Sports Psychology

Winning Matters In Formula1, Not Participation

Posted: April 8, 2013 at 6:29 am   /   by   /   comments (6)

‘It is not winning, but participation that matters’ is the adage we grew up with during our formative years in school. To me, that was the turning point, I participated in various activities (sporting and non-sporting) that I never would’ve assumed I otherwise would. From a psychological view, it made a hell-of-a difference!

Along the years, one picked up a few activities one was good at and dropped the others. Like I said, the key was to experience and participate in as many activities, which was crucial. Without trying, one wouldn’t know what one is good at or not and that adage was my true companion while I went about entering unchartered territories.

I am guessing most of my readers experienced similar experiences in life and hopefully they can relate to this post. As we picked up the activities we were good at, it was only human to want to get better at them. ‘Turning your weakness into your strength’ was attempted too, I am sure, but the drive was about getting better at what you do, every time, all the time. This was followed by the intense desire to win or to be the best at what one did; the desire to succeed. This is where the adage ‘winning matters and not just participation’ made more sense. I mean, one spent those innumerable hours training and practicing not just to participate, but to go out and win.

After a point, the crucial question that an athlete faces is ‘winning at all costs’. Given the millions of dollars, fame and a career at stake, victory is important. The thin line that exists between ‘winning’ and ‘winning at all costs’ is the line that possibly defines the mindset of most athletes. Lance Armstrong is the immediate name that comes to my mind, but I am sure there are a thousand others. It is this very mindset why there are and will always be extreme reactions about Michael Schumacher in the Formula1 pitlane.

2012 Formula1 World Champion - Sebastian Vettel (Courtesy: Red Bull Racing)

If you’ve not guessed it already, this post is about Sebastian Vettel’s ignorance of team orders at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix (Read: Emotions, Tensions And Vettel Score A Win) to claim victory. The signals from Red Bull Racing post this saga have been skewed. Formula1 fans and media will never be able to ascertain what actually transpired before, during and after the race. Was Webber asked to turn his engine down more than Vettel? Was Vettel put in his place post-race? Did the post-race debrief settle the animosity between the team-mates? I guess these questions and many others will remain unanswered in the public domain.

The public domain also has been filled with numerous views and opinions of fans world over. Social media was abuzz with various bloggers, journalists and fans and their reporting of this incident. Few sided Webber, others sided Vettel. My thoughts on this episode were recorded on the Inside Line F1 Podcast edition title ‘Multi21, Team Orders and PR Talk’. Surprisingly, the feedback received on this Formula1 podcast indicated that most fans sided with Sebastian Vettel!

Given the extreme interest in this incident and my liking for sports psychology, I thought it would be best to get a professional view on Sebastian Vettel’s possible mindset and behavior. So I asked my dear friend and one of India’s most successful sports psychologists Dr. Shree Advani to help me dissect Vettel’s disposition that created waves not only inside Red Bull Racing but across the entire Formula1 fraternity. Here’s Shree’s view:

As human beings, we tend to define our identity by what we do and how much we achieve. Most people make this mistake of evaluating self-worth with success rate. Although, an even deeper thought-provoking matter is the concept of success itself. What is success? Some believe it is the number of titles won, amount of money made, number of materialistic possessions acquired, etc., while a handful assess their success level by how happy they are, the quality of sleep they get each night and so on. You get the drift (no pun intended).

Vettel is one such personality who probably falls in the trap of letting personal glory represent who he is. He is an athlete in a sport that requires individual excellence keeping in mind the greater good of the team. It’s a unique situation for a sportsperson. It’s only human to want to win at any cost but given the way Formula 1 works, team orders are gospel. We all are wired differently and have varying values, but all Formula1 drivers have to work in this unique system, where while you are racing for the team, you are also competing for yourself. This system, as history has shown, can be a hypocritical one in itself since rules against team orders can’t be policed effectively.

Given that, we are all governed by rules. The judiciary system has laws, society has norms and every sport has rules, all in place to provide structure and discipline. In Formula 1 though, the unique predicament of going for a win versus following team orders (when both aren’t the same) may appear to leave F1 drivers in a fix. But this is no grey area if the job requirements of a driver as part of a team are understood. The team gives the racer a car and a contract backed by commercials as well as terms and conditions. Give and take! A Vettel or Webber first represents Red Bull Racing and then themselves. It is the team that maketh the driver!

