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The brain - the next frontier in sport

Ford logo Ford 12/12/2017

It's not unusual for technological advances to filter down from the track into road-going cars, but could we be on the verge of acquiring the extreme concentration levels of racing drivers?

Ford Performance, the motorsports branch of the US car giant, teamed up with leading brain and behavioural scientists from King's College London and tech partner UNIT9, to find out whether brain training techniques can help everyone reach their peak both on and off the track.

The ground-breaking experiment was designed to investigate and better understand the brain mechanism behind mental visualisation and meditation, and how this can affect driving performance.

A mix of everyday drivers and professionals, including five-time FIA World Rally Championship winner Sébastian Ogier and Andy Priaulx, who's won the FIA World Touring Car Championship three times, were subjected to a series of tests.

© Ford

"We knew that race car drivers are specially trained and they go through the race with lots of concentration, but we didn't know exactly where we could see this in the brain or to what extent mental preparation plays a role in success," explained Yates Buckley, director at UNIT9.

EEG (electroencephalography) headsets were used on the pro drivers in a racing simulator to read electrical signals from the brain. They were then subjected to various challenges to measure concentration and reaction.

“Normal” drivers were then monitored performing the same task. Crucially, some had performed mental preparation exercises (already used by many racing drivers to "get in the zone") in the lead-up to the activity, and some had not.

“When things get tough, the stress increases and the pressure’s on. Staying in the zone at that moment is career defining,” said Andy Priaulx. “The good guys manage to do that more often than not.

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“There are stresses and politics – everything tries to get in your way. You’ve got to somehow separate yourself from that, press the start button, let everything go – all the baggage – and do the job you need to do.”

Mental exercises

Boosting mental performance using visualisation and meditation techniques is now commonly used in sport to manage the impact of stressful conditions and maintain endurance in the long term. More recently, these exercises have entered the mainstream, becoming a useful tool in everyday stress management and dealing with our hectic lifestyles.

The study’s scientists used two techniques on the drivers:

• Breathing meditation: an exercise inspired by Tibetan Buddhism that features controlled breathing, holding your breath for a period, repeating and a recovery rest period.

• Mental track visualisation: a technique involving listening to a script that leads you through a very simple description of the track ahead, with only the vaguest of indications about direction so that you gain more mental confidence and relax.

Study results

Initially, the research confirmed the ability of professional drivers to be “always on”, utilising maximum capacity on the task at hand.

Dr Elias Mouchlianitis of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said: “The study data revealed that when travelling at high speed and in a state of high focus, racing drivers’ brains performed up to 40 per cent better when it comes to ignoring distractions than yours or mine.

“The interesting thing we found, however, was that when normal people performed some simple mental exercises, they were also able to reach this higher level of performance.”

"Simple breathing and meditation exercises, and a visualisation technique that uses keywords to describe the task ahead, saw normal drivers improve their focus and performance by as much as 50 per cent."

Next steps

Based on the research, Ford is investigating how the prototype could be developed into an EEG-equipped racing helmet for its professional drivers, where brain activity data can be transmitted back to the team during a race alongside other car telemetry.

© Ford

“It was fascinating to find that with EEG we could make a mental map of the track, basically measuring the mental energy that a driver is dedicating to the track,” explained Buckley. “It’s clear that races can be won or lost in the mind.”

While physical attributes such as hydration and heart rate are already monitored, Ford believes that understanding the driver’s mental state during a race – and making decisions accordingly – is the next frontier in performance.

Ford hopes the research will make us all safer on the road and perform better under pressure in various areas of our lives, from job interviews to speaking at a public event.

Zoning into the same high-performance mindset as a racing driver could help you win at life.

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