Finding Your Rhythm and Self-development

On Self-development and Psychology

(I've completely revised this article having had a rethink - and also based on how my experience working with racers influences how I work)

In my experience, the motorcycle racing community is pretty poor and still in the dark ages when it comes to using psychology as a means to improve performance. It is even worse when it comes to accepting the relationship between psychological and physical function - i.e. that you can't really separate them. There's still a lot of the motorcycle racing community that dismisses the study, learning and application of riding technique too.

There's also a very common belief that somehow if you're working on your psychology it's a sign of weakness and that you've got a problem somehow. I'm acutely aware of this belief because I have arrived at race circuits only to be rapidly escorted into the back of a race truck or motorhome - it's a thing not to be seen or discussed in public.

I commonly hear racers remark that there is nothing wrong so why would psychology help them. This mirrors the general attitude of the paddock that psychology is about fixing things when they're wrong rather than a performance development tool. Now, physical training to develop fitness, stamina and strength are accepted, and psychological development is actually no different.

The beliefs that psychology is something to do with weakness or it's just about fixing things when it's wrong are, of course, total nonsense.

In other areas where I work, including with world ranked athletes, psychological development is seen as essential and a strength. It demonstrates to the world, the teams, the sponsors, their competitors and themselves that they're doing everything they can to be their best.

One of the greatest myths in motorcycle racing is that 80% of it is down to your mentality - it's actually 100%, because your mentality is a giver and receiver in everything you do. And your mentality is so clever and so slick at its job that you're not even aware of its role in everything that you do (until it goes wrong but then it's also really slick at pointing us in the wrong direction to blame other things).

So if you really want to find your rhythm easier, more consistently and you want to improve your performance, I recommend that your psychology is the first place you look. For example, you get out on circuit and the bike doesn't feel quite right, you chase a the bike setup by constantly fiddling with settings, wasting valuable testing and practice circuit time, causing stress in yourself and, if you have one, with your team. If instead you spent a short amount of time clearing your head and then riding to find the feel for the bike, it will provide a much better direction for you - it'll probably have you riding much faster much quicker too. To set yourself up for clearing your mind takes a little bit of practice, but will, in my experience pay for itself many times over.

You can't do it all alone

You often read that world class athletes and the winners out there are the heroes. They've battled all the hardship and challenges, navigated the competition and out-smarted everyone. You could almost believe it's all just down to them. It isn't.

I think we can do a lot of self-development ourselves, but there are real limitations to this. It's better to accept that you can't do it alone.

If you want to be the best you can be in motorcycle racing, you don't just need a good support structure around you with the right people with the right resources. You need good, honest, sometimes uncomfortable feedback. The fact is that we are blind to so much of ourselves that to be able to uncover what we need to become aware of, reflect on, learn about and change, we need someone to guide us, even if it is just as a mirror. This actually requires wide networks of people working together.

It requires a continuous process of learning

Learning is one of the most misunderstood words around and it often gets motorcycle racers cringing. We associate the word with the type of learning we were forced to do when we were at school.

I'm talking about a completely different type of learning. One that's completely connected with something we love doing which can make the experience even better. It's one that delves into the qualities of our experience in really great ways.

Racing successfully requires a constant process of learning. We change, the bikes change, the circuits change, etc.

There are even racers at pretty high levels that don't have very good strategies to learning. For example, I was at Brands Hatch with a team testing. Next door there was another national level team out testing and one of their riders was relatively new to the circuit so he was looking to learn it that day. Listening to this racer going into Paddock Hill it was clear he didn't have a very good rhythm as the gear changes were stuttered and inconsistent - he was lost on the circuit. However, this poor rhythm didn't change throughout the day. This rider clearly didn't have the necessary support structure in place to feed back to him. He would have known that he didn't have a good rhythm, but he wasn't able to identify where things were going wrong to change it up. This kind of thing can lead to frustration and the rider then pushing it in other places without actually getting anywhere with their efforts.

