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The Mental Art Of Motorcycle Riding

How The Fight Or Flight Phenomenon Blocks Peak Performance


Bill Cole, MS, MA
Founder and President
International Mental Game Coaching Association

Chris Carr
World Champion Motorcycle Racer
And World Record Holder


Before you swing your leg over your bike do you have the right motorcycle mindset?

Do you consistently get your "riding face on" before you turn on the engine?

Do you see it as mandatory to get your "race face on" before you compete?

A big part of achieving "riding face" is the ability to be engaged in what you are about to do, BEFORE you do it. Athletes call this game face and it is integral to their success. Game face or riding face is having a mental expectation of success, visualizing or planning for what you are about to do and having a deep, undistracted focus.

We have written before about the importance of a motorcycle rider being able to get into the present time zone, and to stay out of the past and future time zones. This is mandatory for safe, quality riding. Being in the past or future reduces self-awareness and hence, the ability to adjust to riding conditions. Awareness is the master skill. This article explains in more detail how awareness is blocked and what you can do to remove those blocks.

Using pro or Olympic athletes as a model, we know that when they are performing poorly, they report that they are "up in their head". That means they think too much, analyze needlessly, ruminate, worry and mentally project back to the past or into the future. In short, they are "not all there". Yes, their body is always there, but their mind goes someplace else. We will describe here where that "someplace else" is. They're unfortunately using their conscious mind, not their unconscious mind.

When a great athlete or motorcycle rider performs, they are out of their head, and into their body. That means they are primarily sense-based. They are using their unconscious mind. This automatically brings them into the present time zone. We refer to the body, senses and unconscious as the same.

When you are worried, fearful or even just thinking too much, this activity does not confine itself just to your mind. There is a radiating effect throughout your entire being. Your emotions, senses and muscles are directly affected. Of course your main experience of this is that your mind is busy, and you may not even be aware of these far-reaching other effects.

The Fight Or Flight Phenomenon

If you have a near-miss traffic accident, or if you are a newer rider fearful of having an accident, or if you are a veteran rider recalling a scary memory of a crash or other negative riding incident, your awareness will more than likely be propelled up into your head. You may have flashbacks of what went wrong, you may project ahead of what could do wrong, and you may have an overall feeling of "impending danger and doom". When this happens you can feel disconnected from your body, almost as if you are numb or "not all there". Of course this can be disastrous for a motorcycle rider. If this anxiety becomes even stronger, it may trigger what is known as the "fight or fight response". This is a long-standing human survival mechanism, one that evolved over eons as a means to handling life-threatening situations with wild animals and other emergency situations. Once triggered, the fight or flight releases a cascade of hormones and other chemicals throughout your body that dramatically alters your responses to the present situation you are in. Fight or flight can be very helpful. It can help you do exactly what the name implies. It can help you face the challenge that's in front of you head on, or, allow you the extra energy required to flee the danger.

But this evolutionary fight or flight phenomenon can also be extremely maladaptive for motorcycle riders. Let's see what these negative effects are and what they do to a rider.

Negative Effects Of Fight Or Flight

Some people say the mind canít affect the body, but what does your body do when you have a good laugh? It tenses and contracts and then relaxes into a warm feeling of well-being. What does your body do just after a near-miss traffic accident? It tenses strongly and holds that tension for quite a longer amount of time, unless you consciously release it. Both these reactions happen quite naturally, without our having to "tell the body" what to do. They're automatic, or in scientific terms, autonomic.

If you remain tense after a near-miss riding accident, this will negatively affect the rest of your ride that day, unless you take positive action to reverse it. The body and mind are intimately linked. Muscle tension levels reflect our emotional and mental state on a moment-by-moment basis. Riders need an intimate knowledge of the fight or flight phenomenon to perform at their peak consistently.

There are at least 27 physiological effects caused by fight or flight and 12 mental and emotional effects. We describe the major ones here as they relate to motorcycle riders:

  1. Muscle contractions increase which leads to increased strength, but reduced nuanced control. The riding result: You lose your feel for the bike. You feel disconnected.

  2. Blood flows away from the brain to the core. The riding result: You "think emotionally", not rationally, and you make poor decisions.

