All In Your Head

As much as I enjoy the mechanical and on-track challenges of racing and car control, I have found mental challenges to be among the tallest hurdles of all. The longer I race and the more I read on the subject, the less I feel alone in that notion. Professional racers face those same mental challenges.

I recently stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix called “Journey to Le Mans,” the story of Jota Sport team during the 2014 European Le Mans racing season as it prepares for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If you are not familiar with Jota, it has prepared cars eight times for Le Mans, winning the LMP2 class, and taken podiums across six seasons of the Le Mans Series as well as in several American Le Mans Series events. What was perhaps most interesting to me was a comment in the film from team partner and driver Simon Dolan, who described how he felt the first time he drove onto Circuit de la Sarthe for the first time.

“When you’re going down the pit lane, you just don’t feel as if you belong there the first time,” Dolan said. “You feel like a fraud, really, and it’s massively intimidating. Maybe this is really the first year I feel as though I’ve earned my right to be here, and this is four years in.”

The feeling he described is so common it has a name: impostor syndrome. The term dates back to 1978 when clinical psychologist Pauline Clance and colleague Suzanne Imes published a paper in “Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice.” They were studying high-performing but internally anxious women who exhibited the symptoms. Subsequent research has found that about 70 percent of all people have succumbed to impostor syndrome for at least some part of their careers.

That notion of feeling like a fraud, of not belonging, surfaces again and again in the lives of people from all industries, be it entertainment, sports, business or even racing. I’ve felt it. Sitting on grid before my first race and even many times since, I’ve felt like a fraud. I’ve raced with National Champions, guys who have gone on to become Mazda Motorsports Development drivers, to race in Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA GT3 Cup. Do I really belong here?

If you’ve ever felt that way, it should be obvious by now that you’re not alone. It’s worth reiterating that it happens to 70 percent of the population. However, if you think about it for a moment, experiencing impostor syndrome is something positive.

If you’re uncomfortable, good. It doesn’t happen to people who are underemployed or to those who aren’t maximizing their potential. It means you are reaching for higher goals most people can’t or won’t pursue. “Impostor syndrome is a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment,” according to John Gravois’ 2007 paper in “Chronicle of Higher Education.”

That “cognitive distortion” means it’s just another mental hurdle for you to overcome. But how? The simple answer is fake it till you make it. The longer answer is a bit more complex, but you don’t fix it by quitting, or by selling your racecar.

Several columns ago, I talked about commodity theory, which essentially holds that you get out of something what you put into it. If you’re feeling like a fraud on grid, then prepare yourself better so you feel like you belong. Get more track time. Run enduros, double-dip in other classes. Get coaching. Do what it takes to feel comfortable in your own racing suit. Once you begin to run more like you think you should run, you will feel as though you belong.

But the truth is, it’s all in your head. You have belonged all along.

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