Category: Performance Psychology

Inside the Helmet of Extreme Sports: The Psychology of Auto Racing

Published May 17, 2017

Tami Eggleston photo

By Tami Eggleston
McKendree University

Tami J. Eggleston has a Ph.D. in psychology from Iowa State University and is a professor and associate dean at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois. She is an AASP Certified Consultant. Dr. Eggleston will work with any athlete or performer regardless of sport, however, her unique specialty area is auto racing and drag racing. She and her husband campaign a rear-engine dragster. She and her husband have over twenty-five years of racing experience to combine with her sport psychology training. She has contributed to a variety of auto racing publications on the psychology of auto racing.


When most people think of sports, they think of traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, American football, soccer, etc. When people think of sport psychology, they often think of these same sports plus Olympic disciplines such as gymnastics, track, and swimming, etc. For me however, when I think of sports, I think of auto racing. I grew up with my dad at the drag strips in Iowa and then married a drag racer. For the last twenty-five years my husband has driven a rear engine dragster in NHRA classes and I have been the pit crew. As a professor of psychology at McKendree University and an AASP certified consultant, I have been able to identify unique aspects of the sport psychology in auto racing. Many of these aspects are not completely unique to auto racing, and when I work with bowlers, equestrians, and gymnasts we are able to talk about some similarities.

Below is a brief glimpse inside the helmet of auto racers, and specifically those who participate in drag racing. It is my hope that this brief summary will be beneficial to athletes involved in extreme sports and consultants who may work with these athletes.

  1. The first aspect that is essential for understanding auto racing psychology is the difference in practice time. Auto racing is expensive and auto racers have little practice opportunity. Unlike a sport such as basketball, auto racers don’t have the option for hours in the gym practicing their sport. Most racers don’t have the time, money, equipment, or location to practice very much, in fact, many will be allowed only a few time trials or practice laps and then have to be ready for competition. This means that auto racers must take their practices extremely seriously. The old adage of “practice like you play” is essential. In addition, racers may be more likely to need to use visualization or simulators. Many auto racers use various simulators (e.g., practice reaction time equipment) to help with their practice. If racers tried to adhere to the “10,000 hour rule” that states you need that many hours to be world-class in any field (Gladwell, 2008), then they would have to use visualization and simulators.
  2. In auto racing, like in sports such as gymnastics, there is very little room for error. In some sports there are chances to make a mistake and recover and move on, whereas in auto racing a small mistake will likely make you lose or even worse cause an accident. In drag racing, drivers have to react to a light at the start and a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing – consequently reaction times are critical. Losing by such small margins can also be difficult on an athlete and can lead to burnout, especially if they focus entirely on winning (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). Working with auto racers (and other athletes) who can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by consultants, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
  3. In most sports, there is some degree of danger and risk of injury. In gymnasts, equestrians, and auto racers, the risk of injury is almost always present. Once again, this risk needs to clearly be identified and discussed. Most athletes are keenly aware of this potential for injury. Discussions about safety precautions, avoiding unnecessary risks, handling emergency situations, mentally preparing for injury, and simply acknowledging that the rewards of the sport outweigh the potentially negative outcomes are essential for racers.
  4. In auto racing, there is a partnership between the car and the driver. For those who are not “car people” this anthropomorphism of the car may seem unusual. I recently posted this question on a sport psychology list serve and this anthropomorphism does happen in other sports such as sailing and even with some golfers and their special clubs. However, there is a particularly strong bond between most racers and their cars; they may talk about their car in terms of their partner, and will say things such as “She (the car) was perfect tonight” or “The Old Nova really got it done today!” Auto racers rightfully understand that they have a mechanical partner who will help them to win or lead them to lose. This partnership may seem odd to those outside of the sport, but the feeling toward a car may seem similar to that of the love equestrians have to their horse or the respect tennis players have with their doubles partner. An athlete and consultant may want to be aware of what they can control or can’t control with this mechanical partner and ensure that proper attributions are being made. It is doubtful that a car “has a mind of her own” and intentionally wants to lose (although it sure feels like it sometimes!).
  5. Finally, some fascinating things about auto racing are the family dynamic, age and gender desegregation, and the lifelong participation aspect of the sport. Some of the best auto racers come from a long line of auto racing, while many of the pit crew are dads, brothers, wives, children, family, and friends. This is particularly true at the non-professional level. At race tracks, entire families attend the events together. Additionally, in auto racing, men and women compete directly with one another, meaning there is no separation in competition by gender. Finally, racers can start in different classes as young as 8 years old and very successful drivers can race to 70 years old. In auto racing, it is not unusual to find people who have been participating in the sport over 50 years! Once again, most classes do not separate by age. Therefore men, women, young, and old all race in the same classes together. Auto racing is truly a lifestyle and athletes need to develop ways to stay motivated over what may be a very long career in the sport. Topics such as balancing work, family, and racing are important considerations for these racers. Consultants may also need to help these racers think about very long term goals (where do you want your racing to be in 5 or more years?).

