Since September 2017, I’ve been engaged as Mental Toughness Training coach for world-class race car drivers Pietro and Enzo Fittipaldi, grandsons of 2-time Formula One World Champion and 2-time Indy500 Winner Emerson Fittipaldi. Here are the lessons learned from helping them win Championships in remarkable ways. I include some reflections and suggestions for you to explore your own opportunities for Breakthrough.
Pietro Fittipaldi: “I have to win the World Championship”
In September 2017, I was hired to become the Mental Toughness Training coach of Pietro Fittipaldi. He was competing in the Formula Renault V8 3.5 Championship and was leading it with one race left in the calendar (Bahrain). Pietro had been told by his main sponsor, Carlos Slim Domit (Chairman of Grupo Carso and Escuderia Telmex in Mexico) that he had to win the World Championship to continue receiving his sponsorship and continue his path to Formula One.
We had six weeks before the last race in Bahrain, so we agreed on scheduling weekly face-to-face and online meetings, and followed a carefully monitored training schedule. The most important concept I suggested upfront was “You are the Champion, now. You are going to feel, think and act like the Champion, every day, in every detail, on cue and on purpose.” This meant that he was already what he wanted to be. What we needed to design were the strategy and the stepping stones for his support team to understand how to sustain that envisioned reality. This is a cardinal concept in Mental Toughness Training.
Pietro is a disciplined, focused and determined athlete. He’s analytical, learns fast and thinks every issue through, which has endeared him with all racing engineers and teams, for he can assess vital information with clarity. Despite his hectic travel schedule (he was doing TV commentary during F1 races and appearances), we kept a solid pace.
All along, we focused on crafting his emotional strategy for the race weekend. We agreed that, although he might qualify in the top 3 and have the speed to win, finishing 2nd would give him enough points to be World Champion. Minimizing the risk (considering that three of his rivals would have to be more aggressive) was crucial. On the first race, one of the drivers who was not a candidate for the title had a great start and took the pole. Pietro applied all of his mental toughness skills to remain behind him, pulling away from the field together to end in P2 position and at the podium. In the second race, one of his main rivals’ car did not start and his teammate started strong to take the pole.
As the previous day, Pietro remained calm and pulled away, driving consistently, preserving the tires and ending again on P2 to become World Champion. I often say that Breakthrough is a design - and once again, the design worked wonders for Pietro. As part of his prize for winning, he got to stay in the UAE to test a Porsche LMP1 among experienced drivers. Pietro and his teammate beat the times of F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, making a strong impression in the racing world. When he returned to Charlotte, NC, we celebrated together with his family (his father Gugu, his mother Juliana, his brother Enzo - and our friend Caio Campos). I will cherish forever his gift of the replica of the helmet he wore for the victory.
Resiliency: A terrible test of mental strength and a remarkable recovery
Becoming World Champion was not the panacea that Pietro had originally envisioned. Due to careless management by a third party, there had been no in-depth conversations for him to join a racing team in 2018, so he had no confirmed opportunities in the short term. From January through March, Pietro took matters in his own hands and masterfully lined-up tests and seats in teams in Japan Super Formula, WEC and IndyCar, with a chance to race the Indy500. The Japan experience was tough due to the long travel time and the difficulties in communicating with team staff, who did not speak fluent English. In April, he raced IndyCar for the first time with the Dale Coyne Honda Team, crashing out in Phoenix after 40 laps - his first time in an oval. He was disappointed, but the U.S. media had taken notice of his fast times in practice and qualification, and the collaborative relationship with his team.
When the time came to test the WEC car (an LMP1) in Spain, it had some issues of reliability. At the qualifying session in Spa, Belgium in May, the same car broke a switch that locked the steering wheel and catapulted Pietro against the wall of the famous Eau Rouge turn. He broke both legs and had to be airlifted to get an operation that same evening. When I saw the video and heard his helpless screams, I cried in desperation. It’s unfathomable to watch your client in excruciating pain, so young and so hopeful, but at least alive. The Belgian doctors implanted a titanium rod in his right leg and rebuilt his left ankle. All dreams and plans came to halt, brutally and unexpectedly. Several motorsports experts and family members kindly reached out to me and we all agreed that Pietro would do everything possible to be in a cockpit in record time.
