Think NASCAR drivers are not athletes? You’re out of your mind – SportingNews.com
The debate rages from time to time about whether men and women who drive racecars 200 mph should be considered athletes.
Each semester in the sport psychology course I teach, while discussing the psychological characteristics and behaviors of athletes, the issue always comes up about who is really an athlete. For research purposes, and being able to understand the results of the data-driven studies, it is important to have a consistent definition of the term “athlete.”
Unfortunately, these definitions vary from study to study just as they do from person to person — meaning it is unlikely we ever come to an agreement on one definition for the term athlete. For example, is a middle school basketball player who rarely gets to play considered an athlete? How about high school football players who almost never play? Are they athletes?
From our discussions in classes, most students consider anyone who is playing on a college team (small or large) in any sport, or any level higher than that, (i.e., professional, Olympic) to be athletes. However, NASCAR drivers as athletes is usually hotly debated, just like golfers, cheerleaders and horse racing jockeys.
I’ve played several sports (in both high school and college) and have watched many others. I have also read and been involved in scientific studies on the psychological aspects of athletes and sports. Also, I am a NASCAR fan, attend at least a couple races per year, and watch many others on TV. I have also driven stock cars at three racetracks — Charlotte, Atlanta and Bristol.
So, with my personal biases revealed, I can state wholeheartedly that NASCAR drivers are indeed athletes.
In class discussions, it is interesting to hear students claim that place kickers and offensive linemen in football are not athletes. From time to time, students argue that a “roundly-shaped” baseball pitcher, who only plays once every four days, is not really an athlete. The problem with this type of logic and most of the athlete arguments is there really are different types of athletes in every sport.
Some sports, or positions in sports, are seen as more physically demanding, while other sports may be more mentally challenging. For example, college students consistently say that playing golf is more mentally challenging than being an offensive guard in football. My belief is that most people trying to decide whether a NASCAR driver is an athlete have never competed in the sport and, even worse, know very little about it.
The most common argument is that a person who drives around in circles for three hours is not an athlete. Obviously, that is an oversimplification of the psychological and physical challenges NASCAR drivers face. There are others who believe, for instance, that some NASCAR drivers are athletes because of their non-NASCAR skills. For example, they point to the workout regimens of Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards and say that makes them athletes. In other words, this argument stipulates that to be an athlete, driving a racecar has little to do with it; it’s how you train to drive a racecar that makes you an athlete.
Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the physical and mental stamina, G forces and heat drivers must deal with while performing. The multitude of psychological skills necessary to be a successful driver cannot be overlooked. NASCAR drivers have to be able to make quick decisions, have extremely fast reaction times, good hand-eye coordination and be able to concentrate for long periods of time.
Unlike other sports, unless there’s an unusually long delay, NASCAR drivers have to compete from beginning to end during a 500-mile, four-hour race without a halftime break or timeout. The closest resemblance to a timeout is a caution flag, yet the driver still must drive the car and maintain some sense of his or her surroundings and cannot totally relax.
And while many sports are dangerous, NASCAR could be seen as one of the most dangerous in terms of life threatening circumstances. While there are concerns about injury in most sports, NASCAR drivers must find a way to deal with the fear of serious injury or death in every competition. This puts NASCAR in a unique category.
Then there is the pressure and intensity. During the next two weeks, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion will be crowned. The competition and pressure during these final races will be just as intense as competing in a Super Bowl or the NCAA basketball tournament.
Considering all of the factors it takes to be a successful, competitive NASCAR driver, there is no doubt in my mind NASCAR drivers are athletes. Are some drivers more athletic than others? Of course. Yet the same can be said of athletes in most sports.
Another way to consider this argument: Would you want to be driving around at 200 mph with 42 other drivers who are not athletes?
— Dr. Kevin L. Burke is a Sport Psychology Professor and consultant at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact Dr. Burke at kevinlburkeenterprises.com and follow him on Twitter: @SportPsyching.