WorldSBK: The mental games to win the battle
The elite of the racing world are incredibly demanding on themselves. They’re their own harshest critics. For the best of the best winning isn’t expected; it’s demanded. It’s why when a rider wins a race the emotion they feel isn’t joy; it’s relief. The relief that they’ve met their targets. The relief that they’ve done what they demand of themselves. Those demands that they place on their own shoulders are what separates the best from the rest.
As the Prosecco dries off their leathers from the podium they’re already mentally moving on. A box has been ticked and now it’s time to move on to the next race. Any world class athlete demands as much from themselves as the people around them. If you’re working every waking moment to hone your craft, the expectation is that that everyone around you is doing the same. The selfish nature of a racer shines through at various times, but having that streak and having an inner belief in yourself is a crucial component for any top rider.
“I never go to a race weekend thinking it will be a tough weekend,” explains Tom Sykes. “I approach every weekend with the same mindset; to get the best result possible. I want to maximise my potential, the bike’s potential and the team’s potential. It’s a massive effort in WorldSBK. From one weekend to the next there are some changes that occur; it can depend on the strengths and weaknesses of different bikes at different tracks at different circuits but, from my experience, I’ve had a package that could fight for race wins at every circuit.
“I joined the BMW Motorrad World Superbike Team last year and it was clear to see that this bike has some good strengths. It’s a new project though so there’s been small areas that we can improve on. You’ve got to manage your expectations to the project and being part of a new project and part of the development is important. The goal for all of us is the same; to make it into a consistent package for the whole season. You want to eliminate the potential for having a tough weekend. That’s the goal.”
Racing is unpredictable and sometimes the best laid plans can still not be enough for a rider. You need to adapt and react to what happens around you. Training, preparing, testing and working with your engineers gives a rider the best foundation for a race weekend, but a sudden downpour or a mechanical issue can change everything. Being adaptable is a key trait of the top riders.
“Adaptability is definitely a required skill set for a top rider,” explained the 2013 WorldSBK champion. “If you want to be consistently fighting for the World Championship you need to be able to adapt. I wouldn’t say that I have any tricks for adapting to changing conditions but rather it’s about the feeling you have with the bike, your experience and putting everything together. It’s not a trick, it’s something that you put together over time.
“When you use the qualifying tyre in Superpole it’s a big change in circumstances and conditions, and all of a sudden you have much more potential from the motorcycle. You’ve no time to react and you’ve got to make the most of that situation. I feel that I have that adaptability and it helps in changing conditions or at the start of a race.
“If you’re leaving pit lane for a race and it suddenly starts to to rain it puts every rider in the same situation, and the only thing you can do is keep a cool head. It’s the same for everyone and it’s about understanding what’s underneath you and adapting to it. The feeling you get from the bike is felt through your body and your mind has to adjust accordingly. There’s no tricks or shortcuts. It’s about experience.”
Inner belief and an ability to adapt is key but what’s the final piece of the puzzle? Objectivity. It’s counter intuitive that a rider needs to be objective and understand their own limitations. The inner belief that you’re the best in the world is what fires a rider. Competition is what drives most riders. Beating someone at a round of golf or a game of pool sate their appetite for success.
That drive is what makes them great, but it’s also a weakness if it’s not tempered by knowing that experience and setting realistic goals is as important as talent. Being able to understand that they’re not always going to win is important because it keeps them grounded. For Sykes, a rider used to winning at Kawasaki, the switch to BMW saw him jump from the best bike on the grid to a brand new project. Expecting to maintain past results would have been unrealistic.
Ironically during his final year with Kawasaki, he was able to see how the pressure valve of racing operates. Having a nine race winning streak at Donington Park come to an end, his defeat wasn’t met with disappointment but rather it removed pressure for the former champion.
“I think that it’s very important to go through a season with a very level head. There’s never a circuit that I go to with a different mindset. I try and treat every round the same and even though I’ve had a lot of success at Donington Park in the past I don’t ‘do’ anything different there. There was always the expectations that I would win there but it was from other people’s expectations rather than my own. I know how tough it is to win in this championship.
“I can’t really explain why I’ve had so much success there other than it’s a circuit of two halves and that means that you need to be strong in a number of areas. Again, being adaptable is important because there’s a lot of different requirements for a rider at Donington. I don’t think that I stand out in any single area there, but I’m there or thereabouts in all the key areas. That’s what helps your results.”
Racing at the top level is as much a mental game as it is physical. The most important six inches on a race track at the ones between the ears of a rider. If they feel good they can unleash their full potential. If things are going against them it can spiral out of control. Managing that and controlling it are the keys to succeeding.
“If you don’t meet your expectations it’s always tough. You’ve got to get yourself back into the right frame of mind again. Looking at Donington again it was hard for me to go there at one point, because I had won two years running. Then it was three years running. Suddenly everyone expects you to win there. I know how hard it is to win any race but having so many wins at Donington became a double edged sword for me, because then it became three years running and four years running. Then I won Race 1 of year five…and then the run was broken.”
It was time to regroup. It was time to get expectations in check and move on to the next round.