Coaching Themes: Can an F1 pit board make you a better coach?

This piece is based on the work I do using themes in sports coaching – this season the HAC RFC are implementing an Ayrton Senna theme – and have documented how to use them here.

The great Ayrton Senna whooshes past his pit board

The average Formula 1 steering wheel costs more than your car – considerably more than mine – and is an impressive tool that teams and drivers use to share information and to maximise performance.

The next time you watch a F1 race take a quick look at how the driver is using the steering wheel (beyond simply using it to turn!)You should start to notice a range of dials, buttons and displays that a driver uses to get the most out of the car.

Mercedes talk you through Lewis Hamilton’s Steering Wheel

Another feature that drivers utiluse is the team radio. For anyone who followed the 2021 season knows, sometimes what is being said on the radio between drivers and teams or Team Principals and Race Directors (“NO MICHAEL THAT WAS SO NOT RIGHT!“), can often be just as, if not more, intriguing than the race. Those on the pit wall have access to information from the car and real-time data that is sent to them from their team factories the other side of the world. All of this results in a tsunami of information and can be relayed to the drivers via the radio or indeed the steering wheel.

Another way for teams to relay messages or key information to their drivers is via the pit board.

Each pit board will display a name, flag or colour that makes it easy to identify which one is meant for each driver. Some things that can be on the board are: race position (1st, 7th, 20th etc); distance to the cars ahead and behind and finally; which lap they are in the race.

So if all of this can be relayed to drivers via the radio or the steering wheel display, what is the point of having them?

Well, it all comes down to what the driver wants – to drive. With pit boards, the drivers can choose to check their pit boards when they rush past at 220mph – if they want to. It is up to them.

Information is only useful if it can be understood and shared at the right time, otherwise it is simply noise and a distraction from the job at hand.

A Pit Board in action

The same is true for coaches who stand at the side of a pitch, court or track and feel the need to share information that their respective players, participants or athletes do not need and will not use. The tactical area in football is often a space for senseless ranting and gesticulation, providing more theatre for the camera than offering something relevant for the players…

Even messages pre, mid and post competition can often be for the benefit of the coach instead of the competitor. We can, as coaches, feel the need to overdo it in relation to sharing everything that has come to mind in case something sticks. We would do well to consider more what the players want in those moments. Competition in itself brings stress – make sure as coaches you are not adding unhelpfully to this.

Thinking about a pit board might just help coaches become a better sharer of information. Can we simplify our messages and allow them to access it entirely on their terms and not ours? Can we let players choose when and how they want to process it? Can we replicate this beyond competition and in their wider and longer term development?

Some players may expect you as a coach to behave and interact with them in a certain way. Some of them will not have ever thought about it before because no one ever asked them. Some will not have strong feelings about it. The only way to know is if you ask…

There are other ways to look at some of the info on a pit board and consider our coaching practice. For example, if we look at the ‘distance to the car ahead and behind’ feature- how clear are the people in your team or organisation as to where they stand? Are they the ‘best’ in their position? Are they in the lead or need to catch up? How far ahead or behind are they? In sport, how important is it that players know where they are in the pecking order with a coach? And how important is that they know the coach is keeping a tracking of the order and is willing to readjust it when certain criteria is met? (An endless series of rankings and internal competition will not be best practice for all environments but some people may relish such information)

Assessing where a player is on their journey and where they can get to is a constant in coaching. How we choose to share that with them is something that should be at the forefront of our minds and our practice.

The other factor that the pit board allows us to consider as coaches is: have you thought about how best to share information pre-game, in-game and post game? What are the key areas you will look at? How are you working within your team of coaches, physios, substitutes etc? Are you going to watch the game or coach?

Tell me when to stop…

It is the trap we so often fall into when seeing a competition unfold from our vantage point: we think we see far more than those competing. That we have the key to unlock this challenge that others cannot seem to figure out. But all of this disregards the perspective of the individuals who are in the midst of it all, feeling and breathing it, with a unique perspective that we simply do not have.

With this in mind, some broader considerations that should be at the forefront of our coaching practice are:

What is the best information for this person in this moment?

When and how should this be relayed to them?

How will you check for understanding?

By grappling with such questions we might start to filter out some of the less useful messages for players and athletes. A challenge might be to only able to convey 1,2 or 3 pieces of information to a player, like a pit board. This could be in a training session, warm-up, half-time or full time and could be for an individual or a whole team.

A final thing for us to consider as coaches is how we may overwhelm individuals if we give them too much “cognitive load” – making them think too much about what we are saying instead of them doing what they need to do: play, drive, run, breathe.

Sometimes it might be best for us to do just as Kimi told his race engineer a few years ago…

David Sharkey of Team Architecture Ltd works with people in sport and business to get the most out of how they share information. If you would be interested in him working with you or your team, please click here to make an enquiry.

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