Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Four Levels of Competence

As you all may have figured out by now, I sort of live, eat, and breathe motorcycles. Spending all these years as an instructor has also given me a unique insight into the process of acquiring riding skills. What I've come to discover is that the learning process can be divided into four steps. I'll share those steps in this post as seen from a new rider's viewpoint. In another post I'll share how it relates to those of us past that basic stage. I feel it's critical for us to understand the process and what it means to us on the streets.

Let's take a look at a typical basic class as we go through the process.

LEVEL 1: Unknowing incompetence

This is exactly what it sounds like. You've heard the saying that ignorance is bliss. We don't know what we don't know. In other words, we don't yet know that we aren't very good at a particular skill set. Mostly because we have no idea what skill sets are involved in riding.

Our basic classes are filled with scores of students who've never ridden a motorcycle before. They've certainly been aware that motorcycles exist. For the most part, however, these individuals have no idea of all the skills involved in riding a motorcycle. Therefore the students also have no idea of all the things they're not going to be very good at.

Here we see a batch of training bikes warming up early in the morning of the first riding day. Bike and student have not yet met.

LEVEL 2: Discovering incompetence

This is where the students begin to discover the things they aren't very good at. Clutch and throttle control, balance and coordination, smooth braking, countersteering, and a whole list of other things. The students are given directions from the instructors and allowed to practice under watchful eyes. In a safe environment the students get a large dose of self discovery.

In the photo below the class listens intently as the instructor explains what they'll be working on during the upcoming exercise.

What the students usually discover is that their competence level is pretty low for most skills. The difference is that they can now put names to the things they need a lot more practice on. At the first level the new riders were mostly unaware of what skills would be required. Thus they had no clue at what they weren't good at. With me so far?

This is perfectly ok, by the way. It's exactly what we expect from new riders. These folks are right in line with the grading curve. Now begins the journey of mastering the required skills. As instructors we are happily tasked with helping the students do just that.

In the photo above the rider contemplates as he waits his turn to take a run to the braking chute.

LEVEL 3: Discovering competence

At first glance this looks exactly like Level 2. Look closer and you'll see the difference. In the level 2 the students discover what they're not good at. During Level 3 they begin to work with the instructors during the exercises. As they do so the students start to discover that they're actually improving!! Yee haw!! They are starting to discover and experience competence.

This is the level that never fails to inspire me. It's at this point that the thousand watt smiles start to show. A student can struggle over and over with a skill and then it finally falls into place. I give them a big thumbs up and help them celebrate the victory. During that moment, no matter the actual weather, the sun comes out.

See what I mean about thousand watt smiles?

LEVEL 4: Automatic competence

This is where the student moves from having to intensely concentrate on skills towards an automatic response.

Call it autopilot, subconscious response, embedded motor skills, or whatever. The bottom line is that the ability to execute the required skills moves from being mostly a function of the conscious mind to becoming more a function of the subconscious mind.

We take this process into account as we coach students. For example, notice how the rider above is able to start looking through his turn. This is the first riding day. Earlier this rider needed to be looking down at the controls to make it all work. This is true of most new riders as they work on the skills needed to make a bike smoothly get underway as well as bringing it to a stop. As instructors we let them look down. It would be counterproductive to coach them to keep their eyes up at this point.

One of the illustrations we use in training new instructors is that of a whiteboard. You know, the new age replacement for the good old chalkboard. Each student has their own whiteboard. The size of the board may vary from student to student but each one has a finite amount of space available for writing upon. This whiteboard represents the amount of conscious processing space in a student's head.

At first the whiteboard is crammed full of notes pertaining to the basic riding skills. In the beginning it's clutch and throttle control. So we spend a lot of time letting students practice this skill. Eventually the information is moved from the whiteboard to the file cabinet that represents the subconscious storage system. As information is thus moved more room opens up on the whiteboard. So now we start writing down the information having to do with shifting gears, for example.

Once again, repeated practice begins to move this information from the whiteboard into the subconscious filing system. Now room becomes available for the next batch of information. And so the process goes. The skill required of instructors is to maintain the optimum amount of information on the whiteboard without overwhelming the space available.

I took this photo while standing next to an apprentice instructor whom I was working with. This was deep into the second riding day. Notice how the student is performing the swerve, which is an involved maneuver. Despite being in the middle of the swerve, the student has enough conscious concentration left to look right at me while I'm taking his picture. No, he didn't run into me, either!

At the end of a class the student is just starting to have an idea of what's involved in reaching Level 4. However, the skills are still at a very basic level. Sometimes the student doesn't know which filing system to look at. We see this during the riding evaluation. There's a bit of stress and suddenly the whole system falls apart. Instead of looking where they want to go in a turn, for example, they stare at the cones in an attempt to avoid them. You know what happens. You go where you look.

Getting to Level 4 and staying there is critical to those of us riding on the streets. Especially so to those who spend a great deal of time out there facing bogies. Unfortunately, a lot of riders never get past Level 3. To really be effective at the last level, we also need a thorough understanding of the previous steps. Yes, even Levels 1 and 2. In fact, if we don't do a great job at Level 2 our subconscious filing system will be lacking some important information.

