FEATURE: The Racing Mind

21st September 2017

Motorsport psychologist Gavin Gough focuses on inner conflict and how racers must find a balance between their  ‘superman’ conscious mind and their inner voice of caution to take top spot on the podium

When I was asked by MotorsportDays to write a piece on the contribution of the sports psychologist within motor sport, I said yes immediately. Then, at the point of sitting down and formulating the writing a thought occurred. Just where I should start and where should I end? You might be wondering why this might be a problem for me?

The human mind is of such a huge complexity – and all of us are different – so by extension the work of a sports psychologist can be very varied. So again, the question remains, which areas should I cover?

A few days later, I watched an interview with Craig Doyle in conversation with TT racer John McGuinness, who last month suffered broken ribs, cracked vertebrae and an open fracture of his right lower leg which resulted in a loss of bone. When questioned about his future as a racer, McGuiness described the conflict of feelings he had experienced. Part of him, he said, was smiling at the prospect of having to retire, while part of him was shedding tears at that very same prospect. This provoked the thought about the inner conflict we can all experience and so that is the subject of this conversation.

In the days of Ancient Greece, Socrates, in his study of human nature and behaviour, concluded there were two parts to the human character. He likened these two parts to two horses pulling a war chariot with the charioteer working the horses to get the best from each for the benefit of both. Socrates likened one horse to be perfect; a faultless specimen bred by the Gods, while the other a horse bred by man, a horse with the failings, the weaknesses of man. There is a little more to it than that,
but as time and space is limited we shall press on. Ultimately, the job of the charioteer, as seen by Socrates, was to extract the best from both animals, to have them work together harmoniously in the face of battle.

Let’s now fast forward to modern times. We humans do still have this two-part phenomenon, but we can now view it a little differently; in that the Gods’ horse is our superman and can achieve whatever he sets his mind to. Man’s horse we now know as our conflict part which, as some may suggest, can act as an internal balance to the superman to add caution, in order to survive. In John McGuinness it seems his superman is tearful at the thought of retiring, whereas his conflict part is happy about the impending retirement, delighted that the dangers of motorcycle road racing may become a thing of the past.

This two-part conundrum can be the single most important factor affecting human endeavour and performance and can hold back the racing driver. This is one of the first investigations that I work on with my drivers in order to discover how those two parts relate to each other.


We can look at the superman part as being our conscious mind, that part of us which says, “yup I can do this, no problem”. However, the conflict part may, at this point, stir in the unconscious mind at the prospect of something he perceives as being decidedly dangerous and may say, “oh no you don’t, what happens should this all go wrong, you may get injured or worse, and, you may look a total idiot?”

Have you experienced feelings of anxiety when faced with pole position? Have you overdriven when under the pressure of qualifying or experienced “fear” of a particular track or first corner? In these instances your two parts can be in conflict and prevent you achieving your desired outcomes.
It’s worth mentioning that the conflict part is not necessarily a wholly bad thing.
A fear of damaging the racecar, resulting in expensive repair bills, holds the driver back from overtaking. In the consolidation of a championship challenge, the two parts may work well together in taking P2 points rather than going for a win and ending up in the gravel. The essential factor is that the two parts work in harmony allowing you, the racer, to look back at your race weekend with satisfaction and a sense of achievement.



What we tell ourselves we can or cannot do, who we really are, comes from our own unconscious perception of who we are.

So this then is the challenge. How to be your own charioteer; how to manage your mind. Of course this conflict is not confined to racing drivers or athletes; it can affect us all in pretty much everything we do in all walks of life. Those with good horsemanship, those who manage their mind more effectively, will succeed where others may not.

It’s worth remembering that in any internal dispute of the mind the unconscious mind will always win the argument, it being the stronger part of the mind. It is within the unconscious that our true character, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is maintained.

It is the unconscious mind that I work with in my role as a sports NLP and hypnosis practitioner. I help my drivers manage their minds and bring the two parts of the mind into a more harmonious relationship, in order for them to achieve their goals in racing and in life generally. Without that harmony, life as a racer can be difficult and disappointing. By using neuro linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, a stronger conflict part can be engineered to achieve a more balanced racing mind.

Those less successful than John McGuinness, racers who might be wondering why they struggle to match expectations (of themselves or others), can take heart that even the “King of The Mountain” McGuinness has a conflict part with which he has to work.

Track Days / Test Days / MotorsportDays.com