Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

In the last riding tip, I looked at the concept of "Spidy Sense" and how riders develop an early warning system to danger, and the roles played by the various parts of the brain in avoiding harm when riding.

In particular, I looked how the Mid-brain filters incoming information and decides whether to allow the conscious Neo-cortex part of the brain to continue to operate, or if there is a threat, whether control should be handed to the unconscious Reptilian brain, which may switch into automatic panic 'Fight or Flight' mode.

For many developing riders, the Mid-brain seems to hand over to the Reptilian brain not only when the rider is facing a threat, but as soon as it faces an unfamiliar situation;

    ie. one that is not in the stored database of events that we have already experienced.

Only if the Mid-brain finds a match (or at least a near-match) in the database will the Neo-cortex be powered up for some real-time decision making. This explains why developing riders often panic or freeze in situations that an experienced rider would deal with without hesitation. It should be obvious why it's important that the Mid-brain handles tasks in a way that avoids an unwanted panic/freeze reaction.

What's not so obvious is that the conscious Neo-cortex can only handle a very limited number of conscious tasks at the same time. (See Tip no 56 for more info on this!)

For instance, road signs provide information about hazards which we need as we ride, but searching for them consciously takes up a lot of processing power. So as soon we give ourselves some other complex task - for instance overtaking - the Neo-cortex will ditch the road sign search for all the other complex speed/distance/time calculations involved... the rider does an otherwise perfectly judged pass...

...right through a junction, because the road sign wasn't seen!

This is what Keith Code means when he talks about $10-worth of concentration.

That's all very well you might argue, but if we're already saturated with information, how can we train ourselves to process MORE information?

Well, the answer is that it can be done - aircrew have to learn to take in and process lots of information, and so do police drivers. Even riding instructors have to learn to ride safely for themselves, whilst monitoring what the trainee and other drivers are doing, plus anticipating what might happen, have a plan to cope... and at the same time as all that, we have to communicate with the trainee too! It's a much more complex task than most people who haven't tried the job realise!

But can a 'normal' rider do it too? Certainly. The key is automation of the simpler tasks. You already handle mechanical tasks like gear changing or positioning on the road in this way - using peripheral vision to locate the bike plus unconscious steering adjustments. You only think about either consciously when there's a difficult decision to make. So why not hazard perception too?

Trigger:Reaction - in the previous tip, we explained how 'Spidy Sense' comes from a vague sense that something isn't quite right somewhere. The problem is that the rider may not know what caused the sense of unease, and so won't know what the correct response is.

As already suggested, one fairly simple way to automate things is to learn to recognize "visual cues" subconsciously and how to respond automatically. If you doubt this, consider the simple example is a red traffic light - when you first started riding or driving, you had to:

    look for the traffic light
    check what colour it was
    decide what to do next

But with a bit of time on the road, all this becomes automated.

You've now learned how to spot the trigger (red traffic light) and apply the correct reaction (slow down and stop if you are close). All of which works just fine till you go to France or the USA and the lights aren't where you expect them. I've driven clean through a red light in both countries because the lights weren't where I was subconsciously searching for them! So no room for complacency either!

Better yet is to get into the habit of using pre-planned "pre-shot routines", where we respond to a trigger event with a reaction we've already worked out so we've time for all the other stuff - mirrors, signals, positioning, checking out what other people are up to, 'timing' the lights so you don't have to stop suddenly.

This is the concept behind any planned riding, from the Roadcraft 'System of Motorcycle Control' via OSMPSL from UK basic training to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's 'Search Evaluate Execute'.

The important part of a pre-shot routine is not WHICH system you use, but that you respond to a trigger event with a reaction that is:

    easily repeated

For our traffic light example, it might be that we've spotted the lights are green, but our "pre-shot routine" involves planning how and where we'll react if the light goes amber then red. Here are two other examples:

    a 'give up some space' response to an oncoming vehicle if I'm positioned near the white line
    a 'roll-off, check mirror, settle the bike using the brakes, cover the horn & prepare to stop' if I see a vehicle starting to edge out at a side road.

