#FollowYourPassion – How an Ice Hockey Player Became a Formula 1 Performance Coach
Pyry Salmela grew up in Finland with a very simple vision. To play professional ice hockey in one of the most prestigious leagues in the world, the National Hockey League, in North America. It’s a dream few get to achieve. Pyry did make it to a professional standard of ice hockey, just not the NHL.
However, it’s not something that he looks back on with too much regret as it led him to his current passion, coaching.
Pyry on the ice hockey rink. Credit: Elite Prospects
“It was my dream to become a professional NHL player. I guess I called myself a failed athlete.
“That kind of led me into coaching, understanding what I was missing. It was actually a pretty selfish agenda at the start. I wanted to understand what I was missing at the top level. I wasn’t bad. I did a few years as a pro. But I was still missing something,” he said.
We’ve learned already that in the world of performance coaching, you can fall into a sport accidentally that you had no intention of working in when you started out. It was the case for Formula 1 driver, Alex Albon’s coach, Patrick Harding, and the same can be said for Pyry.
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While his playing career didn’t bear the fruits of success he had hoped for, he was still very much keen on continuing to work in the sport when he took up coaching. This he did for a couple of years.
Then, in 2013, Pyry joined the Hinsta Performance Institute which, among other things, works closely with Formula 1 and the FIA in providing expert coaching to their athletes. This is how Pyry would enter Formula 1 for the first time.
“I personally didn’t have any desire to be in F1. That wasn’t on my to-do list. It was by pure coincidence that I ended up there.
“I was working in the Sport Institute, and I knew a friend, who is now working with Valtteri [Bottas], Antti Vierula. And he knew me. They were searching for new coaches in F1.
“Personally, I didn’t have a big desire for F1. I found it a cool sport. On the other hand, it was never about the sport, it was always about optimising and maximising human performance. That was my driving factor. It was about finding the environment where they could excel,” Pyry said.
What started as an admittedly selfish desire to know what he lacked as an athlete, had now transformed into a passion to help his clients reach their full performance potential.
While Pyry says that he didn't envisage a career in Formula 1 for himself, it is a sport that is rich with the involvement of his countrymen. Drivers such as Mika Häkkinen, Kimi Räikkönen, Valtteri Bottas, and Keke Rosberg have all had success in the sport. Pyry says that at one stage, there were four or five coaches in F1 from Finland also, but now there remains just two full-time.
Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen. Credit: Autosport.
Upon entering the world of motorsport in 2013, it was to be a steep learning curve for both Pyry and his first client in the sport, Russian driver, Daniil Kvyat, as Pyry explains.
Pyry and Daniil Kyvat. Credit: Pyry Salmela
“I started at the end of 2013 with a young Daniil Kvyat. He was 18 and that’s where we started. It was his rookie season in F1, and I was a total newbie as well.
“It was a very confusing time for me because it was very unplanned, and I was just dropped in the middle of the ocean to try and understand what the sport was all about. I found it very confusing because it’s a very non-traditional sport. It took me a long time.
“At the start, I was asking what can I actually do here to help? Something I don’t even fully understand yet. In the end, in the majority of sports, the same rules apply. Human physiology, human psychology, they are pretty much the same. Then you just have to understand the sport-specific ABCs. I learned that along the way.
“It was a steep learning curve. A lot of being very curious, chatting to engineers, finding the right people to understand what this sport is actually about. It wasn’t an easy time, but I feel like it paid off,” Pyry said.
Pyry worked with Daniil as he entered Formula 1 with Italian team Toro Rosso, the sister team to Red Bull Racing. He is now the performance coach for French driver, Pierre Gasly.
Gasly was a hotly tipped young driver who joined Formula 1, like Daniil, with Toro Rosso. In 2019, after good performances for the Italian team, Gasly was promoted to the senior team, Red Bull Racing. He would lose his seat midseason unfortunately and be put back with Toro Rosso.
Pierre Gasly. Credit: Planet F1.
