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“I could not attend the summit that summer but I saw the video of Denise Shull’s session on the online Leaders hub,” explains Hendrick Motorsports’ Director of Human Performance.
Shull is a Performance Coach who serves as the Principal of the ReThink Group, a New York-based human capital consultancy that leverages the latest neuroscience and psychological research into creating new levels of human performance.
That afternoon in the Windy City she spoke of the value in negative emotions in a high performance context and it led to Hendrick and ReThink working together.
“The hook for me was when I saw Denise on video,” continues Papathanassiou. “The coaches and I will watch a Leaders video once a week during the season, for professional development, and I heard her describe why the negative emotions are where the value really lies.
“Simply put, people are good when they are happy, but it’s dealing with, processing and utilizing negative emotions that can enhance performance. It’s not done by looking at the brighter side or getting mentally strong enough to push the bad thoughts away – it’s about confronting, communicating and living with the bad in order to give your brain time to say ‘message received, I’m mad today’; recognize you’re mad, say you’re mad; and once your brain realizes you’ve got the message, it clears the pathway and you can get your work done.”
Those who have worked closely with Papathanassiou during his 29-year career in Nascar recognize his insatiable desire for improvement and innovation. “I can’t create a winning environment today the same way I did with Jeff Gordon’s team in 1997,” he says of Hendrick’s four-time Nascar Cup Series champion. “Even though we were a devastating force, if you tried that approach today it would be an utter disaster.”
Having gone into Nascar in the early 1990s as, by his own admission, “a complete outsider”, the former Stanford offensive guard kept his elite sporting career going in bringing his athletic experience to the pit road, where he joined Hendrick as a pit crew coordinator in 1992.
In the intervening 27 years, Hendrick Motorsports has won 12 Nascar Cup Series, including four for Gordon and a record-tying seven for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire later this year.
“The question that most often gets asked around our place is what do you need to be successful?” says Papathanassiou. “How can we support you? Even though I was brand new to racing, the question was asked of me: ‘what do we need to make pit crews successful?’ and I said ‘we need athletes’.
“I saw racing as an athletic event, not a mechanical event, so I approached it from an athletic mentality, which really involves practice and repetition, coaching and overcoming adversity; all of these kinds of athletically-minded skills and I approached pit stops in an athletic way. That was the paradigm shift you can say that occurred in Nascar back in that time in the early 90s.
“We went about creating an athletic mindset of what I’ve come to call ‘over the wall’ thinking. We went out and found people that had the cognitive building blocks of successful athletes; they had performed under pressure situations, they had performed in front of crowds, they were used to the practice and repetition, detail-oriented, used to the grind of an athletic season.”
Papathanassiou is speaking ahead of his role in hosting Members’ Monday at the Hendrick Motorsport facility at the 2020 Leaders Sport Performance Summit and we delved into the role of mental skills within the Nascar setting.
Where do mental skills fit in at Hendrick Motorsports?
AP: In the modern day you have all of this specialization and differentiation. You don’t train with the same person for weights that you do with sprinting; or that you do for agility or hand-eye coordination; it’s all very sub-specialized and I see mental skills going the same way. When it was initially introduced back in time, to have the sports psychologist that you were consulting with or that would stop by or do exercises with the team, it was all lumped together and now you have so many different specialties of mental skills and cognitive training, neuroplasticity, all of these different things that require their experts and mining the capabilities of all those different areas. Mental skills means so many more different things than it meant before.
What is the starting point?
AP: It really starts with motivation; and I feel, for today’s athlete, what helps is to create the right environment. The oppressive and more dictatorial environment that existed and provided success years back, those are not the successful environments today. You need a supportive environment and athletes need to be understood, there needs to be a degree of empathy. All the while, that makes it all sound like summer camp, but it’s important to keep winning front and center, this is just the language of winning that I believe, the mental and cognitive language of winning in 2020. You have to create this environment and ask your athletes to utilize the different tools that the team can provide. You can’t tell them to do it, you can’t tell them to come together as one team, you can’t force them because as odd as it might sound, winning just isn’t enough today. You have to create the environment that makes the athlete feel comfortable and safe with trying their best, a safe place to fail, all of these clichés, but you have to create and maintain that environment and then the athlete ultimately has to make the decision to participate in that process.
Where does a Nascar team gain its confidence?
AP: We gain a lot of confidence from repetition and repeatability. We’re very process-driven; you can compare a Nascar pit crew to a rugby team or an American football team. Those analogies apply but equally applicable is an analogy like golf or bowling, where it’s repetitive and the same; the more you can get close to the same the more success you’re going to have against that other pit crew that you’re physically competing against. Individuals have core activities to perform with their teammates but it’s performing within their individual parameters and the closer they can get to that ideal technique, then the repeatability of that technique, the better we’re going to be as a pit crew.
By Nascar rules, we have five crew members that are able to go ‘over the wall’, which is the Nascar vernacular, when you perform a pit stop. If four out of five do it just right and have a good pit stop at 13 seconds but the fifth crew member makes a small mistake, they add two seconds to their technique and they finish in 15 seconds – the stopwatch only records the slowest crew member and you can’t disavow the time or rely on the majority; you can’t even average everyone’s time together. It only shows the mistake. Through consistency and repeatability, we gain confidence that the pit stop will be good.
Where is the balance between resilience and wellbeing at Hendrick?
AP: The balance comes from keeping it in perspective. This is where some of those softer skills, those softer words come into play. Practice can give you resilience but forming strong ties to your teammates, seeing them in social settings, we do a quarterly department event, and people bring their wives and kids. The majority are early 30s down into their 20s; there’s babies everywhere. Forming those bonds and creating those relationships, even though it’s work-inspired, that can hold a team together; you know what a person’s about, you see them at practice, you see them at the race, now you see them as part of their family and that makes the team as strong as it can be. If you say ‘work is work’, socialize on your own time, then you’re inadvertently weakening your team.
What are your hopes and expectations for mental skills within Nascar in the near future?
AP: The biggest area for mental skills in the future, is adaptability; we have to be able to control what you can control and address the feelings; are you afraid, are you concerned, OK let’s talk about that, let’s not just push it aside and just do our practice and go home; let’s talk about how we’re going to have to adapt and the changes that are going to be pushed upon us and how we’re going to adapt based on those changes. Adaptability is our key focus right now. There are many changes ahead for Nascar.
What is it going to take to win in 2020?
That is the focus of our latest Performance Special Report. Download The High Performance Manual: Winning in 2020, which features sports organisations as diverse as Red Bull, the Brisbane Lions and the Royal Military Academy discussing the pertinent topics across Leadership & Culture, Coaching & Development, Human Performance and Data & Innovation.