Roger Federer plays for himself but operates within the framework of rules made by the ATP. When he plays for his country in the Davis Cup, he abides by his team management’s decisions. It’s not that complicated. Drivers just need to make this critical point crystal clear in their minds. Agreed that being asked not to win for the sake of another person, a competitor, requires magnanimity. In saying that, that person is after all your own teammate, probably requires it even more so. However, as we have seen in the past, Formula1 drivers have often struggled to think beyond themselves  and this is because of the overlap of the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, often forgetting that it is the latter where the money is made. And as Kunal put it, quite funnily, teams are happy to hire such drivers!

Back to Vettel, the 3-time world champion is a superstar and has a massive following. He has an image to uphold and a reputation to maintain. I’m certain with age and maturity, Vettel will look back at this day and realise it was not his proudest moment (hopefully he’s already realised it). Till such time, both stronger team discipline (Horner’s authority!) and a more responsible Vettel are required, pronto!

To sum it up, professional sport isn’t where you should be looking for a ‘good guy’. If you still are, I wouldn’t recommend judging the sportsperson by their behavior and decisions made while competing in their sport. After all, it is only human to want to win!

More on Mark Webber and Red Bull Racing on the Inside Line F1 Podcast: Should Mark Webber Retire Or Move Teams In 2014?

Dr. Shree Advani is a Bangalore-based sport and performance psychologist with clients based in different parts of the world. He plays ‘mind coach’ for athletes across various sports that include Cricket, Tennis, Badminton, Motorsport, Billiards, Snooker, Skating and more. You can follow him on Twitter: @ShreeAdvani.

** This attempt at analysing the psychology of an F1 driver is a new one for my Formula1 blog. Shree and I have had endless discussions on several athletes and their psychological mindsets before, during and after games / matches / races. Hopefully I am able to publish much of it with his inputs and permission.

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  • April 12, 2013 at 2:31 am Alianora La Canta

    OK, since my analogy appears to have fallen flat, I’ll try again.

    I’m not quite sure how the system works in India, but in the UK, anyone working as a psychologist is required to be a member of a organisation called the British Psychological Society (BPS). This gives licences out to people who have shown themselves capable of doing the work of a psychologist. People without the licence are forbidden from doing any work as a psychologist.

    As part of that licence, psychologists are required to abide by a code of conduct. This includes a ban on unethical research, and a requirement to get permission from the BPS before doing any research that is even slightly controversial (so they can get more knowledgeable people to check things like ethics).

    So if a psychologist’s employer told a psychologist to do an experiment that would cause the participants significant distress, what would the psychologist do? In standard contract law, it is simple – the act would have to be done (causing distress isn’t banned in most standard contracts) whether the psychologist wanted to do so or not.

    However, the licence the psychologist has requires that ethical principles be upheld. One of those principles happens to be that distress cannot be caused by any psychologist without informed consent, and even then the BPS has to check the research first to see whether the research is important enough to warrant the foreseeable effects.

    Employers can be penalised for requiring a psychologist to breach the terms of their licence, but a psychologist who does so will lose their licence. Losing one’s licence means one cannot work in psychology – for anyone. And the BPS’ licence requirements overrides standard contracts. As a result, the psychologist is in fact required to not conduct the unethical research, no matter how strongly the employer words the order and even under threat of sacking. If the employer carried through the threat, *they’d* be the ones in trouble with the law.

    F1 drivers (and all other racing drivers) have a licence. Their equivalent of the BPS is called the FIA. There is a bunch of regulations all licence-holders must apply regardless of their series. This licence overrules any requirements teams may have in the same area. This is why the FIA can insist that teams do not do things that damage motor racing’s reputation.

    An analogy that may make more sense to you is Indian law. States can make their own laws (in particular areas), but no state can make a law that contradicts a nationally-set law, or in an area the state does not have authority to make laws. Furthermore, the central legislators in India are required to comply with any laws contained on international codes to which India is a signatory.

    Hope this helps.

    Reply
    • April 18, 2013 at 7:11 am Kunal Shah

      Thanks ALC for the analogy, does help. The FIA is there to govern the sport and it should do so.

      Pavithra, Shree’s away coaching and hence I am typing out his reply. Yes, sport goes a long way in nurturing young minds and channeling energies and focus in the right direction. Glad you have such experiences which you can now relate too as well. Starting off young has immense benefits.

      Winning and winning at all costs is where the mindset difference lies and we saw that between Vettel and Webber in Malaysia. Unfortunately in Formula1 with the overlap of championships, it wouldn’t be too easy to make a rule regarding this crystal clear and even more so police this rule. Which is why we currently have left it where it is.

