I got this…

One of the most memorable things I ever heard at a seminar for psychologists was the following cautionary tale during a presentation on professional ethics. “Clinicians who get sideways with the licensing board or legal authorities are typically overconfident about their expertise or control as they initiate whatever infraction eventually gets them in trouble. They almost never seek consultation from a colleague, supervisor or other expert as they drift into questionable activity. Most often, they’re established practitioners with good reputations who do fine work in general. However, one day they make an exception and bend the rules or overstep a boundary, thinking, ‘No big deal—I got this…’ They’re momentarily grandiose or negligent, and what had seemed trivial or readily manageable becomes a serious liability. Many such lapses might be deemed ‘rookie mistakes,’ except they’re made by seasoned pros.”

Listen to this column as Episode 11 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; this episode doesn’t include a Q&A session. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing podcast@bmwmoa.org.

Mark during the press junket for the R 1150 GS.

This got under my skin and created a disturbing conflict: Whenever I’d feel confident about a potentially tricky clinical decision, I had to wonder if I was having an “I got this” moment. There’s vast gray area in my field and no shortage of disagreements about how to handle any situation. I regularly “check my work” with consultants, but there’s no way to get consensus on every choice as I go through my workday. Despite being a senior clinician with extensive training and a spotless record, I questioned whether I might be overconfident making judgement calls on the fly countless times each week. While these rarely involved the ethical dilemmas in that seminar, the mental trigger had been installed—any sense of confidence became cause for self-doubt. Maybe I should be extra wary because of my many years in the profession, lest my background and credentials lull me into a false sense of security! It was like that horror movie trope wherein the monster reappears as soon as the humans finally relax, thinking they’ve killed it. This is also one of the most insidious effects of traumatic stress; relaxation itself becomes cause for panic, since it’s associated with vulnerability. It’s impossible to calm down when doing so automatically rekindles anxiety.

I understand what the seminar presenter meant, but he planted a troublesome seed in me with those words. Of course, that seed wouldn’t have taken root had it not landed in the fertile soil of my own neurotic tendencies, but it was a long time before I could move through a day without lots of unnecessary, and often counterproductive, second-guessing. I recalled Darwin Awards (Google them) and YouTube “fail” videos of fools shouting, “Hey y’all, watch this!” or “Here, hold my beer!”—famous last words before they enthusiastically and obliviously exercised catastrophically bad judgment. They all felt confident, too. Pride cometh before the fall. Literally.

And so it is with motorcycling.

A careless error at speed could easily cost far more than any licensing board’s disciplinary action or court’s judgement, neither of which would involve my (or someone else’s) death or dismemberment. It wouldn’t matter that I almost always rode with more vigilance and acumen, had no malicious intent, or simply didn’t know any better. Maybe I sincerely felt I already possessed plenty of expertise and had no need for an instructional weekend. After all, I’d read some articles on technique and took the MSF beginner course when I got that motorcycle endorsement on my license. I never engaged in hooliganism, didn’t drink and ride, and wasn’t prone to road-rage, daydreaming or impulsivity. I wasn’t even going very far, so skipping my usual ATGATT policy seemed justifiable. I’m a decent rider who’s never been down on asphalt; what could go wrong? I got this…

Let’s just take the bit about not going very far. Some statistics suggest most motor vehicle accidents happen within a surprisingly small radius of the driver’s home. The tightness of that radius always struck me as rather unsurprising, since most folks do much of their driving quite locally. Wouldn’t they be most likely to crash near home because that’s where they drive most often (every outing begins and ends there), even if they cover more miles elsewhere? Then, as I left home on my last ride, I realized additional factors may be relevant to this phenomenon for motorcyclists.

Whenever I ride out, it takes me a while to loosen up and get into the proper state, physically and mentally. At first my limbs and torso feel wooden, not because I’m tight and stiff and need to stretch, but because I’m not immediately in sync with the bike. I have to deliberately remember to practice the “body English” of riding for a few minutes to reactivate reflexes and muscle memory, switching my physical self into riding mode. This happened faster when I was young and rode more frequently, but some warm-up period was always required. I also have to consciously sharpen and sustain my focus, disallowing the wandering thoughts that seem less problematic while driving a car or doing most routine activities. It takes several minutes to get my mind into riding mode, as well.

In other words, while traversing the first few miles from my house, I function well below my normal level of proficiency, which is currently modest even when I’m at my best. On my way home from that same ride, I realized I was fading after a long day in the saddle. I was tired and sore, my concentration dulled, my reflexes slowed. Again, my riding was sub-par when closest to home.

If this is true for someone who’s ridden for five decades and attended a dozen rider training programs, wouldn’t it be true for most every motorcyclist? I’m certainly no Valentino Rossi, but I’ve had lots of experience in numerous riding modalities without a single accident or injury (on the road, at least) – yet I ride somewhat incompetently at the start of every outing, and again at the end of any that drain me (even more true off-road). I should also confess I’ve forgotten more than I can recall from all those rider ed programs, so I’m due for a refresher, myself. A lengthy motorcycling CV and “spotless record” don’t make me invulnerable. Clearly, my safety record hasn’t only been a matter of skill and training; I’ve had plenty of close calls wherein I was saved by plain old good luck. There’s much I cannot control in my environment, and I can’t even maintain consistency in my own body and mind. During some portions of any given ride, it’s quite possible I don’t got this! (poor grammar also cometh before the fall).

Since no amount of training or skill completely eliminates risk, there’s always room to pursue more, so how confident should we feel? Low confidence can have the benefit of nudging us toward self-improvement, but the lack of confidence – perhaps to the point of being constantly fearful – can be a distraction and cause indecisiveness when action is most urgent. Excessive confidence blinds us to risk and facilitates foolhardy behavior. Optimal confidence, then, would be grounded in a realistic appreciation of our actual abilities, allowing us to act decisively and fully enjoy riding within our limits, while also motivating us to continually learn new skills and hone old ones.

My overblown reaction to the ethics seminar was related to a paradox in human nature: those who most need to exercise more caution are least likely to heed warnings, while those already highly circumspect are most responsive to suggestions they may need to be even more careful. If you believe you’ve “arrived” as a rider and don’t need any training or practice, your actual need for these is probably great; you may resent me saying this, but you should be more worried. On the other hand, if terror is your co-pilot, you are also in dire need of training and practice, even if you find the prospect of taking a course intimidating. At either extreme, and for everyone in between, it’s not enough to read about technique or watch demonstration videos. While conceptual mastery is important, it’s woefully incomplete. Real skill development comes from precisely guided repetition and accurate feedback on our performance, whether or not we learn anything “new” in a classroom lecture. Then we must automate mental and muscular actions with practice – forever. This may mean drills in empty parking lots or on tough terrain, but it could also take the form of deliberately focusing on a specific skill during each ride. Unused abilities atrophy quickly, and even those we employ regularly can distort without corrective tune-ups. Formal coaching is merely a launchpad for ongoing development and maintenance.

Although insufficient without such follow-up, rider training is undoubtedly the best route to accurate self-assessment and, ultimately, realistic self-confidence. It replaces internally generated, imagination-based self-aggrandizement or self-doubt with expert critiques, concrete guidance and external validation, all delivered within an atmosphere of supportive concern in every example I’ve experienced first-hand or heard other trainees describe. Substantive self-confidence comes from two sources: a) people we respect believe in us, and b) we demonstrate competence to ourselves with repeated successes in challenging situations. Rider training enriches us with more of both, no matter where we are in our evolution as motorcyclists. Here’s hoping we all “get this” in the year ahead.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.