HPDE Instructor Attitude

What I am striving for is a cheerful and welcoming attitude while still projecting a calm demeanor. Students come to us with a range of emotions. Most are happy to be there, with a touch of nervousness. A handful are scared, even resentful; those tend to be the ones who have been coaxed into coming to please a significant other. More than once I have heard from these folks, "Please don't tell me to just 'Go Faster.' I hate that."

One of the students who told me to avoid saying "Go Faster" was married to an HPDE instructor. She was obviously game to embrace her husband's hobby, she just really wanted to do it on her own terms and not be pushed. We had an interesting exchange when she said that she was always particularly nervous about the first laps in the first session, that she didn't want to screw up. I told her I felt the same way, and that's why I like to take it slow and easy, get warmed up and ease into "getting to know this track" again. This was a revelation to her, that instructors don't hit the track driving 10/10ths from the very beginning.

As an instructor, you have to have an appropriate level of confidence, while still allowing your student to see you're willing to question your own abilities. I had another student, an M3 driver, who shared with me that he appreciated my willingness to reach out to other instructors to question whether the line I was teaching was truly appropriate for a high horsepower RWD car in the rain (I drive a moderate horsepower AWD car most of the time).

Students often ask me if they're "scaring me". Oddly, the ones that say that are never the scary ones. The ones who ask are used to other people reacting to things that happen in their car on the street. A simple "Nice catch" does wonders for the instructor-student relationship the first time the student breaks the tail loose and brings it back under control.

I do strive to be calm and unflappable. That doesn't mean I don't discuss with the student when they're pushing some boundaries. I recall an intermediate student asking me if I thought he was going too fast through Turn 2 at The Ridge. My response: "At the point the car is in a four wheel drift going up a good slope, it's possible you're pushing the car beyond your abilities."

This is a funny area. I don't want to tamp down any instructor's genuine fear response. There's a recurring anecdote in instructor training: the vast majority of instructors who have had a significant incident while in a student car all report the same thing, "You know, I could tell he was ragged and on the edge of control a lap or two before." So this is definitely an area where if you "see something, say something." As a new instructor, if you find yourself fearful in the right seat often, then instructing might not be for you. Hell, take the word "new" out of that prior sentence - good advice for all of us.

The last bit on demeanor I'll share: it's important to show a little enthusiasm when the student "gets it". When they power out of an exit with a touch of controllable squirm, some hand claps are in order. Maybe even some "Woo-hoos!" and fist waving.

Body Language
I've listened to Ross Bentley "coach the coaches" a couple of times. He describes getting into the right seat of a vehicle. He adjusts the seating position, finds appropriate spots for his feet to brace, maybe reaches out and finds where the grab bar is, snugs down the harnesses, then he does one final thing: he puts his hands calmly in his lap and does this somewhat theatrical relaxed exhale. It's all about the body language.

The student sees this more than you know (they can smell fear!). I tend to avoid using the arm rest grip on the door, but I still reach for it on high energy right hand turns, particularly if the car lacks proper harnesses. I'm simply trying to ensure that my upper body doesn't rock across the center of the car and disrupt the driver. I have had several students see me reach out for the grip and ask me some variation on "Should I slow down? / Am I making you nervous? / Everything OK?"

I'll share a secret here. If the student is making me nervous in any small way, say it's the first time we're hitting 120 on the front straight and I'm carefully gauging if he's in control and paying attention, I'll go all "Ross Bentley" on him. I have my hands in my lap with an appropriately flexed-knee brace, doing what I can to appear relaxed and calm. I figure that's the position I want to be in if things go bad.... it also assures my hands are where I want them to be if I need to do some signaling.

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