Arousal, Anxiety, and Stress
Arousal is the state of a person's physiological activation as measured by heart rate, and other physiological markers. What does arousal feel like? If you remember back to your first race, just before your wedding, or before making a speech to a large group, you can remember what arousal feels like. In these cases probably too much arousal.
Performance improves with arousal up to a point and then diminishes. This theory leads us to some very interesting conclusions. First there is an optimal level of arousal, but it is a different level for each person. Also, different activities require different levels arousal for optimum results. A football linebacker requires considerably more arousal then a golfer about to make a put. Arousal can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on your personality and the level of arousal. At higher levels, arousal becomes connected with anxiety and stress.
The obvious goal here is to determine your optimal arousal level and to maintain that level of arousal before and during a race. Nature organized this rather well though the evolutionary process. When you need the extra boost, all those chemicals are released and you are ready for fight or flight. The thing that makes race driving so hard is that it is in direct conflict with our nature. Race driving is like trying to thread a needle while running from a saber tooth tiger. That is, racing requires fine motor control to be proficient, in an environment that by its very nature causes massive arousal. Anyone, who has ever gone though a really fast corner for the first time understands arousal. An argument goes on in your brain, one side saying "you can do it, the guy ahead did" and the other side screaming "you're going to die you fool". Obviously this is a serious conflict. Control of arousal is a major factor in success as a race driver.
Now that we have an understanding of stress we need to apply this understanding to racing. Obviously the primary task is control over arousal and stress level. In addition we will look into how we can create more stress in our opponents, consistent with good sportsmanship.
Often our attempt to control stress will come after a stressful event, when our purpose is to regain an optimum level of arousal. In racing, we rarely have time to practice stress reduction before the stressful event. We should be aware of some of the pitfalls that accompany high stress levels. There is a tendency towards risky behavior; often this is an attempt to make up for a mistake. Excessive stress can cause the following consequences; rushing things, making decisions too quickly, and not reviewing all the relevant inputs. We must be aware that cognitive analytical skills are degraded the most and, essentially analysis won't work. Also, negative meta-cognitive processes are involved, such as self-doubt, fear, embarrassment, etc.
An important coping skill is task shedding. You must develop the ability to use cognitive and perceptual narrowing to your advantage by shedding the less important tasks for the more important. An often repeated racing cliché is "slow down to go fast". You need to slow your responses down to make the correct response. Another element is not to worry about how you got into the situation. Any attention diverted to that, is not only wasted but will bring up negative meta-cognitive thoughts, which can further degrade performance.