Concentration (to bring or direct toward a common centre or objective) is the process of focusing on the task at hand. Knowledge of what we are capable of doing and situational awareness sustain concentration as the primary mental tool for doing anything good, including biking.
It is possible, stupid, popular and not advisable to drive a four wheels vehicle while chatting with passengers, phoning, contemplating the panorama, eating, dreaming and planning the time ahead that, maybe, will never come. More delicate and balanced activities, like riding a motorcycle, demand total concentration. At any speed, a momentary distraction on the bike may easily carry a very high price tag attached.
While biking it is better to pilot… and nothing else. Let our minds be totally absorbed by the task of motorcycling: it is one of the benefits of a ride to take mind and body away from multitasking, from distractions, toward focus.
If you want to enjoy the scenery around you… stop the bike and enjoy it. If you want to talk to passenger… stop and talk. If you want to enjoy music… stop, rest and turn on your stereo… if you want to think about your problems… yes you guessed …stop and think till is free and legal.
It is the in-built instability of our vehicle that imposes total concentration: on two wheels we do not have a monotonous stable status, an armchair travelling on rails; on two wheels elements ignored by other road users become hazards, obstacles, opportunities for making progress. Only bikers “know the road” in full intimacy: no driver will ever register changes in the asphalt composition, small gravel on the edges, minor bumps in a corner. “The millions of everchanging messages that the bikers receive impose a total focus of mind to select, analyse, discard, absorb, anticipate and finally act.”
Concentration at all times is not so easy when distractions fight and sometime win. Distractions have many sources and I am looking back at more than five decades on two wheels to list them in order of impact.
It is my list and I welcome corrections, additions and objections.
I consider the first source of distraction the physical conditions of the rider. Lack of sporting fitness, age, temporary disabilities such as pains, heavy stomach, alcohol and substances, medications can transform a competent rider into a public danger. Checking regularly hearing and eyesight is as important as controlling weight, balance, muscle tone and flexibility.
Equally, the first source of distraction is the mental condition of the rider. Emotional, professional, economic problems, tension in relationships left behind, irritability and rage, panic and fear, deep involvement in subjects not ride related, are all mental issues bringing a dramatic reduction of situational awareness.
Distraction from the environment come, in my opinion, in second place and they go under the heading “vision or target fixation”. Pleasant or unpleasant sights are not fonts of distraction unless one keeps eyes fixed on one of them while the motorcycle is moving away. The classical example in this category is a traffic accident along the road: keeping a curious eye on the event, while keeping on the move, normally generates a collateral accident. Violent and sudden sounds, music or voices in the intercom system, unusual vehicles, good looking people, panoramic sites are just part of the list of environmental distractions.
Ignorance takes third place: not knowing how to control the bike in an emergency, not knowing how the bike behaves, not knowing the code of traffic makes the mind wander, losing focus on what lies ahead. While considering which one is the switch of deep light, the bike can make many meters without the pilot looking ahead.
Finally, the motorcycle could turn into a source of dis-traction: from the simple fact that five-second looking in the rear mirrors means five-seconds without looking ahead, to the distraction generated by accessories and add-ons (GPS, stereo, intercom), to the amount of useless information that modern multicolour displays offer, the occasions not-to-scan ahead, not-to-focus on the road are plenty.
I had recently the opportunity to ride a new bike with a display offering five different screens, three different sub-screen on three of them, with an operational manual covering more pages than a short novel. I have to confess that I found myself at risk, against internal warnings, looking down on the cockpit to collect irrelevant information such as average speed, average consumption, tire pressure and range available. A clear example of the difference between knowledge and information.
Talking about the bad of distraction and lack of focus is relatively simple if one considers the time spent on the bike and the experience gained: incompetence and distraction are twin brothers and the real enemies of “safe riding”.
How to build up a discipline to fight distractions is more challenging and it varies from person to person. Only practice can refine tools to boost attention: after all, if one considers the word “attention” the meaning becomes clear: “to be tense toward” “to tend at”. And all we tend at is to keep the number of side-stand up equal to the ones of side-stand down.
I offer here three tools that I found quite effective and I leave them to the readers to select, use all, add news.
- Mental and Physical Relaxation. No good to start a ride with your mind full of problems. Leave on the left side of the bike your business problems, your family preoccupations, your financial worries, your ego and all your negative attitudes. “After you got your lid and your gloves on, and before you fire the bike up, hang your hands by your sides, close your eyes and concentrate for a minute on slowing down your breathing and emptying your mind. Once you are happy, off you go, but keep monitoring your state of mind as you ride. Starting with your feet and working up through every major muscle as hard as you can, hold for 10 seconds, then relax it. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be completely supple and relaxed, and the concentration will have cleared your mind”
- Self-improvement. The moments preceding the ride must be use to clear the mind and to meditate about the task ahead. These are moments for “personal space” where the “ride to learn” attitude is gained or lost. Now it is time to fix an objective for your riding time. Keith Code in his book “The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles” writes: “ It the thought that counts. Your idea of how the turn should be ridden determines how well it all works out. You turned your thoughts and ideas into motion” The rider must use this meditation moment to establish in mind a plan for the ride. A simple one or one more challenging: for improving cornering skills, to modify position on the handlebar, from improving braking, to control legs/feet holding. We should ride focused with a personal, internal, learning program and applying a valid system for correct action.
- Planning. Consider that if you fall off ten times only one of those crashes will be a genuine, unavoidable accident and the rest will be down to varying degrees of poor planning, slow reaction and inattention. Planning on the “what…if?” system, refining the capacity to take clues for all the element present in your vision and from the ones that are not there, improve the attention and put the pilot in guard against distractions. Next time your friend complains that someone pulled out of him, put him to the test: car driver didn’t see him? Fine, but if he’d seen the car driver he should have plotted all the likely scenarios and had an answer prepared for each one. Looking and planning ahead is a indispensable tool for keeping focus.
These three tools work against FEAR and TENSION, god companions for distraction and bad riding.
A tense pilot overreacts and moves “against” the bike and the road. When tense every single action is hard, jerky, and unnatural: one feels away from the machine and from the road increasing tension in a negative spiral that progresses without end.
We are riding for the joy of motorcycling and a great smile on your face is often a sign of a focused mind.