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Visualisation - how to improve riding from an armchair
In the last previous Spidy Sense article, I looked at how experience allows us to develop our red-alert Spidy Sense. But I'm going to describe an incident that happened when I was a basic trainer. At the time, the current two-part Module One / Module Two test was still a couple of years off, so the special exercises - including the emergency stop - were still tested on-road rather than off-road at the special sites adjacent to the test centre. One wet afternoon, the examiner came back early minus my test candidate - she'd crashed doing a real-life emergency stop. As we'd spent a lot of time working on this very skill, I dug into the research to try to gain a better understanding of how we react in an emergency. And what I unearthed was quite scary; the emergency stop we practice before the motorcycle test is almost entirely useless in terms of preparation for a real-world emergency. The basic concept was expanded in 'MIND over MOTORCYCLE', a book which you can purchase
Virtually everything I've talked about to date - and of course what I deliver on my practical advanced rider training courses - implies that we have to be actually out on two wheels to improve our riding. But step back a pace.
How do we develop skills for an event for which we CANNOT practice?
If the examiner returns minus trainee, there are several possibilities. The bike may have broken down, the trainee could have lost the examiner, or the test might have been abandoned. Or the bike's been damaged - occasionally a low-speed topple-off on the U-turn would snap off a lever - I always had carried a spare for that reason. So when the instructor said my candidate had crashed and was unhurt, I wasn't unduly worried until he told me she'd been trying to avoid a car that had pulled out of a junction and sped off.
"When the car pulled out, she locked the front wheel on the wet surface."
The odd thing is", he mused almost to himself, "we'd only just moved away after she made a perfect emergency stop for me."
Over five days, Sue - my trainee - had performed at least fifty wet and dry emergency stops off-road during her training, and was perfectly competent at making controlled stops on the road too, because we'd practiced them there too.
I was puzzled too, and over the next few days, I wondered what had happened. Eventually, the reason for the crash became clear to me. It was a combination of WHERE the emergency stop is taught, and HOW the response was triggered:
WHERE - the e-stop is taught off-road in a safe environment
HOW - the instructor or examiner stands out of the way and signals the trainee to stop by raising an arm
So the first thing to note is that there's no real emergency - it's simply an exercise, a drill, that creates a repetitive 'routine'. And the second point of note is that the instructor or examiner is giving the trainee a visual 'cue' to drop into that routine - 'off the gas, on with the front brake, on with the rear, squeeze harder, etc.' routine. It's what they would have performed at least a couple of dozen times in the past. By the time the trainee met the examiner, that routine would be well-oiled.
And in fact, as the examiner explained, when my trainee responded to the examiner's cue of a raised arm, she performed her routine and demonstrated a perfect wet road e-stop.
So what went wrong moments later?
The answer is simple. She might have mastered the TECHNIQUE. But she had no awareness of when she might need to use it. The real-life emergency that happened just a few seconds later came out of the blue and she was taken completely by SURPRISE!
Surprised, her careful "squeeze, don't grab" technique deserted her. Insted of her learned drill, the threat of harm alerted the primitive reptilian brain, which took control of the situation, and responded with one of the 'Survival Reactions' I've talked about elsewhere. She grabbed a handful of front brake, and down bike and rider went.
If a freshly-trained rider who's just performed a perfect e-stop on the same road cannot stop safely in a real emergency just a few metres away, then it's small wonder that collision investigators often find that in the "Sorry Mate I Didn't See You" SMIDSY collision, the bike could usually have stopped and it was the rider failed to deliver.
And think about the current emergency stop and swerve routines in the latest version of the test.
It removes even the tiny element of SURPRISE! that came from wondering just when the examiner might raise his or her arm.
Practiced in a safe environment around cones, where the rider aims past the speed trap radar, All the rider has to learn is to pass the trap at an appropriate speed, then stop or swerve in a reasonably brisk fashion.
No wonder we haven't solved the SMIDSY problem!
So what could we do better? How could riders be trained to respond to an emergency that off-road training cannot reproduce?
We need to introduce 'unpredictability' into the training. Only half-jokingly, I suggested long ago that maybe instructors should pushing a hidden rubber car out into the trainee's path.
A rather better answer would almost certainly be a simulator. Airline pilots learn to fly in simulators, and are put through all manner of training situations so they have an idea of what COULD happen before they're out flying the plane and get into trouble. Increasingly, high-fidelity simulators are being used in research into driver and rider behaviour because it's been realised that many of the earlier studies were unrealistic and "based on still photos, short video clips, or contrived on-road trials" as one research paper put it recently. We may not be able to afford a simulator with all the bells and whistles of an airliner, but even a cheap 'three screens powered by a PC' simulator would be a start. I first saw one demonstrated in the 90s. I'm still waiting for trainers to be offered the software to run on one.
So failing that, we can exploit a technique from Sports Psychology. It's called 'visualisation' and it's a way of using our own brain's built-in simulator - we call it 'imagination'.
All we have to do is close our eyes and imagine the scenario we want to learn the response to. Our imagination has the ability to fool the brain into thinking "I've been here before and this is what I did last time" and the more vivid and realistic our 'experience', the better the learning process.
Don't just imagine seeing the car pull out and applying the brakes, 'see' the whole run-up to the emergency. 'See' the junction warning sign, spot the gap in the hedgerows, 'feel' the road surface under the wheels, and 'hear' the sound of the bike. Visualise the car at the junction. 'Watch' it starting to move and the look on the driver's face as he spots us and stops in our path. If we also talk to ourselves by saying what we're going to do to avoid the collision, and AT THE SAME TIME make the real-life muscle movements at our imaginary controls as we take our successful evasive action, the brain will memorise the events as if they were real.
And here's the pay-off.
When we face the situation for real - EVEN THOUGH WE'VE NEVER BEEN IN THAT SITUATION - the brain will remember. It can recall the "been here, did this last time, and it worked" response.
Sports-people and other performers have used this technique for decades to avoid 'choking' on the big stage - the sprinter who's used to running in front of a few hundred people suddenly in front of 100,000 people at the Olympics, the county cricketer making his test debut at Lords, the actor appearing in the West End for the first time.
On the bike, the 'memory' of our successful emergency stop prevents the primitive reptilian brain kicking in, taking control and grabbing that big handful of front brake. Practicing visualisation gives us a chance to respond to a real emergency with the same well-oiled response we've learned offroad in a safe and sterile environment.
But visualisation is not just for emergencies. Visualisation can help us recall and perform a sequence of steps in the order when stress means we we have a difficulty recalling some elements.
For example, there are a series of steps involved in performing a successful U-turn. Even off-road, trainees are often so focused on balance and moving off smoothly that they forget the all-important 'look over the shoulder'. When a trainee had a problem, I used to get trainees to shut their eyes and do a mental run-through in their minds-eye. If they remembered this visualisation trick just before committing themselves to their once-only attempt on the bike test, they had a far better chance of successfully completing the exercise.
We can also use visualisation if we don't ride so often. We can actively pre-program the brain by imagining going for a ride, thus mentally 'rebooting' ready for getting the bike out again.
And here's a final point.
One of the biggest problems of any kind of learning is that we don't retain much of it. In fact, a couple of weeks after training, we've forgotten most of what we learned. This is a psychological issue we've known about for over one hundred years. What makes training permanent is repetition. Each time, a little more becomes embedded. It's not practical to expect trainees to keep coming back over and over to repeat training...
...but we can use visualisation to mentally repeat and review training to make sure it sticks.
So if you've completed a Survival Skills advanced rider training course, you should now have an idea just how you can review what was learned from the comfort of your own armchair - visualisation.
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