How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
I had a couple of spare days and was sitting down revising my training notes when it crossed my mind that it might be of interest to people to know how I actually put my training courses together.


The content pretty much chooses itself. The Police manual "Motorcycle Roadcraft" has deservedly become the bible as far as defensive riding is concerned. Unfortunately it doesn't have much to say about machine control techniques so that part of the course is drawn from other sources including Keith Code's "A Twist of the Wrist" series. Other sources include the American "Motorcycle Safety Foundation" literature.

[Update 2014 - since this article was originally written fifteen years ago, we've expanded our reading dramatically. Portions of our courses are now based on the 'Ride On' programme from New South Wales in Australia, Pat Hahn's excellent 'Ride Hard, Ride Smart' book underpins a lot of our own thinking on risk assessment and risk management, and we've used the BikeSafe videos from Thames Valley and West Midlands police forces to illustrate parts of our training. The latest 2013 version of Motorcycle Roadcraft is (typos excepted) much improved and now does cover countersteering, although our 'Point and Squirt' approach to cornering is still based largely on Code's ideas. And of course, we've been swapping ideas with other instructors on motorcycle forums from all over the world.]

Some of these topics about defensive riding are adequately covered by many advanced courses, others are concerned with Advanced Machine Control Skills which are frequently ignored. As another instructor said to me recently, "it's no use being told where to put the bike if you're not previously told how to put it there". Machine Control takes a look at the the physical inputs that you make to your machine, explains how and why they work, and ultimately puts you in charge of, rather than simply being a passenger on your own machine. Much of this is not covered in basic training because there isn't time or would be confusing in the circumstances, and many of the techniques are new to experienced riders too.

Course Structure

The manner in which the information is presented is important. For instance, if you simply read Roadcraft and go out and do what it says chapter by chapter, you'll find it very hard to get better, because it is not really laid out as a "teach yourself to ride" guide. There are two possible teaching systems:

1)    Ride with Debrief

The rider is observed on a ride and debriefed at the end with comments and tips. However, I am not great fan of this technique. Trying to "ride like you normally do" with someone following you is almost impossible and many riders will be tempted to try too hard to impress the instructor, which is potentially dangerous, whilst others are unusually cautious. From the instructor's perspective, it's very easy for fundamental riding errors or problem areas of machine control to be overlooked if the rider happens not to make that particular mistake on the run - the danger is that the instructor may assume it is safe to hand out advice based on this mistaken assumption, and attempting to build on an unsafe foundation.

Furthermore, it's very difficult for the instructor to remember to cover everything he wants to, and it can be confusing for the trainee who may not have a clear idea in his/her mind of what he/she is supposed to be doing at any one moment.

Debriefing is a problem too. If the rider has just done a dreadful ride, it is very difficult to avoid being totally negative and destroying the rider's confidence. The danger then is that the instructor glosses over serious errors in an attempt to find a few plus points to maintain confidence, but gives the trainee the wrong impression about his/her riding and at worst boosting ego instead.

The big advantage of this training technique is that the advice handed out an thus be related to immediately by the trainee (as long as he/she can remember or was even aware of the incident that you are commenting on).

2)    Structured Training

The other way to train is work to a pre-planned format. If you've recently done CBT, you'll probably know that it is a highly structured course. The idea is that each trainee is led through a fixed order of new ideas in order to arrive at a point where the trainee can ride a bike with a modicum of skill and safety - it's not dissimilar to teaching subjects in schools. Although CBT is sometimes charged with a lack of flexibility, there are some very good reasons for this, not least that a student should never be presented with a new piece of information or set to practice a new skill unless he/she has an adequate foundation of prior knowledge, skill and (importantly) confidence, on which to base it.

One of the advantages of being a CBT instructor is that I was taught by CSM NEVER to take anything for granted. The classic mistake a novice instructor makes is teaching a new rider to pull away before showing them how to use the brakes - it's such an obvious way to proceed... until you get someone who CAN'T figure out that they need to shut the throttle, squeeze the brake and pull in the clutch to stop! And experience has confirmed that from time to time you do meet someone who won't stop once they've started!

So my courses use a highly structured, building block approach, teaching and practicing new practical and mental skills. By this means, riding is reduced to basics, and split into topics can be learned individually but in succession where each new skill depends at least in part on the last before eventually building up into a complete riding system.

From the instructor's perspective the advantages of this approach are several. The highly structured approach lends itself to notes and training aids, and makes it more likely that I won't forget anything. The rider always has a clear idea of what he/she is trying to achieve at any one moment, and as he/she is going back to basics and mastering one thing at a time, he/she is unlikely to attempt anything that is beyond his/her skill level, and as the task set is achieved, the comments are accordingly complimentary and thus confidence building.

Concentration on one topic at a time doesn't mean to say that I will not look at the whole of a trainee's ride during a particular exercise and talk about other important points that have come up, but we will work to perfect one area of riding before moving onto another, building confidence as we go.

This building block system can have its drawbacks. Sometimes it may not be clear to the student precisely where a particular exercise is going. That observation was made to me just recently but the student concerned said that by the end of the course it suddenly all fell into place and made sense. Unfortunately, with someone who is not very patient and expects a "quick fix" to their riding, that can mean they think they are wasting their time and I have had students cancel part way through a course. Another potential problem is that students can concentrate on the object of one exercise and promptly forget to apply the lesson learned in the previous one - it is important to repeat those lessons with the instructions for each new task.


When we start a new topic, I will introduce it, perhaps putting the information into a mini-lecture that explain the technique, with visual aids as necessary. I will then explain on-road exercises that set some goals for the student to achieve, and then observe and correct as required. At some point if I feel it useful I may demonstrate what I am looking for. When I feel we have reached a satisfactory standard, I finish up by going over the main points again and noting what we have achieved, and noting areas for improvement. I often use Question and Answer to draw out the student's level of understanding, both prior to the exercise, to confirm they understand the exercise about to be attempted and finally to confirm they learnt the lessons intended. Basically these are standard teaching techniques but they work well in motorcycle training too and successfully transfer skills to the trainee.

The Depth of Information and Flexibility

It's a bit awkward to draw a line sometimes between "need to know" and "take on trust" information. As one recent student said to me whilst discussing countersteering, advice from her IAM observers had varied from "don't worry about it, you are doing it or you wouldn't get round the corners" to "Push those bars right over and whizz round". No wonder she was confused. I CAN bake a cake by flinging eggs, butter, flour and milk in a bowl, mixing and putting it in the oven... but the chances of success are very much higher if I know the recipe.

I don't hold with the "don't worry about it" school of thought. So I will discuss how countersteering works or how cornering on the throttle settles the bike on the suspension. If it makes no sense to the student, then fair enough, I won't confuse them with unnecessary detail, but if they want the information I try to have it available. In general I like to know how and why, and so I work on that principle when teaching others, and if you ask questions I'll do my best to answer them.

Very often you get a CBT student who is quite in control of the bike and already knows much more than the basics of machine control, and so the inflexible CBT syllabus is a bit frustrating for both of us. Of course with my own courses I have more flexibility so I can shuffle quickly through the bits that the student is good at and thus concentrate on obvious problem areas.

Importantly I don't like to say, "this is the way it MUST be done". In reality there is usually more than one solution to any problem and different riders on different bikes in different situations will find different solutions work for them. What I try to do is offer ideas and alternatives so you can choose what works for you.


I hope this have given you an insight into how Survival Skills courses are put together and taught. I'm constantly revising my ideas and training techniques to ensure that you, the rider, gets as much from the course as possible.