“You can’t just be physically strong or aerobically strong individually”, Josef Newgarden and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

This sounds weird, but I find a short nap just before I get into the race car to be the most effective way for me to hone in on what I need to do. I’ve felt a bit groggy and tired from a nap before some of the best races I’ve ever driven. It’s a […]

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This sounds weird, but I find a short nap just before I get into the race car to be the most effective way for me to hone in on what I need to do. I’ve felt a bit groggy and tired from a nap before some of the best races I’ve ever driven. It’s a bit ironic I guess, but it helps me a lot.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josef Newgarden.

Josef Newgarden is an American race car driver currently competing in the NTT IndyCar Series for the legendary Team Penske.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Josef has been competing in motorsports since he was 13 years old. In his 8-year IndyCar career, he has amassed 11 pole positions, 18 race wins, and two NTT IndyCar Series championships, claiming titles in 2017 and 2019.

Away from the track, Josef is an avid gamer and cinephile. He’s featured in the Microsoft Xbox title Forza Motorsport and cites Christopher Nolan as his favorite director.

A versatile athlete, Josef has participated in drills as a celebrity guest at the NFL Combine as well as competed on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior. Josef is also a masterful ping-pong player and hosts an annual celebrity ping-pong tournament during the Indianapolis 500 event week. It serves as a fundraiser for Serious Fun Children’s Network, of which Josef is a driver ambassador.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, in Hendersonville. For the most part, I had a typical childhood, spending much of my time playing sports, baseball in particular. However, I always had my eye on racing, and frequently begged for my parents to allow me to go-kart. After many years of beating that drum, they finally gave in when I was 13. There wasn’t much in terms of go-karting in Nashville, so we spent the majority of our summers driving around the country to various races, mostly in Indiana.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I was just instantly attracted to the sound and visuals of race cars from a young age and the first time I visited a racetrack. INDYCAR in particular just fascinated me, and not long after my first exposure to the sport, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was blessed with a family that supported these dreams and made my pursuit possible.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There were so many people along the way. First and foremost, my family. They made a ton of sacrifices to help me achieve my dreams. We were on the road a lot, away for holidays, etc., but they never wavered. Mark Dismore, from New Castle Motorsports Park, was instrumental in helping me find success in the early days of karting. There’s no chance I’d be where I am today without his support. I’ve also had a ton of help during my time in INDYCAR, both Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter were HUGE in helping me find the rhythm of life on the INDYCAR circuit.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

It’s funny, but I don’t have one that stands out in my mind. I’m not sure I’d classify any of the mistakes I’ve made as “funny.” In racing, every decision matters, and winning requires all of the decisions to be correct. So, when it goes wrong, you just hope that you learn from the mistake and ensure that the next time out you make the correct decision.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

There are going to be many moments in your life where you think everything is over. Your dreams are done. I can’t express how important it is to keep your head up and keep pushing forward. There will be hundreds of bad days, roadblocks, and obstacles, it’s all a part of the journey. Don’t be discouraged.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I really enjoy the work we get to do with charities. Between SeriousFun Children’s Network and Wags and Walks Nashville, we get to help bring a lot of joy to people. The work that SeriousFun does for children is incredible — they create millions of experiences for kids who are dealing with serious illnesses and quite frankly, very adult issues. It’s wonderful to see them get the opportunity to just be a kid again. Wags and Walks also does tremendous work with dogs. They never turn away rescues, and ultimately, they’re constantly saving these animals’ lives and enabling them to bring more joy to families. Who doesn’t love a dog!?

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

I think the most important thing is compartmentalizing. A lot is coming at you when you’re asked to perform at your peak. I find that I need to be able to break down the requirements into individual tasks that you’re working against. Almost a to-do list. This helps you keep emotion out of the situation, which I find can be a big deterrent to success. I focus on the tasks at hand and completing them to the best of my ability.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I wouldn’t say I have a special breathing technique, per se. Driving race cars on the edge is taxing on your body. Aerobic fitness is incredibly important. I spend a lot of time out of the car pushing myself to make sure I can perform at a top-level. We do pull quite a bit of g-force when driving, so the main thing is just to make sure you’re not holding your breath!

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

This sounds weird, but I find a short nap just before I get into the race car to be the most effective way for me to hone in on what I need to do. I’ve felt a bit groggy and tired from a nap before some of the best races I’ve ever driven. It’s a bit ironic I guess, but it helps me a lot.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

INDYCAR racing requires you to be a well-rounded athlete. You can’t just be physically strong or aerobically strong individually, you have to be the complete package. We don’t have power steering, and as I mentioned, we pull several g’s in the corners, plus it’s north of 120 degrees in the cockpit. So, I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to prepare myself for the stresses that are involved in racing. I’m a big proponent of the Concept2 SkiErgs and Rowers. I think those machines do a great job of replicating the stress that racing puts on your body. Outside of that, I focus on a clean diet, especially on race day.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

I think if you surveyed every successful person — be that an athlete, businessperson, doctor, etc. — you’d find that they all have one thing in common, a solid routine. If you can develop habits that improve your performance to a point that they become instinctual, it frees up that mental capacity to focus on tasks while you’re performing at your peak. Whether it be my workouts, my diet, my pre-race routine, whatever it may be, I find that the less I have to “think” about these things the more I can zero in on being at my best.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

I think the first and most important step to create impactful habits is to start simple. It can be as simple as the time of day you wake up or making your bed. Once you get going, you have to commit. It’s not going to happen overnight; you have to put in the effort. I’ve found that the best way to get rid of bad habits is to replace them with a good habit from the start. If you know something is wrong, make the change, but don’t just drop it, replace it with something to better yourself, so rather than feeling like you’re missing something, you’re just adjusting your focus.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

We absolutely experience this in the car. And it is a tremendous feeling when you get there. Everything becomes so calm, you’re completely in touch with the car, the track, and it becomes entirely instinctual. That being said, getting there is difficult. I’ve found that if you’re TRYING to get into the flow you often won’t get there. It happens somewhat naturally, but in my experiences, it happens most often when you’re pushing yourself to the max physically. There’s a pain or exhaustion threshold that I think we all hit and if you can focus and get past that, you hit this “flow.” The pain isn’t there anymore and you’re operating at peak performance. I’m not sure I have any tips for getting there, it likely comes down to preparation. You have to tune your body and mind to perform, and flow is the byproduct of successful preparation.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I don’t! Unless you count naps! I find that centers my mind best!

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

This comes back to compartmentalizing. It’s not easy, but you have to be able to separate things. I often will let a bad race weekend bother me for a couple of days after the race. It affects my mood, appetite, everything. But when we get to the middle of the week and are heading into the next race weekend, that switch flips. It’s time to get focused on what’s next. So, I think it’s important to think about and diagnose missteps or bad weekends so you can learn from them, but ultimately you need to flip that switch and focus on what’s ahead as soon as you can.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try my best to make a positive impact. Whether that be through charitable work I do with SeriousFun Children’s Network and Wags and Walks, or just through a small interaction with a fan at the track. In this position, you have a lot of opportunities to make a significant impact on someone’s life, even if it’s just signing that autograph for the young fan at the end of the day. I count myself as one of the lucky ones in life. I try to continue to tell myself that even when I’m having a bad day. I think staying grounded is important and I never forget that all of these blessings could be gone tomorrow.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney. Walt was such an innovator, futurist, and visionary. I love his approach to problem-solving, customer experience, and attention to detail.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I’d love to have lunch with Christopher Nolan. I’m a big fan of cinema, and Christopher’s work specifically. I’d just love to pick his brain and understand his career path, what he thinks makes him different than other directors, how he sees things, everything!

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