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Why take training? To build skills!

Plenty of experienced riders think all that's needed is for a novice to jump on a bike and bingo, they'll learn to ride. But is it true?

For example, read this:

"Teaching counter-steering is like teaching walking."

That was the statement made by someone I know from a forum just recently. Is that true? Does the ability to steer a motorcycle come instinctively? I would say - from experience of teaching novice riders - no, it very definitely doesn't.

There are a number of different reasons to consider training - you may want to build confidence. And as I discuss in another post, it doesn't matter what level you're at, it's surprising how easily confidence can take a hit. We might want to learn new knowledge. And once again, there's no limit to what we can learn if we show some enthusiasm for improving our understanding of riding.

This week, we'll take a look at building skills.

We talk freely enough about skill so what is it?

Back in the early 2000's Russell and I had just opened our CBT school in Kent. Set up on a vast (by training school standards) expanse of tennis court, it was bounded by a chain link fence. And one novice did his best to crash into it on almost the first course. A accident report to the DVSA would not have been a good start. What the trainee was lacking was the skill to steer the bike.

Strictly speaking, 'skill' refers to the ability to achieve a specific objective - an outcome goal in education speak. On the bike, we might say that our objectives are to be:

:: in the right place

:: at the right speed

:: at the right time

So that means using the various controls - throttle, brakes, gears (if we have them) and steering - to change speed and direction. And if we are becoming a 'skilful' rider, then we are able to achieve this both consistently and with a minimum of effort.

So back to my trainee. What went wrong? The answer was the CBT syllabus. Steering wasn't - and still isn't - a part of it. So when we tasked the riders with riding around a square of cones, he had no idea how to turn the corner...

...and his efforts at jerking the bars to the left only made the bike wobble right. The net effect was straight on, and towards an interface with the fence. Fortunately, we HAD taught the trainees how to use the brakes, so I was able to get him to stop before hitting it.

"But most new riders just pick it up - you don't need to teach them".

That's true, but they are learning by trial and experience. And they have to try the right thing to 'pick it up'. If they don't try turning the bars the wrong way - if you see what I mean - the bike won't go where expected. In this case, my trainee was making a logical deduction about which direction to turn the bars - to the left, to go left. And of course, by trying to steer in the direction he wanted to turn, the bike was trying to turn right. So if trial and error tests the WRONG solution to a problem, a rider won't discover what works...

...only what doesn't.

And at that point, confidence plummets.

So at this point, I took him to one side, gave him the quickfire version of counter-steering ("push left to go left, push right to go right, and push very gently whilst you get used to it - trust me, it WILL work") and sent him off again with me running alongside to offer verbal prompts at the right moment. And within a couple of minutes he was circulating with the other three trainees on the course.

Why take training if you can already ride?

Back to my forum contact.

"But that's a new rider - it's not necessary to learn about it if someone can already ride."

He's usually an astute judge of riding, having spent decades racing and generally thinking about riding, and he was making the point that if get on a bike and manage to arrive at the other end of your journey you're counter-steering, so he felt that there was no point teaching the technique.

Well, there's riding by using controlled inputs in a way that you UNDERSTAND will get you where you want to go, and there getting where you're going without a clue in the world just how you got there. If you're doing that, then you're getting to the other end and more by luck than skill.

For example, despite motorcycling knowing about counter-steering for over 100 years, there remains a hard core of riders who dismiss it and claim they steer by leaning *. I've met plenty on training courses, and almost without exception, they are gob-smacked by the difference counter-steering makes to the rapidity and accuracy of steering. And then when they practise their newly-understood skill, their steering becomes automatic, just like it was before...

...just at a higher level of competence.

* Oh, and see me after class if you think you steer by leaning into the turn.

Why take training if you have the skills already?

"Well, there's nothing much you can do for an experienced rider."

Sometimes successful coaching is yet more subtle; it's less about 'new' skills and more often about refinement. It's a story I've told before, but a trainee who shall be nameless arrived on a course with a 'badly-handling' Fireblade. He'd thrown oodles of cash at it - new racing spec steering damper, forks fitted with new cartridges and trick rear shock set up by a suspension expert, the latest rubber, even lightweight carbon fibre bodywork etc. etc. He'd parted with thousands, all to make a decent-handling bike handle better. He was just about part with even more for a set of WSB-spec carbon wheels "to make it steer better" when he finally began to have second thoughts and that maybe - just maybe - it wasn't the bike but the way he was riding it.

Our pre-ride talk told me he knew about counter-steering... theory.

Thirty seconds into our assessment ride - we weren't actually out of the car park - I'd spotted the problem. Even though he could describe the TECHNIQUE of counter-steering, he wasn't actually steering the bike at all! His stiff-arm, weight-on-the-bars riding posture wasn't enabling the bars to move!

As hard as he pushed on one side, his own bodyweight learning on his opposite arm was preventing the bars moving. If the bars don't turn, the bike doesn't go round bends. No wonder he'd been struggling.

So here it wasn't his knowledge that was failing him, but the way he was attempting to apply the technique that was failing him. Having stopped him and pointed this out, he rode off again making a determined effort to keep his weight off the bars. Minutes later he was slapping his forehead for not having realised this himself.

And this is what you employ a rider coach for - the ability to look at a problem from the outside in, spot the issues and propose solutions. My training might have cost him cash, but compared to what he was about to lay down on the carbon fibre wheels, it was a fraction of the cost. So even if you don't learn NEW skills because you're an experienced rider, it's often a surprise to discover how you can learn to use what you know MORE EFFECTIVELY.

As always, drop me a line to talk about my courses. I think you'll find it more productive than listening to your mate who tells you it's all a waste of money.

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