Q: “Would you address what differs (or maybe does not differ) for middle-aged newbies to learn performance driving as compared to the younger folks? The body and mind work quite a bit differently than when I was in my teens and twenties, but I have patience and, hopefully, wisdom now (or so I think).”
The biggest difference I see between younger and older drivers is motivation, and the impact that has on what one is willing to do to either drive faster or improve. Typically, younger drivers are willing to take more risks, and this mostly has to do with what they “have to live for,” compared to someone who is a little further along in life. If, for example, you’re in your mid-forties, have a family, a home, and a strong professional life, it’s likely that you’re less willing to risk what it takes to drive faster – at least in comparison to someone who doesn’t have, let’s say, a spouse, career and other assets. And for that person later in life, they may not be as willing to invest the time that it takes to improve.
That’s why I think many “older” drivers have more of a challenge with learning to drive fast. It has little to nothing to do with reaction times, eyesight, or any other physical ability.
It used to be said that younger people learn faster, as it’s “hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” but recent research has pretty much proven that is wrong. In fact, “neuroplasticity” is a term that is used to describe how our brains are able and capable of learning throughout our lives. Again, the biggest reason why an older brain may not be as moldable (learning new tricks) is a matter of motivation. If an older person really wants to learn something as much as a younger person, and is willing to do what it takes, then they will. The only exception to this is what we learn prior to our early teen years, as there does seem to be some neuro-programming going on at that age that might not happen as much later on (but even that is being questioned by some brain researchers).
One thing that is different between a middle-aged driver and a younger one is the number of habits they have. The older driver may have more bad habits to break before being able to build new, good ones. But again, it comes down to how bad you want to break them.
There’s no doubt that the body does go through some physiological changes when aging, so depending on the level of performance driving, that can have an impact. If you’re driving a seriously fast car that requires very high levels of strength and endurance, it could be harder for a middle-aged driver to build up to those levels – but there’s no shortage of middle-aged, and older, people who have demonstrated extreme fitness levels. Again, it comes down to how bad that person wants it – motivation.
I’ve taught and coached drivers of practically every age, and I’ve not seen anything physiologically that limits a middle-aged person from learning and getting as good as a younger person. Motivation and the willingness to take risks are about the only difference.
By the way, if you want to learn more about neuro-plasticity, I highly recommend the book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Dr. Norman Doidge. It’ll blow your mind (pun intended)!