What is a clear mind?

This may sound like a stupid question but it is a difficult thing to describe. This is because it is really a quality of consciousness that is constantly moving and changing like the flow of a river.

It can be characterised by the mind being empty of clutter. It is quiet with an easy sense of flowing focus on the right things at the right time. It is also characterised by a certain quality of thinking that is different to the day-to-day chattering we normally have inside our minds. The thoughts we have are less intrusive but nonetheless they guide our actions in the right way with little effort. What this means is that if the opportunity arises to pass a rider in front, we have a clear and decisive thought that tells us now is the right time. The thinking comes from a deeper sense of knowing and guidance rather than from self-talk, for example.

A clear mind can also be characterised by having space inside our minds to think. It is almost as if our head space has expanded to give us more room and more time on our hands to think and act. It sometimes produces the space to think more laterally and to solve problems in different ways. It is usually relaxing too.

What is it Not?

A clear mind does not entail a focus on things like talking our way around the circuit, telling ourselves what to do and when to do it. It is also not something that comes from a forced, effortful concentration or from our attention flitting from one thing to another on the circuit.

Why do we want a clear mind?

This is more difficult to answer than you might expect.

First and foremost it is a quality of mind that all top racers associate with their best performances. From Valentino Rossi, to Casey Stoner, to Jorge Lorenzo, to Neil Hodgson and the late TT legend Dave Jefferies, for example. The list could be endless.

Most psychology seems to be lagging behind on this one because I've not been able to find a clear answer here. This might be because it is still focussed on the mind full of thought and dealing with thought with yet more thought - I kid you not.  But there are some useful theories out there which are based on some good scientific evidence which I think are worth exploring.

To Begin, What is Motorcycle Racing About?

In essence, successful motorcycle racing is all about space and time. It is about successfully getting through a defined space in less time than the opposition. A massive amount of resources are expended in the attempt to achieve this aim. This includes the resources of the motorcycle racer.

From a psychological standpoint, to get ourselves through space we must employ a host of resources that engage our brain, nervous system, and body along a common pathway. Brain scientists know that different parts of our brain get involved in different functions but it isn't about just this or that pathway and a selected handful of areas in the brain. To work in the complex world of motorcycle racing (or even day to day) your entire brain needs to be working like a well drilled orchestra. Many of these resources reside deep down in the structures of our brain and can handle massively complex tasks quickly and efficiently.  The thoughts you are thinking and many of the senses and feelings you are aware of are only the tip of the iceberg. Much of what is going on in our minds is literally below the surface and in many instances, whether we like it or not, we do not command direct control of them. Hence it isn't really about a specific thought or type of thought, or a vague concept like confidence.

Taking the Rhythmical Approach

Brain scientists in some areas of study tend to view the function of our brain in a slightly different way. They show us that different parts of the brain tend to function at different brainwave frequencies. The evidence from this area suggest that when we get involved in complex movements and functions, the various areas of the brain (our whole nervous system and body) end up in co-ordinated unifying rhythmic patterns. They understand that this unifying rhythm tends to lead to successful action and movement. So we are literally back to rhythm again.

Not Forgetting the Environment

Successful action and movement is great but it is meaningless unless it is beautifully connected with the environment within which we're moving. The environment in motorcycle racing is pretty well defined and it is immovable. Therefore any action and movement must be in unison with the environment. The racer has to be totally connected to it through in the moment perception and previously gained knowledge.

And just to be clear, the environment is not inside the mind, it is out there, so we have to reach for it.

Applying it to Psychology

In my view, any psychology that we employ has got to first and foremost help the racer to get their mind resonating in a way that also enhances their connection with the race circuit. To do this, it seems logical that we need some kind of conductor that co-ordinates things to allow this relationship to unfold.

By far the best explanation I have found on this was by a Russian scientist called Nicholai A. Bernstein in his book on Dexterity and its Development. It is a complicated topic but I will very briefly explain.

Following from his research Bernstein built a model of how we create and control movement based upon various levels of function throughout the nervous system. Imagine it looking like a pyramid. Our narrow awareness of thoughts in consciousness sit up at the top. Sometimes we can access lower levels but in order to work fluidly and well, it is better to allow instruction to cascade down each level like a water fall. Basically our consciousness stays at the top, trusting the lower levels to do their job while receiving constant sensory feedback to know how it's all going. When the system is allowed to work this way, we will function at our best - our minds and bodies are in rhythm.

Let's take a snapshot of riding a bike as an example. If you think to yourself that you want to twist the throttle to accelerate, your wrist will twist as you asked, most probably in a fairly smooth and controlled manner. However, if you tried to tell your wrist exactly how it should make that twisting action by working out each muscle it should use in the hand and arm and then thinking through each step in the process to accomplish the action, it really isn't going to happen for you. This is because much of the function of just this part of the process of riding a motorcycle is done at much lower and less accessible parts of your nervous system. The action is guided by a higher level thought following which the necessary brain signals are fired off and the movements are co-ordinated in a smooth and rhythmic way by deeper levels.

