Like many other Netflix subscribers in recent years, I have become enamored with Formula One (F1) international racing, through the TV series, Drive to Survive.
Truth is, being in a car capable of going fast has always been in my blood. From owning a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 as my very first automobile to hitting nearly 200mph down a long straight on a track day in my Corvette a handful of years ago, I have always gravitated towards motorsports.
However, it’s not just in the going super fast part that gets my adrenaline going as much these days, or that which leaves me hanging on the edge of the seat as I watch the highly popular Netflix series (I couldn’t stop watching episode after episode of the recent release of Season 4).
Instead, it’s in the study of the various constraints on the emergence of behavior in F1 racing that truly fascinates me – the way(s) that we can see context-content come together – the numerous, component parts of a complex system, interacting in interdependent fashions, to channel the truly exceptional problem-solving on so many levels.
Obviously, the sport movement community is now well accustomed to me applying ecologically-centered ideas to investigate American football. Many are also familiar with how I’ve often applied these ideas to study interactions within mixed martial arts.
That said, F1 may be the most perfect platform for putting an ecological dynamics framework and rationale to the test. Thus, if you have yet to check out Drive to Survive, or if you’ve never watched an F1 race in its entirety, I would highly implore you to do so.
As a primer, check out this short trailer from the latest season of the show.
Also, for when you do, here is a short list of things to look out for, from an ecological dynamics perspective. Though this list is far from a comprehensive one, as every race presents its own unique constraints, coalescing in dynamic and emergent fashions, it should be enough to get you started as to what to watch for.
1. Mutual, reciprocal nature of constraints
Though I’ve already alluded to it above, seeing the self-organization involved on a number of levels of each team, through the interactions between members of the team, combined with the complex dynamics involved in each race between competitors across the various teams, should be obvious even before the lights go on at the starting grid.
Of course, this F1 racing experience is nothing like that which the average driver, in their average car, goes through, during an average ride. Even just look at the interplay between a driver and his car, interacting through the complexity present with their steering wheel (note: this is not only complex, but it’s also quite complicated in many drivers’ cases too).
Of course, within any sport, every event, and the various movement problems which make those events up, can differ dramatically and differ quite considerably. However, in F1 racing, when we say ‘no two problems are ever the same,’ we don’t have to start looking at these variable nuances through a microscope – instead, they are quite obvious to every observer.
On this note, I have become quite flabbergasted, that in a sport where the qualifying is often very important to race-day performance and success, that these qualification rounds take place when one is trying to get the fastest time around the track while all by themselves on the track just racing the clock (well, other cars may be going around the track at the same time, but ‘clean’ runs are those where one doesn’t have to truly navigate any other competing traffic). Like in other sports (most notably for me, running at the NFL Combine versus expressing game-speed during an NFL game), it’s quite apparent that those ‘race lines’ one took during the qualifying laps, and the way that both drivers and cars behave in unison, unfold quite differently during qualification rounds compared to that of an actual race with others.
2. Information-movement and perception-action coupling
To succeed, one must establish an authentic driver-car-track connection – or, the driver and the car behaving as one with one another as a functional behavioral unit of sorts – where this unit navigates the dynamic and complex problems of the challenging, chaotic environment it interacts with (including other cars going faster than any of us can even fathom). As a side note, I didn’t keep track of a tally for this, but each season, there were various references the drivers made to ‘becoming one with the car’ (aka they get it!).
One of my favorite parts of both the show, as well as the race-watching experience, is that they often take the viewer ‘on-board’ with various drivers throughout, to put us in the cockpit and driver’s seat while the individual weaves through and around traffic, accelerating, decelerating, and cornering in relation to the unfolding behaviors of one’s adversaries.
If you are someone who feels as though ideas of an ecological approach are hogwash (particularly direct perception and online control), and instead, you prefer to view the world through a more traditional, information processing/generalized motor program lens, I would challenge you to watch the above video and just try to explain how the behaviors could emerge through the mechanisms you propose to be at play in the control of one’s actions in the world (good luck!).
For me, it’s cool to hear the drivers speak to their crew as the race unfolds (over the radio), and just hear of their lived experiences, as well as how perceptually attuned (i.e., sensitive to) they become to the information (about the track and/or of other drivers) they are coupling their movements to.
It’s quite telling that when drivers need to be as locked in as possible (such as while under the most challenging of times during the race) they often will say something along the lines of “leave me to it”, “I’m switching on”, or “I’m stuck in now” to those attempting to deliver outside coaching to them during the race. For those coaching across sports, I believe there’s a tremendous lesson which exists there!
