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,


Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday the 13th Special

I'm working to finish the last post in the series of gaining new skills. This will be the very important Step 4. In the meantime I came across this. I had posted it with permission in 2006. Some of you have seen this before but I'm sure you'll laugh again. If you haven't seen it, prepare to enjoy. For some reason it just seems fitting for Friday the 13th! This, by the way, is not of my originality.

Written by Daniel Meyer, author of a book called "Life is a Road, the Soul is a Motorcycle".

DISCLAIMER: If you're drinking something, put it down for the duration.

You've been warned. All punctuation errors, format, etc. are as I found 'em.


I never dreamed slowly cruising through a residential neighbourhood could be so incredibly dangerous!

Studies have shown that motorcycling requires more

decisions per second, and more sheer data processing

than nearly any other common activity or sport. The

reactions and accurate decision making abilities

needed have been likened to the reactions of fighter

pilots! The consequences of bad decisions or poor

situational awareness are pretty much the same for

both groups too.

Occasionally, as a rider I have caught myself starting

to make bad or late decisions while riding. In flight

training, my instructors called this being "behind the

power curve". It is a mark of experience that when

this begins to happen, the rider recognizes the

situation, and more importantly, does something about

it. A short break, a meal, or even a gas stop can set

things right again as it gives the brain a chance to

catch up.

Good, accurate, and timely decisions are essential

when riding a motorcycle, at least if you want to

remain among the living. In short, the brain needs to

keep up with the machine.

I had been banging around the roads of east Texas and

as I headed back into Dallas, found myself in very

heavy, high-speed traffic on the freeways. Normally,

this is not a problem, I commute in these conditions

daily, but suddenly I was nearly run down by a cage

that decided it needed my lane more than I did. This

is not normally a big deal either, as it happens

around here often, but usually I can accurately

predict which drivers are not paying attention and

avoid them before we are even close. This one I missed

seeing until it was nearly too late, and as I took

evasive action I nearly broadsided another car that I

was not even aware was there!

Two bad decisions and insufficient situational

awareness, all within seconds. I was behind the power

curve. Time to get off the freeway.

I hit the next exit, and as I was in an area I knew

pretty well, headed through a few big residential neighbourhoods as a new route

home. As I turned onto the nearly empty streets I opened the visor on my full-face

helmet to help get some air. I figured some slow riding through the quiet surface

streets would give me time to relax, think, and regain that "edge" so frequently

required when riding.

Little did I suspect.

As I passed an oncoming car, a brown furry missile

shot out from under it and tumbled to a stop

immediately in front of me. It was a squirrel, and

must have been trying to run across the road when it encountered the car. I really

was not going very fast, but there was no time to brake or avoid it-it was that


I hate to run over animals.and I really hate it on a motorcycle, but a squirrel

should pose no danger to me. I barely had time to brace for the impact.

Animal lovers, never fear. Squirrels can take care of themselves!

Inches before impact, the squirrel flipped to his

feet. He was standing on his hind legs and facing the

oncoming Valkyrie with steadfast resolve in his little

beady eyes. His mouth opened, and at the last possible

second, he screamed and leapt! I am pretty sure the

scream was squirrel for, "Banzai!" or maybe, "Die you gravy-sucking, heathen scum!"

as the leap was spectacular and he flew over the windshield and impacted me squarely

in the chest.

Instantly he set upon me. If I did not know better I

would have sworn he brought twenty of his little

buddies along for the attack. Snarling, hissing, and

tearing at my clothes, he was a frenzy of activity. As

I was dressed only in a light t-shirt, summer riding

gloves, and jeans this was a bit of a cause for

concern. This furry little tornado was doing some damage!

Picture a large man on a huge black and chrome

cruiser, dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and leather

gloves puttering maybe 25mph down a quiet residential street.and in the fight of his

life with a squirrel. And losing.

I grabbed for him with my left hand and managed to

snag his tail. With all my strength I flung the evil

rodent off the left of the bike, almost running into

the right curb as I recoiled from the throw.

That should have done it. The matter should have ended

right there. It really should have. The squirrel could

have sailed into one of the pristinely kept yards and

gone on about his business, and I could have headed

home. No one would have been the wiser.

But this was no ordinary squirrel. This was not even

an ordinary pissed-off squirrel.

This was an evil attack squirrel of death!

Somehow he caught my gloved finger with one of his

little hands, and with the force of the throw swung

around and with a resounding thump and an amazing

impact he landed square on my back and resumed his

rather anti-social and extremely distracting

activities. He also managed to take my left glove with him!

