Thursday, May 26, 2011

Step 4 Muscle Memory

This is the step we're aiming for when learning something involving physical movements. Which, coincidentally, we're required to do a lot of when riding a motorcycle. We want these physical actions to take a background role as far as the amount of concentration required to perform them. This is true of any of the physical skills involved. What we're really concentrating on, though, are the skills specific to accident avoidance. These include, but are not limited to, braking and swerving. If we want to be a bit more technical about the matter, we could include proper cornering technique and head turns.

In an interesting contradiction you could call this level of performance unconscious competence. We do the right thing without having to think about it on a conscious level. The movements required become automatic reflexes. Another way to look at it is to say they happen on autopilot. We should just automatically do the right thing. I'm sure you get the gist of what I'm trying to put across by now.

I remember Gramps teasing me at the supper table. He'd watch me eat for a while and then give me a big grin. Gramp would remark on one of my autopilot reflexes.

"You know, it's so interesting watching you. Whenever your elbow bends your mouth flies open!"

What he didn't specifically say was that the reason this happened was because I was getting ready to shove another forkful of food that I'd just liberated from my plate into my mouth.

An example from the world of motorcycling is in properly using head turns. Whenever we're preparing to change the direction of our motorcycle our unconscious reaction should be to automatically point our nose at the new target. Whenever we're faced with the need to apply maximum braking our autopilot response should be to apply both brakes smoothly with the proper modulation of front and rear brake. Believe me, this isn't the normal reaction. We have to work to get there.

So how does this happen? We talk about building the mind-muscle connection. We give it the fancy name of Muscle Memory. How many times have we heard that term? What does it really mean to develop muscle memory? How does it happen? What does it do for us?

Muscles themselves have no actual memory. The concepts of "brain" and "brawn" are always used to convey separate images. We talk about people blessed with one or the other. If we're really lucky we're blessed with both. Once upon a time I was one of those lucky ones. These days I look like a blocky desktop computer. Not much to look at but the processor and memory still work. Either way, you never hear somebody being referred to as having "brainy brawn". Which is a long ways to come back to saying that our muscles themselves have no actual memory.

So what's involved in this muscle memory thing? Think of it as taking a series of still life photographs and turning them into a movie. Individual actions are blended into one smooth movement. The actions are actually stored in our brains. Specifically in the cerebellum. I never even knew I had one of those things in my head before! I may have to explore getting a bigger helmet.

Here's an example from our basic classes. It's the process for upshifting. First we have the students sit on a non-running motorcycle. We break the process down into individual steps. We first practice each step by itself. As we move through the practice we have the students start blending the steps into one smooth series of motions called "upshift".

Here's how it goes. Roll off the throttle. Squeeze the clutch lever. Lift up on the shift lever. Ease out the clutch lever. Roll on the throttle.

Of course, that takes forever. We need to speed it up a little. So now we condense the process into buzz words. Roll. Squeeze. Lift. Ease. Roll. A bit faster but still not the automatic smooth response we're after.

Thus the time spent on the exercise where students actually practice upshifting while riding. For a while it can take nearly the whole length of the range to get into second gear. Pretty soon we start to see the individual steps merge into one smooth and fluid process. That's muscle memory being formed in the cerebellum. It's forming the individual memory of each step into a movie. Each memory is still stored as its own photo but the cerebellum creates the pathways that link the steps into one process.

Thus we get a couple of valuable clues on how to properly form these movies. Firstly, each individual step needs to be firmly and correctly imprinted into its storage space. Secondly, the making of the movie requires a lot of repetitions. The more we correctly repeat the drill the stronger the pathways linking the individual steps become. The goal is to create a near automatic playback of the stored memory of the required movements.

I've written this before but it's really appropriate for this discussion.

Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong.

Did you get the idea that a LOT of practice is required? There's another saying that practice makes perfect. What should really be expressed is that PERFECT practice makes perfect. This is another value of professional training. Most training sessions don't allow enough time to perfect each skill. What the sessions do accomplish, however, is to show the student what each skill SHOULD look like. This provides the mental picture of the finished product. It's our target, if you will.

I think one of the reasons riders hold back from more intense skill practice is that it can be slightly intimidating. Thinking of the whole process involved in maximum braking, for example, can be overwhelming. When there's a number of different movements involved it can also be hard to self evaluate where the process is good and where it can use some help.