For me, they're almost completely automatic and allow me to concentrate on other aspects of riding safety.

Many of the triggers we use to set off a reaction are visual, though there are triggers you can hear (horns, engine noise) and smell (diesel). Road signs warning of hazards are effective triggers because they are a distinctive shape and colour. If we can get that triangular red & white sign catalogued in the database of "important things to look at", the Mid-brain will learn to use the sign as a subconscious "visual cue"...

...we'll unconsciously see the sign in our peripheral vision...

...the distinctive sign gives the real-time Neo-cortex wake up call and flicks our eyes sideways...

...the sign jumps into our central vision and we consciously focus, we read...

...and get ourselves the vital warning NOT to attempt the pass just there!!

Phew! One aborted overtake!!

The key is moving a step beyond vague 'Spidy Sense' by identifying specific trigger events we can observe and use, and linking them to a specific reaction to deal with the hazards safely, a reaction that occurs automatically. Other "cues" I consciously practice using as triggers are:

    dropped kerbs
    white lines
    broken hedge lines
    road signs
    finger posts
    traffic islands
    lamp posts

which generate a reaction; I visually scan so that I spot side turnings and driveways.

We were talking just the other day about how you filter safely past a car near a junction. The visual cues that would trigger a "don't filter now" reaction include such things as:

    movement of the driver's head to look sideways
    hands taking up a different position on the wheel
    gap opening up between car and the vehicle ahead

I'm sure you can think of plenty more triggers, and how you can link the observation of the "visual cue" to the necessary reaction to deal with the hazard.

Visualisation - So far I've talked as though it's something we have to practice whilst riding. However, Sports Psychology has proven that much can be done whilst comfortably sat in our favourite armchair.

One of the problems we have teaching riders evasive techniques is linking them to a REAL emergency.

Take emergency stops as an example. The way they are almost universally taught is for the instructor or examiner to stand ahead and to the side of the rider, who rides forward. The instructor then raises an arm to signal the rider to stop.

Now, from what we've already covered, it should be fairly obvious this only burns a trigger:reaction pathway where the rider learns to stop for a raised arm!! The first time the rider finds himself in a real emergency, the careful "squeeze, don't grab" technique we've taught (and they've mastered!) goes out the window, they grab the brake as hard as they can and down they go.

So how do you get the rider to use that well-practiced technique when he's about to run into the back of a car?

More extreme reactions like going limp before hitting the deck you might have practiced if you do martial arts - but can you transfer them to the bike in an emergency? What about standing up and jumping just before you hit a car - how can you possibly practice that?

Well, fortunately, there's a proven technique to develop routine skills or to learn something we can't do every day - like collision avoidance! It's called 'visualisation'.

We make use of the brain's ability to be fooled into thinking "I've been here before". Sportmen and other performers have used this for years to avoid "choking" on the big stage - the sprinter who's used to running in front of a few hundred people suddenly running in front of 100,000 at the Olympics, the county cricketer making his test debut at Lords, the actor appearing in the West End for the first time.

How do you do it? Simply close your eyes and imagine you're there. The more vivid and realistic we make the visualisation, the better the learning process. Don't just imagine seeing a road sign, 'feel' the road surface, the 'movement' of the hedgerows, the 'colour' of the sky, the 'sound' of the bike. Picture the car at the junction starting to move, the look on the driver's face as he sees you and stops in your path. Tell yourself what you are going to do to avoid the accident, and make the real-life muscle movements to your imaginary controls.

It gives us the ability to learn the right response so that we know what to do when we get to do it in real life. By running over something in our mind's eye, EVEN THOUGH YOU'VE NEVER BEEN THERE, the brain will think it has been!

It all helps avoid the danger of the Mid-brain kicking in and saying: "hang on, I don't recognise this situation" and panicking or freezing.

