The Brain of a Racer

No matter how many Quarter Midget races I watch, I continue to be amazed at what our youngest competitors accomplish. The amount of information that a 5 year old processes during the course of a race is baffling. Also, the quick strides we see them make during their rookie year are incredible. I know you have heard it said that a young child’s brain is like a sponge, because they pick up on everything. Even when we as adults don’t see it, they are gathering and storing data for the future. In fact, the brain of a 3 year old is twice as active as the brain of an adult. By the time a child reaches the age of 3, his or her brain has formed about 1000 trillion connections. Early experiences and interactions with their environment are critical in a child’s brain development. As the connections in the brain are reinforced through repeated experiences, connections are formed that determine the way a child learns. In the context of Quarter Midget racing, this explains why it is so important in the beginning that the drivers get “seat time”. Repeating the procedures and protocols of a race allow these maneuvers to be “hard wired” into the drivers brain. When a connection is used over and over again in the early years, it becomes permanent; reaffirming the old adage, “practice makes perfect”. The same focus the driver uses in the race can also be seen in other aspects of their lives, such as school or other sports.

When a child reaches the ages of 10 to 12, the brain starts to filter out the extra connections. The process is called pruning. If a pathway is not used, the connection is broken based on the “use it or lose it” principle. Limited experiences or activities are less likely to have an effect on brain development. Therefore, if your child played soccer for one season when he was four, it is unlikely he will be able to pick it up at 13 and play well. The first 10-12 years of a child’s life are prime time for motor skill development and hand to eye coordination, which is why we see drivers improve relatively quickly over a short time.

As we all know, racing is much more than motor skills. The emotional side of the sport is just as important and dealing with these emotions in a healthy manner is also a learned process. Recent findings suggest that the greatest changes to the parts of the brain that are responsible for functions such as self-control, judgment, emotions and organization occur between puberty and adulthood. This may help give reason to behavior in teens that most adults cannot explain like poor decision making, recklessness and emotional outbursts. How many times has a loss on the track resulted in a thrown helmet and arm restraints or massive tears? These setbacks, though they feel traumatic and stressful in the moment, are also part of the brain’s learning curve. Due to their competitive nature, our drivers are emotionally invested in the sport of racing. The drivers’ interpretation of what caused a loss can vary greatly from mechanical failure, personal error or a bad call. Even if their reasoning doesn’t seem to make sense, each time they are faced with these setbacks, the driver learns how to handle them with more patience and poise.

During the teenage years the brain becomes very active, much as it was during the first 3 years. A second wave of overproduction of gray matter and connections in the brain occurs. Once again, the pruning process takes place where neurons that are not used wither away. This second wave helps teenagers develop into level headed young adults who are able to weigh risk and reward and use good judgment in everyday life. This physiological process explains a story that a good friend of mine told me once. She said her son turned into an “alien” when he started middle school, but somewhere between the ages of  16-18, turned into a nice human being again. So not only does this lifestyle we have chosen give us fantastic memories and family time, it creates a framework for development that will shape the adults our children will become. I know this research was enlightening for me. I hope it allows you to see your child and his or her stage of development in a new light as well.

 

Resources for this article are:

“Understanding Brain Development in Young Children” by Sean Brotherson, April 2005

ACT for Youth Update Center of Excellence Facts & Findings. A collaboration of Cornell University, University of Rochester & NYS Center for School Safety, May 2002