In a recent two-day intermediate off-road training event, I unexpectedly made a discovery that has transformed my riding – and much more.
It’s not like it’s a big secret: confidence is an incredibly powerful tool. In everyday life, in your career, your relationships, your image of self, confidence is key. In off-road riding, confidence can mean a world of difference: when you believe in yourself and trust your ability, riding off-road can morph from a dreaded challenge into a thrilling adventure and ridiculous fun. But how can you boost your confidence?
The Voice of the Evil Gnome
For the longest time, my off-road (and road, for that matter) riding confidence resembled a fragile little seedling shivering nervously in the icy winds of self-doubt. The slightest external clue that I may not be good enough would crush that tiny plant of self-confidence like a ton of bricks; any critique from other riders would send it shaking uncontrollably and shriveling to minuscule size. But the harshest bully wasn’t anyone on the outside: I was my own most unforgiving critic. My inner judge was relentless, cruel, and ever-present: tiniest mistakes, real or perceived, were blown out of proportion, reluctance to go faster or harder magnified tenfold and presented as evidence of weakness, attempts to improve my riding met with mockery and contempt.
It was extremely exhausting to live with this Evil Gnome in my head, watching, judging, and mocking my every motorcycling move. At some point, I even considered giving bikes up: maybe I simply wasn’t talented enough? Maybe bikes weren’t for me, after all? Maybe women were just naturally less capable of riding motorcycles? Who was I to compete with mama nature, telling me to stick to a safe comfort zone?
However painfully and slowly, I persisted. After nearly two years on a 150cc bike and two unsuccessful attempts to get proficient with bigger bikes later (a word of advice: an old Yamaha XJ 900 and a constantly breaking down Yamaha TDM 850 aren’t great beginner bikes!), I finally got a motorcycle that was fit for me size and capacity-wise this spring.
Lucifer, my trusty Suzuki DR650, felt light enough but also sure-footed enough to take me around and across the Americas. Thanks to a wonderfully patient and encouraging partner and a two-day beginner off-road riding course with West 38 Moto in May, my riding improved tremendously.
20,000 miles later, having ridden parts of the Trans America Trail, parts of the Trans Canada Trail and looping back West via several Back-Country Discovery Routes this summer, I felt even better. Sure, I still couldn’t wheelie, power slide, or jump over enormous logs – but I negotiated sand, mud, rocks, steps and gravel trails with a lot more comfort and ease than before.
Still, the Evil Gnome in my head continued its relentless harassment. “You may have improved your riding, but you still suck at riding very technical trails”. “I bet you couldn’t do what those off-road dudes do on Slick Rock”. “You nearly went off a cliff and then cried like a little baby in your helmet on Mineral Creek”. “You think you can ride sand? Ha! I’d like to see you try some real dunes”. And so on, and so forth; unreasonable, distorted, illogical, but dangerously powerful, the voice of my inner critic still followed my every accomplishment and every victory and relished at every setback.
So when I showed up for the intermediate off-road training event in Ouray, Colorado a few weeks back, I anticipated the same amount of self-doubt and anxiety as in the beginner’s class in May. I expected I’d be unsure, hesitating, and cautious. I was determined to do my best, but doubted that it would amount to much.
Instead, and unexpectedly, there was an almost mysterious light-bulb moment. Somewhere during the day, I saw the light: suddenly, my head was blissfully empty save for the task at hand. The Evil Gnome disappeared like a wisp of mist in the rising morning sun. My focus was suddenly crystal clear. As if by magic, I was suddenly able to pay attention solely to the exercise in front of me, twist the throttle, and go for it.
Cool, collected, calculating, relaxed: certainly not words I would have used to describe my riding style before. Now, suddenly, there was this new me, doing these new things with newly found ease.
What was even more astonishing was that this feeling of calm self-confidence and certainty never left. The next day, we took our bikes over Corkscrew, Hurricane, and California passes. We negotiated rocky switchbacks, boulders, sharp stones, steps, gravel, snow, rain, insanely steep inclines and more. I rode it all without dropping my bike once, without hesitation, without fear or anxiety. There was some healthy and natural adrenaline; I made mistakes; I picked good and bad lines; I could have gone faster at times, or with more finesse at other times. But this time around, I was able to simply look back at the ride objectively, make a mental note of how to approach similar challenges in the future, and enjoy the hell out of it.
