Being one of the most incredible sport talents in recent years isn't all about driving fast. It's also about slowing down your mind
Before winning his second Grand Prix at Indianapolis earlier this year, 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton told the waiting press: 'When you have a natural ability you have to nurture it. You need to work hard to preserve it.' He then pulled a gold cross from under his T-shirt. 'That's why this has been with me all the way,' he said, holding it up. 'I never take it off.'
This season saw Lewis Hamilton make the most astonishing debut in Formula One's history. In his first five races he notched up 38 points, more than anyone else at the start of their rookie season.
Commentators spoke about Hamilton having the kind of talent that people are born with and cannot be learned, but behind the superlatives - and the lucky charms - lies a lot of hard work, both in and out of the car.
A key element in the driver's progress has been sports psychologist Dr Kerry Spackman, who has been investigating what's going on inside Hamilton's head. A former mathematician and neuroscientist, Spackman has been working with Hamilton for the past four years. He pioneered a training program which many believe has set a new benchmark for the development of young drivers.
'Most people learn their skills as a race driver by trial and error and they arrive at the elite level with their skills honed by chance. My idea is to break down their performance into sub-components, analyse it and see what you can improve,' he says.
The differences between good and great drivers were illustrated in the early 1990s when Spackman worked on a research project involving Sir Jackie Stewart. He asked test drivers to carry out a manoeuvre in a car which took around one-and-a-half seconds. He then asked them what they noticed about the car.
Most spoke for a minute or two, picking up on a couple of details. When Spackman asked Sir Jackie to do the same thing, the former world champion spoke about it for 15 minutes. His level of perception about what was that much higher than the younger drivers. He had built up this ability through years of experience. 'The paths taken through a corner by a great driver and a good driver often differ by only ten centimetres,' notes Spackman, 'and at high speed that is a tiny margin, so the 'returning' of the driver's brain is about increasing perception of subtle differences.'
Spackman believes this skill can be easily learned. 'If you can increase a person's ability to perceive what's going on they have a richer language in their brain to identify what to do next and that's what gives them an elite performance,' he adds.
Hamilton himself puts a lot of his mental strength down to his father:
'Mentally, my father is very strong. He's had a major influence on my mental preparation and the way I think. It's a difficult skill to put things behind you, but sometimes you see all these drivers looking so disappointed. And you think: 'Get a grip of yourself. You can always bounce back. If you let it kill you, you'll never improve.'
Hamilton started racing in go-karts at the age of eight. He signed with the McLaren Formula One team when he was 13. Since then he has spent countless hours in a car simulator at the team's top-secret HQ in Woking and working with Spackman in an almost hypnotic state as his brain is trained to stay calm and analytical in the highly-charged environment of a Formula One race.
'Instead of panicking and going out of control,' says Spackman, 'you have to stay calm and relaxed. You practice that process of how you respond over and over again.' Spackman is on a mission to 'supercharge' the brain's circuits so that perception and reaction are dramatically speeded up. 'Conscious processing is far too slow for sports, so we've got to take the conscious analysis and somehow put it into the pre-conscious, unconscious parts of the brain,' Spackman said in an interview with the BBC. Using brain scans Spackman has demonstrated that, if properly prepared, when carrying out actions in a simulated environment, the same parts of the brain light up as if the actions were in the real world. 'This ability to take something from the real world to the virtual world, to analyse it, rehearse it and put it back into your unconscious mind in the correct fashion is a very great advantage.' Spackman won't discuss further details of his techniques, but more information may be forthcoming in a book he plans to publish later this year.
Starting with Hamilton at such a young age meant Spackman had a highly developed base to work with. It's the classic prescription sports scientists would write for elite performance. 'People generally are not born with expertise; they acquire it as an adaptation to the performance environment.
It is through this extended exposure that you develop these skills,' says Mark Williams, professor of motor behaviour at Liverpool John Moores University. He calls this ability to read the game - or race - 'perceptual chonking' and contends that Wayne Rooney uses this skill to plan ahead like a chess grandmaster.
Ken Way, a sports psychologist who works with professionals including Premiership footballers, international cricketers and championship-winning golfers, says that the important thing is to be able to narrow your focus and 'live in the moment' with nothing distracting you from the task you have to perform. He says it is one of the features of maturing sportsmen that they are able to switch between wide and narrow-band focus, giving them a better grasp of what is going on around them and what their team-mates are doing.
'Dynamic sports keep fluctuating between wide-band and narrow-band. In static sports such as golf or snooker, you have to be very aware of the need to cut out external distractions and also internal distractions. If you are playing golf and thinking about the implications for each hole, that's an internal distraction that is becoming wide-band. 'What they need to do is to get really in the moment. They don't need to think about the past - the bad shot they've just played - and they don't think about the future - the score or the implications of the shot. They just have to think about this single shot.'
Ken Way says that Serena Williams' notebook that she took to this year's Wimbledon, in which she told herself to 'look at balls', 'add spin' and 'have long follow-throughs' while reassuring herself: 'You will win Wimbledon', was a classic technique to maintain focus. It compares with how long-distance runners repeat phrases to themselves like US marines on a route march to keep their attention away from the pains and exhaustion in their bodies.
'Learning to play poker is a long- distance journey,' insists Dr Tom Sambrook, the 2002 European Poker Champion and an instructor at 888.com's Poker Bootcamp. 'It's about watching and learning, and all the while keeping your focus and your emotions in check. The players who make the money are the ones who play consistently rather than throwing their toys out of the pram. There's a danger of paying money to vent your emotions.' Sambrook adds that playing online can help develop a familiarity with situations and how to respond to them. 'But,' he adds, 'as with Lewis Hamilton in his simulator, you also have to have experience of the real thing to ready yourself for live competition.'
It all comes back to Spackman's point about maintaining a level mindset in stressful situations. 'Natural anxiety is not the state you need to be in to react correctly or intelligently,' insists Hamilton's mentor. Perhaps one of the greatest exponents of mind-over-hassle was Michael Schumacher. When former F1 driver Mark Blundell was asked to describe Schumacher he called him 'the most focused driver there has ever been - in and out of a car.' Blundell then added: 'I would love to look inside him just to see how he ticks.' That's exactly how Spackman works with Hamilton. And the teacher appears to have a very willing pupil: 'Once I have a plan,' insists Hamilton, 'I always follow it to the end. I'm a winner. I'm not here to mess around. When you don't win it's about how you turn around all that negative energy and come back stronger.'
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Ronnie admits: 'I tried a sports psychologist once and I never really got much from it.' The Rocket firmly believes if you're having an off-day, 'there's not a lot you can do about it.'