It is where Pierre still drives today, though now under the name Scuderia Alpha Tauri. It has been what Pyry refers to as an “interesting journey”. Pierre has had a handful of very successful races with Alpha Tauri including his famous win in Monza in 2020, and Pyry says it is a pleasure to work with the Frenchman.
“Pierre is an ultra-competitive athlete. I feel very lucky to work with Pierre because, firstly, we have built a relationship.
“From the very first day to now it has been an interesting journey so far. He is always seeking the next step. He is always seeking to challenge himself. He is also challenging all of us around him. The man himself has put his own bar very high.
“We always say that we want to have the best version of our lives and that drives us forward. We always see every single race, every single practice as an opportunity to get better. The mindset we have is one of strength when working with Pierre,” he said.
It hasn’t all been good. Getting demoted from the Red Bull senior team was definitely something Pierre would have liked to avoid, even if days like Monza 2020 were still to come. But with the success he has shown and constantly punching above his weight with the machinery at his disposal, Pyry says Pierre was never doubted by the team around him.
“I don’t think we ever really doubted him. We always had the belief. There are only certain things we can control, and we focus on those.
“Obviously, when it [the demotion to Alpha Tauri] happened, we asked why. But from then, we have pretty much moved forward and use every single day as an opportunity.
“Seeing Pierre win in Monza was the cherry on top of the cake. But there were plenty of other races he could have won as well.
“We always say, we don’t look at what races we can score points. We look at every race the same. Whenever an opportunity knocks on our door, we will take it,” he says.
Pierre's win at Monza 2020. Credit: Scuderia Alpha Tauri
Pierre’s performance for their sister team has led to rumours of an upcoming return to the main set-up for Red Bull Racing. Whether or not that move happens, Pyry says he is enjoying life in Formula 1 and sees it as his job for the foreseeable.
“I think when I started, I always said I would give it a try, but I would always go back to ice hockey because that was where I felt the most comfortable and that was my passion.
“I thought “ok let’s try one or two more years”. Now I’ve been here almost ten years already.
“For sure, there were times that I thought of what it would be like in other sports. However, I have spent a lot of time understanding this sport and enhancing my own skills as a coach in this sport. I feel like I still have the mission with Pierre. It’s not finished. So, therefore, I have not put an end date on it, nor have I set any plans for what I’m going to do in the future. I try to live day-by-day,” he said.
As someone who has had his passion be altered by the path he has taken, Pyry has a very interesting view of how you should follow your passion.
“Here’s how I think about it, if everybody were to only do what they are passionate about, there would be so many unemployed people. That’s the reality.
“However, I always try to think about me doing this sacrifice, even if it’s not my actual passion, how can it take me closer to my actual passion. This is how I think about it.
“It’s unrealistic to think the dream will drop from out of the sky and wait around for it. I like to think to myself, “if I do this, will I get closer to where my actual end goal is? What’s the next step?” he said.
While passions may change as life goes on, for Pyry, the important thing is always finding what gives him happiness and pursuing that as much as he possibly can.
“There are a few important things that usually bring happiness to people. First, they feel like they are progressing in their life. Secondly, they feel like they are valued for what they are doing. Third, they actually enjoy working with the people they work with, and the team around them. That’s a more internal driven approach.
“My passion was sport, of course, and reaching my own athletic targets. That turned into a passion for coaching and helping others. It wasn’t Formula 1 or volleyball or an actual sport.
“My passion became making an impact on people’s lives. Whether it’s performance, happiness, or quality of life. When you talk about passion, it is an internal and external driving factor.
“When I take myself closer to those three things I mentioned, feeling I’m progressing in my life, feeling that people appreciate what I do and that I actually enjoy the people I work with, that is why I do it.
“I do think it is self-fulfilling when you find your passion because work starts to feel like your hobby rather than work. However, if we only do what we’re passionate about, they were will be a lot of people unemployed. But, always be thinking, “is this step taking me closer to my passion?”
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