3. The smallest moments matter most
In a sport where literally fractions of a second separate the elite from the best of the rest (even the average pit stop for a F1 pit team is right around a measly 2 seconds), and where each place in a race outcome is truly worth millions of dollars, it’s intuitively obvious that every single moment matters greatly.
Margins for victory and success being small is not uncommon across sports, and every elite sport can be cutthroat, however, it seems as though F1 would rank at the very top of this type of list.
To illustrate, I encourage you to watch this on-board video compilation from the Monaco Grand Prix, the race widely regarded on the annual circuit as the most challenging and demanding for the drivers – this will hopefully allow us all to better appreciate how intense and complex the problems are that the drivers must routinely solve, moment-to-moment.
4. F1 drivers are SERIOUS athletes
A few weeks ago, I reached out to someone who shares my love for studying movement skill in sport, to encourage them to consider watching the new season of Drive to Survive. The individual replied something along the lines of, “I get that the drivers are skillful in their own right, but I prefer to watch sports which require more athleticism.”
Needless to say, I was more than a little taken back. Sure, on the very tip of the surface, one would think that all these guys have to do is get in the car and drive. I mean, c’mon, most of us drive cars on a daily basis…and if that many of us can do it, what makes these drivers so special? Isn’t it just about building a car that is capable of going faster than one’s peers, getting in, hitting the gas, and controlling the steering wheel?!
Obviously, there is WAY more to all of it than this!
One glance at these guys going around the track, battling one another as well as the conditions, makes it very clear that racing at these very highest levels, truly requires tremendous physical preparation (mental and emotional too, of course).
Thus, it’s encouraging (when watching the Netflix series) how seriously each driver takes their personal approaches to performance enhancement – with each training diligently, employing their own performance staff member(s), and working relentlessly on the specifics needed for them to excel – they routinely place this preparation at the forefront of their endeavors as much as, if not more than, other elite athletes I spend time around.
So, let’s not get it twisted: F1 drivers ARE serious athletes. And to take this even further, they are the most serious of perceivers and behavers (cue J.J. Gibson, 1979). These drivers must be turned on and tuned in AT ALL TIMES…or they will not only NOT be successful, but they will be in grave danger.
These guys are crammed in a tight car for approximately 100 minutes at a time, regularly experiencing and battling up to 6 G’s, routinely reaching speeds of 200+ miles per hour, where they cannot afford to have even a momentary lack of perceptual sensitivity or judgment. This unique combination makes the study of how they interact with the problems in their sporting world, an absolutely worthwhile endeavor.
5. Adaptability wins
Contrary to popular belief across many within the public, F1 doesn’t just race under perfect race conditions. Instead, as displayed in this exceptionally cool video below, it can be pouring rain, and the driver will need to be prepared to not only survive, but also thrive under these conditions and the situations they bring (talk about dexterity!).
To add to that, key performance inhibitors like pressure, anxiety, fatigue, unpredictability, and threat, are constantly interacting at their peak, every single time you get in a race car of this magnitude.
Thus, like in many other sport endeavors, the world’s most skillful F1 drivers often end up being the world’s best adapters.
Obviously, if you really get stuck in yourself, to either the series or an individual race, there will be other things that speak directly to you. I believe that these observations can truly help change how you see the world in your own respective sport if you let them!
Does the study of complex, dynamical systems fascinate you as much as it does me? Do you want to understand how movement behaviors emerge under constraints? Are you trying to apply an ecological approach to how you see the world and facilitate more skilled movement behavior for the athletes that you work with?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, you absolutely need to consider picking up our flagship course, UNDERPINNINGS.
In that course, we cover everything related to an ecological dynamics framework – pointing to the most pertinent ideas from the rationale, to enable us to see skilled behavior in the world more comprehensively.
Shawn is the Co-Director of Education & Co-Founder of Emergence. He developed content for the educational brand, Movement Mastery, from 2014 till the formation of Emergence, with the sole purpose of helping to enable a deeper understanding of the processes involved in the acquisition of more masterful movement for athletes in sport. Shawn has served primarily as a Personal Performance Advisor & Movement Skill Acquisition Coach for National Football League (NFL) players since 2008, working with approximately 12 players each year.
As a race engineer (aka pseudo driver coach) who’s very new to the ecological approach to skill acquisition, I very much enjoyed this article.
I think you touched on a lot of the key areas for race driver performance.
There’s so much in classic driver training that is about memorizing braking points & hammering on about repetition.
But in my experience, the drivers that are at the very top often operate much more on an intuitive level. And they have incredible adaptability for changing grip levels, wind conditions, etc.
And then we take engineers and have them act as coaches for these elite athletes. There’s clearly a skill gap & real potential to do this better.