Never Underestimate The Confidence Factor

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Listen to any former athlete that had even moderate success in any sport, and they will tell you that success is not determined solely by the amount of talent possessed by an athlete – it’s also what is going on between the ears of said athlete. Granted, any athlete must have a certain level of talent to even be in the arena – but it is the mental makeup that separates those that achieve great success and those that fall short. Mental makeup can include maturity, work ethic, unselfishness and discipline. Also included is perhaps the biggest ingredient of mental makeup: confidence.

This applies to racecar drivers, as well. Give a driver a shot of confidence and he or she can drive the wheels off of a car. Shake that confidence, and they can hardly make it out of the pits. This has never been more evident than this season, with two drivers in particular – Simona de Silvestro and Pippa Mann. It just so happens that these two are also two of my favorite young drivers throughout the paddock. That’s not because they are female or currently sit in the role of underdog. No – it’s the way they carry themselves off the track.

Both of these drivers are talented – I don’t think many question that. But both are suddenly suffering from a serious lack of confidence when they climb into the cockpit of their respective cars.

Actually, Simona’s is not that sudden. Her confidence level has been non-existent ever since her fiery crash in practice this past May for the Indianapolis 500. Last year, she seemed to shake off another combustible experience at Texas, when her cockpit was engulfed in flames as the Holmatro Safety Team stood helplessly as their firefighting equipment failed. Her interviews immediately after being released from the Infield Care Center showed an unflappable driver that seemingly laughed off the entire incident. She showed no signs of hesitation at the following race at Iowa, although she was driving the older and slower car that the team had as a backup. She soldiered on throughout the season, earning a couple of top ten finishes and finishing nineteenth in points.

Simona de Silvestro was brimming with confidence as the 2011 season began. Why shouldn’t she? She was coming off of a promising rookie campaign. She obviously knew how to win – she had done so three times in the Atlantic Series. In the season opener at St. Petersburg, she made some aggressive moves that paid off with a fourth place finish. She followed that with a ninth place finish at Barber. Things cooled off at Long Beach and São Paulo, where she placed twentieth at each event.

Then came Indianapolis. I’ve seen a lot of crashes at the Speedway over the years. Simona’s is not the worst I’ve seen, but it’s up there. To have something break in the rear of your newer, faster car and suddenly send you into the wall has to be completely unnerving. To have the car go airborne and land upside down has to be even more terrifying. To have the fuel cell rupture and surround you with burning ethanol while you are trapped underneath the car – well, I cannot even imagine.

With bandaged hands, she somehow found the courage to crawl into that older, slower car – the one put together by the same crew that provided her with the car that broke two days earlier – and put it into the field for the Indianapolis 500. Saddled with a slower car and third-degree burns of her hands, no one expected much from Simona that day. She brushed the wall on the opening lap and mercifully parked her car on Lap forty-four.

Although she managed a tenth place finish in the melee at Toronto and placed twelfth at Mid-Ohio, she’s been pretty much invisible this summer. On the IMS Radio Network broadcast during qualifying at New Hampshire, she admitted to Jake Query that the problem has not been the car, but the driver. She candidly admitted that her confidence level is at pretty much an all-time low.

Shift now to Pippa Mann. If you follow Pippa on Twitter or read her blogs on Racer.com, you know how much she was looking forward to getting back into a car for the first time since Indianapolis. She and her new Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team tested a few weeks earlier at New Hampshire and she and the team left that test session feeling like they were prepared to have a good race weekend. Such was not the case, as she struggled with getting the feel for the car all weekend.

During Thursday’s practice, she spun without hitting anything in the first session. She wasn’t quite so lucky in the second session as she spun again coming off of Turn Two and did slight damage to the car. During Saturday’s practice, she again spun coming off of Turn Two. This time she did heavy damage to the car and herself – as she ended up being hospitalized. Later this week she was diagnosed with an end-plate fracture of the C7 vertebrae. Fortunately, it looks as if she will be back in the car at her next scheduled race at Kentucky.

Her tweets and blog indicate just how quickly her confidence had evaporated – and it translated to the lack of results on the track. To her credit – like Simona – Pippa didn’t blame the car. She blamed herself for failing to learn the proper feel for the car.

Confidence is everything – no matter if you’re talking motor racing, sports, business or anything. If you’ve convinced yourself you may not be able to do something – guess what? You won’t.

Just in case it appears that I’m picking on those that have suffered confidence issues; I’ll add this personal revelation – I know the feeling. In the spring of 1990, I was a cocky thirty-one year old attending a sales-training course in Chicago for the large corporation that employed me at the time. I had been in the workforce for several years. I had experience in public speaking before groups, and never thought twice about it. Then one day in this seminar, we were divided in groups to present topics to the rest of our class of about fifty people. I wasn’t nervous beforehand, but when I stood up to present my portion – I inexplicably froze. I got a few sentences out before I felt my throat closing up and my knees weakening. All I knew was that if I didn’t sit down quickly and loosen my tie – I would soon be on the floor. Fortunately, my team picked up my slack as I sat there shaking with sweat pouring off my brow.

