Hey – it’s just about driving season! (Strategy and Coaching with Ross Bentley)

My friend Ross is a driven person. Thankfully he is okay with a bad pun. You see, Ross Bentley is the preeminent racecar driver coach in North America, and he has achieved this through a lifetime of working at it. Ross has built his Speed Secrets brand with eleven books on performance driving, his website, weekly newsletter, writing for other publications, podcast, webinars, seminars, and one-on-one coaching. He spends more time in a plane in a year than I plan to in my entire lifetime. Despite having an incredibly busy schedule, Ross is super generous with his time and loves sharing his knowledge. For this article Ross and I talked about what and who has influenced his coaching style.

Before Ross coached driving, he coached tennis. It helped him get court time to practice his own game. Eventually he attended the Jim Russell Racing School and was invited to coach other drivers. Ross credits having to explain what he was doing as a driver to other drivers, and the coaching preparation that he had to do with making him a better driver. Although coaching other drivers was done for the practical reason of helping him pay for his own racing career, Ross discovered that he enjoyed helping others too. Ultimately rather than be an underemployed driver pretending to be a coach he embraced the role. And, as for anyone committed to being the best coach that they can he realized that being a coach is making things about your client’s success (whatever that looks like) rather than yourself.

There is a perception that a driver needs to be selfish to be a winner. I think that is only part true. I agree that if you’re racing (or competing in general), that you should be trying to beat everybody else. However, if you approach every aspect of your life that way, I think you are likely to end up frustrated, unhappy, and lonely. No driver can win without the support of a team. For a club racer like me the team includes my family and friends from my racing club. I choose not to go after outside sponsorship and don’t have a race crew to look after my car, but the racers that have sponsors they represent and a team that depends on their delivering results learn pretty quickly that they can’t lead if their team won’t follow them. Not being a jerk is a great starting point. It is even possible that the practical reasons for drivers not being selfish all the time deliver other benefits, foremost if not first are the relationships that can last a lifetime if we’re lucky.

As Ross explained to me, being a racecar driver is a uniquely expensive job. For one thing a racer has to pay for their ride either from personal resources like the backing of their wealthy family or from corporate sponsorship funding. Only a handful of racecar drivers in the world are paid to just drive and usually that only happens after they have achieved a lot of success – like world championship success. This means that there is an incredible amount of pressure to perform, and let’s face it, if you can’t perform well enough to keep people interested, then you’re out of a job even if you are bringing money to your team. Can you win and stay humble? If you focus solely on outcomes (and act like a jerk because of the pressure) then your performance will suffer.

Then, what is it that separates racers from the rest of us? Some old assumptions about racecar drivers are that they are brave and/or have natural ability.

Bravery might be a starting point, but if you rely on being brave to succeed, you’ll hurt yourself, or ruin more equipment than your team can afford. Regarding natural ability, it probably helps if you have very good eyesight and depth perception, but beyond that I think that it is possible to achieve success through education, training, and being to learning.

Ross and I have talked about the hierarchy of competence multiple times.

At the level of Unconscious Incompetence you don’t know what you don’t know. Blissful ignorance can be a good thing for a novice – how else would anyone ever try anything new? (Sushi anyone?) But staying ignorant about how something works will not help you if you want to be able to repeat a process that is more likely to yield a desired outcome.

When we become conscious of our incompetence, we realize that we don’t understand or know how to repeat the process to achieve the desired outcome. At this point we can call it a day or choose to start learning from our mistakes on our own and with the help of good (selfless) coaches.

At the Conscious Competence level we have learned a skill but haven’t mastered it. This is okay and appropriate for situations in which the consequences demand caution. Parallel parking is a good example of conscious competence. We know and understand the process, but we take the time to be diligent about completing the task so we don’t end up with dented fenders.

Achieving Unconscious Competence means that we have internalized a process and don’t have to think about what to do to achieve our desired outcome. Say walking or perhaps more extremely, driving a route to a destination that we know by heart and not recalling the specifics of the trip when we arrive.

But wait, there’s more (as Ross is wont to say or write…) Think about standing on top of the pyramid of competence hierarchy and looking out. There are lots of pyramids of knowledge out there for us to see, but we’ll never have the time to climb all of them and become experts in everything. That’s okay because here’s a tool that can help you.

I like to visualize that I’m in the race car and that I’m turning the best laps I ever have on my favorite track, but, I’m not winning. There’s hotshot half my age from another region who’s shown up and is showing me up. I can try harder, but that means that I’m working at a consciously competent level and prone to making self-inflicted errors that will slow me down. Instead what I do is tuck in behind and try to learn from what is happening right before my very eyes while still working at my best. It may be that I’m better (quicker) in a couple of places on the track and at capacity so I can’t improve in those places, but that I’m losing ground at other spots. If I can learn enough from my opponent before the race is over to make us equal in those spots I’ll win. In this new layer I’ve crossed over from building my intuition through experience to thinking strategically. I’ve observed that there is at least one other way that works better for each of the spots where I can improve and am actively implementing it to help achieve my desired outcome.

I think we do this pretty frequently, but we may not be stopping to think about it. We can’t get outside of ourselves unless we are deliberate about it. That selfless coach – Ross – or someone like him if we’re lucky, is there to help us develop this level of thinking. And once we learn this aspect we can do even more self-coaching. It is okay to be stuck or have a setback. It is better to not do the same thing in the same way, that is, better to try and be strategic about how we will try to get unstuck. If you want to try some lateral thinking to help you get unstuck, read some of Ross’s driving tips.