If you had to pick just one thing that separates a Lewis Hamilton from other drivers (or any other superstar athlete, such as Serena Williams, Sidney Crosby, Steph Curry or Tom Brady) from all the rest, what would it be? Is it motivation? Desire? Work ethic? Great eyesight? Or just natural talent?
While all those are important, I believe the real thing that separates any superstar from the rest of the pack is their ability to learn quicker. And yes, their work ethic – their willingness to work at learning – is a huge factor. But I don’t believe that Hamilton was born with much more, if any, natural talent than you or me. The difference is what he has done with his natural talent. It is his ability to take that born-with talent and learn quickly – to progress with it.
So, how has he done that? What does he know about learning that most others do not? To understand this, let’s look at some learning strategies.
One of the first things a driver should be aware of to increase their speed of learning is what their personal preferred learning style is. What do I mean by that? Well, as you many know, not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. In fact, everyone has their own preferred learning style. Some people best learn visually, others auditorily, and still others prefer to learn through hands-on experience. In other words, there are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners.
Understand that everyone uses a bit of all three styles, but most people tend to have a primary or dominant learning style.
It’s important for you to know that you must use your primary learning style when attempting to learn something quickly – like racing. Many drivers, when they want to learn a new track or technique, ignore their preferred learning style. For example, if you are a kinesthetic learner, when you use mental imagery (visualization) to practice in your mind, you must include your kinesthetic sense. If you only visualize (which, by definition, includes only your visual sense), you will not learn as effectively as you could. If you include imagining the feel of the car, along with the visual cues, you will learn much quicker.
You may, at some point, have read or heard about the four stages of learning. They are:
Unconscious incompetence: We don't know what we don't know. For example, a baby who hasn't yet discovered that people can walk is at this stage. This can also be the case with a race driver who doesn’t know about a certain driving technique, such as left-foot braking.
Conscious incompetence: We know what we don't know. The baby has now seen his parents walking, and wants to, but can't. Or, a driver knows that a section of a track can be driven much quicker - he observes others going quicker - but he can't yet.
Conscious competence: We know what we know - but we are having to do it at the conscious level. The child who is first learning to walk has to think about each and every step. The race driver knows what needs to be done, but he is still having to do it by thinking about it.
Unconscious competence: We don't think about what we know. We know and we do - we don't have to think about it. The toddler no longer has to think about walking - they just do it! This is the stage that every driver must have as an objective for every track, in every possible condition, and for every potential handling state of the car.
Sound familiar? When you first began racing, you went through each stage with every new technique. As an example, look at the technique of heel-and-toe downshifting. Until someone told you about it, or you read about it, you didn't know it existed - stage 1: unconscious incompetence. You then became aware of the technique, but didn't know how to do it - stage 2: conscious incompetence. As you began to practice it you had to think through each detail of heel and toeing - stage 3: conscious competence. Finally, after practicing it over and over, it became automatic and you no longer had to think about, you just did it - stage 4: unconscious competence.
I suggest that there is, or at least should be, a fifth stage: Unconscious Competence with Conscious Awareness. For without conscious awareness, unconscious competence is a plateau. Yes, this stage suggests that you are driving the race car at the subconscious level, meaning you are not trying to drive the car consciously. That’s a must. After all, race cars are far too fast to be driven at the conscious level. You cannot keep up to it if you are trying to think along with it.
However, the unconscious competence stage means you are driving the car without being fully aware of everything going on around you. It’s a bit like when you have driven somewhere, and upon arrival you think, I don’t remember driving here. You were driving on auto-pilot. That’s great for many functions in our lives where there isn’t a need to further perfect the act, but not for driving a race car.
The only way you are going to improve as a race driver is to operate at the subconscious level, while observing or being aware with your conscious mind.
Okay, are you ready for the ultimate secret to learning, the one trick that will enable you to learn at a quicker pace than ever before? Seriously, the key to learning anything at the optimum rate can be summed up by a mathematical equation I call the Learning Formula: MI+A=G. What does it mean? MI represents Mental Image; A represents Awareness; and G is the Goal you are striving for.
If you have a clear Mental Image of what you want to accomplish, and an accurate Awareness of where you are right now, your mind and body will find a way of making your Goal come true. Your mind and body will bring your Mental Image and Awareness together, resulting in your Goal. It is the most natural way of learning – we were born with this learning process inbred in our systems. This is exactly how and why young children learn so much, so quickly. It seems to be our education system, with its focus on stuffing our heads full of facts that flushes much of this natural learning process out of our systems. I’m sure Lewis Hamilton has kept and used this technique throughout his life.
If you think about it, most of us have either one of the necessary components most of the time, but rarely both. We often have a clear Mental Image of what we want to accomplish, but not an accurate awareness of where we are right now. Or, we are so focused on where we are right now – and why we can’t seem to get it right – that we can’t develop a clear Mental Image of what we want to achieve.
So, when you are trying to learn something new, or make a change to your driving technique, use the Learning Formula. First, make sure you have a clear Mental Image or what you want to achieve. Then, just become Aware of where you are right now with the task. I often use a rating scale to become more Aware. For example, on a scale of one to five, how close am I to my MI of what I want to achieve? If you have a clear MI, and can add the A to the equation, you will get to your goal faster than ever before.
Finally, when people would talk about Michael Schumacher’s natural talent, I wonder if they took into consideration how hard he worked at developing his talent. For example, after a test day, where he had completed the equivalent of two full Grand Prix races, he would often spend another couple of hours working out in the gym. He would also spend countless hours in mental training. Is that really “natural talent”?