      As for Vettel, I think China showed that he was unaffected by any of the post-Malaysia media scrutiny, who more often that not go on an overboard to create sensationalism. And the best summary would actually be, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it is the ONLY thing’. Thank you and hopefully there is more to come from the two of us on sports psychology in Formula1.

      Reply
  • April 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm Pavithra

    First of all – Kunal & Shree, it is a very nice write up and analysis on the ever bustling racer’s psyche(or mind). Although, I’m a sports enthusiast and I play Badminton myself(only local, as in colony playoff, inter school playoff and sometimes “my mom and me” playoff ;-)) – I never took sports as a career, may be because I was not too good at it or I just merely wanted to follow the path already laid by many seniors as a techie. But I have witnessed(in school/college) quite a lot of athletes who are hell bent on achieving only one thing in life and that is winning the current game that they are in. I remember my class 10th board examination time, where we used to study for hours and hours to get those percentile that we have in mind with great fear and dedication(When I say we, I mean the regulars), but every sportsperson(during their schooling) on the other hand have a very different approach to examination, I’m not saying sportsperson does not score good marks(they do score well), but I have not seen anybody sitting hours and hours, breaking their head and ogle onto their books just for the heck of it, instead I have seen them spending couple of hours studying(concentrating) and then go for a play in the ground and then come back say another couple of hours and so on. Even on the day of examination, the butterflies which fly all over our stomach is mainly for the regulars and I very well saw most of the sportspeople, take the examination day as like any other day. It could be because they are so dedicated to what they do, or because of their discipline, concentration, punctuality that they learn from being a sportsperson day-in-day-out or also because they have seen umpteen number of failures and success in their sporting career(well, here school time career).

    The point of the above paragraph is to differentiate a regular mind from that of a sportsperson’s psyche and also to give a perspective from my eyes. The main reason is their ‘Brutal Dedication’ to the sport, when you dedicate yourself to something or a cause solely, all you want to do is bring home the bacon at any cost! So when your team principal deliberately wants you to lose or give up, I say “Win first, apologize later”. Just like, how Vettel did!!

    You are trained, drained, customized and wired for a cause that is to WIN and if there is any impediment towards achieving that goal of yours, I think you just have to follow your guts and be ready to face the consequence.

    I very strongly feel that, the rule in racing should be fixed or altered to make it crystal clear to each and everybody that, giving authority to driver’s conviction is the only right way!! He is the one sitting in the cockpit, so he should be the best person to figure what is right at that very moment, I’m not saying the team is not important, without team one is nothing, but still I would insist that the right of way should be given to the driver!
    Bernie sided with Vettel on his passing Webber and winning the race, so why not FIA modify the current regulation/rule for the sake of F1 fans and of course the drivers.

    Also If I’m a racer and if I have Vettel at my back chasing & roaring in seconds gap, my psychology would never let me slow down or turn the engine off no matter what(damn NO!), even if Yama comes and tells me to, because I very well know Vettel would never stop trying. So Webber has only found an excuse in Vettel and to me it is BS.
    As always I would say – Go get him, Vettel!! 🙂

    I loved your line, “To sum it up, professional sport isn’t where you should be looking for a ‘good guy’”. But mind you, Vettel was a good guy until Webber happened. :-). Media adored him, they tried scrutinizing his personal life, they got nothing unusual, so the hungry media was in tailspin when they got a glimpse of Vettel’s other side and made a big deal out of it and blew it out of proportion by giving too much importance to the meager issue rather than the race as a whole.
    You know they say, Media can make or break anything!!

    So, what can go wrong, went wrong in Vettel’s case. I hope his brain is not too screwed with all that is going on around him and I really hope he wins one more championship this year. Fingers crossed!

    Also I dunno, I could not correlate Roger Federer’s comparison with F1 racing, bcoz there is never gonna be a day his Team Principal(or lead) is gonna advice Roger – “Hey, take it easy, Man – Cut some slack for Nadal!! We can win some other time!!”
    So I guess, when it is “one man show” in any sports or in refined tech term “an individual contributor”, I don’t think they face problems like this at all. Only when you have competition between individuals from the same team you face such issues. Even the doubles that they play in Tennis, will not have any issues(except for playing in sync, that they get out of practice) because end of the day both the players are gonna take home the title unlike racing.

    Also about Self-worth, this is what i feel: Self-worth is always defined by “values” that is being created by whatever that you do or you believe in, only that – what you consider as “value” changes constantly all throughout your life time.

    So yes, “Winning Matters and Losing sucks”! I will end my comment with a slightly modified version of your credo – “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the ONLY thing”.