When he was stable, Pietro flew to Indianapolis to meet with the best specialist in race car accidents in the world, Dr. Terry Trammel. He stayed for several weeks in a loaned motorhome right on the grounds of the Indy500 track, close to his passion, surrounded by his family, the rehabilitation experts and his peers - some of whom had recovered from accidents as well (as his IndyCar teammate Sebastian Bourdais). The rehabilitation involved long hours of specific exercises with therapists, massages, bone stimulation and swimming. It took Pietro twelve weeks to be able to walk with a dolly where he rested his right leg. There were two fundamental goals for him to recover: 1) To know why the accident had happened; and 2) To get into a race car as soon as possible.
By mid-June, he was being fitted into the cockpit of his Dale Coyne Honda Team IndyCar #19 and in July he was ready to race in the last five races with consistent performances. Medically, it probably was too early for Pietro to return to racing, but he couldn’t wait - and he surprised everyone. Fitted with a custom graphite boot, he could exert the required breaking force - which requires much higher pressure than in a street car. His team also made the necessary ergonomic adjustments to his seat. The media paid attention and he received constant praise for his courage and perseverance, especially by ESPN commentators who marveled at his competitive skills.
Getting to Formula One: a tale of persistence, skills and values
In September, Pietro’s future was uncertain, as there were no contracts lined up. He was gradually healing his leg through innumerable hours of therapy. He was still in pain and the x-rays still showed a separation in the bones of the right leg. In addition, world-class racing is an extraordinarily expensive sport in which the driver has to come to the team with millions of dollars in sponsorship money to sit in a car. Time was running out to raise the required funds and he felt is IndyCar results would not be sufficient to convince team owners to confirm him for 2019. But there was still an important option to consider… Pietro had met several times with Guenther Steiner (Team Principal of F1 Team Haas) and the possibility of becoming a test and reserve driver had emerged.
Pietro and I met for coffee at our regular hangout and analyzed the situation. I believe that expanding perception and shifting viewpoints is of critical importance to arrive to Breakthrough. For me, the most important factor was that his courageous recovery was telling a much larger and profound story than the results. The record is important, but his professionalism, conviction and dedication to his craft were signaling the racing world that he’s one of a kind.
Over the course of almost three hours, our conversation explored all possibilities and opportunities. I was pleased to notice that, at the end, Pietro’s mood had changed and he understood that the invitation that Guenther Steiner had extended him was based on his character, values, work ethic, skills and potential than his results. A few weeks later, Pietro and I had lunch and talked about his options. Suddenly, and in a completely serendipitous manner, we see Guenther Steiner walk towards us. I watched him talk to Pietro in an upbeat and positive manner, as if he was already his leader, indicating that he would be extremely valuable in his role and that he expected him to meet the team in Austin and then test in Abu Dhabi at the end of November. When Guenther left, we sat down and I told Pietro that back in September I was right, that he was being hired for who he is and for why he races, not only for how he does it and all possible commercial considerations. He smiled and I could see that he had internalized his new reality.
After a satisfactory test in Abu Dhabi, his first time driving an F1 car at speeds close to 300 kph (and the best day of his life, so far), Pietro flew to Japan to negotiate a possible slot in a new team, if they can add a third car. Racing Japan Super Formula will be important for him, so he can continue honing his skills at speeds similar to F1, while he supports Team Haas through the entire 2019 calendar. It has been an extraordinary year, one that a Mental Toughness Training expert like me could frame as the template for becoming resistant, strong, resilient, flexible and fast under pressure - both in competition and in life. Pietro has undergone a mythical transformation through “The Hero’s Journey” and now is in a position to share the bounty of wisdom with all of us. It’s been a year marked by Breakthrough in all its phases: Imagine, Improve, Inspire and Ignite - and now there are new moonshots for him to strive to, reach and enjoy.
What you can learn from Pietro’s Breakthrough and apply:
IMAGINE: You might want to set up a goal that extends at least 300% beyond your current situation. Analyze where you are now and explore what stretch goal could be attainable if you invest time, effort and find support to get it. What do you want to do that represents a Breakthrough and why? What would you do that you can’t stop yourself from attempting?
IMPROVE: You need to live today in the way you expect to live when you attain your goal by feeling, thinking and doing what your new identity would require. You need to declare yourself “in training” and refine your knowledge, skills, attitudes and habits that will determine your success every step of the way. What does your Breakthrough situation require you to do?
