us to keep healthy in an efficient way,” explains Yates Buckley of UNIT9. “Ultimately, we aim to build a strong enough argument in numbers to encourage everyone to address their stress with mental techniques.”
Performance under pressure is an essential skill, so the results of the study will be relevant to everyone – whether they are a professional driver gearing up for their next race, or simply someone trying to deal with the hectic pace of everyday life.
While mental training techniques, such as mindfulness, can have long-term benefits for both physical wellbeing and mental health, its ability to enable us to ‘live in the moment’ and focus on the task at hand is what makes it especially relevant for professional drivers who have to make split-second decisions under incredible stress.
“When an athlete or driver needs to move beyond their core performance they need to expand their perception and tune into subtle sensory signals to try to find the ones that matter,” explains Dr Elias Mouchlianitis of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, who is designing the experiment.
“They also need to expand their library of performance; they need to learn new exercises that are completely different from the main driving task but that help discover those factors that make a difference.”
Numerous racing drivers, including three-time World Touring Car winner Andy Priaulx, have spoken of how mental training has helped them reach the podium.
Priaulx now combines meditation with mindfulness, and he reckons this has helped him become more aware of his performance and where he needs to improve.
“Before, I had never won a circuit race,” explains Priaulx. “The following year, I won 13 races out of 13 from pole position. I’ve given myself these tools to play with and it’s helped me become a more complete package.”
And while professional athletes have access to specialist training facilities, some of the mental training techniques they use can be practised by anyone, whenever they can grab a moment to themselves – whether that’s on the train, during a lunch break or just before bed. It is hoped that the new research will tell us more about how we can all perform better under pressure by measuring the effectiveness of these techniques.
“Ultimately, more than half of the performance skill of any athlete is coming from the mind, not from their physical shape,” says Dr Mouchlianitis.
Titled “The Psychology of Performance”, the Ford Performance-backed study will look at exactly how the body reacts to mental preparation.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) headset will be used to measure the electrical brain activity of a group of participants, which will include Ford Performance drivers along with members of the public. The test subjects will then go through virtual reality driving challenges and utilise a Ford driving simulator, where their reaction and concentration times will be measured.
The new study will look at the difference in performance between participants who have carried out set mental training techniques and those who have had no preparation for the test. It is hoped that the results will highlight measurable ways that mental training and meditation can help all of us with self-improvement.
It carries on Ford’s tradition of exploring new areas in car technology and driving techniques that not only apply to professional drivers, but can also be expanded to make everyone safer on the roads and help us to cope better in other areas of our lives.
The company aims to continue to collaborate with scientists, makers and creators to push the boundaries of innovation, and will complete the study in November 2017.
Want to find out how racing driver psychology can help you boost your brain power? Check in with us in November to find out the results of the study.