• Sarah Merrell

Mentally Correcting Riding Mistakes (and Overcoming Them)

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

Contrary to what many non-motorcyclists may think, riding is both physically and mentally challenging. But I would say the latter--the mental component--is the most difficult. Mistakes are a particular area that can cause riders mental grief and eat away at us, ultimately preventing progress.

Have you ever started a ride only to make a mistake or two and tell yourself it's just not your day, you're having a bad ride?

Have you ever missed an apex in a corner and then let that mistake carry over into all subsequent corners until you've had a bad lap?

Have you ever had a bad start in a race and it set the stage for a bad race, overall?

Have you ever had a crash that has prevented you from riding as fast or as well as you used to?

Chances are, everyone has experienced the mental road blocks associated with mistakes at some point in their riding.

According to a study published by the Association for Psychological Science, it finds that people who think they can learn--and change--from mistakes have a different brain reaction to mistakes than those who believe they can't. In the study, the participant wore a cap that recorded brain activity. When people make a mistake, the brain makes two quick signals: An initial response that indicates something has gone awry (what the scientists called the "oh crap" response) and a second that indicates the person is consciously aware of the mistake and trying trying to right the wrong. Both signals occur within a quarter of a second of the mistake. After the experiment, the researchers found out whether people believed they could learn from their mistakes or not. People who think they can learn from their mistakes did better after making a mistake – in other words, they successfully bounced back after an error.

At Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS), before we headed onto the track, instructor Nick Ienatsh discussed mistakes and gave us some crucial advice: If you screw up a corner, and you're off your apex, start your lap over in the next corner. What he meant was, don't let the mistake you made in one corner carry over into the next corner and all subsequent corners until it's a bad lap of mistakes. However, since I think it's best you hear this advice directly from the expert, I reached out to Nick and he provided this insight on mistakes:

"I’ll start with world champion Freddie Spencer’s observation that he’s only run five perfect laps in his life! Freddie advises us all that seeking perfection on two wheels is admirable, but he stresses the ability to fix mistakes and move on to the next corner. At YCRS we say it quite bluntly: Get over it…and get the next apex.

I encourage all riders to get less emotional and more technical about their riding. Emotional riders say, 'I hate that corner.' Technical riders say, 'I’m struggling getting it turned there so I’ll  leave my brakes on another five feet.'"

This advice from Nick and Champ School has been extremely helpful. Whenever I start to get emotional about my mistakes, and let it get in my head, I try to correct myself. There is nothing bad about a particular corner, an entire ride or a lap. We must nip it in the bud as soon as we get those negative mental thoughts and give ourselves a reset. Sometimes, I even have to give myself a mental pep talk. Or, if I'm at a track day, pull into the pit and do a mental reset and refocus before going back out. And like Nick says, get over it!

Recently, I unfortunately failed to follow Nick's advice and learned the hard way about what can happen when you allow mistakes to get into your head and don't get over it. During my most recent pit bike race, while we were in pre-race practice, I was too focused on trying to be fast and wasn't keeping my eyes up and looking ahead. Because of that, when the person in front of me crashed, I couldn't dodge him in time and it caused me to crash. What I should have done was pull into the pit, reset, and get a plan in place for going back out there and fixing it. But instead, I let the crash go to my head and started performing even worse and making more mistakes. It cost me the race.

So let's talk more specifically about how this applies to crashes. Take Nick's technical approach to mistakes and extrapolate that out to a crash. According to Nick, recovering from a more major mistake or crash may not be as arduous as you think:

"It becomes very straight-forward to return to speed after a mistake. Technical riders say, 'I did this, this and this, which led to a crash.' They can then adjust their approach mentally, then on the bike. Emotional riders think about quitting, technical riders rise to the challenge of solving the issues of grip and radius. We see our heroes crash on Sunday morning and podium Sunday afternoon. The confidence required to do this comes from two things: First, dissect the mistake and plan the adjustments, and second, get over it and nail the next apex.”

So this is what I want to challenge everyone with: If you make a mistake, take a moment to mentally start your lap over, or get over it, and focus on the technical aspects of how to correct it. I personally understand how hard it is to take the emotion out of making a mistake. But we are not so different from the champions that we follow in MotoAmerica or MotoGP. If they can crash in qualifying and come back from it mentally and have a podium finish, then we can come back from mistakes too.

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