This is only a very small part of what goes on when you're riding. There are loads of these discreet actions coming together and drifting apart as demands arise, almost like a dance . There is no way that you could attend to all these things in a meaningful way so there has to be some kind of dance co-ordinator.

Bernstein suggests that there is a very simple co-ordinator to make this happen. It is a concentration on the leading level of the activity. The leading level is where we want our consciousness, or our primary focus of attention, to be. It sits at the top of the pyramid and functions as the conductor for the orchestra and subsequent dance.

The Leading Level

According to Bernstein, focussing on the leading level gives our nervous system both the constraints and freedom to function best in its action. The freedom is that it stops unhelpful micromanagement of movement and function. A simple example is of someone picking an object up from a table. The leading level is to focus on the object with an intention to pick it up. In tennis it is a focus on the tennis ball combined with an intention of hitting the ball.

The Leading Level in Motorcycle Racing

So what is the leading level for a motorcycle racer?

In its most general form, it is of course the track ahead of you, but through my research I have found that top motorcycle racers have a more refined experience than just the track - they literally see their lines ,which appear to them as they ride.

A Paradox

You may just be thinking that this article is about having a clear mind yet I've now gone and filled it with a focussed attention on lines. I've also introduced a concept of top racers seeing their lines but without telling you how these lines come to light. How does this all work?

Firstly, by concentrating on the leading level, I am not talking about an effortful focus of concentration, I am referring to an easy flow of attention along the desired trajectory. Effortful concentration uses an enormous amount of energy and it is exhausting. When it is forced, it also closes down wider awareness. I would be very surprised if any racer could sustain this kind of focus for an entire MotoGP race or two World Superbike races, for example. I would seriously doubt most club racers could do it for their 8-10 lap sprints without being completely exhausted afterwards either. If you find yourself drained after each race, this is a rewarding place to look.

Secondly, the perception of lines is actually quite a subtle one. To pick up on it and provide the space for lines to appear, the mind needs some space. Busyness within the mind will simply croud it out. This is a phenomenon that doesn't cope well with being forced and contrived, rather it develops best on being nurtured and allowed to naturally unfold.

Thirdly, if we accept that feeling and awareness do form the foundation to ultimate performance, it is really only a clear mind that will open us up to this sensory feed. To put it really simply, you need to have a presence of mind when you're racing a motorcycle. Any other thoughts intruding are simply going to distract you from the task at hand.

But here comes the real paradox for which I'm going to use a reference from piano playing. There is another reason we need a clear mind - that is so we can let go of control. Yes, you really did hear it here. What I mean by this will be become clear very shortly. As I was producing the articles for this site, I was going through my normal process of double checking my understanding of other people's research before I publish mine. I came across referecences to some of Bernstein's early work.

He was asked by the Russian State Institute for Musicology to solve the riddle around an extremely challenging technique in piano playing (it is the performance of parallel octaves). I won't go into detail about this, but his findings were for me extremely interesting. I quote:

'These analyses revealed that the fast parallel octaves were produced by a forced vibration that can only be made at a fast pace, prompting the hand to swing like a simple pendulum. This economy of movement can only be achieved when the pianist no longer attempts to guide the motion, but rather allows the hand itself to perform the act'. (See The Physiology of the Piano - Keystroke Experiments During the 1920s for full article)(and yes, it was that long ago - Bernstein was well ahead of his time)

It seems that in clearing the mind it allows for the letting go needed for the body to get on with performing the act of getting around the circuit like a master. 

The Science

The sciences of the brain, movement and psychology are in a really curious position with this one. It is such a complex area and they're not really on top of it. There is certanly no integrated perpective available that I have been able to find. There is some relevant research and evidence to support what I'm saying. There is obviously the research I talk about above but also, as I mention in the previous article, A Psychology of Feeling and Listening, there is evidence emerging from studies into meditation. The whole idea of meditation is to clear our minds and remain within a soft focus of attention and expanded awareness. The studies show that from meditation, the mind develops a natural ability to gently focus on what is most relevant, enhancing better concentration with less effort. This in turn allows appropriate action to emerge.

Conclusion

What matters most to me, however, is the experience of racers themselves and what they perceive to work for them. You can check these out yourself. In the first edition of Performance Riding Techniques: The MotoGP Manual of Track Riding Techniques, Valentino Rossi simply says that you have to have a 'clear mind.' Jorge Lorenzo is renowned for his use of meditation that uses breathing rhythms to help clear his mind for racing. Likewise, at the beginning of his book, Casey Stoner describes how he sits there on the grid just before the Phillip Island MotoGP trying to clear everything from his mind.

Learning to clear the mind effectively if you can't do it already takes some dedicated practise. I also think it is worth continued practise even if you can already do it. In my mind it is worth every minute of effort spent.
 
(Image credit: GP of France by Alex Simonini licensed under CC BY 2.0)