For me, auto racing is a lifestyle. I enjoy the competition, setting goals, the friends, the commitment, learning new things, and having the motivation to participate over years. As a sport psychology consultant, working with auto racers is a rewarding adventure and there is a lot to learn inside the helmet.


Eggleston, T. J. (2015) Auto Racing Mental Skills Video. http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/blog/2015/02/auto-racing-mental-skills/

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Published in: Athletes, Performance Psychology, Mental Skills Training, Consulting

Managing Emotions in Sport

Published September 6, 2016

Dr. Andrew Friesen photo

By Dr. Andrew Friesen
University of Wolverhampton


There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in sport than emotion. Mood, emotions, and general affect can influence every movement in every sport. Consider a typical 45 second shift in ice hockey. Within those brief 45 seconds, the player might begin the shift with high confidence (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), receive the puck and skate in on the opposing goal with high excitement (“I’m going to shoot high glove side and score!”), get poke-checked by an opposing player inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity”) and guilt (“I could have really helped out my team”), back-check and makes a good defensive play which raises the player’s pride (“I helped my team by showing hustle and foiling the opposition”), and finally, end in a  scrum in front of the net where there is much shoving with opposing players where the player takes a spear to the midsection that the referee misses inducing anger (“I can’t stand that creep!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.

Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every athlete. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).

Emotion regulation: A family affair

There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. James Gross (1998) has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in sport:

  • Situation Selection: An athlete can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a skier who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a race in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the athlete remains in desired and intended situations. 
  • Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the athlete can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a figure skater who is nervous about a specific element might perform a modified version of the element at a lower difficulty in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help an athlete reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.
  • Attentional Deployment: An athlete can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a volleyball player worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next serve-receive to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the athlete about what is in, and out of, the athlete’s control can be an effective tool here.
  • Cognitive Change: An athlete can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a basketball player who is happy with her performance in the first half of a game might remind herself that “there’s still another half to play” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
  • Response Modulation (Suppression): After an athlete has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, a baseball player who strikes out can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or toss the bat. Having visualized potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.  

Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, athletes can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the athlete’s ability and personality as well as the confines of the sport.

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.271
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp.3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Published in: Coaches, Athletes, Performance Psychology, Mental Skills Training

Why Sport Psychology Can Aid Performing Artists

Published February 5, 2015

By Kate Hays

Kate Hays discusses how and why sport psychology and mental skills can be used to help actors, musicians, and other performers.

Published in: Performance Psychology

Sheryl Swoopes Achieves Greatness Through Sport Psychology

Published January 16, 2015

By Yopko Penhallurick LLC

Regarded as one of the best female basketball players of all time, Sheryl Swoopes accepted the Performance Excellence Award at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology's (AASP) annual conference in Las Vegas in October 2014.

Swoopes' journey to greatness took off when she became the first player to sign with the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in 1996. Since then, she excelled at her sport, earning four WNBA championships, three Most Valuable Player awards and three Olympic Gold Medals.