So what happened? Here’s a summary of tips that may send your own Evil Gnome into permanent banishment, and let your true motorcycling self bloom.
Trust Your Instructor
Because of extremely positive previous experience, I now knew and trusted the course instructor, Dusty, completely. In my head, this meant two things: a) if Dusty thinks I can do something, he’s probably right: as a professional and talented trainer, he can assess my ability objectively; b) Dusty wouldn’t send me up trails that he knew I couldn’t do – reckless risk and putting people in danger aren’t on West 38 Moto’s agenda.
The second encouraging factor was that during the previous training, I completed all exercises and tasks, learned heaps, and significantly improved my riding.
Finally, those twenty thousand miles of dirt and road this summer was a big bonus: May training gave me tools to improve my riding, and the actual riding helped me gain more experience and use those tools to polish my technique.
Me and logic rarely see eye to eye, and my Evil Gnome is never reasonable. But the mounting evidence that I wasn’t an impostor, but rather just another rider looking to improve her skills, tipped the scales to my advantage this time around.
So sit down and make a list of your accomplishments, and be as self-congratulatory as you can. List everything, big or small: your previous training, your experience, your victories, your miles and your ability. Exaggerate your strengths. Document your achievements. Now look at the list: pretty impressive, isn’t it? Even if you just started riding and haven’t done more than fifty miles off road yet, you already are a badass simply for taking up motorcycling. You are already have your motorcycling license. You are already daring and adventurous – you took it off-road! Whether you’ve been riding for a month or a decade, you already are ahead. Savor it. Let yourself impress you!
Pick Your Battles
Women tend to overachieve everything: working multiple jobs, raising a family, juggling relationships, travels and adventures, helping friends and family… It’s exhausting, and sometimes, it can be counterproductive. Set goals that you literally can’t fail at, and take one challenge at a time. Riding around the world, winning the Dakar and outperforming the most experienced adventure riders out there sounds like an ambitious plan – but how about for now, you simply concentrate on getting better at riding sand or finishing one of the Back-Country Discovery Routes? Be realistic, give yourself some slack, and concentrate on one task rather than try to excel at five different ones simultaneously.
Ditch the Yard Stick
You know what’s the real secret of true, unadulterated self-confidence? It isn’t ‘faking it’, it isn’t empty arrogance, and it isn’t fierce competition of staying at the top. It’s the ability to not judge yourself at all!
Let that sink in for a moment: there are no standards. And if standards are suddenly removed, you don’t have to measure yourself against anything and anyone. It’s just you, your motorcycle, and your adventures.
Why do men seem to be naturally more confident than women? As one guy put it, because they rarely measure themselves against others: “I love playing the guitar and singing. I know I’m no rock star, but I also know that I’m not horribly bad at it, either. So I just go on stage and play and sing my little heart out; I don’t compare my music to anyone else’s. I just love playing it”.
Same goes for motorcycling. If you stop comparing yourself to other riders, if you quit trying to measure up to standards which aren’t your own, suddenly you are free to just be you and ride your ride.
Testosterone Rex is Dead
“Men are natural risk takers”, “testosterone makes men more competitive and adventurous”, “women are naturally more careful – it’s hardwired in their brains”. Familiar statements? Forget them: while men and women’s reproductive systems differ greatly, our brains and behaviors, it turns out, do not. Don’t believe me? Read Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex”, a book where the British professor, researcher and psychologist brilliantly – and scientifically – picks apart all the popular testosterone myths and notions.
“Gender isn’t a biologically determined role – rather, it’s a socially constructed mode of behavior. True, men and women’s brains do differ slightly, but what is perceived as masculinity and femininity aren’t strict categories – they are beautifully complex mosaics, and what we perceive as “feminine” or “masculine” natures are influenced by sociologic, cultural, historical and economic factors tremendously more than mere biology”, – says C.Fine.
Be free: women aren’t innately less adventurous, courageous, or capable than men. We’re every bit as strong, every bit as curious, and every bit as able to do whatever we please to – including riding the hell out of motorcycles!