Why Rhythm?

How my research evolved

At the beginning of my research I spent a few years more or less just listening to racers talking about the quality of their experience while riding at their best. The word they used most often to describe the quality was 'rhythm.' If you listen to rider interviews you will also find this word being used a lot.

When I followed this up by exploring the quality of rhythm a little deeper with racers, I found that we were drawn down a slightly different path of psychology. This was because they told me they felt the rhythm (even when just walking the circuit, for example) and their descriptions were that when in their rhythm, they felt more outside themselves and in their bodies more.

As my work in this area has progressed, the best successes in performance improvement have all followed a similar pathway. We achieved the results when the racer gets out of his or her head, into their bodies, outside themselves and extending their awareness out onto the circuit. All the racers I have so far come across that have either lost their form or are failing to improve their performance are too much in their heads - they are literally very busy doing too much thinking.

This is obviously somewhat different to the normal and popular distinction between mind and body, but who am I to argue with the personal experience described by not just a world champion, but several?

From a more academic perspective there are many areas of research that support this 'embodied' experience that racers described to me which includes various schools of psychology, adult learning, brain and social sciences. Lots of Asian philosophies are well versed in this too. It therefore isn't as weird as one might initially think.

So for example, elite racers do not feel the front end in their hands on the handlebars but they extend their senses out into the tyres and sometime even into the tarmac to create a strong connection with it. This is where feel for the front comes from and allows them to feel as they push the front into the corners. Similarly, with disabled racers I have worked with, I have helped them to good effect to extend their sensory awareness into and through prosthetics and also paralysed athletes to extend their sensory awareness into areas of their body where they shouldn't have sensory awareness.

A slightly different but also fairly common illustration is when riders try to chase a specific feeling from a bike. Instead of finding the feeling within a window of performance and then refining it, they seek to re-create a certain feeling. Sometimes this goes as far as trying to create the feeling of one type of bike in another, like the feeling of a 600 Supersport bike in a Superbike, which is clearly never going to be successful (this pattern can rear its ugly head, causing problems when racers try to move up through classes and they can be seen to either not fulfil their racing promise or they return to the previous class). It also puts a big barrier in the way of finding good rhythm.

Finding Rhythm

The concept, or experience of 'rhythm,' as descirbed by racers was something that I struggled to find further research about. I found no relevant relevant research in the field of psychology, nor sport psychology in particular. Eventually I found some really important work from other areas of study into human performance. This applied not only to finding a good rhythm, but more importantly how athletes might go about learning and developing their expression of rhythm to perform better.

For example:

Rhythmic behaviour is a primary expression of how the nervous system organizes movements in space and time, how it achieves highly precise and reproducible patterns, and how it resolves efficiency of motion". (Turvey and Carello, in Dexterity and its Development, Latash and Turvey (Eds), 1996)

For me, finding these pieces of work was really exciting because it linked other areas of scientific study with the experience racers were describing to me and it gave me direction in my research. It's a bit different and unusual in today's world of psychology.

(Image credit: © Tomas Hajek | Dreamstime.com)