All three steps continuously overlap. As long as the bike is moving, you are scanning. While scanning, you are continuously deciding on your next move. While you are acting, you are already processing new trail information (scanning) for the next round. It’s an endless circle of mental and physical multitasking.
The reason a three-step decision making process works is because of how the human mind and body connect. Step 1 is called perception. This is the time it takes for the eyes to send a message to the brain. In the beginning, average perception time is about 0.75 of a second per visual focus point. At 30 mph, you will travel about 44 feet – a long time to be looking in one place at speed.
On a motorcycle this is almost focus fixation, when a rider looks at one point too long and misses important information at other points. Fortunately, perception improves with experience, training and conditioning. You get faster because you know what to expect from various conditions.
Step 2 is called reaction. For the average person, reaction time is also about 0.75 of a second. In other words, it takes about 0.75 seconds to perceive and another 0.75 seconds to react. At 30 mph, you will have traveled about 88 feet from the time you see a rock to the time you start steering around it, if you’re average. Your goal is to become faster than average – much faster.
Racers train to scan at less than 0.5 seconds per scanning point. They also learn to scan at multiple points at one time using a technique called Hard Eye – Soft Eye (HESE). HESE means to become skilled at continuously processing two visual signals in the brain at the same time, one clear and detailed visual picture from the center of the eye (foveal vision), and a second – less distinct – picture from the edge of your eyes (peripheral vision).
For example, on a track at speed, you clearly see the jump face 100 feet ahead and at the same time glimpse the front wheel edging ahead on your right. Most people have foveal and peripheral vision, but motorcycle riders need to develop it and use it at a much higher level.
Until you become proficient at using two sight pictures, practice on a busy track or riding in difficult terrain can be hazardous. A simple way to hone your sight skills is to sit in a chair and watch television. While you are enjoying the program, count the number of books on the shelf off to the side of the room. If not books, count something else. When you can easily follow the storyline on the television and precisely remember the numbers at the same time, try it again wearing your helmet and goggles. It will look funny for sure, but do it anyway.
When you are ready, try it on the bike – and go slow at first. Work your way up to speed and complex detail. Imagine the desert racers looking way ahead for turn makers at 80 mph and watching for sand ruts or rocks just ahead of the front wheel. That’s HESE in action.
When first learning to ride, we sometimes use a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. That’s the part genetically programmed for survival in life-threatening situations, sometimes called fight or flight. That’s why we have novice students cover the levers with four fingers. If they panic, they squeeze both levers, controlling power and stopping the bike as they hang on.
In training, we teach riders to move their decision making to a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Decisions made there are not based on a survival instinct, but rather on something called executive function. We train riders to be proactive rather than reactive. They learn to collect and process information, rank options and pick the best course of action. If they use executive function long enough, it can become automatic. This happens after enough practice to create muscle memory and a reflex-like thought process in a part of the brain called the medulla oblongata.
"Eight Hours From Bottle To Throttle"
We train and condition to create this state of performance awareness. Scanning, ranking and acting become almost an unthinking habit. Athletes call this form of predictive motor control being in the zone or more simply, flo. Riding with flo is to ride well, with minimal physical and mental energy expenditure. In flo, perception times are reduced and reaction times are faster. It is the reward for all the hard work (training) you’ve put in. In flo, your motorcycle becomes an extension of your body – the ultimate goal of training.
On a practice course, I will ask riders to do slow speed counterbalance turns around a circle of orange traffic cones. As they are working on body mechanics and control functions, I ask them to count the number of cones in the circle. To make it more challenging, I will set up different sizes of circles on the range to be taken in a set order. The riders must do the circles properly, in order, and remember the number of cones in each circle.
For racers, I will set cones on the inside and/or outside of high-speed turns. The riders must do the turns well and tell me the number of cones for each turn after each practice session. In more advanced classes, I sometimes place cones on the backside of jumps or stand by the side of the track/trail and hold up a number of fingers to be counted at speed or in mid-air as the riders go past. The training goal is to learn to use Hard Eye – Soft Eye scanning patterns at whatever speed and in whatever condition or situation they are riding in.
We have only scratched the surface of predictive motor control; there is so much more to learn and to do.
Remember the three-legged stool? What does yours look like? Are all three legs fully developed and in balance? If not, then maybe it’s time for more reading or to take a class or two. No matter where or how you train, keep at it, because safe riding is like a muscle. It needs constant exercise to stay strong.
About the Author
Ramey “Coach” Stroud is a former off-road racing champion, past motocross rider of the year and an around-the-world motorcycle traveler. He was awarded the BMW MOA Foundation’s Individual of the Year award for his motorcycle training programs and contributions to rider safety. You can learn more about him at his website, RIDECOACH.COM.