INSPIRE: You inspire yourself by understanding how to operate in your Ideal Performance State, by modeling the success of those who have gone before you and by recalling your most successful moments in life. You also become aware that as you move forward towards your Breakthrough, you inspire others who might be looking at how you manage your quest. What is the set of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that represent your Success mindset? What are you willing to do when reality and facts confront you? In which ways are you prepared to be resilient and continue moving forwards towards your dream?
IGNITE: As you define your path to Breakthrough, you start getting feedback on your performance and impact on your environment. You are leading by example and you become a reference for others. In your role, you are now igniting changes in perception and behavior, and perhaps starting a positive trend. Embrace this role: you are in Breakthrough territory. Spend time envisioning your next Breakthrough, one that is significant and leaves a legacy. What’s the story worth telling about your path to Breakthrough that can help others Imagine, Improve, Inspire and Ignite positive change? How is your world (and the world at large) better because you got what you wanted?
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Enzo Fittipaldi: “I Want to Win the Championship!”
When I met Enzo, we were celebrating Pietro’s conquest of the World Championship. It was a wonderful lunch in December 2017 with their parents and Caio Campos, our common friend married to my former client Michelle, who had introduced us. I watched Enzo, sitting besides me, stay quiet and enjoy the moment. I noticed he had ordered something different from everyone else (we were at a steakhouse). After an hour or so, I asked him: “So, Enzo, what do you want? What’s your big dream?” He didn’t pause, he just told me point blank: “I want to win the Championship!” Everyone was taken aback by his assertiveness and there were smiles all around the table. I realized that Enzo had an unstoppable desire boiling inside him and that he was anxious to let it free. One could not ignore the pressure of the name Fittipaldi and not having a Championship, but Enzo impressed me as wanting to be fully himself.
A few weeks later, I was asked to start working with Enzo to help him achieve his moonshot. He trains year round at the Ferrari Development Academy in Maranello, Italy, where the factory is located. Only a few young drivers from around the world are selected each year to join the elite program. They are supported by a capable team of trainers and have access to the most sophisticated technical equipment, such as racing simulators, to refine their skills. Enzo fulfills his high school commitments online with the help of a tutor. All medical testing is done regularly and the organization reports to the parents regularly.
Enzo’s training and racing calendar for Formula 4 was packed, with only a few rare breaks on weekends and in the summer. He would be racing both the Italian and German Championships, representing 41 races in total. The training planning had to be precise, with clear objectives and milestones. We met on a weekly basis online, analyzing each detail of his racing experience to discover where he could have advantages. We also discussed how to get along better with his Ferrari teammates and his Prema Team engineer. Enzo learned how to access his Ideal Performance State on demand and under pressure, and we refined every element that might contribute to it. Racing F4 at over 200 kph requires focus to react in milliseconds, so visual intelligence (focus, fast recognition, pattern recognition and decision making) comes into play. His thinking became both tactical and strategic, which helped calm down his anxiety when he was challenged during the race and reduced the number of mistakes. Sleep patterns, diet, planning for personal time, recovery, variety and intense fun were also fundamental components of his performance plan.
The results started to appear, first in irregular patterns, and from the summer break onward in consistent, remarkable victories. At the same time, his rivals became more aggressive, but only one was the real contender to the title, both in the Italian and German Championships. Two times he was hit by other drivers who intended to pressure Enzo into making mistakes. In one occasion, he kept his hands on the steering as he hit a wall and the impact broke his right hand. He said nothing, taped it tight and kept racing, letting it heal on its own rather than being forced to take time off. Again, I was impressed by his determination to succeed.
Enzo finished third in the German Championships, where the Prema Team had trouble getting the right settings for the car. By the time the last race of the Italian Championships arrived in Mugello, Enzo was ranked second with a small difference in points to bridge. His position was being challenged by one of his young Prema teammates who had made great improvements. I created a music video in which I edited the best scenes of his racing career and all his pole positions and victories till that point (the soundtrack was enormously powerful and emotional). I asked Enzo to watch the video every day for two weeks. We huddled through several sessions to identify all relevant factors that could lead to the win. Most importantly, he had to qualify in pole position to create distance with his two fastest rivals. There was a chance it could rain, so we also considered that Enzo loves the rain and that he’s always demonstrated an advantage. He delivered and qualified in pole position twice in a masterful way.
