A tale of two students.
4:30 AM. I'm usually up early during the week. Why does it seem so much harder on the weekends? Maybe it's because most "normal" people use the weekends to catch up on household chores and sleep. I'm seldom accused of being normal. I keep swearing that I'll quit working so many weekends. Yet every year I end up with twenty five to thirty weekends or more devoted to teaching students or training instructors. The passion I feel still compels me. Next year I'll back off. Yeah, right.
Weatherwise, it was one of those weird days. The temperature was in the upper thirties. Thirty five miles separated me from my destination. Some places were feeling rain, some were dry. It was as if some giant mop had been flung in an arc. Water had created a polka dot landscape.
As I rode North I thought of a couple of students who would be in my charge this weekend. Thursday night had been the first classroom session. We do brief introductions. Who are you? Where are you from? What are your expectations?
One woman in her early forties, whom I'll call Carol, said she'd had a brief encounter with riding in the past. That venture had ended with her being transported to the hospital and undergoing numerous operations. Time had gone by. Now she wanted to try it again. This time with proper training. That was all the detail she shared. Carol had a support group with her for the class. Her husband and two sons were with her. The boys are in their twenties. In addition, she'd brought along two other young men who were here because the class is mandatory for folks under 21. The mother of one of the boys had taken the class on her own previously. She's the one who'd pushed all of them towards getting training. Carol's little contingent made up half my class of twelve.
Another student, whom I'll call Tom, was a retired transit system driver. His last encounter with riding had been 33 years ago. Now Tom had a new Harley on order. He wanted to ride again. Tom is 72 and looking to find the magic once more.
My mind pondered the situation. Would Carol be mentally able to respond to my coaching? Crashes often leave deep seated fears in people. I didn't know the circumstances of her previous misfortune. Would her support group prove to be a help or hinderance? All the males had quite a bit of dirt bike experience. Would they be wise and leave the coaching to the professionals? Or would they be tempted to do some coaching on their own? I try to squelch that as much as possible. Too often it causes more harm than good.
Would Tom be physically able to respond to my coaching? He seemed to be walking with a great deal of stiffness in his body when I saw him Thursday night. I'd soon find that Tom would present another obstacle to me besides physical limitations.
It crossed my mind as it does so many times that being a good instructor is much more than just passing along information. It's one thing to "give" good information to students. It's quite another to guide students in such a way that they take ownership of the skills and strategies. To be really good at facilitating self discovery, an instructor needs to be an amateur psychologist. We don't just teach skills, we try to influence attitudes. Which means we need to build trust with the students so they'll share with us where they are now. In Carol's case, I'd have to work even harder at getting her to trust me. She'll have a lot of fear to overcome. It all gets pretty involved, sometimes.
I was actually glad for the chance to keep my mind busy. It was a distraction from the chill. Since it was a good 5 degrees above freezing and my ride was less than an hour, I'd skipped the electric vest. An Aerostich fleece resided beneath my Roadcrafter. Still, I was starting to feel the cold. As much as I thump my chest and declare myself a "Warrior!", impervious to any discomfort, age is catching up to me. Tiny bit by tiny bit I am becoming a creature of comfort. Where I truly never noticed the cold previously, there's now a small bit of reluctance to keep subjecting myself to adverse conditions. Fortunately, the steps toward my decline are quite small. Katie says I worry too much about maintaining my "hardcore" reputation. Maybe I do. Perhaps it's one of the few ways left in modern society for a man to test himself. I don't so much care what others think of me. It's what "I" think of me that seems to dominate. One must first feel good about themself. From there springs everything else.
All this thinking in the cold's made me hungry. There's a McDonald's near the college where I'm teaching. The woman at the drive-up doesn't seem at all surprised by a motorcycle coming through. Her face is friendly but the lines show she's seen about everything. I don't know whether to feel sorry for her hard life or to nurse my own bruised ego. Usually I cause a stir. Today I was just another customer. Oh well. Either way the two Egg McMuffins in my tank bag will console me. Don't give me any grief about the fast food, either. We burn a lot of energy in the parking lot. Once I wore one of those electronic pedometers while teaching. I put a little over 13 miles of wear on my boot soles during the weekend.
