TDR #11 – Inside the Mind of a Racer

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The Daily Rider #11 22nd September 2020 – What makes for a Champion Racer? Let’s go Inside the Mind of the Racer.

For those readers who missed it the first time around, I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Geiss, the host of the ‘So You Want to Ride a Motorcycle?’ podcast on Wednesday 9th September. You can watch the episode, which was broadcast on Facebook Live, and is soon to be released through all of the usual podcast channels.

As well as discussing my book, we also touched upon the importance of the correct psychology to employ when riding, whether you’re a weekend rider, commuter or road racer. I have just finished reading Joh McGuinness’s latest book; Built for Speed, which I can thoroughly recommend, as a very frank and entertaining insight into the mind of the second most decorated TT racer in the history of the illustrious island race.

What interests me most about his memoirs of racing is the way John got to where he is today. He raced for all the right reasons (he loved it) and it seems that when faced with a single-mindedness of purpose in the face of adversity, the world yielded to his desires.

If you watch a video clip of a race bike lapping the TT course, you might be forgiven for thinking that those who race there are crazy. Notwithstanding that an action camera gives a very limited view of the road ahead at a low frame rate (it looks much better from the saddle), TT riders are not crazy, at least those who last the distance aren’t anyway. These men and women are dedicated to their performance sport, have exceptional training and ability, and they take their riding extremely seriously, as though their lives depended on it.

To achieve success at the TT, a rider needs to have developed their riding chops one way or another. Ideally they will have demonstrated their ability to race on short circuits, and will know how to ride a bike at and over the limits on a controlled course with run off and gravel traps, before trying racing on the roads.

They could just as easily learn to ride on the dirt, and feel comfortable with the movement of wheels beneath them on a less grippy surface. Racing is about learning what it feels like to go fast, and not to freak out when strange things happen beneath you on a motorcycle at and over the limit.

So that’s the general riding skills down. Now you can turn your attention to road racing bit, maybe by getting some practice at a less serious road racing event before trying your hand at the TT.

Get a feel for what it means to ride on the roads. Experience for yourself what it means when you get it wrong. See the repercussions of poor decision-making, poor attitude or improper preparation. Learn what not to do.

Then, when it feels like the next logical step, when you are feeling up to it, turn your attention to the TT course and start to learn it. Start on a small bike and work your way up. Learn the course, ride it as much and as often as you can. Get yourself a mentor and listen to what they have to say. They can help you go faster and really get into the flow.

Riding around the TT course hundreds and hundreds of times is what separates the men from the boys. Many know the course so well that they can ride it in their imagination with their eyes closed. They can train themselves to ride the course, even when they’re not there.

You see, travelling about at between 100 and 200 mph on public roads isn’t only about trusting the machine that you’re siting on, it is about handing over control of a lot of what is happening to the unconscious part of your brain so that you can focus on the intricacies of riding the course, the conditions, and your race strategy.

The Four Stages of Competence – How we Learn

The process to get from newbie to master of any activity follows the same pattern of learning;

1. Unconscious incompetence
The student isn’t aware that a gap in their competence exists
2. Conscious incompetence
The student is aware that there is a gap in their competence and seeks to address their shortcomings
3. Conscious Competence
The student reaches a level of competence through practicing their acquired learning in a conscious deliberate manner
4. Unconscious Competence
Having mastered the activity, the student can perform the action unconsciously.

By the time you get to unconscious competence; you don’t know that you can do something, as it is second nature to you. You merely intend it, and your body does it automatically. You don’t walk around saying to people ‘I can walk’. It’s just a given, if you’re over the age of 2. Unconscious competence is also the point at which you can rely on your intuition; you just know what to do.

When you learned to ride you will recall the first time you rode a motorbike, compared with how you treat riding now with years of experience under your belt. Once you can call upon your unconscious you have attention to spare dealing with other eventualities, such as riding around a particular issue, looking at the scenery, holding a conversation. If you still find you’re using all your attention bandwidth just to ride, you’re probably still in the conscious competence stage.

Inside the Mind of the Rider

It goes without saying that the top level racers are well into Unconscious Competence, and lean heavily upon their intuition to guide their actions towards the successful outcomes they are seeking.

But how can we let our unconscious perform at its very best? Well, firstly the individual must be centred, happy and in a positive frame of mind, and there must be an expectation that things are going well, before turning up the wick. You don’t push through when things aren’t going according to plan. This is where the process of visualisation comes in – I will go into this in more detail in the future.

You do what you need to do to stay feeling comfortable. John McGuinness likes to cut the grass at home before heading to the TT, and he travels with his family to the race so he has them close by, and spends the last minutes before setting off with his family. They keep him grounded, and focussed on the task at hand but also remind him of his priorities in life. This is the solid emotional base of John’s road racing career.

I’m sure others use mediation (mindfulness as it is sometimes known) to clear away any mental fuzz and to help them develop their powers of concentration. You may think it easy to focus on nothing for 15 minutes, but it is harder than you might at first think, especially if you’ve been conditioned by watching the TV news, or sped a lot of time on twitter.

So there’s your answer; practice until you reach a level of unconscious competence, get your head in the right space, and always do what you need to do to feel comfortable.

Progression will come one lap, one race, one ride at a time, and those who succeed in the long run see their riding as a fun sport, as a life’s work, rather than having a point to prove. Those who go out there with a gung-ho attitude, to ‘win at any cost’, usually end up paying the greatest price of all.

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