Instructor Training Preparation
Looking at becoming an instructor? This essay will cover the most important preparation points for an instructor clinic or an instructor training school, based on my experience both attending TrackDaze, NASA, PCA and SCCA instructor training programs and being an instructor mentor (this is the person that trains and evaluates instructor candidates).
As you are going through the instructor training, always keep in mind that the program is really half training and half a job interview. Instructor mentors and organizers are looking to filter out candidates they don't want to be instructors in their organization. It's generally more important to not get disqualified than to show amazing skills, so don't give your evaluators any ammunition to disqualify you.
Usually instructor training programs require a certain amount of experience before a candidate is accepted into them. Thus the first prerequisite for a hopeful instructor is a driver log with a list of events you have attended and, roughly, the following information for each event:
- Organization running the event;
- Your run group;
- Whether you were an instructed or solo driver.
An instructor candidate is usually expected to have experience at a wide variety of tracks, in part because an inevitable aspect of instructing is doing so at a track you have not driven. Drivers who have only driven a couple of tracks, especially similar tracks, may find it challenging to figure out a new track period, much less doing so while keeping a novice on said track.
In virtually all cases instructor candidates are expected to have been promoted to the most experienced non-instructor run group in the organization(s) they are driving with. Some instructor clinics require only a specific number of track days of experience; other require certain skills, most commonly indirectly as a requirement to be promoted to the most experienced run group. Still other organizations conduct instructor training by invitation only; to be invited one generally has to attend a significant number of events with that particular organization for the staff to notice and recognize the driving abilities of the hopeful instructor.
Assuming you have gotten into an instructor training program, your number one rule for its duration is:
Follow Directions And Do Not Argue
An instructor training program always contains an evaluation component. More precisely, each candidate is evaluated the entire time they are undergoing "instructor training" - from the condition of the car they bring to the event, if any, to how they are dressed, to how they drive and, eventually, how they instruct.
Most organizations expect their instructors to follow the "party line" on some aspect of driving or event organization or another. One organization may have a specific line they all drive in a particular corner at their home track, another organization may be a stickler for meeting attendance. Whatever the case is, if a mentor, a classroom instructor or the chief instructor offers a "suggestion" (and most definitely if they outright ask or command to do something), you should do that thing to the best of your ability.
You may find that you have never done what is being requested or have a hard time understanding the request, such as driving a particular line in some section of the track. Usually in these circumstances a poor execution of what was asked is greatly preferred to an outstanding execution of an alternative.
On a similar note, telling a mentor or a classroom instructor that they are wrong, or arguing with them, even if they are indeed wrong, will only ever count against the candidate. You will have time to develop your own instructing process and style once you actually become an instructor; instructor "training" is the time to nod your head and say "Yes, sir".
If you make it through the classroom portion of instructor training and get to role playing, you will be doing a lot of morning interviews, bringing us to:
Morning Interview Practice
During instructor training, most if not all role playing scenarios will begin with the morning interview. The irony of the situation, of course, is that there isn't enough time to do a proper interview as you will have about 3-5 minutes and, for example, my comprehensive interviews probably take closer to 15 minutes. Don't forget that you are evaluated on how you do the morning interviews, along with everything else as we already covered.
Morning interviews during instructor training are mostly about memorizing the questions and being able to offer responses that go along with what the "student" (that would be your instructor mentor) is saying. You can practice these interviews by yourself or with a track friend. If you do, you will be much more confident during instructor training and your speed of responses and flow will help you get high marks in evaluations.
Following the morning interview you will jump in the right seat of your mentor's car and instruct them on course. I believe that an instructor candidate who is proficient in two skills will get 80% of the marks for the in-car instruction category. These skills are reference points and the amount of time they spend talking in the car.
Most drivers learn best when they are given a point on track to do something like apply the brakes or turn in and then allowed to perform the requested action on their own. The alternative to reference points are immediate commands given via voice or hand signals - "turn now", "brake now". Immediate commands require the driver to react instantaneously, giving them no time to think about or prepare for the action. The driver may also become dependent on these commands, creating difficulty when they try to drive alone.
With reference points the instructor (instructor candidate in the context of instructor training) tells the driver what to do ahead of time, giving the driver time to process what needs to be done and prepare appropriately, both for the action itself and for its outcomes.
Additionally, when an instructor candidate performs reference point-based instruction they are demonstrating knowledge of the track, confidence in their instructions being correct and confidence that they have a bond with the driver such that the driver will understand and execute what the instructor is requesting. These are all important qualities of an instructor that the mentors are looking for (remember, you are always being evaluated).
Talking Vs Silence
A driver needs to think when they are out on track. A novice driver needs to think a lot. They can't be thinking if they are listening to their instructor and their instructor talks non-stop the entire lap. Most drivers will tune out their instructor in such a case and concentrate on their driving.
A common mistake instructor candidates make is talking too much. The candidate should spend less than half of the time talking; a third of the time is probably a good amount when working with a novice driver at the beginning of an event, which is what most role playing scenarios are about. With more experienced driver (or the same novice driver later in the event), talking a quarter of the total time is probably appropriate. Long straights are good opportunities to explain something that is directly relevant to what the driver is doing, be that good or bad; however, the message needs to be packaged in such a way that it is delivered before the straight ends.
A related point here is that the instructor's communication with novices should almost always be forward-facing. Meaning, for example, that if the driver makes a mistake in turn 1 it is generally better to not say anything between turns 1 and 2 about it but hold that thought until the driver makes their way back to the front straight, prior to them going into turn 1 on the next lap.
Role Playing Reactions
Reference points and the right amount of talking will get you to 80% of success through role playing scenarios. The remaining 20% is demonstrating appropriate reactions to the various driver personality types:
- Encourage and praise timid drivers, but keep in mind that it is not your task to make them into racers - they simply need to enjoy the event.
- Restrain and control aggressive drivers - these are normally more challenging to deal with than the timid drivers because you would need to deliver driving instruction and control the driver's emotions at the same time, while having little experience in either. Control of aggressive drivers is another skill that can be easily practiced by yourself as a thought experiment as well as with a friend. Lastly on the topic of aggressive drivers, do not hesitate to bring the driver into the pits and lecture them there. I think many candidates err on the side of letting the driver do their thing which works most of the time as most people have a well-developed self-preservation instinct but can fail sometimes, unfortunately the failures often make the news and sometimes cause fatalities. If you think, or suspect, that the driver is not listening to you, or is pretending not to listen to you, bring them into the pits and have a chat.
These are the bullet points for doing well in an instructor training program. Let's take a moment to discuss one quality of the instructor candidate that is generally not a matter of concern during instructor training:
Yes, the driving skill is in the last place. There can be a certain baseline skill requirement by virtue of the instructor candidate having attended a prescribed number of events or driving in a certain run group for a minimum length of time, but the truth is that to pass an instructor training program an average driving skill is often sufficient.
Naturally, instructors can only teach to their own level, thus an instructor with a more developed driving skill is a better instructor. In the context of instructor training however there is virtually no difference between an average driver and a talented driver in the evaluations, because the expectation is generally that the instructor is "an average driver or better".
On the flip side, pointing out that your mentor is wrong because you possess a skill that they do not, even if true, is a good way to fail an instructor training program.