Knowing that the longest journey begins with the first step ( don't know why I'm spouting sayings today but there it is ) why not just take a step? We also now know that our brains still store the individual steps and links these together. Our brain doesn't store "upshift". It stores ROLL-SQUEEZE-LIFT-EASE-ROLL. Why not take advantage of that process and separate our practice into individual steps?

Here's how it can work. Pick a day that we're riding. To work, for work, for recreation, whatever. For that day focus on smooth braking. Just that step. It's simple and effective. It's easy to get feedback on how our brake application is because that's all we're working on. Smooth or not? Simple. Work on cementing the single photo of smooth braking. One correct memory stored.

Pick another ride and concentrate on putting your knees against the gas tank ( or fake plastic thingy up there ). Take the next ride and concentrate on the fine feel possible on the rear brake lever by using the smaller muscles of the lower leg and foot. The next ride can be dedicated to keeping our eyes up and looking well ahead while braking. After that concentrate on a progressive squeeze of the front brake lever.

This may all sound over simplified but it's exactly what our brains need. Remember that the overall movement is a movie made up of individual photos. The key is to make sure that each photo is correct for the movie theme. Once that's accomplished we then work on the whole. Ultimately it's going to require practicing the whole sequence together many times to establish the pathways. You'll find it much more effective and less intimidating having practiced each step individually.

Our goal is actually two-fold. Yes, we want the right movements to automatically be there, as it were, when needed. That's a very valuable component, to be sure. There's an even more compelling reason to get to this point. It's something we've probably thought about but never really delved into. That's the subject for an upcoming post.

Here's a hint: Action is always better than reaction.

Miles and smiles,



Brady said...

Muscle memory got me out of trouble while extremely hungover. It's a powerful tool. If I had to rely on my brain computational power to correct my error it would have been a horror show. The auto correct feature worked well and I stayed upright. The net has been abuzz with these skills lately, I've found myself focusing on them, particularly slow handling on my big concours. THAT is tricky.

Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

Geoff James said...

"Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."

That's perfectly said Dan. It applies exactly to the emergency braking I learned, using the staged process until it's totally second nature. However, my IAM instructor had picked up that I'd got sloppy in not lifting my head and turning it far enough in slow speed tight turns. A perfect example of why EVERYONE benefits from a 3rd party check of their riding at intervals.

Great post.

Charlie6 said...

Good stuff as usual Irondad....I can personally attest to it taking much practice before I now automatically turn my head and "look as far into the turn" as I can.

It really and truly helps to do that, it takes your mind off the near vision stuff that'll cause you to tense up and forget training.

Tight u-turns are the worst when it comes to not doing a proper head can target fixate on that road edge or cliff side and it's trouble from then on.....



Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Mike said...

I echo what Charlie6 said...

Anonymous said...

Keep thinking of the song "the hip bone joins the thigh bone, the thigh bone connects to the knee bone, the shin bone is connected to the ankle bone..."

Repitition under controlled conditions repeatedly, ensures
flawless performance every time.

BTW have started back at the beginning of your blog, reading the entries and comments. There have been changes in both you, your writings and your world.

Geoff James said...

Hi Dan,

I had an email today from one of the Kiwi Biker web forum senior members who has a strong interest in promoting motorcycle safety. He has in mind to organise a motorcycle gymkhana with both a competitive and fun side next spring in his home town of Taupo to raise awareness of handling skills. Gymkhanas are quite rare in this neck of the woods and as he wants to do a thoroughly professional job, he's looking for some guidance on course layouts, running events and so on. Do you happen to know of a source he can go to for a bit of inspiration?

My email link is on my blog.

Thanks in anticipation,

Kindest regards,


Dar said...

I have spent the evening browsing through your blog and it is very interesting and it is making me think about my riding style. I am relatively new to riding and started out on a 50cc scoot last January. I have progressed through a MSF course & traffic safety class. I took my road test last October and earned my motorcycle endorsement. I have made up my mind that I want to be a lifelong learner and that I need to practice my skills regularly to stay at the top of my game. My bike is off the road & I have been riding my scoot because it is cheaper insurance & I don't want my beautiful bike to get rusty. Braking specifically nneds to be worked on because with my scoot both brakes are hand brakes, so I have to rethink about foor hand coordination again. That skill gets lazy on the scooter. Anyway I think when riding time comes around in a month or two I will be heading to the parkinglot & practicing and I am seriously considering popping for a lesson or two to retune my skills. I have thought about taking an ART class, but feel a little intimidated at the thought of it. I have found that since taking my MSF my overall driving habits have improved.