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The Mental Game of Motor Sports

The Art Of The Cocoon, And Fine-Tuned Performance


Bill Cole, MS, MA

Even though much has been written on racing, very little has been written about the mental game of motor sports. I have been mental game coach to some well-known international professional motorcycle racers. One is world record-holder and world champion Chris Carr. Learn more about Chris at

He put Buell Motorcycles in the world record book by riding from Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 8 days, and in 2008 the same itinerary in 106 hours. In 2010 Harley Davidson USA asked Chris to be the first person to ride the brand new XR1200X, in the 7,000 mile Hoka Hey Challenge motorcycle rally, which started in Key West, Florida and finished in Homer, Alaska. Chris is the 2011 AHRMA Middle Weight Superbike National Champion, World Champion and Master of the Mid West Champion and he is now also teaching AHRMA Racing School. In 2012, Chris won the AHRMA regional Middle Weight Superbike Championships. So Chris is clearly a master at the mental game of motor sports.

To succeed in the mental game of motor sports you must know a few truths. You must get in the cocoon. And you must know the art of fine-tuning. Here is how you do both of those.

1. Get In The Cocoon: Some athletes and coaches say the zone is a place of mystery. They say it's a confusing, far away place that shows up randomly and without warning. They say it's impossible to understand. I say otherwise. All of the thousands of athletes and coaches I have trained over the last 30 plus years would agree. They know the zone is a real place. They know that because they've been there countless times. When I start sport psychology coaching with an athlete, I first ask them, "Tell me about a time you were in the zone." They pause, say just a few words and then stop. Then they say, "I know when I'm in the zone, and I know when I'm not. I just don't have a system for getting there on purpose." Normally, this is about all they can recall about the zone. And therein lies the problem. If you don't know what the zone is, you can't get back to it, at least not on purpose. You have to rely on the whims of the zone itself to whisk you back to its rarified heights.

One major feature of the zone is the phenomenon called "the cocoon". This is the psychological bubble you enter where you automatically block out any external distractions and completely get into what you are doing. Yes, you know there are plenty of people watching you, but you don't care, or at least you are easily able to let all that go. Maybe there are even TV cameras trained on you, but you consider those irrelevant. You are not self-conscious in the slightest. That's the cocoon. You are impervious to thoughts of embarrassment, or of being watched. Now yes, you might get a sense of encouragement and excitement from the spectators, and you might even be inspired by them. You might even play better when people watch you, but there is a difference when you are in the cocoon. In the cocoon you are not TRYING to impress anyone. You are not trying to show off. You are not looking over or listening to see how they react to your performance. You KNOW they are there, but you don't THINK about them while you play. Time goes away. You are not aware of the clock. You are completely absorbed in your activity. You are in the cocoon. That's the difference between success and failure when it comes to spectators.

Here are some things athletes describe about being in the cocoon:

  1. When I'm in the zone, it's as though I'm in a bubble, a cocoon or tunnel. I know the spectators are there, but all I'm tuned into is me, and my opponent.

  2. This cocoon thing is really unique. I feel like I'm in a vortex or some other world.

  3. Time is a paradox when in the zone. I have tons of time to execute, but I am not thinking about time or the clock.

  4. Sometimes time seems to stand still, and it's like I'm in slow motion.

So now you understand the cocoon nature of the mental game of motor sports. Let's take a look at how to fine tune.

2. The Art Of Fine-Tuning: Think about how you drive a car as being like a sports competition. If you stay in your lane, you're in "the zone" and all is well. But if you begin to veer away to one side, and you don't realize it, you'll end up in the ditch. But if you are tuned into what is happening, you can quickly adjust and bring your car back into the proper lane. This sums up the concept that sport is not a game of perfect—it's a game of adjustment. Driving off the road into the ditch is analogous to choking in sport. If people don't understand the zone or its opposite, choking, they're just doomed to keep choking. Adjustment is the master skill.

Racers who expect perfection lose. The ones who plan for inevitable trouble and adjust, win. Who are you more like in your racing, the perfectionistic ones who become unhinged when everything doesn't go their way? Or the mentally and emotionally flexible ones who let errors roll off their backs? Even at the top levels of pro sports, some athletes are so hard on themselves, expecting near-perfection, or believing that to win they must perform virtually flawlessly, that this sets up impossible expectations that short-circuit performance.

No one has ever run a perfect race in the history of their sport. They never will. To win, you only need to race better than the opponent. Expecting perfection sets you up to fail, because you can't be perfect. Instead, strive for a percentage of perfection, for excellence, to win your races. As my clients have heard me say again and again, "racing is not a game of perfect—it's a game of adjustment".

Here are some mental game of racing tips you can use to keep your mind in the match and stay on an emotional even keel.

  1. Don't expect to play a game of perfect. Instead, strive to achieve excellence.

  2. Expect that you will make a certain number of errors when you compete. When they happen, remember that these are the facts of racing life and accept them, while attempting to be steadier.

  3. Remember that winners don't need to race perfectly to win. Rather, they adjust, adapt and compensate according to conditions and the opponent.

  4. Expect a certain number of wind, sun and road condition troubles, and adjust accordingly. Remember, the opponent has the same conditions.

  5. Stay emotionally level for the entire race. Reduce your emotional ups and downs. Don't get too high when you race well, and don't get too low when you race badly.

  6. Pride yourself on being able to win even when you are not playing well, or when you are not feeling well. Winners find a way to win, under any circumstances. Find your way to win.

  7. Ask yourself, "How bad do I want to win this race?" Then dig down deep and find a way to win.

  8. Remember, don't expect perfection, because it will never arrive. Instead, adjust, adapt and overcome adversity. Winners find a way to win. There is a way to win in every race. You just have to keep searching for it.

Now you have some new mental insights into the mental game of motor sports. And now you know more about the cocoon nature of the zone, and the art of fine tuning. Take these out to your next performance and put them to good use. Good luck!

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS., MA. 2014 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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