The situation was not improved. Not improved at all.

His attacks were continuing, and now I could not reach him.

I was startled to say the least. The combination of

the force of the throw, only having one hand (the

throttle hand) on the handlebars, and my jerking back unfortunately put a healthy

twist through my right hand and into the throttle. A healthy twist on the throttle

of a Valkyrie can only have one result. Torque. This is what the Valkyrie is made

for, and she is very, very good at it.

The engine roared as the front wheel left the

pavement. The squirrel screamed in anger. The Valkyrie

screamed in ecstasy. I screamed in, well, I just plain screamed.

Now picture a large man on a huge black and chrome

cruiser, dressed in jeans, a slightly squirrel torn

t-shirt, and only one leather glove roaring at maybe

70mph and rapidly accelerating down a quiet

residential street.on one wheel and with a demonic

squirrel on his back. The man and the squirrel are

both screaming bloody murder.

With the sudden acceleration I was forced to put my

other hand back on the handlebars and try to get

control of the bike. This was leaving the mutant

squirrel to his own devices, but I really did not want

to crash into somebody's tree, house, or parked car.

Also, I had not yet figured out how to release the

throttle, my brain was just simply overloaded. I did

manage to mash the back brake, but it had little

affect against the massive power of the big cruiser.

About this time the squirrel decided that I was not

paying sufficient attention to this very serious

battle (maybe he is a Scottish attack squirrel of

death), and he came around my neck and got IN my

full-face helmet with me. As the faceplate closed

partway and he began hissing in my face I am quite

sure my screaming changed tone and intensity. It

seemed to have little affect on the squirrel however.

The rpm's on The Dragon maxed out (I was not concerned

about shifting at the moment) and her front end

started to drop.

Now picture the large man on the huge black and chrome

cruiser, dressed in jeans, a very ragged torn t-shirt,

and wearing one leather glove, roaring at probably

80mph, still on one wheel, with a large puffy

squirrel's tail sticking out his mostly closed

full-face helmet. By now the screams are probably

getting a little hoarse.

Finally I got the upper hand. I managed to grab his

tail again, pulled him out of my helmet, and slung him

to the left as hard as I could. This time it

worked, sort-of. Spectacularly sort-of, so to speak.

Suddenly a large man on a huge black and chrome

cruiser, dressed in jeans, a torn t-shirt flapping in

the breeze, and wearing one leather glove, moving at

probably 80mph on one wheel, and screaming bloody

murder roars by and with all his strength throws a

live squirrel grenade directly into your police car.

I heard screams. They weren't mine...

I managed to get the big motorcycle under directional

control and dropped the front wheel to the ground. I

then used maximum braking and skidded to a stop in a

cloud of tire smoke at the stop sign at a busy cross street.

I would have returned to fess up (and to get my glove

back). I really would have. Really. But for two

things. First, the cops did not seem interested or the slightest bit concerned about

me at the moment. One of them was on his back in the front yard of the house they

had been parked in front of and was rapidly crabbing backwards away from the patrol

car. The other was standing in the street and was training a riot shotgun on the

police cruiser.

So the cops were not interested in me. They often

insist to "let the professionals handle it" anyway.

That was one thing. The other? Well, I swear I could

see the squirrel, standing in the back window of the

patrol car among shredded and flying pieces of foam

and upholstery, and shaking his little fist at me. I

think he was shooting me the finger.

That is one dangerous squirrel. And now he has a

patrol car.

I took a deep breath, turned on my turn-signal, made

an easy right turn, and sedately left the neighborhood.

As for my easy and slow drive home? Screw it. Faced

with a choice of 80mph cars and inattentive drivers,

or the evil, demonic, attack squirrel of death...I'll

take my chances with the freeway. Every time.

And I'll buy myself a new pair of gloves. ___________________________

Miles and smiles,


Monday, May 09, 2011

It's Great to Know for Sure!

I want to make one more comment on Step 3 of gaining new skills before I finish off with the oh-so critical importance of Step 4.

Since it's been so long between posts let's take just a moment to re-establish continuity.

I've been posting about the four steps I've discovered happen when a person is learning a new skill. In this series these are skills related to riding a motorcycle successfully. I believe the same steps happen in other contexts but this is a blog about motorcycle riding. So we go with our strengths and interests.

