As I wrote in an earlier blog (June 7, 2017), the development of accurate and detailed mental representations is a crucial part—perhaps the most crucial part—of becoming highly skilled in pretty much any field. But, as Anders and I have found, the concept of mental representations can be difficult to wrap your mind around, so one of my goals in this blog is to offer as many different examples of mental representations as I can, in hopes that people can use these examples to figure out the sorts of mental representations that will work in their own areas of interest.
Recently I spoke with Ross Bentley of SpeedSecrets.com. Ross is a racecar driver who changed his focus from racing to showing others how to improve their driving, and he teaches racing to everyone from hobbyists to Indy Car drivers. Ross provided me with one of the best, most detailed examples of a mental representation that I have yet seen.
We were talking for one of the podcasts that Ross offers, and he had mentioned that the best professional racecar drivers can drive practice laps in exactly the same way each time—with no more variation than a tenth of a second or so from one lap to the next. I told him that this reminded me very much of the situation with classically trained musicians. As Anders, my co-author on Peak, has noted, one of the best and simplest ways to distinguish between the best classical musicians and those who are just really good is to ask them to play the same piece twice in exactly the same way and then see how close they got. The very best musicians will produce two versions so similar that you can put the recordings on top of each other and it sounds like there is just one instrument playing. The good ones will be close, but you can hear the differences. (And, of course, beginning and intermediate musicians don’t get nearly so close.)
It’s important to note that this is not because these expert musicians have played the piece over and over so many times that it has become automatic. No, they are quite capable of playing it in various ways — slowing it down here, speeding it up there, playing louder or softer to create different emotional responses. But if they choose to play it in one particular one, they can turn around and play it in exactly that way again.
They can do this because they have very detailed mental representations of the music and how they want it to sound. These representations guide them in their playing of the piece, and the representations have enough flexibility to allow the musicians to modify their playing in whatever way they choose. So I commented to Ross that if professional racecar drivers are able to race a practice lap at exactly the same speed over and over, they must have some sort of detailed mental representation of that lap that guided their driving, and I asked him to give me an idea of what these representations look like. He responded with an answer so fascinating and detailed that I am going to quote long passages of it directly.
Ross began by elaborating on what he had told me during the podcast. A typical race course may be, say, three miles around and have twelve to fifteen corners, which means that a driver will be performing hundreds of different techniques over the course of a lap. The best drivers can drive these laps over and over again with times that are within a few tenths—if not hundredths—of a second of each other. Less skilled drivers will vary in their lap times by half a second or even by a second or more. Consistency is important, Ross noted, because if a driver is going to try different things in order to improve his lap times, he has to be reasonably certain that any differences in time are due to the change in approach rather than just random inconsistencies from lap to lap.
Nor it is just the actual performance on the track where the top drivers are consistent. They can mentally reproduce that performance with a similar consistency. “The best can close their eyes and replay a lap in their mind and be within a few tenths of a second,” Ross told me. Again, the less experienced drivers are less consistent. They will be off in their imagined lap times by a second or, often, many seconds.
Here Ross made what I thought was a crucial point: In talking about “less experienced” drivers, he said, he wasn’t just talking about experience driving on a track; he was specifically talking about drivers who were less experienced in using mental imagery to imagine themselves going around a track and visualizing how they would handle different sections. Just going around the track over and over again as fast as you can is not enough to develop a clear and accurate mental representation of driving around the track—you have to do work off the track to visual yourself driving around it.
And, although Ross did not specify this, I suspect that the process of developing an accurate mental representation of driving around a track relies upon an interaction between the visualization and the driving itself: You visualize a certain technique, try it on the track and see how accurate your visualization was, then you go back and revise your visualization according to what you found on the track. In this way you could develop an increasingly accurate mental representation.
Often, Ross told me, the areas of a track where a driver has the least accurate and detailed mental representation are the same areas where the driver struggles when driving on the track.
