Riding Skills 101

Improve your motorcycling skills
with Survival Skills Rider Training

Start your journey into better biking here!

Survival Skills|FREE better biking tips for all motorcycle riders

Learning biking Survival Skills isn't expensive...
...because these tips are FREE for all bikers

The Salami Principle and Practice Makes Permanent - the key to learning new skills

Each of my courses ends with a debrief where I remind the trainee of the aim of the course (ie, what they wanted to get out of it and what I thought they needed), how we approached those goals, what was achieved, what remained weak, and the need to continue working AFTER the course. The last point is one of the most important, but also one of the most overlooked. Any course of training has a limited effect... unless the trainee commits to continually reviewing and practicing what was covered.

Training courses require three steps:

the first stage is 'preparation' which is all about the behind-the-scenes work that the trainer does to prepare for the course
the second stage is'engagement', which very briefly indicates that the training has to be interesting AND relevant to the trainee.
and third is 'embedding', which is whether or not the training is delivered in a way that 'sticks'.

"Preparation is all" is something you'll hear regularly. Actually, it's important but it's not everything, and even a technically well-prepared course can fall down because the content is wrong for the student (or the trainer fails to show the trainee why it IS relevant). Or it can fail because the worthwhile content is boring.

But even if a course is well-prepared, well-delivered and relevant, there's no guarantee it'll stick. It needs to become 'embedded'.

The first version of this article, written quite some time ago recognised the need to get the trainee to do some work to help with this embedding. I talked about the need for practice, and I used a phrase I first heard from one of my earliest trainees, who happened herself to be a horse riding instructor. She said:

"Practice doesn't make perfect. What it actually does is makes PERMANENT. So if you practice the wrong techniques, you won't get better, you will only make the wrong techniques a permanent part of your performance. And that's why you need to practice the perfect."

That actually made an awful lot of sense. But practice alone isn't enough. Training needs to be structured in a way that breaks a particular skill down into manageable chunks, which build back together in a logical order. This is something I've been doing since the earliest days and one day at the end of the session, I was explaining how the trainee could use this approach to schedule meaningful practice. I called it 'compartmentalisation' and he said: "Ah, the Salami Principle" and explained that thin-sliced, a salami is delicious and digestible. But try to eat the entire salami in one go, and we'll simply make ourselves sick.

The Salami Principle applies to riding. Don't try to practice everything at once, but remember the structure of the training and how it was broken down into simpler techniques which can be practiced one at a time. Even if we think we can remember everything, when still in the 'practice makes permanent' stage of development, it's all too common for it all to fall apart again. Bang goes the trainee's new-found confidence.

Slow riding skills are a good example. What do riders do when they want to practice slow control? They go out and attempt U-turns. They often do it on a new bike that they've never attempted a U-turn on before. What happens? They fall off. Why? Because a U-turn is the END product (albeit a pretty useless one in itself) of a sequence of skills, NOT the starting point. It's only a moment's thought to realise that controlling a bike around any tight turn needs sub-skills:

  • posture - gripping the tank with the knees and keeping the shoulders, elbows, wrists and neck loose
  • the ability to slip the clutch
  • the ability to balance clutch and throttle together
  • the ability to ride the bike at a consistent speed by controlling speed with the rear brake
  • the ability to look into the turn
  • knowing where to look into the turn and what NOT to look at
  • knowing how and why we should use counter-weighting
  • understanding where and when to make steering inputs
  • being comfortable with the bike leaning

All those can be practiced in that order, working on one skill at a time until we are happy we've got the hang of it. Some can be done at a standstill - posture and turning our head for example, or looking for 'reference points' to help make a tight turn and not get distracted by the kerb. Only when each is mastered do we move onto the next one. And then the skill set is pulled together using easy exercises like the Figure of 8 where there is plenty of room to start fast and wide before pulling the circles in tighter.

But set off straight into a U-turn without having practiced and mastered these skills and things can - and do -go wrong very quickly indeed.