Briefly, the first step is what I call finding out what we didn't know. Something new catches our eye and we want to try it. At this point we don't know what we don't know. Training and self discovery tell us what's lacking.

Step 2 is when we discover where we are in gaining these new skills. Mostly it consists of realizing that we really need some more work and practice!

Step 3 ( which is where we've gotten to in this blog ) is when we realize that we're actually starting to see improvement in our application of these new skills. It's perfectly natural and wonderul to do a little celebrating over our newfound competence. Which is what the last post was about.

Besides the joy of accomplishment there's another aspect to reaching Step 3 that I feel we should think about for a bit. It's a precursor to what happens in Step 4.

Ok. Enough Step 2, Step 3, Step 4, and big words. Here's the deal, plain and simple.

Wouldn't you like to know for sure that you can do something rather than just thinking you can?

Let me bring it home and lay it on the doorstep, so to speak. I'll use Katie and I as an example.

Katie is often on the back of my bike. She loves to ride. Sometimes I'll be sitting around the house on a Saturday. On those rare weekends when I'm not teaching, that is. I may have ridden a thousand miles during the week. I wouldn't feel deprived by not riding on a Saturday. Katie will suggest a ride. She's more tied down during the week and so weekends are her free time. Katie's a great passenger and I love having her with me and experiencing riding adventures together.

My lovely bride has an endorsement of her own. She took a class, passed the skills test, and got endorsed. We bought a bike for her. The vast majority of the time, though, Katie wants to be my passenger. Like I say, she's a great passenger and I love having her close. Katie, being an endorsed rider, is well aware of the risks. As am I. She's a great passenger because she understands what's happening as we ride. One time we were out on some country roads and riding Sophie. On a particular corner one day I gently, and on purpose, touched my right foot peg onto the pavement and held it there during the entire time the bike was leaned. Instead of feeling somebody frantically beating on my back, I heard:

"Man, that was soooo smooth!"

It's time to bring this thing home. Katie is excited about riding with me. Despite having a rider's awareness of the risk. Why? One, because it's extremely enjoyable. Secondly, she can relax and enjoy because she trusts my judgement and riding skills.

Here's my big question to myself: Am I worthy of that trust? Not just because I think I might be if the time came. That's conjecture. Conjecture may or may not save our bacon.

At the risk of sounding overly romantic, this woman is my best buddy. She's given me the precious gift of her love, friendship, and loyalty. Her being in my life has made it so much more awesome than it would have been otherwise. This is a woman whom I fiercely love and really love spending time with. Do you start to see the importance this girl has in my life?

I don't take this at all lightly. I don't want to just think I could do the right thing competently if I had to while we were riding. Conjecture isn't nearly good enough compared to the precious passenger blessing my bike seat. I want to know for sure. I know that time and unseen occurrence befall all of us. There are no magic bullets or protective force fields. On the other hand, I want to know that I have whatever skills may be required to stack the odds in our favor as much as humanly possible. If there is a failure somewhere I don't want it to be mine.

And I do know. I have actually done these maneuvers under real world conditions. I don't have to wonder if I can successfully swerve at highway speeds. Been there, done that. It takes a very firm press on the handgrip to make a bike move off line at speed. I know how much because I've done it at over 70 miles per hour. Two up, by the way. I don't have to wonder if doing a maximum braking stop at 35 miles per hour will mean I can still do it successfully at 65 or 70 mph. Hey, things happen at this speed. I've done it repeatedly at those speeds and higher. ( more on that part in just a bit )

Having ACTUALLY DONE IT, repeatedly and successfully, is a source of great comfort and satisfaction. Sure, I scared myself in the process. Yes, it was hard. But this is Katie I'm talking about. You get the picture.

How about you? Would you rather wonder or really know? I don't really mean it to sound like a challenge but then again I do. Sometimes it takes a challenge to get us out of our comfort zones. That's a nice place to be but it stifles growth.

I've been blessed with readers who have been regular here for years. Thank you so much for your support. Those who've been around awhile may recognize the photo above. It's a very long skid mark laid down by a front tire during a maximum braking stop at 100 miles per hour. Yes, this was me. Some of you may find this a little over the top. I wouldn't blame you. I don't have much to offer as an excuse save for the power of the moment.

The only thing I can say is that I now know I can do it. I will also add that I now know I really don't ever want to have to do it again. If you care to read about this adventure you can find the post here.

Stay tuned for Step 4. It's way more critical than we might realize.

Miles and smiles,