So the message is self-development, and finding better rhythm, involves learning to learn.

Working with your Psychology

Finding the right person to work with on your psychology is a fairly challenging task. There are lots of people out there doing really good stuff, and also many questionable coaches out there. The range of types of coaching is also really wide with some physical personal trainers using their experience to provide psychological guidance to their clients all the way through to pure Sport & Exercise Psychologists and Psychotherapists. Where do you go?

Despite this wide range, there are typically two types of coaches working on the mental side of things. Those that are expert based and those that are non-expert based.

Expert based coaches will usually observe and give feedback which is more about telling you what and how you should be doing things. They have direct experience in the actual area where they're coaching and base their work on this so they use their own experience of doing the activity, sometimes at a very high level, to help you.

Then there are the non-expert based ones. Even though I have experience riding and racing bikes myself, I don't tell my clients based on my experience. I focus on a process of personal learning for my clients so they can understand how they tick and what works for them out on circuit. So, my expertise as other non-expert based coaches, is in particular areas of psychology and/or learning. We're more about providing a space where you can draw out the best in you. We also bring with us knowledge and experience of how other athletes have learnt and developed themselves, including from other sports.

I have been told that the process I use can be hard work and the way I work is not for everyone.

In my experience both approaches can work well for different sorts of things and different people. If you know you have a specific problem or limitation then being observed, told what to do and how to fix it can be worthwhile. If things are a bit less clear and you really want to develop yourself for the long-term and gain future independance the learning approach might be better. Sometimes at the beginning it's difficult to tell which one is going to work best for you.

So if you are looking for someone, first ask around your network. If that doesn't give you any results then you'll have to seek someone out yourself.

This process is important so take your time and make sure you click with the person you choose, that you trust them and you feel like you can develop a good working relationship. This is actually the most important factor in successful coaching. It's not the method or approach of your coach, it's the coaching relationship.

Then just make sure they've got some credentials and work to some professional standards, please.

Doing some of it yourself

If you're going to emberk on this journey on your own, there are two things to have put in place:

  • Self-awareness
  • Critical reflection

Self-awareness

This is about being aware of the quality of your experience. For example, you're racing a particular circuit and you're feeling slightly rushed. It's about being aware of this feeling of being rushed. Then, of course, it's about being aware that this quality of being rushed is not the right one and what the right quality needs to be for you.

You might be surprised that there are riders out there that have little or no awareness of what is going on for them while they're racing. Some come to me without having any conscious memory of the race itself so we have to start from the beginning. World class racers have an amazing level of recall.

Critical Reflection

This is where you need to develop the ability to review and assess what you're doing and whether it's working for you. Here I'm not talking just about technical aspects like your braking markers or apex. I'm talking about qualities of mind, your general attitude, your approach to race preparation and even how you go about learning and refining your perception of the circuit. This is where I feel everyone needs someone else to give them a nudge and a poke. But if you want to do it yourself the pages in this section and my blog can help you some of the way.

A while ago I was taking a team of riders round on a track walk. One rider was clearly not engaged with even trying to look at the circuit and reflect upon his perception. When discussing sections of the track he would talk about what he was doing, merely justifying why he was doing it, which line he'd chosen and for what reason. At one point I asked him directly to look at a corner and consider what he was seeing. He replied that he knew it already and there was nothing else to see. Not even MotoGP racers truly know the circuit and their perception of it is constantly changing. If you close the door to any reflection, you're not going to develop and grow. Unfortunately, most humans find this process very uncomfortably and challenging to their egos.

You can look at this in quite an amusing way. That you can have what are considered tough, hardy competitors who will easily shrug off danger, crashes and injury, but then run away when it comes to internal self-reflection and criticism. Keep in mind, however, that the best racers are self-critical and it isn't a problem for them to delve into this area because they want to be the best they can be.

(Image credit:Paddock Life @ Jerez Fiat Yamaha Team by Gigi Soldano licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)