  3. Attention is narrowed and the tunnel vision effect appears. The riding result: The ability to wide-scan the environment is derailed. Attentional flexibility is impaired. You don't see what you need to see, or you see it too late. This leads to riding in a reactionary mode, instead of a proactive mode.

  4. Time seems to speed up. The riding result: Your mind perceives events inaccurately and your judgment is impaired.

  5. Coordination of fine motor skills is degraded. The riding result: Your throttling and braking is abrupt and inappropriate, and poorly attuned to the conditions. You may stall out. You may lose your balance and lose your sense of weight distribution and weight shift.

  6. Body, emotions and mind are set into a perpetual state of alert called hypervigilance. This amped-up feeling makes you do everything fast and sudden, and your judgment is negatively sensitized to every little irritation or event, triggering non-adaptive responses.

  7. It takes less stress to set off additional anger and stress reactions. The riding result: Your ride becomes worse and worse, opening you up to additional dangerous situations.

  1. Hypersensitivity increases to noise, light, smells and touch. The riding result: You become irritable and overly-reactive to stimuli, and make poor decisions.

  2. The ability to concentrate on appropriate cues is impaired. The riding result: You are up in your head and miss what is really going on.

  3. Emotions take control over logic. The riding result: You "think emotionally" and make poor decisions and have clouded judgment.

  4. The primal, self-preservation state is activated. The riding result: You go into full-blown survival-alert mode, ruining your well-practiced riding training, and you then feel like you don't know what you are doing.

  5. Blood flow to the hands decreases. The riding result: You can't feel the bike, your hands may become numb or tingle, reducing feel and touch, and ultimately, this reduces bike control and safety.

  6. Fine motor coordination is decreased. The riding result: You don't make lane changes and turns accurately, throttling and breaking is rough, and you don't feel in control of your bike.

  7. It ruins your endurance. The riding result: Sustained muscle tension makes you tired for seemingly no reason.

  8. It builds up subtle, sustained body tension. The riding result: This leads to chronic discomfort, pain and injury.

  9. It sets you into ways of moving that may be less than optimal. The riding result: You don't feel comfortable on your bike, you can't find a good riding posture, and what is well-practiced, and normally automatic becomes labored and over-thought out and forced.

The insidious part about fight or flight is that it is so subtle. It's often below your normal levels of awareness. This is why, in part, so many riders have problems with controlling the bike, and with adjusting to conditions when they are stressed.

In future articles we will show you how to overcome the negative effects of the fight or flight phenomenon. For now, you have a deeper understanding of this important concept in the peak performance of motorcycle riding. Stay calm, reduce the effects of fight or flight, and you'll ride better, more safely and enjoy your riding experience all the more.

This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Mental Art Of Motorcycle Riding, by Bill Cole, MS, MA and Chris Carr, World Champion and World Record Holder motorcyclist. The book will be published by Albert-Brownson Publishing in September 2017.


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Copyright © 2017 Bill Cole, MS, MA. All rights reserved.


Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on sports psychology, peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps sports teams and individuals achieve more success. He is also the Founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, an organization dedicated to advancing the research, development, professionalism and growth of mental game coaching worldwide. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published author of books and articles, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports and big-time college athletics.

Chris Carr
World-class motorcycle racer Chris Carr is a national motorcycle racing champion, world motorcycle racing champion and world record holder in motorcycling. Chris Carr put Buell Motorcycles in the world record book by riding from Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 8 days, and in 2008 the same itinerary in 106 hours. In 2010 Harley Davidson USA asked Chris to be the first person to ride the brand new XR1200X, in the 7,000 mile Hoka Hey Challenge motorcycle rally, which started in Key West, Florida and finish in Homer, Alaska. Chris has been the top adventure rider for Harley Davidson, and has also served as an instructor for the American Honda Demo Team. For the past 10 years he has been in the motorcycle training business, educating more than 6,000 riders.

Chris is the author of the book "Street Riding Secrets" which can be found on Amazon.com

His web site: TwoWheelAdventures.com


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The Mental Game of Motor Sports

Chris Carr, left, with the owner of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Bill Davidson, far right.



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