To this day, I don’t know what happened that day – but it haunted me for years. Afterwards, anytime I found out that I would have to present something to a large group – I would panic. All I could think about was “…what if it happens again?” I would be so worried that I would ultimately botch the presentation. I had gone from someone who was a better than average public speaker to someone who was a train wreck in front of a crowd.

Then about ten or twelve years ago, I was in a position that required me to make regular presentations. It was up to me to exorcise those demons once and for all, or else find a new line of work. I struggled through it and finally have gotten to the point that I don’t really think about it anymore. Today, I’m required to give presentations once or twice a week – and after over twenty years, I’ve now gotten to the point where it finally seems natural again.

It was all a matter of confidence. I still don’t know what made me freeze that day, but I allowed it to creep into my head and affect me every time I tried to speak. Pippa Mann will probably tell you she doesn’t know why she couldn’t get a feel for the car, but once she got that thought in her head, her weekend went from bad to worse until she landed in the hospital. Simona de Silvestro still cannot shake what happened that Thursday afternoon at Indianapolis, when she landed in an upside-down inferno.

One things is certain, long after Pippa’s body heals – she needs to clear her mind before she climbs back into the car at Kentucky. Whatever was affecting her confidence at New Hampshire will likely follow her to whatever track she drives on. I think she will. Pippa Mann seems to be level-headed enough to figure out what went wrong at New Hampshire. Simona may be a little less likely to get things straight in her mind. There are very few people who can deal with being trapped in a burning racecar – fewer still that can deal with it twice within a year and come out of it without questioning your chosen profession. It is common knowledge that the biggest fear of AJ Foyt – who I consider one of the bravest man to ever climb into a car – was fire in a racecar.

It took me years to recover from that day in Chicago, before I could effectively speak before a crowd. The good thing was that the worst thing that faced me if I didn’t overcome it; was that people might laugh at me. The consequences for a driver making a mistake due to their lack of confidence are just a little more serious than being laughed at.

If Pippa Mann or Simona de Silvestro can somehow work through their issues and regain their previous swagger, the fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series will be the ones to benefit. Everyone has different levels of confidence at various points of their lives. Sometimes it’s as easy as making yourself do something unpleasant one time before realizing it was all in their head. At other times, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Here’s to hoping that both of these drivers get their confidence levels back to their talent levels.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Never Underestimate The Confidence Factor”

  1. The inclusion of tough, talented female drivers like Simona De Silvestro is important to the future of Indycar. I hope she’s still willing and able to compete at a high level.

  2. carburetor Says:

    I too, think both of these drivers can be extremely valuable to Indycar in helping build awareness of the series and bring new fans to the sport. I think Pippa will eventually be okay–I trust Rahal will work with her to rebuild her confidence and improve. Sadly,I believe that Simona will take much longer, if ever, to really come back. Her on-camera interview at Indy revealed genuine fear and uncertainty about driving–something drivers rarely reveal in such an open forum. I think for her to do so, revealed just how shaken, and skeptical she is about this profession. Undoubtedly, it would help her if her team, and car, was much better.

    • I worry about Simona’s–understandable–reluctance, because she a favorite of mine.

      You gotta be seriously crazy to race these cars and she seems way too sane lately.

  3. Mann just hasnt driven the car enough. She should get better if she gets seat time which seems to be an issue.

    IMS can be cruel. Totally Ruined Simona’s year. If Uncle Bernie thinks you are talented enough for F1 than you got “It.”. She will be back running well, hopfully on a better team.

  4. I’m impressed that Simona and Pippa are as candid as they are about their confidence problems. There is no attempt to macho their way through interviews and such. It takes a kind of guts to openly admit it. My heart aches for Simona especially. I want her to do well and be happy.

    It seems to me that Simona doesn’t have a confidence problem in general; she has a confidence problem on ovals. It’s all about the wall.

    • I have to agree with you, Roger …from what I’ve seen and heard her say since Indy, Simona’s confidence problem DOES seem to be limited to ovals. That’s good in a way, because by continuing to do well (relatively speaking, considering her crummy car and barely average pit crew) on the “twisties”, her confidence should eventually begin to spill over when she’s on an oval.

  5. Pippa showed me her mettle at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Put her in a good car with a good team and we would see a more copetitive driver. As for Simona, those early season crashes have taken their toll on her. She needs to regroup, but how does a young and upcoming race car driver find the time to regroup?

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