Date: April 27, 2009

Author: JT

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Practice Mastery

Recently, I penned an article for the Motorcycle Sport Touring Association (MSTA), formerly the HSTA.  The topic is motorcyclists and their pursuit of mastery.  Whether you too are a motorcyclist or not, I think you will find there are strong parallels toward
mastery of whatever you pursue.

Practice Mastery?

By J. T. Pedersen, 2009

We who make up the MSTA are as much a mixed bag of riding skills as we are the mix of faces populating the latest MSTA group photo.  Grab a cup of coffee, sit back in the swing on the porch, and look at the individuals milling around at a group event.  With some amount of rectitude, we can normally pick out who may be along for the ride, those who may be on the path, and those who are the masters of the sport.

Try Something Simple

Riding AwayPick the bike up off the kickstand, hold the bike vertical, retract the kickstand, and sit there.  Simple.  Basic.  Perhaps the very first motorcycling skill you ever learned.  It wasn’t quite so simple the very first time you did it though.  I’m willing to bet you were torn between holding the bike up, and leaning your torso to the side, trying to look at what you were doing…complicating the process rather than helping.

You likely learned that now-simple skill along with a couple others in short order.  Having achieved a new level of mastery, it was likely followed by an extended period of sameness, a plateau.  Your next leap in mastery may have came after taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, with a similar plateau in your learning for some period afterward.

What is It?

I recently read a book on Mastery, and, the more I read it the more I found I had stopped reading.  The author wrote of mastery of the things in life, no one thing, but of those things important to us.  And motorcycling has certainly been a major part of my life.  As I start my 25th season of riding, I cannot imagine it not being so.  It permeates who and what I am.

Mastery.  You’re probably waiting for my definition of what it is.  Don’t, because I won’t.  It’s something we know when we see it.  And, we all have our own perspective on the subject.  What I like about the author’s own premise is that mastery is more of a journey than a destination.  Raising the kickstand made us a master among those who would fear, would dare, to even try to raise such a heavy piece of machinery from its state of rest.  But, you didn’t stop there, did you?  You continued your journey.  You rode.

Highs, Lows, Plateaus

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘two steps forward, one step back.’  Often we’re dismissive of the notion.  Two forward, one back?  What kind of turkey are you?  You only go backward because of a failure (aka setback, bad luck, job loss, malfunction, crash…).  Right?

Wrong.  Particularly as regards learning, we relive this cycle continuously.  There is nothing we learn of substance that does not take us through this cycle.  Let me take you through a simple example common to anyone who has taken a California Superbike School class.

Level 1.  Session 1.  At this point I had ridden nearly 20 years.  A friend and I had sought out the more professional track-based courses because we’d matured past the point where most MSF courses were mentally engaging.  We wanted to learn more.  Me, I had wanted to start out in a mid-level course, feeling I’d already mastered whatever they’d be teaching in Level 1.  I mean, really.

First session is about throttle control.  Oh, come on now. Really! Keith talks to you about setting your corner entry speed, and how doing so, makes everything else flow more naturally.  So, on your first track session, he tells you to ride the track using only 4th gear and no brakes.  Got it.  Geez, hope the whole day isn’t this empowering.

Guess what?  4th gear on a large bike is like trailering with your Suburban and expecting a downshift will actually accomplish something.  Take your hand off the gas and a ¼ mile later you’ve probably lost 3 MPH; maybe you’ve lost -1 MPH if you’re going downhill.  Well, sure enough, I had to hit the brakes.  Grrr.  Ok, next curve, I won’t hit it quite so hot, I’ll go slower.  GRRRR.  Had to hit the brakes, again.  It was possible to do, but I had to completely change my approach.

I learned a lot in those 20 minutes.  When riding adventurously, I had always charged corners, grabbed a wad of brakes, and hit the gas again as soon as I could.  Here, I had learned a whole new approach.  Two steps forward.  But it didn’t come without a price.  We weren’t to touch the brakes.  Heck, I stopped wanting to count brake grabs after the 5th, 6th… time.  Each time I touched the brakes, it was like a stab to the heart of my ‘mastery.’  At the end of the session, I was glad it was over.  I was embarrassed, traumatically humbled, to the point of questioning my competency as a motorcyclist.  I mean, after all, what idiot can’t get around a track at least once without ‘having’ to use the brakes?  A punch in the gut wouldn’t have hurt more.  One step back.

This new knowledge clearly had benefit.  But in working to truly learn the new skills taught that day, it disrupted my overall proficiency for a while after.  That one day spiked my learning, followed by a noticeable decrease in how I applied skills, until they became enmeshed in the ‘new me.’  The new me had jumped up two steps, settled back 1.75 steps for a bit, and then plateaued at a new +1 step baseline.

What About You?

Simply being a member of MSTA likely puts you among those most lay riders would consider being a master.  But how do you view yourself?  How do you compare against what you want of you?  When you ride, are you just riding?  Or, are you-at least some small part of you-constantly trying to improve?

I encourage each of you to find your own path toward the Mastery of Motorcycling.  Each of our paths is unique to ourselves and means nothing compared to another.  Yes, our egos may decry that, but it’s true.  And, it is a corollary to, ‘ride your own ride.’

As we head in to another riding season, think about your motorcycling.  Think about how you did on that last curve, the last pass, the last braking.  Continue to seek education.  Learn something, learn something new.  Don’t just keep doing the same thing season after season. Work to continue honing your skills and become the rider you know you can be.

Maybe then, rather than being a hatchet man, someone will comment about how smooth (or whatever skill is important to you) a rider they thought you were.

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