On the first race, his main rival (Lorandi, the only Italian contender) hit him and took him out in the early laps. Not only that: for the second time in the year, the impact of the steering against his right hand injured him and, as before, rather than being forced to withdraw he taped it and moved on. Thanks to poetic justice, Lorandi could not finish the race as in the last lap he had to quit due to serious damage. The Championship remained at a standstill, as neither Enzo nor Lorandi got points. Yet, Enzo’s teammate Caldwell, ranked 3rd, got closer to both.
In the second race, under the rain, Enzo took off from pole position but Lorandi used his speed to catch up and, in an incredibly dramatic finish, Enzo won by one third of a second in a photo finish. Initially, there was doubt about the ending, but the officials confirmed Enzo’s triumph by 0.28” - a massive relief. His extraordinary effort was rewarded the next day on the third race, in heavy rain, where Enzo used again his pole position to remain at the top after a series of accidents which forced the organizers to end the race with the safety car at the front. It was an incredibly tense ending as so many things could have gone wrong in an inundated track. I screamed and cried like I haven’t done it in a long time, probably since I celebrated one of my own victories as a tennis player four decades ago.
Enzo has grown as a race car driver and as a young man. He’s certainly matured and he feels the difference. He recognizes he has learned to love the pressure and find joy in competing under the most varied circumstances, always pumping himself up from positive emotion. He has a sense of humility and a personal code of conduct. He sees himself as a lifelong learner, choosing to start his next season as a blank slate, to be a sponge for all the new concepts he’ll have to assimilate. As his coach, I could not have asked for more: pressure is a privilege and only Champions understand what it means to enjoy it. He’s the Formula 4 Italian Champion, a prestigious title that means a lot for those on the path to Formula One. Next, he will be racing in Formula 3 in Europe and Asia. Another opportunity for Breakthrough… and new levels of wisdom to inspire others to grow.
What you can learn from Enzo’s road the the Championship and apply:
Commit to Your Vision: for both Enzo and Pietro, there’s no doubt about what their True North is. They both want to get to become Formula One drivers, like their grandfather Emerson. Their commitment involves creating a firewall behind them, as if there’s no option but to keep moving forward. Failure means only failing forward, failing better, ensuring that every experience becomes a learning opportunity to refine their Breakthrough strategy. How can you ensure your commitment to your vision?
Work from Your Strengths: Enzo’s year was plagued by obstacles, negativity from others and the stigma that his prestigious last name determines his destiny. From day one, we recognized (as with Pietro) that we would be working with sub-optimal situations and transforming them into extraordinary solutions. By focusing on his strengths, Enzo overcame substantial challenges, overwhelming his weak areas with his determination to succeed. How are you going to become a phenomenal solutions designer? What strengths are going to take you through the fire?
Grit is Stronger than Talent: Enzo is a talented and resourceful driver, a great reader of people, opponents and situations. He’s eager to connect with others in a genuine fashion and follows a disciplined regimen. Enzo understood that the strength of his character and his grit were his best tools to excel in a rudely competitive environment. In June, he took me by surprise when he concluded that all of our work together was “to find out who I really am, to figure out my real identity.” I congratulated on his epiphany and committed myself to supporting his quest. How does your struggle to solve challenges manifest your identity? How do you become better by competing for what you want?
Find the Joy in Every Challenge: The confident competitor understands that challenges are stimulants for personal and professional growth. Enzo arrived to the conclusion that “being in the moment” and “in the zone” represent an opportunity not only to solve the puzzle but also to become a better solutions designer. Rather than feeling bogged down by the intense opposition he faced, he shifted his focus to a growth mindset: whatever came his way was good for him, it made him tougher. How are you interpreting the challenges you face? How many approaches do you use to shift your mindset into high, positive emotion?
Execute when it matters: It would have been easier and more comfortable for Enzo to declare himself runner-up in the Italian Championship when the pressure was mounting. However, he knew that complacency was not an option: only winners get a seat at the table and enter conversations for top teams and large sponsors. He decided that he would do whatever was required to win, starting with putting together exceptionally good qualifying laps to ensure a pole position. And he did it: the results came because he invested everything he had learned about mental toughness from day one. It all came to a point: standing at the P1 step at the podium. What must you do to create the framework that allows you to execute flawlessly under pressure? What would be “the win” for you?
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I look forward to assisting you in the design of your Breakthrough Strategy