But it was rather more recently that I discovered why practicing makes permanent. It's known as the 'Ebbinhaus Forgetting Curve' and it dates from as far back as 1885, when Hermann Ebbinghaus first realised that we rapidly forget most of what we just learned, retaining relatively little from any learning experience.

What he showed over a century ago remains true to day. Any training course can fail to bring about lasting behaviour change, even when the first two stages of training - preparation and engagement - are well-designed, and even when the student has a strong intention to change.

Likewise with rider training. It's incredibly easy to slip back into old habits within a very short time. What can be done to try to maximise the chance that the skills learned in the session are actually embedded? There are two possible solutions.

The first - also discovered by Ebbinghaus - is known as 'over-learning'. The idea is that a particular skill is repeated over and over, beyond what would normally be seen as necessary to master it. To some extent, that is built into my courses - I tend to repeat the same 'trigger phrases' many times and I try to ensure that the trainee gets plenty of opportunity to work on particular skills during the session. But there's a risk that if the trainee thinks he or she is simply repeating what's already mastered, rather than embedding the necessary skills, the training can become boring and demotivating. U-turn practice, anyone?

The second is to repeat the training. Ebbinghaus discovered that after five re-runs, retention becomes near-perfect. This is the approach often taken by safety-critical industries like a nuclear plant.

Unfortunately, it should also be fairly obvious that when delivering my kind of one-off training course I have a bit of a problem. Unless I can persuade trainees to come back for a refresher, I generally only get to see them once. So now the onus is on the trainee to ensure that having completed the course, they actively continue to practice what was learned.

How can I encourage that? One way is to provide structured notes both before and after the course. The first lays out the content we will be covering, the second - which also offers a structured path for continued development - repeats the information in terms of "what we worked on".

And I have a trick up my sleeve. Rather than send on the review immediately after the course, I send it ten days or so after the course. Why? If they read it next day, when their retention rate from the course is up near 100%, they skim through it, say "oh yes, I remember that", and then promptly forget it. With the delayed review, the forgetting curve has kicked in so I'm REMINDING them of what was achieved. There is a better chance the trainee will read the notes properly and thus gain more from the feedback.

But of course, ultimately it all depends on the trainee - once they're headed head home, if I've failed to drive home the 'practice makes permanent' point and if they think "that's it, I'm trained now", then there is a significant risk that in fact they'll slither rapidly down that forgetting curve.

So, here are the takeaways.

If we accept that we can improve our riding through learning new techniques, then it's essential that we practice to embed what we learned into long-lasting improvements to skill and confidence. And if we accept the need for practice, then break it all down into the into the simpler, relatively straightforward elements that were learned, and practice each part of the skill-set. Then move onto the next area of skills.

So if you're reading this post-training, wherever it might be, and whoever might have trained you, ask yourself, "am I reviewing and practicing what I have learned frequently enough?" Schedule some time to go out on a regular basis, to think about your riding, give yourself a goal of a specific part of your riding to improve - and then practice, practice, practice.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


If you have enjoyed these Survival Skills articles, you can help me stay awake and keep writing. Just click the button below to buy me a coffee!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

* follow Survival Skills on Facebook and find new tips every week.
* discover Survival Skills books 



Subscribe to our Newsletter

Book a training course

What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This archive of articles is provided free to read and download, but is not for commercial use. Contact me for re-use rights.

IMPORTANT: The information on the Survival Skills website is for your general information and personal use and should be taken as a guide only. Survival Skills Rider Training provides no warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness, clarity, fitness or suitability of the information and materials found or offered on this website for any particular purpose and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this website meet your specific requirements and you acknowledge use of any information and materials is entirely at your own risk, and that neither Kevin Williams nor Survival Skills can accept responsibility for your interpretation or use of this information or materials. The content of these pages is subject to change without notice. 

 Copyright © 1999 - 2019 Kevin Williams and Survival Skills Rider Training