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Mental Skills for Adventure Riding

“I’m beginning to think I’m just not cut out for this whole motorcycling business”, – a friend recently told me.

She was upset that she couldn’t keep up with other riders, wasn’t cornering well, and felt like she simply “had no talent” for riding.

She had only gotten her motorcycle endorsement a month ago.

It’s remarkable how many new riders believe they need to have mastered not only the mechanics of cornering, braking, and simply keeping the bike upright at low speeds, but also the anxiety of maneuvering a powerful machine in traffic, on dirt, with other riders or solo, and do so with a smile. This friend isn’t inept; she’s simply inexperienced.

Those of us who have been riding for years know it takes more than a few months to truly master motorcycle riding. What’s bothering her, as a novice, is completely normal; in fact, the best riders are constantly learning and improving

So why is it we can talk about the nuts and bolts of riding, but fail to address our mental and emotional states related to motorcycling, especially the unpleasant ones? The reality is it’s easier to talk about the stuff we can control: farkles, tires, styles of bikes, how to corner, and the endless debates on most forums will attest to how opinionated riders can be about almost any of these subjects. But what’s missing is a discussion of an equally important set of skills: the mental ones. Because the truth is mental skills can be taught and practiced just as easily as the physical ones. And while knowing how to maneuver your bike is imperative, knowing how to keep your head relaxed and focused not only increases your safety, it’s a huge part of the joy of riding.

When addressing the mental side of riding there are three main skill areas to target: why, where, and how: why am riding, where am I looking, and how am I putting that into action.

The first question to ask is, why am I…risking getting on a motorcycle, riding in crazy traffic, taking off around the world, going with this group, going off by myself, getting back on after an accident…answering this speaks to the underlying willingness to take chances, to accept that things might go wrong, that accidents can happen, and that riding is worth that risk. It’s accepting that living life fully is worth it, that the experiences to be gained tip the scales favorably against the challenges that may arise; and that in fact those challenges often create the best experiences.

“You go where you look.” Every motorcyclist has heard that dozens times. The same principle applies to the mental side of riding. For example, if you are nervous when you see a potholed road, the natural tendency is to tell yourself to “avoid the hole,” but when you do that your mind automatically fixates on it. If, instead, you tell yourself “what’s my line,” your mental conversations will focus on what you want to have happen. Not a positive pep talk, but realistic actions and plans: ”eyes up, line” will tell your brain what to do, while standing up will give you a longer view down the road. Both actions will keep you engaged. Practice finding the phrases that instruct your brain to take the actions you want, especially in areas that are currently challenging for you.

Not only should you be training your brain to look for the right line, you need to be noticing the stories it’s telling you. New riders tend to focus on their inexperience, their fears, and their mistakes. Guess what? That’s where your attention will go. Your inner critic may be shouting, “You aren’t as good as this group” or “What if I make a mistake in front of these riders?” Rather than attending to this negativity, or even trying to shut it up, simply change the stories. Far more helpful to be saying “I’m learning new skills every time I ride” or “I dropped my bike and was able to figure out what I did so I can correct it.” Your mind will shift to seeking out positive emotions; the ones that will be more useful in improving your riding and making you eager to get out on the bike.

Next steps? Put your words into practice. Commit to the action no matter what else your mind is trying to tell you. Off-camber hard right turn: keep telling yourself to “turn your head, turn your head, turn your head,” shift your body to make that happen, and keep it up until you’ve successfully navigated it. Sure, you may be freaking out, but if you can commit to the action required to make the turn despite those emotions, you’ll soon find them less scary and notice your confidence growing.

Along with real time practice comes mental rehearsal. Your brain is an endless source of ‘what ifs,’ and those can be a huge source of fear, especially with newer riders. Rather than spinning endlessly on negative scenarios, shift the question to “what will I do if” and rehearse action plans. “What if I fall when I’m with these riders and I can’t keep up and I look like an idiot…” becomes “if I fall I may be embarrassed but I’ll survive” “I’ll ask for help picking up my bike” “if they are too fast for me I will know my way home and find a way to gracefully leave,” and “I’m still new and it’s okay.” Learning how to lift your bike, listening to other riders talk about dropping their bikes, adding more classes to build your skills are all actions you can take to address your concerns. Then when the fears pop up you can review your plans, accept your newness at riding, and even visualize laughing at your mistakes.

Even as your skills increase, fears will still find a way of creeping in. For each one, such as “What if that car cuts me off in traffic,” turn it into something productive like “am I leaving enough space between me and the cars around me to take evasive action, what are my escape routes, am I paying attention to the head and wheels of that driver so I can anticipate before he does something?” While you can’t plan for every possibility, turning the ‘what ifs’ into ‘what will I do ifs’ builds a repertoire of reactions to draw on just as practicing quick stops, low speed turns, and cornering builds your physical skills.

Recognizing that introductory street riding classes often provide only a few hours of actual time on the bike, most are held in controlled environments, and novice off-road classes are designed to teach a specific set of skills for beginners to gain confidence starting out on dirt means being forgiving of yourself for not knowing everything when you complete the course. Getting on the bike, practicing skills, and building confidence take time. One of the biggest threats for new riders is feeling pressure, whether internal or external, to push out of their comfort zone to keep up with whomever they are with. Practicing the mental skills alongside the physical ones every time you get on the bike will increase the odds of successfully transitioning from a novice to experienced rider.

Words: Lynda Lahman


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