In racing, the goal is to get to the place desired by all. We call it "Victory Lane" or the "Winner's Circle." While every driver is heading in that general direction, there are some who know a shortcut. They get to the Winner's Circle by first getting "into the zone."
You have certainly heard the phrase "in the zone" connected to sporting events. When an athlete has a stellar performance, someone may point it out. But, does "the zone" exist or is it a product of an active imagination?
"I used to say, 'What the heck does that mean?' and wondered if anyone had measured this," says Dr. Jerry Stetz. The Ohio chiropractor has started a program called "The Mental Edge" that deals with a driver's mental state in preparation for competition.
"When I was in dental school at Case Western Reserve, we would cut up cadavers because, in order to be dentists, you have to know head and neck anatomy. I became aware that connections of the muscles of your neck run longitudinally, and there's some muscle fibers that come off perpendicularly that attach to the brain stem," he relates.
Armed with his head and neck knowledge, Stetz probed the concept of the zone further and found medical sources to be in rare agreement about what constituted being in the zone.
A Question of Balance
Basically, the zone is a balanced brain function. "People talk about brain waves and ideal brain waves being alpha frequency if you're going to be in the zone," says Stetz. "The brain has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere, and when you're stressed, there's a reduction in measurable activity in your sub-dominant hemisphere. We all have a dominant hemisphere and a sub-dominant one; most of the population, the right handed, have a dominant left hemisphere. When people are stressed, they lose brain activity in their sub-dominant hemisphere and that's not a good thing. The function of those two hemispheres is not identical. If you lose function in one of them, you're losing some of your ability to perform things."
While it was known that getting in the zone was a simple case of balance, there needed to be a method to accomplish that result. "We want to take people and, on cue, put them in the zone," continues Stetz. "There's a hands-on physical procedure that I do that's based on that connection I saw in dental school. It's like pushing a button: You have to know where the button is and how to push it. It's like pushing the reboot button on your computer. That's what I'm doing to the athlete."
Before the physical portion can be enacted, the athlete must be in a proper mental state. Stetz works as part of a team with Deb Boles providing assistance in the process. Boles provides the emotional stress diffusion, which affects not only the task at hand, but the way the subject looks at himself and his life.
"The driver needs to be focused and put the other stuff out of his mind," says Boles. "I think a good driver can deal with distraction and not get knocked out of the zone. What we've discovered is that the longer we work with someone, the more we work with them, the easier they get into the zone and the longer they stay in the zone. Maybe things affected him in the beginning of the season. Then, it's not so much by mid-season and maybe not at all at season's end.
"With my part of the emotional stress, any person can have an issue with anything," she continues. "Take roller coasters as an example: You may love them, but I'm scared to death of them. We would get the same physical sensation, but you would love it and I would think I'm going to die. They're the same physical feelings, but the difference is in how they're perceived. It's my job to assist them into perceiving it differently so they can stay focused on where they need to go and what they need to do."
The idea of assisting people into the zone was tried on go-kart racers. "At first, what we had was theoretical," says Stetz. "We took some measurements (in brain mapping studies), but then to actually try that on racers was a big next step. I think it's going to work, but I don't race cars. The next step is to try it on racers."
Stetz found go-kart racers to be willing subjects. "At first, my impression was that go-kart racing was the bottom rung, but it's not," he says. "Those guys are brave, and I don't know that I'd get on one and race it. I got positive feedback from them."
The next step was a professional racer, and his central Ohio ties put Stetz with ASA star Gary St. Amant. "This was a real big step, and I'm grateful to Gary. I'm approaching him saying, 'I have this procedure where I'm going to alter your brain physiology. Let me try it on you.' Who's going to say yes to that?"
St. Amant did. "Mentally, I felt different," says St. Amant. "We did it a few times and it helped. We did it at Anderson, which is one of my favorite tracks because you have to really get up on the wheel at that place. I felt like I was walking three feet off the ground that day. I really knew I was in the zone." St. Amant went on to win his first ASA championship that season. (St. Amant, who will be driving for Frankie Grill's Grand American Race Cars team in 2003, has won two titles and missed last year's by a single point.)
No Drugs Involved The procedure focuses on getting maximum performance from natural ability. "It's a drug-free program," Stetz says. "Neither Deb nor I can't give someone driving ability that they don't have. I'm not a coach. I don't have experience in racing cars. I can't coach anybody. We're making it easier for that driver, that athlete, to tap into the talent they have. Gary St. Amant was a great first professional experience for me because this guy has the talent, and if I can help him tap into that with less effort, that's why that was successful."
Getting in the zone is a process that involves relaxation, which runs against the grain of the idea that a driver has to be "pumped up" to compete. Adrenaline is not the driver's friend.
"Adrenaline is the enemy," says Stetz. "Adrenaline is a component of a stressed state. If you're spinning or somebody whacks you, that would stress me out. It has the potential of taking them out of the alpha frequency. Assuming they're still intact and the car is in one piece, they can settle themselves down and get into that alpha frequency. This situation kind of separates a good driver from a not-so-good driver. The good ones know how to settle themselves back down. That's the kind of thing Deb works with the clients on. We can't run out there and do our thing again, so we need them to settle themselves down."
Stetz says he has found the procedure is best suited for athletes such as racers and golfers. "Prior to working with racers, I worked with two NBA basketball players," he says. "The results are better on individual sports. In the NBA, there are five guys out there, and I'm only working on one of them. The logistics become a nightmare."
The Gender Issue
People are different, and the contention that men are different than women may not be applicable in this case. "No matter if you're male or female, you have a brain," says Boles. "You have a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere, and if you have stress, stress makes you stupid no matter if you're male or female. That's the bottom line."
The idea differs from the work of sports psychologists, who have their niche in developing a driver's talent. "Sports psychologists are attempting to teach their clients how to deal with issues and get into the zone. We put them into the zone. A good analogy of the difference is this: Let's say your house needs to be painted. You can hire someone to teach you how to paint your house, but you still have to paint it. You can hire me to paint your house and it gets painted. Deb works with the driver first and gets to what's bothering him. Immediately, when she finishes with the driver, I do the hands-on procedure and that is the absolute best time. The person is relaxed and they're not feeling stressed. My procedure is very fast, it doesn't take long to do. Now, we have them in the alpha frequency. People will tend to stay in the zone for several hours. We want them in that zone the whole race."
No matter how hard they try, rule-makers will never be able to level the playing field when it comes to the most imperfect aspect of racing-the human. Much like each car comes with only one engine, each driver comes with only one brain. The brain can't be taken out and replaced, so it becomes a vital tool to keep functioning at maximum efficiency. It should be the strongest tool in the toolbox for any racing effort.