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What We Can Learn From Formula 1 About Mental Health

mclaren formula 1 team 2020

Mental health in the UK

One in four people in the United Kingdom suffers from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. And one in five adults have considered taking their own life as a result of these mental health issues.

Mental health can affect anyone, in any walk of life. Even elite sportspeople and those who work in it.

Formula 1 and mental health

The bustling world of Formula 1 is far from immune to mental health problems. It’s easy to see why, but discussion around this topic has until very recently remained quiet. Racing drivers are just like anyone in a high-pressure job, in that they’ve deliberately chosen a life of intense stress. Just put yourself in their shoes for a minute. They won’t feel too different to your own.

The morning of a race can be for some, a calming experience. For others, it might be the very opposite. The feverish anticipation of what the afternoon will bring is palpable. What will happen on the first lap? Can you perform? It’s a very different situation, but no greatly different to the performance anxiety that we all feel in our everyday jobs.

And then there’s the race. The hours of pondering, thinking and worrying are replaced by split-second decisions. We all have to make them. These are the best drivers in the world, driving the fastest cars in the world, within feet of each other. One slip-up and your race could end in an instant…or worse.

Yet it’s amazing to see how relaxed an F1 driver appears just before the start of a race on the grid. Nowhere else in sport do TV crews get to laugh and joke with elite sportspeople just before they are about to battle, let alone get one word out of them.

How do they do it? Many drivers work with sports psychologists. One technique they are taught is to develop a switch in their brains that blocks out all worries and concerns. To think in the “now”, moment by moment.

By working with such experts, drivers get to talk about their concerns on a regular basis. That’s the real difference between them and most of us. And by treating mental stress with the help of a specialist, just as they would with any medical condition, drivers are able to perform at an incredibly high level.

Although motorsport is often perceived to be a very superficial and macho world, Formula 1 in reality has been aware of mental health issues for quite a while, with more and more teams publicly addressing the whole question recently.

Mclaren F1 team and Mind Charity

formula one mclaren pit crew 2020
The McLaren pit crew in the garage

One such team is McLaren, which partnered with the Mind charity ahead of World Mental Health Day: raising more than £190,000 to raise awareness of mental health issues. Because F1 – and many other elite sports for that matter – is not just about the stars. The hundreds of staff working day-in, day-out for weeks on end, away from their friends and family – can suffer considerably as they travel the world non-stop.

In these Covid-dominated times, there have been more back-to-back race weekends than in any other season. Some people haven’t been home for weeks; many working 12-hour days or longer. And this is why more teams and drivers are talking about these issues head-on. As well as McLaren, Renault star Daniel Ricciardo also recently spoke about mental health and the challenges the sport faces. One prominent motor racing figure said recently that such was the demanding nature of his job, and the impact that the Covid-induced quarantine rules have had on his personal life, that he genuinely considered quitting, after not seeing his wife and young child for 88 days recently. The problem was, he had no other job to go to.

There are thousands of other motorsport professionals who don’t see the spotlight, who nobody has ever heard of and yet, these are the ones who struggle the most with mental health. A former press officer recounts right here how he even once contemplated suicide:

And because of the never-stop nature of the sport, it’s often been thought that there is neither time nor the right moment to raise these concerns. That you appear ‘weak’ if you do. Until now that is.

Finally, teams and organisers are prioritising mental health awareness; especially with Covid-related restrictions making life more difficult for everyone. McLaren’s managing director of sales and marketing, Mark Weller said: “The coronavirus pandemic continues to have a huge impact on mental health for millions around the world. Advocacy of better mental health is something we critically value at McLaren and continuously strive to educate ourselves about, to provide the necessary support to our people.”

They’re not the only ones. Unlikely as it seems, we can all learn a lot from the top level of motorsport when it comes promoting mental health.

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