A Real World Illustration
One afternoon I received a phone call from a racer planning to move from a regional club race class to national 600 Supersport. As any racer who has made this leap will know, this is a big step to take.
Whilst 'John' was competitive in his current club races, regularly finishing in the top 5, he needed to improve his lap times by at least 1.6 seconds per lap to qualify for a national race at this particular circuit. We arranged to meet up one afternoon during a test day at the circuit to see what we could come up with.
When I asked him what he thought he needed he said he just needed the confidence to push harder. He explained that if he could just push it harder into the corners, trusting in the tyres like the other faster riders, he'd be alright, but somehow he just couldn't do it. This is a very common reply that I get from racers.
I asked if he was open to exploring this idea a bit deeper and delve into what gives him confidence in the first place. His response was that it all boiled down to feel for the bike so we had a discussion about what feel for the bike meant for him. This is because it means different things to different people and the extent of feel can be very different too. For example, if you were to think about how feel differs between Jorge Lorenzo and your average club racer, I'm sure you would agree that unsurprisingly they're likely to be in different leagues. Some top racers have described to me that when they're in rhythm their connection with the tarmac is almost like stroking it with the palms of their hands. The bike is such a natural extension that it seems to be part of them, yet when they haven't got feel, it's a nightmare (the Ducati MotoGP bike over the years is a case in point!)
What was holding John back was that in trying to go faster he was pushing the bike into an alien place for him - things felt different and he didn't know how to interpret the feedback he was getting from the bike and circuit because it was new to him.
I have spoken with numerous riders who have tried to employ the strategy of getting pulled round the circuit by a faster rider only to find that when the faster rider isn't pulling them along any more their speed falls back to where they were. Or, they simply cannot keep up with the faster rider - this is not always to do with bike setup, or tyre selection but it is essentially to do with the rhythm the rider finds themselves in and not being able to change that rhythm after they've experienced going faster. For a variety of reasons, this is typically down to missing the new feel or being unable to digest and learn from the faster experience. It isn't too far off John's initial problem.
As a result of our discussions my suggestion was that John go out and simply spend his time listening and feeling how the bike and circuit were communicating with him. It was an exercise in building awareness. To support this I took him through a couple of exercises in the garage and I gave him some instructions on how to do it while he was riding so that he could gently extend his riding boundaries and learn from it.
This approach to feeling and listening often surprises riders because they expect I'm going to tell them how to push it harder and boost their confidence to be more aggressive. For example, give them some visualisation exercises that they can use to get all pumped up or something. Even in MotoGP, it is uncommon that solutions are approached by effectively doing less and simply listening to or feeling what is going on. Yet there are some exclusions to that. For example, a good few years ago there was monsoon like rainfall at the Sachsenring in Germany on the day of qualifying. The circuit really did look like a river with a mirror like finish. At the post qualification press conference, Valentino Rossi commented on this and said many racers had backed off because the circuit looked slippery yet if you switched off to what it looked like, instead feeling the circuit, they would have found it was still quite grippy.
As John did the exercises on track his experience was very positive but he felt he was a little aimless. So to enhance it, we added an element of direction. This meant combining the feel he was opening up to with a clearer guide to what he wanted to do on the race track. As his awareness improved and changed, he fed back to me that his lines were changing and his riding was adapting to this because the way he was seeing the circuit was different. It felt like the circuit was communicating with him in a new way and he was responding to his in the moment experience which drew him around the track faster but feeling slower.
The result was an improvement of about 1.8 seconds per lap.
The Follow Up
John was going to be back at the circuit a couple of weeks later so I suggested that he switch off and let his experience digest without thinking about it.
Two weeks later he posted lap times that were consistently faster by another 1 second per lap. His feedback was that despite riding the circuit much faster than two weeks earlier, he felt it was slower, that he had more capacity available and he was using less effort - it was simply easier than before.
In all, the end result was a consistent improvement of around 2.8 seconds per lap. The national class times for this circuit are usually around the 1 minute 30 second mark, within a couple of seconds each way. This was a good result for an afternoon of testing.
So What is Going on Here?
Firstly, in brain sciences they now know that our brain and nervous system has far more bandwidth to receive sensory information that it does for the output of signals to control our action. This is there for good reason. It therefore makes perfect sense to me that if we can be aware of and utilise this massive capacity for sensory input it is going to drive the output - effectively enhancing our actions.
In Eastern philosophies and practises they have known for a long time how beneficial a methodical approach to developing our presence and awareness is to our day to day function -they've also put this to the test in some of the most extreme environments and activities known to man. Brain scientists studying these mental techniques have found that they change the function of our brains so that we get less distracted, remain more focussed and maintain awareness of what is most relevant for the moment of action.
When a MotoGP racer comes into the garage during open practice and qualifying, he's feeding back the information he has data logged in his mind while out there. This information is based entirely upon sensory feedback which is gathered through this very process of listening and feeling. The better this information (and ability of the racer to translate it into meangingful language), the better the setup can be dialled in. Without the necessary feel and awareness they wouldn't get anywhere. This is one of the critical areas that separates the greatest riders from the rest. It is also why I think it is so important as a foundation to psychological performance in motorcycle racing.
For example, during the last decade or so, the only rider to have successfully mastered any iterations of the Ducati MotoGP bike has been Casey Stoner. Something about his feel for this bike allowed him to find the performance envelope of the bike. No other rider has been able to repeat this feat which is a testament to the riding ability Casey Stoner possesses. Yet we also know that some iterations of the bike while Casey Stoner rode for Ducati produced such little feedback that front end wash outs were common which illustrates that it is a relationship between bike and rider and environment more than anything else.
The success of a motorcycle racer depends upon his or her relationship with the bike and environment (or circuit). This relationship depends on perception - our senses telling us about the environment and whatever we're interacting with in the moment. Once we have a feel for this, we can properly get into the groove.
It is our awareness that feeds action which in turn feeds awareness and so the cycle goes for continuous improvement.
So how do we go about developing this?