I sure hope I managed to somehow clearly get my thoughts across. It's been a long week of 14 hour days. Due to having a factory guy out from the Midwest I've been forced to drive a car. My brain has become stagnated because of it. Yesterday I saw Mike in Vancouver, Washington. By coincidence we were calling on the same facility at the same time. Mike was riding his bike. I was so embarrassed to be in a car that I nearly crawled under it! Thankfully, I'm back on two wheels tomorrow!!

Miles and smiles,



Raftnn said...

Great write up Dan, and very relevant to where i am with my advanced training at the moment. Good stuff.

Mike said...

Very nice write-up Dan and your photos are excellent. I really like the "thousand watt smile"!

Okay, the cats out of the bag. You really don't ride a motorcycle; you drive around in a car all the time. Just kidding! You had reason to be in your car due to the other rep with you.

Thank you for the plug. Good to see you yesterday!

Charlie6 said...

Good breakdown of competence/incompetence levels Irondad!

Too bad, when riders pick up bad habits due to lazyness or lack of training and those habits become automatic incompetence.....very hard to get rid of. I am a big believer in "you'll react the way you trained" or sometimes its called muscle memory. I struggle with this in terms of obstacle avoidance, I shift the bike by shifting my weight instead of correctly counter-steering around I try and work on it when I can.


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Jeffry said...

Great post. Had to send a link to your post to my fellow instructors here in Illinois. By they way, I like the little white boards attached to the handlebars.


Allen Madding said...

Another great story and very useful to all riders. And I appreciate your transparency about being in the cage. I have those times when I cage it due to rain or needing the truck to transport something, and I see someone on a motorcycle. My jealousy flag goes up real fast. But its all good.

Thanks for taking the time to make this post. It gives us all something to think about on our riding skill levels.


D. Birren said...

Great post... love the white board thing... but I must take exception to the 'letting them look down' thing. Eyes up at all times!

bluekat said...

Great post. Classic Irondad!
I think you already know, I enjoy your photos from class. Always brings back fond memories, and a few painful ones.

It was a long, slow scrabble up to my lowly level. My first winter of riding, I was afraid to stop and lose the precious few skills I'd scraped together. Worse than riding in the cold.... having to relearn everything. Now I just can't stop. Autopilot includes putting on gear while drinking my morning coffee, and hanging wet gear all over the house when I get home. My own fault, but a few things are stuck at level two. Things I know I need to work on, but procrastinate instead.

The little gal on the bike with the big smile. Great pic. That says it all doesn't it. That's the answer to "why do you ride?"

What, the Rep didn't want to ride pillion? Silly boy!

Jeffry said...

Some of my fellow instructors really like the use of white boards. I can't tell for sure from the picture. How does your program attach them to the bike?

irondad said...


Thank you for the compliment. The application to advanced riders comes in a follow-up post. Stay tuned!

Take care,


irondad said...


Thanks for the kind words on the post. I have something in the works for you, by the way!

Take care,


irondad said...


I think you will find more of value in the upcoming post. That's where this will all relate more to us experienced riders.

Stand by.

Take care,


irondad said...


I've seen training bikes used with colored lights on the front so the instructor could tell if the student was using the brake, clutch, etc. Most of us can tell without that so we put the name plates on to be able to know the students' names.

The plates are zip-tied through four corner holes to whatever works for support. I'll try to remember to take a close-up photo this weekend.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you, too, for the kind words. Hopefully you will find more directly applicable information in an upcoming post.

As to transparency, well, personal integrity is about all I really have to my name!

Take care,


irondad said...

D Birren,

In principle I agree with the "eyes up all the time" statement. It's just that new students need a bit of time to get things sorted out with their hands.

In reality, we start coaching eyes up about 45 minutes into the riding time and never let up from there.

Thank you so much for gracing my blog with your comment!

Take care,


irondad said...


You are good for me ego! Thanks.

In some ways I kind of envy you. Milestones are coming fairly frequently. New accomplishments to be proud of come regularly. I'm sure your sense of wonder at riding ( in between bouts of fear, of course! ) may be greater than mine right now.

It's not that I don't improve. I'm a better rider now than I was five years ago and I was a good rider then. A lot of it, though, has a been there-done that feel.

Now I have to do 100 mph maximum braking runs to get the same feelings. :)

That gal that's smiling so big is doing so because she finally conquered the offset cone weave and sharp turn. She was pretty proud of herself. As was I.

Take care,


Jack Riepe said...

Dear IronDad:

Will you b e mentioning "Level 5," picking up the bike after a good bout of confidence?

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

Jason said...

Reaching level five can really rearrange one's filing cabinet! Thanks for the excellent posts.

BTW, I don't think shifting-your-weight or countersteering is going to help much on the hack. Although the it may give new meaning to "flying-car-avoidance" :)