Mental Training in Motor Sports:
Psychological Consulting for Racecar Drivers in Japan
Applied Sport Psychology & Mental Training Lab
The Japanese sports world has a longstanding tradition of using a mentoring style of coaching where the coaches train their athletes in the same manner in which they were trained. This coaching style is a reflection of traditional Japanese cultural disciplines such as martial arts, religious practices, music, fine arts and crafts as well as tea and flower ceremonies where the master would teach the apprentice the skills and techniques that were imparted to them from previous masters who lived ages ago. In sports, this coaching legacy cycle repeats over and over again through the years as the athlete becomes the coach and the time-honored training practices are passed down to a new generation of athletes. These training practices are so culturally ingrained into the sport that the use of any other method is often considered to be a show of disrespect towards the tradition of the sport. This attitude towards implementing new ideas and methods hold true for both traditional Japanese sports as well as for sports introduced from the West. With such strong traditional and cultural beliefs firmly in place, it is often difficult to introduce innovative sports science methods to Japanese coaches and athletes.
In addition to the cultural barriers mentioned above, there are also personal obstacles. With easy access to rapid global information, Japanese athletes and coaches now have the ability to study and gather information of successful training practices from around the world. Even with this information, those involved in the Japanese sports world are still divided on whether or not new scientific methods or ideas should be implemented or even be tried. There are times when some athletes are willing to utilize new methods that may lead them to performance enhancement, but their coaches may be wary of introducing an unfamiliar new training method because it goes against tradition. By the same token, it is also possible for the coaches to be willing to seek new practical solutions for improving athletic performances, while the athletes themselves are unwilling to cooperate in a new training method that defies the tradition of the sport. Facilitating new training methods based on science becomes a daunting task because both the coaches and the athletes have preconceived notions of the types of training that are necessary or important. Unfortunately, these set ideas often hinder their ability to look beyond tradition and culture. Once in a while, however, there comes a time when both the coaches and the athletes are willing to seek new training methods that is considered to be completely outside of the realm of that particular sport. This transformative moment happened in Japan for the sport of motor racing.
In 2005, the major Japanese automobile manufacturing companies of Honda, Nissan and Toyota banded together to establish a project called Formula Challenge Japan (FCJ). The purpose of this project is to cultivate talented young racecar drivers to eventually compete at the world level through a progression of different racing categories starting with a newly initiated junior formula race circuit category. Promising young drivers from ages 16-26 who are Japanese kart-racing champions are tested and selected to participate in this innovative program. Once in the program, the young drivers are mentored and coached by racing advisers. The role of the racing adviser is to help support and train the young drivers to become world-class racers. Even though the goal is to have the racecar drivers compete at an international level, the motor sport field in Japan also fosters the same pattern of the traditional Japanese training approach in order to train their young drivers. Namely, the racing advisers use the techniques and psychological factors from their own experiences as racecar drivers to train and teach the new crop of drivers.
Shortly after the start of this young driver’s program, I was contacted by one of the FCJ racing advisers. Upon reading a book that I wrote called “Mental Training Program for Athletes” (Kozuma, 2002), which introduces a step-by-step mental training program for performance enhancement to athletes, the racing adviser called to let me know that he was opened to the idea of using mental training as a component of the young driver’s training program. The adviser was a past champion of the 24 hour Le Mans race in France and felt that mental training could be an effective tool in Formula 1 (F1) racing. I was asked to be the sport psychology consultant for his team of young drivers.
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