So what does such a mental representation look like? It is “seeing, feeling and hearing in one’s mind everything one does while driving the track.” Here is the “short version” of one corner, as Ross described it:
“Approaching Turn 1, begin braking now, at the crack in the pavement that visually lines up with that tree in the distance; hard initial brake application, then begin easing off the pedal, downshift to fourth gear . . . now, downshift to third gear. Look into the corner, then back to the turn-in point, which is at the slight indentation in the curbing alongside the edge of the track. Turn into the corner, looking through the apex and towards the track-out point while easing my foot off the brake pedal; feel the g-forces build as I arc the steering into the corner, hearing the tires growl. Transition to the throttle and begin squeezing it down, clipping past the apex, feeling the car grip the track as it compresses as the track drops away and then begins to climb. Unwind the steering and feed in more throttle—hard now, full throttle. Release the car off the corner, hearing the engine revolutions pick up and the tire growl lessen as the g-forces relax.”
Notice that the mental representation includes not only visual landmarks—a crack in the pavement, an indentation in the curbing—but also how things sound in Ross’s ears and feel to his body. “The more senses I use, the more real it is to my brain,” he told me. “And the more references I have, which are marks on the pavement, something in the distance that I visually line up with, undulations I feel in the track surface, even the timing of when a sound changes (i.e., the sound of the engine echoing off a wall on the side of the track, that ends, starting the timing in my mind of when I’m going to begin braking for a corner), the more consistently I’ll have the car on the ideal line/path around the track, and the timing of when I use the controls will be the same lap to lap.
It is important to note that the mental representation includes not just cues as to where Ross is as he goes around the track, but also the actions that he wants to do at each point—hit the brake hard, ease up on the pedal, unwind the steering wheel. “The key is not to just mentally see it,” he told me, “but also to move my body while doing this so I build the muscle memory for using the steering wheel, pedals and shifter.”
This captures a crucial but often overlooked aspect of mental representations: For any skill that requires body movements, the mental representations will include not just mental imagery but muscle memory as well. A classical pianist has practiced enough that her fingers strike the keys exactly how she wishes with little conscious input, but that striking of the keys is ultimately directed by the pianist’s mental representation of the piece she is playing. If she chooses to play this particular section with slightly greater force, her fingers do it automatically because her brain knows—without conscious thought—what signals to send to the fingers to make them play at the desired volume. The muscle memory is under the control of the mental representation.
Similarly, a professional football quarterback will have a mental representation of how a play is supposed to unfold and will use that mental representation to determine, based on what the players on the other team are doing, which of his teammates to throw the football to. Once that decision has been made, the quarterback relies on his muscle memory to get the ball to the correct point on the field at the appropriate moment.
Ross told me that he first started working on developing accurate mental representations as a fifteen-year-old trying to improve his tennis game. He later turned his focus to auto racing, and he has now spent decades working on mental representations of race tracks and the techniques needed to get around them. He described the result of all this work to me as follows:
There is a track in Germany called the Nurburgring. “It’s the longest circuit in the world and considered the toughest challenge of any track,” Ross told me. “It’s fourteen miles long and has about 170 corners, many of them blind as you crest a hill at high speed and the corner is just on the other side. It’s very fast, with very little margin for error, as there is an Armco barrier just off to the side of the track. Over the course of two years, I’ve only driven about thirty laps in total, but I can close my eyes and drive a lap of it at speed and remember every corner and reference point that I use to trigger what I need to do. Last year when I was there, I was asked to go out and drive two laps so we could collect data. (The car was equipped with a data acquisition system that logs speed, my throttle position, brake pressure, steering angle, engine RPMs, and many other things.) I drove two laps, and the lap times were within 0.4 seconds over a 9-minute lap. That consistency comes from having an accurate mental program/representation.”
Having recognized the importance of mental representations, Ross told me, he has made them a big part of his coaching. He works with each of his drivers to develop and use these sorts of mental representations in their driving. They are particularly important for race car drivers, but they can be used to improve driving at any level, even for something as simple and non-dangerous as parallel parking.
For more on Ross Bentley’s driver training, see www.speedsecrets.com. Of particular interest is his book Mental Imagery Guide for Drivers, available at https://speedsecrets.com/product/mental-imagery-guide-for-drivers/.