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Training for skills, pushing the envelope and margins for error, and over-confidence
Fundamentally, training in hazard awareness, risk assessment and risk management is the essential counterweight to balance training in riding skills. If we don't get the balance right - or ignore the risk aspect altogether - then it's easy to become overly confident, particularly as most of us (at least, right up to our first big crash) have false sense of indestructibility. Skills training, particularly when combined with inexperience, can lead to levels of confidence which take us into situations we cannot handle. It's vital to recognise that this is a real issue. We should see training as a way to INCREASE our margins for error, and not an excuse to push our skills to the limit.
Let's explain what I mean by asking a question. Why do we take training? The usual answers will be "to be a better or safer rider" or "to gain confidence".
Let's look at the 'safer rider' idea first. As I've said many times, there is no such thing as 'safety' on a motorcycle, and anyone who tells us that training makes us 'safe' riders is kidding us and themselves. Instead of safety, we need to think in terms of risk. In very simple terms, risk is:
the chance of something going wrong MULTIPLIED BY the impact on us when it goes wrong
So we really need a good grasp of what can go wrong!
That means understanding WHAT creates a threat to our health; that is, a 'hazard', WHERE we'll find those hazards, and WHY the hazard creates a risk. Once we know that, we can assess the risk, and have a better understand how to manage that risk. It may sound the same but it creates a very different mindset when we start looking at riding in terms of "what can go wrong" rather than "what I'm doing makes me safe".
And what about the concept of becoming a 'better' rider. What does 'better' actually mean?
For many training courses, it means that the trainee goes away with better 'skills'. Skills tend to focus is on vehicle manoeuvring. This might be improved braking technique, better use of the throttle, the ability to swerve around an obstacle or techniques designed to improve cornering. This is particularly evident in track-based training and I often hear it suggested that new or less-confident riders to take a track-training day "to get used to handling the bike at higher speeds / greater lean angles / under harder braking".
So the question we have to ask ourselves is "what does the trainee come away with?"
The answer is that whilst the trainee may have improved what were previously disfunctional skills, there is a risk they'll come away from the session being able to use - and FEELING CONFIDENT TO USE - those higher speeds, greater lean angles and harder braking out on the road. It should be fairly obvious that there are potential problems here:
IMPROVING our own level of skill does NOT change bike dynamics. For example, our skill level does not change the level of grip between tyres and road. We may be more capable of braking harder or leaning more, but it also pushes us closer to the edge of the envelope.
EXPLOITING improved skills to ride faster, at greater lean angles or to brake harder DOES significantly changes bike dynamics. For example, we should know that if we double our speed, we QUADRUPLE our stopping distance. So even if we increase our speed by 25%, we increase our braking distance by more than might be obvious. More speed also increases the radius of a turn which means to get round a particular corner requires more lean angle, which makes it harder to brake or change direction, or even to respond to a slippery surface.
There's a secondary effect. If we're taught skills that allow us to perform more complex manoeuvres, then because they are more complex they nearly always have a higher risk of going wrong. For example, learning slow handling skills encourages riders try U-turns in confined areas where there's a greater risk the manoeuvre will go wrong.
And finally, there's no guarantee that we'll use any of these added skills in an emergency. That's something Keith Code noted years ago in his 'Twist of the Wrist' books. He realised that even highly-trained riders revert to instinct and panic because their training leads them to expect things to go right. When they go wrong, SURPRISE! kicks in, and they suffer from what he called 'survival reactions' - typically, panic reactions, freezing and target fixation.
So what I'm getting at is that there's another kind of 'better' and that's an improved understanding of what can go wrong, a heightened awareness of risk, and an ability to make better decisions when confronted with a threat.
Here is a very simple example. What's the most common crash involving a rider in an urban area? You probably guessed, it's the 'Sorry Mate I Didn't See You' SMIDSY collision.
So first of all we need an understanding that driver can fail to see a motorcycle even when it seems to the rider that the bike is perfectly visible. (If you want to find out more about that, check out my work on the Science Of Being Seen or SOBS for short at http://scienceofbeingseen.wordpress.com.) ONLY when we have THAT understanding, do we have an awareness that there is a genuine risk that we may not be seen.
Then when we have achieved that, we can put BOTH parts - better skills and better awareness of what goes wrong - together. Stategies can be put in place to manage the risk, including our skills-based training - slowing down, changing position to improve lines of sight, sounding the horn, being prepared to take evasive action by emergency braking and / or swerving.
So here's the Survival Skills approach to advanced motorcycle training. Rather than push closer to the 'edge of the envelope', let's increase our 'margin for error'. Instead of using our ability to brake harder to carry more speed, let's use our awareness of the risks of riding to exploit those skills to stop in shorter distances in emergencies. Instead of using our ability to lean over further to increase our cornering speed, let's understand what can go wrong in a corner to hold it at the same angle in case the corner tightens - so we have 'BANK in the BANK', to quote one of the 'No Surprise? No Accident' 'Rhyming Reminders'. Instead of trying to perform a U-turn in a confined space, understand that making life complex increases the risks of things going wrong, so look for somewhere easier or perform a three-point turn instead.
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