Swoopes' enormously successful basketball career solidified her selection as the AASP Performance Excellence Award recipient. The Performance Excellence Award aims to reward individuals who embody exemplary psychological principles associated with performance excellence. These principles may be demonstrated through the recipient's consistent achievement, merit or leadership over the course of their career.

"When I got the news about the award I reflected on my life," said Swoopes. "I looked at how far I've come and where I am headed—the good and bad. All of my life experiences happened for a reason, but they've shaped me for who I am today. Determination, focus, facing challenges with perseverance and hard work and sacrifice are the four reasons critical to driving performance excellence in my life," explained Swoopes.

Becoming Mentally Ready

Part of Swoopes' athletic success can be credited to a deep preparedness that comes not only from physical, but psychological training. After she failed to qualify for the USA Olympic Trials and World Championships, Swoopes asked the judging committee what it would take to make the team. Swoopes soon learned she was physically prepared to compete at the next level, but not mentally prepared.

"I needed to seek help because I had a lot of issues in my life that were overwhelming. When I finally decided to open up to my clinical sport psychologist, I learned to deal with all the distractions in my life on and off court," said Swoopes.

Becoming the head women's basketball coach at Loyola University Chicago in 2013, Swoopes recognizes the importance of mental strengthening in student-athletes.

"It is important for my players to have someone besides their coach to talk to," Swoopes said. "I believe sport psychologists should be mandatory in all universities."

As of 2013, between 38 to 61 percent of NCAA Division I institutions and between 10 to 23 percent of both Division II and Division III reported having access to sport psychological services.

Are you an athlete or coach? Find educational resources and articles in the AASP Resource Center.

Published in: Athletes, Performance Psychology

Keeping Your Cool While Public Speaking

Published August 13, 2014

By Nicki Moore
University of Oklahoma

I am surprised at the number of coaches, particularly assistant coaches, who are significantly impaired in their job responsibilities by their fear of public speaking. While most are able to “pull it off” without embarrassment, the pre-performance experience can be distracting and uncomfortable. Thus, some tips are offered below to help keep your nerves in check.

  1. Trust your training! Prepare for your speaking engagement. Even if it is a media session when you are unsure of what questions will be asked, you can always revert back to your coaching principles or a good coaching story. Be sure you have clearly outlined your principles of coaching, and that you can remember them easily. Once you have prepared, know that you have all you need to succeed, and let go of the fear.
  2. Realize you are NOT on trial! Rarely does someone intend to put you in a bind. More often, people want to be informed, entertained, or inspired. Do your best to figure out which of those things is your aim, and take a path to achieve it.
  3. Take a deep breath – several times… even during your talk.
  4. Slow down. If you find that your voice is getting more and more strained as you talk, you are probably not fully exhaling. Thus, shift your note cards and simply breathe. Exhale completely, take a normal breath and continue.
  5. Another tact is to give the audience time to ask questions. Instead of saying, “do you have any questions?” say, “What questions do you have?” and then pause (good time to breathe). This also puts the onus on them to engage in the interaction.
  6. Remember you probably know more about your topic than anyone else in the room! If you didn’t someone else would be speaking! You are the expert! However, there is no such thing as an all-knowing expert! Thus, if you know the answer, be straightforward and give it to them. If you don’t know an answer, say, “good question – I will research that a little and get back with you. Would you please give me your e-mail address when we are finished so I can follow up?” This builds credibility and integrity – especially when you actually respond.
  7. Tell stories. Feel free to tell a story or two to illustrate a point if it comes to you. People like stories – they can help paint a picture for someone who otherwise might miss an important point.
  8. Be human. Humans make mistakes and that is okay. Don’t dwell on your blunder, just move on and focus on the next part of your talk. The less you draw attention to a mistake, the less others will notice. Alternatively, if it offers a chance to infuse humor into your talk, take it!

Nicki Moore, PhD
University of Oklahoma


(405) 325-3138

Published in: Coaches, Performance Psychology

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