Visualisation can also work for complex tasks where parts of the job go missing. There are a series of steps involved in performing a safe U turn, but it's easy to forget something like the shoulder check because the rider is concentrating on balance. Visualisation helps the rider recall and perform each step in order under stress. I try to get trainees to do this before the U turn on the bike test, so that by practicing running through everything in their mind before they launch themselves on what is a one-off run in front of the examiner, everything is done where and when it should be.

Process Goals/Cue Words/Cue Actions - Your overall goal is to return home safely. So break down that wide-ranging task into a number of "process goals" which help focus on specific aspects of the task (eg., negotiating a cross roads, dealing with a slippery surface, arriving at changing traffic lights and watching the mirrors). Use visualisaton to bring them "alive".

For each goal use a trigger "cue word" which instantly refocuses your attention to the goal. It helps to 'name' the "cue" out aloud - the 'multi-sensory' approach helps to fix it in your mind. Making the effort to name the sign - ie. recognising what it means in terms of hazard to the rider - helps generate a positive response to it. This isn't the same as commentary riding where we passively describe what we see and do, it's much more positive;

    trigger:reaction - what would we do if someone shouted "duck"?

That's a learned rather than an instinctive response - we weren't born with the ability to recognise the word "duck"!

Some evidence points to cue actions where we actually do something physical working better than words alone - most of these are part of possible 'pre-shot routines' anyway; for example, moving your fingers to cover the brake when you see a car in a side road can be a reminder to focus on checking the surface, recall smooth application, muscular relaxation, avoiding target fixation, and so on.

And one 'pre-shot routine' can lead you straight into another...

...the visual cue of the "broken hedgeline/white paint" should lead the rider to visually search for a possible emerging vehicle. When the car is spotted...

...the "car in side road" scenario leads you to cover the brakes etc. routine, but also prepare for the...

..."car starting to edge out" scenario so you can go straight into the 'roll-off' routine!

None of this is rocket science, but understood and pulled together in this way makes it a lot easier for us to respond to situations as they develop and before they become emergencies.

Psych Plan - many riders get distracted by outside events and find themselves in dangerous situations they've not seen developing. A 'Psych Plan' pulls together the process goals and cue words/actions for your entire ride. List every distraction that might reasonably occur. Next to the listed items, write down what might happen and what steps you can take to correct them. When it does happen, you should realise what's happening and what to do about it.

So... Conclusions?

No doubt, some of you are reading this and thinking; "yes but this is just how you learn to ride". To some extent, that's perfectly correct, and we do indeed learn most of this by experience sooner or later. Unfortunately, experience is a hard teacher, often painful, frequently expensive, and sadly sometimes terminal.

Using these techniques allows the novice rider to short circuit much of the need for experience and for the experienced rider to develop further.

Like most skills connected with riding, if you make a conscious effort to understand the issues and to develop solutions, these techniques are far more likely to come to your aid and get you out of trouble than instinct.

None of this is not difficult, and much of it can be learned quickly, as people who've done my practical courses will testify. For instance, learning to use road signs or white paint and broken hedge lines as visual cues and using the trigger to link to the appropriate response takes just a few minutes and shows improvements out of all proportion to the effort.

But to be useful it must become a habit, and to keep it a habit, you need to keep the skills fresh by working on them for a few minutes every few now and again. The brain is a bit like a cluttered desk. The stuff you use all the time is at the front, the bits and pieces you haven't looked at for a few days are further back and things you haven't needed for a good while have fallen clean off the back! Practicing regularly keeps techniques in the forefront of your mind.

A good time to refresh is when you're in no rush to get anywhere, or perhaps stuck on a road with a solid "no overtaking" line for several miles - back off, give yourself a bit of space and practice spotting your "visual cues"

Riders who don't cover many miles a year can actively train their brain in these techniques, but they work too for high mileage riders who can't practice every situation they might find themselves in, particularly collision avoidance. The awareness of what might happen (the "What if" game) and the options open (visualisation) may save us in an emergency.