    And this one is for “La Canta”: Interesting view, indeed. But I did not get the “unethical research by shrink” part!! If you get a chance, please do explain further.

    Reply
  • April 8, 2013 at 2:04 pm Alianora La Canta

    The problem with the line of thinking promoted in this post comes when you consider the driver’s job description as a racer in an FIA-sanctioned motor racing series. That obliges them to do their very best, or be guilty of a breach of Article 151 c) of the Sporting Regulations (that is to say, an act prejudicing the interests of any competition).

    The interests of competition require racing to continue unless there is a valid reason for it not to do so. “Because the team boss said so” and “because it will help your team-mate” are not valid reasons, otherwise Singapore 2008 would not have resulted in any penalty under Article 151 c) for Renault.

    It is the same as it would be if a company asked a psychologist to undertake unethical research. However loudly company rules may require obedience, the professional psychologist is bound by the legally-binding code of ethics developed in conjunction with whichever psychological society licenced that individual. Indeed, if the psychologist was sacked for refusing an unethical research assignment, the law would be on the psychologist’s side.

    The same would apply if Sebastian Vettel was in any way penalised for his actions in Malaysia 2013, for the same reasons.

    The driver has a contract to the team, but the driver (and for that matter, the team) has a contract to the FIA, which overrules the one between driver and team where conflicts arise The exception is where the driver/team-FIA contract conflicts with French civil law, for that is the place from which FIA authority over F1 as a whole stems. Given France’s relatively liberal labour laws, especially those governing protests and strike action, Vettel would probably be considered in the right (and be deemed an informal protest against inappropriate employer action).

    The team maketh the driver, but the governing body and series maketh the team and the law maketh the governing body and series.

    Vettel was given an order with which he could not comply if he was to consider himself a FIA-sanctioned driver. It is unlikely that Rosberg will be pursued for his refusal to race according to his contract with the FIA, though, because a) it was obvious he wanted to race and b) the FIA has bigger fish to fry than punishing Mercedes for a relatively minor infringement right now (such as trying to get a replacement to the Concorde Agreement before it completely loses control of F1).

    I would also dispute “the money is made in the Constructor’s Championship”. Most of the fans tune in to see how the drivers do, but Bernie gives the money out based on how the constructors did.

    It would thus be more accurate to say “the money is made in the Driver’s Championship and spent in the Constructor’s Championship.” F1 needs both for a balanced series, and one of the eternal problems it faces is balancing the two.

    Reply
    • April 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm Kunal Shah

      ALC,
      Firstly, thanks for your comment. You have raised some very interesting points and if they say F1 is complex, you’ve made it that only bit more complex 😉 (Just kidding!)

      Shree and I have discussed the very same fact (minus the Articles) that while the FIA expects you to race fair as a driver, the team doesn’t necessarily believe so as a team member. We’ve read recent comments about Boullier and Whitmarsh in similar regards.

      And frankly, your talk about unethical research by a psychologist went a bit of a bouncer for me even after 4 reads. So I am leaving that for now.
      As for the inter-linked contract, driver to team to FIA, I would further build it to FIA to FOM to TV Broadcasters to Fan. So if you link this all back and make it a further complex equation, what Shree is bringing out is how this complexity is the environment that an F1 driver has to race within. While what Vettel did seemed right to many, few also believed he was wrong. In the entire interlinked channel of stakeholders, I am sure FIA was unhappy (about team orders, though there is a rule for it, because it brings the sport to disrepute), FOM and TV Broadcasters were happy because controversies lead to an increase in TRPs and we both know what the team and driver felt or atleast felt publicly.

      And yes, the team maketh the driver, but the FIA and series maketh the team, similar logic can be built to deduce that fans maketh F1 what it is, though of course there isn’t a direct contract between us and the sport in anyway (except for a monthly TV subscription). But it is seldom that fan views and needs are addressed by the sport. If it were so, I am sure most fans would’ve wanted racing till the fall of the chequered flag and many other changes in the sport which the FIA / FOM / teams may or may not agree to.

      And lastly, F1 needs both Championships, no doubt and your point about Driver’s Championship funding the Constructors’ Championship isn’t entirely false, but balancing the two isn’t something that I see as possible for a long long time to come. And again, in this imbalanced world of Formula1, I doubt if Vettel had this long a thought process going through his mind before deciding to overtake Webber in Sepang. He just went ahead and did it. The sheer psychological mindset of a three time World Champion is what this post is trying to highlight.

      Reply
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