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Performing Under Pressure - Learning from F1

Mika Häkkinen and Allan McNish team up with performance experts
June 2017

A wide variety of keynote speakers contributes to the excellence of IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance program and this year’s edition is no exception. Following an evening dedicated to industry turn-arounds and another to the sustainability agenda, it was the turn for the sports world to inspire the 350 OWP participants from around the globe.

Two-time Formula 1 Champion Mika Häkkinen and Le Mans 24 Hours winner Allan McNish teamed up with Hintsa’s Medical and Sports Performance Director Luke Bennett MD and Head of Science & Innovation James Hewitt to tell business leaders how they, too, can learn to outperform themselves.

“It was an incredible journey to learn to control my body and my mind,” says Mika Häkkinen, the 1998 and 1999 Formula One World Champion, nicknamed ‘the Flying Finn’, who has been ranked among the greatest F1 drivers.

Häkkinen began his career in karting at a very early age, where he learned to handle the pressure of up to 200 races a year. He then progressed to car racing when he entered the Formula Ford and Formula Three series in Italy and the United Kingdom. He first entered Formula One in 1991 with the Team Lotus but rapidly moved to McLaren, where he earned his titles and where he remained until 2001. He has recently returned to McLaren as a partner ambassador.

“You need to understand yourself,” he advises the business leaders at IMD. When he competed in the Grand Prix, he would not allow himself to be anything less than the winner. The pressure was enormous with a team of more than a hundred people and the presence of the boisterous media circus, so he needed to find a trick.

“I asked myself, how can I do this?” The answer was to concentrate on only one aspect of the race, which, he decided would be the start.

“Go back over the procedure in your mind. Pay attention to one thing and do it well.” He says that the trick has helped him ever since.

His sports colleague, Allan McNish, thinks the same way: “The breaking point is the start.”

A three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, most recently in 2013, as well as a three-time winner of the American Le Mans Series, which he last won in 2007, McNish won the FIA World Endurance Championship (FIA WEC) in 2013.

“The whole mind aspect is about maximizing what the car is doing, but at the same time making constant risk assessments. With 55 cars overtaking each other, the intensity is tremendous.”

McNish has two strategies to evacuate the stress: “Learn to breathe. Pull yourself back, concentrate, breathe.” He finds that he needs moments of isolation to gather his thoughts and recapture his energy levels, even away from the team. “Otherwise, you’re always talking business.”

Where the two champions diverge is with respect to the ‘time delta’ in the race car that reports the duration of every lap down to the 1/10th of a second. For McNish it becomes an incentive to do each lap better: “It allows me to avoid routine and helps lift my performance. I push myself even harder and end up racing against myself.”

For Häkkinen it is the exact opposite, the time delta distracts him. He says he gets too emotional for a 1/10th of a second: “It pisses me off!”

“You have to evacuate emotion because it uses up too much energy,” he advises.

He also warns against moments of inattention and mentions an incident on the Monza race track where he let his guard down as he flew over a bump for nth time at 350km an hour and his knee hit the steering wheel: it came off in his hands! It took him several hundred meters to brake to safety.

“There is no single time when you’re racing and you think of what you will be doing that evening.”

The question of the phenomenal amount of data generated by race cars then arises. McNish observes that the younger members of teams get bogged down with the number crunching and rely too much on data for decision making. “Driving is about instinct and intuition.”

It’s also about adrenalin. “You’re just bubbling like a boiling kettle,” but you need to control it and not let emotion take over. McNish believes in clear structures and says that someone has to take the lead: “Prepare well, so there’s only execution when you get there.”

The champions were accompanied by two members of Hintsa Performance, a company that offers an integrated approach to optimising health, wellbeing and performance in some of the most challenging environments.

Medical and Sports Performance Director Luke Bennett spoke of his experience of critical care and as a flying doctor in Australia. He now delivers performance and medical services to the teams and drivers of the FIA Formula One World Championship and other elite sports.

Because every situation is different, Bennett stresses the importance of orderly processes. “A structured approach gets you through the emergency.” As a medical doctor, he knows that a good analysis – time and available equipment permitting – depends on complete examinations and investigations, pulling all the variables together and prioritizing.  “Avoid distractions. As in business, you have to filter and adapt.”

The session was hosted by Hintsa’s Head of Science & Innovation James Hewitt whose brilliant introduction set the tone to a holistic approach to well-being. “Your body and mind are completely connected.” Brandishing alarming statistics, such as the fact that we look at our phones up to 150 times a day, he urged the audience to refocus.

“Attention is the key to control.”

Whether making board decisions, or driving a car, he highlighted the benefits of concentrating on the essential and ignoring ‘the noise’. Phones are firehoses of information and social media is designed to harvest our attention.

And yet, the people who need to focus are often the most fatigued and become unable to switch ‘cognitive gears’. Multitasking, which we all do most of the time, cannibalises our energy and increases stress because each time we switch screens, we leave an attention residue behind.

Backed by multiple scientific studies, Hewitt insisted that incredible improvements are nevertheless possible:

–       Physical exercise has now been proven to help grow new brain cells and upgrade performance. “Show the example!”

–       Beware of sleep deprivation: less than 6 hours sleep per night for two weeks is the equivalent of no sleep at all for 24 hours. And yet, sleep diminishment too often goes unnoticed.

–       Caffeine is extremely disruptive and should be avoided after 11am, alcohol only sedates.

–       Minimize multitasking and plan recovery periods: look at natural vacillations, look at the clouds, look at leaves.

–       Learn to do nothing: idle time is not a waste of time, it restores attention and promotes creativity.

–       Check your emails only three times a day.

We are living an epidemic of overstimulation and of novelty bias, which is addictive.

“When did you last resist looking at your phone for 45 minutes?”