Carol's responding to my coaching but I see the first real signs of fear about an hour and a half in. This is the first time she's facing having to corner tighter. Up until now she's had pretty much half the parking lot available for wide turns. Now we're introducing cornering by having the students ride a large oval in the interior of the range. I can see Carol fighting her personal demons in the way the bars move as she turns left. Another clue to her accident is presented to me. By now I'm pretty sure her accident happened while she was riding through a curve somewhere. Carol and I have established a bond. It will prove useful. Her trust in me leads to her success. Her success leads to more confidence in herself. It's a continuing thing that I call the "Circle of Success". Carol proves to be a very coachable student despite where she started from. Her support group has a great collective attitude. They've come to learn and it shows. The guys encourage Carol but stop short of coaching. Nicely done, guys!
Later on during the day we talk about cornering in the classroom. Carol asks some random questions. One of the things I've learned over the years is that these questions can provide more clues to where students are coming from. Carol's questions are slightly off topic but I can sense that she's got a reason for asking. By now I'm sure that Carol crashed in a blind "S" turn to the left. Carol needs specific answers. I take enough time to make sure she gets what she needs. Carol's made a mistake in the past that seriously injured her. On the other hand, she's taking responsibility for herself. That's what my role is, to facilitate that process.
Tom, meanwhile, proves to be another story. He will not take responsibility for himself. Tom's body has physical limitations. His skills are mostly non-existent. Rather than admit that he really needs to work on things, Tom makes excuses.
Here's an example. In exercises two and three we spend a lot of time working on smoothly getting underway and smoothly stopping. The students are in first gear. Most quickly learn to be smooth on the throttle. Tom spends all his time complaining about the throttle. It's just got to be faulty, according to him. I ride the bike on a demonstration. There is nothing wrong with the throttle. Tom claims there's just too much torque. This is a Suzuki GZ 250. How much torque can there be? Does he think there will be less torque on his new Harley in first gear?
At break I go to have a chat with Tom. I gently explain that first gear does have a little more torque but that it's not the bike. I tell Tom that he needs to work on being smooth. As an aside, I'm obligated as an instructor to have this discussion. Abrupt throttle applications are a safety issue. I try to cajole Tom into letting go of it. At this point I don't know if it's a real threat or an excuse. Sometimes new riders have difficulties figuring out how to operate controls. Then it takes on a life of its own. Pretty soon there's no room to concentrate on anything else. One of my roles is to help a student change the focus. In Tom's case, he didn't want to let go.
Right after I talked to him I hear Tom telling the other instructor, "Me and that throttle just don't get along!" Then I hear Tom saying the same thing to the other students. Later in the weekend it's because the bike has dirty carbs, the shifter's in the wrong place, the handlebars curve too much, pick anything from the menu. Tom became the "Man of a Million Excuses".
At the end of the class, both Tom and Carol passed. Tom still had shaky skills because his attitude prevented him from ownership. At the end of 9 hours on the bike, Tom's still struggling to be smooth. Carol, in contrast, succeeded in making things her own. I'm comfortable with Carol being on the street as long as panic doesn't overwhelm her when she finds herself in a stressful situation. My recommendation to her was to find a place where she was required to multitask as little as possible. She needs time to gain confidence that she can actually make the bike do what she wants it to do. I told Tom I really didn't think he was ready for the street and should take the class again. He didn't like it. It was my obligation as a professional. I owed it to him to say it. Both students, to me, exhibited a marked lack of self confidence. They just showed it in different ways. Carol faced her fear head-on. Tom was afraid of failure. In his case, Tom had determined to find a way to take the blame for failure away from himself. Ironically, in so doing, he set the stage for his lack of success.
At the end of the course we encourage the students to give us written feedback on the course. It's one of the tools we use for continued quality control. Here's the difference in their comments. Tom rated the equipment and instructors as poor. Carol made this comment:
"I never thought I would ever be able to take a corner to the left again without crashing. Now I know that I can!"
Which rider do you think is better off?
Here's how I think it all wraps up. Despite the fact that the majority of our students are more or less beginning riders, they represent a microcosm of the larger society of riders. After all, today's more experienced riders are yesterday's beginners. Those who take responsibility for themselves are always better off. Excuses buy nothing except self deceit. Helmet laws and other punitive measures are stop gap measures. Mandated safety devices are bandages. The real key is not compliance, it's alignment. That's only going to come from riders realizing that it's up to them to take care of themselves by proper gear and great skills. If riders don't step up then things are going to be forced upon us. Not pleasant, but true as we live.
As a trainer I can teach the skills. I can't force the attitude. Rider responsibility. It doesn't seem it can be that simple. It really is that basic. Everything else starts from that foundation.
Miles and smiles,