It’s not easy being green

It’s not easy being green

Remember Kermit the Frog’s signature song and 1970 Sesame Street super-hit? Kermit’s ode to involuntary (and sometimes unpleasant) individuality was about the literal color green, but there’s a parallel with the figurative version—as in being “green” at a new activity and lacking the ease and sophistication of those with extensive practice. Nobody starts at the top. We all must work our way up the ladder of mastery if we’re to make genuine progress in our development, rather than evading challenge and maintaining a façade of competence that would crumble in any real test.

We all know a rider who fits the latter description. They may buy the fanciest gear and own the most powerful machinery, but they’ve invested only in the material aspects of our avocation without putting in the time and effort it takes to become a truly competent motorcyclist. I confess, I was exactly “that guy” during an earlier period of my long tenure on two wheels. I know all too well the experience of hiding “shameful” limitations by finding excuses to avoid rides which might expose my shortcomings to riding buddies, while imitating the ways expert riders talk about doing things I couldn’t do (and wouldn’t dare try). If I could look and sound the part, I hoped to fool people into accepting me as their peer, when I was really nowhere close.

Most of my inadequacies as a motorcyclist during that era resulted from complete and utter lack of guidance; I was so ignorant of proper riding technique, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, and couldn’t fathom how to learn. In my naïve mind, the adept riders were simply talented and brave. The only way I could imagine becoming as good as they were was to push myself to just go faster and faster, white-knuckling my fear and fighting impulses to roll off the throttle on my series of latest, greatest, racer-replica liter-bikes (which I kept thinking would make up for what I lacked as a rider). Calamari, anyone?

Of course, my approach was horribly counterproductive. I not only learned nothing useful that way, I also took foolish risks for zero rewards. Rather than ride terrified and humiliated, I mainly posed when around other riders and derived most of my motorcycling enjoyment from riding solo. or with others who possessed even less skill. I’m not proud of this, but I don’t condemn myself for it, either, because I didn’t/couldn’t know any better back then—and I did change my ways.

My perspective on riding well is no longer so much about competition as it is collaboration. Rather than construing every outing with other riders as a race, establishing a pecking order wherein speed equals pride and lack of speed equals shame, I now consider anyone faster or smoother than me a potential teacher whom I might ask for assessment and advice—and I’m happy to be their student. My ego isn’t involved in the same way it had been. Instead of trying to prove myself admirable to others on the basis of my place on the podium (as if!), I’m admirable to myself for taking a humble, open stance and pursuing substantive improvement, not a grandiose image. When I first transitioned to volunteering I was a slow guy, rebranding myself as a neophyte in spite of my decades on two wheels, it was a tremendous relief. People expected less of me, and I had no false pretext to try—and inevitably fail—to live up to. It felt much better to undersell and overperform than the other way around. I relaxed and had more fun, and I could begin working on problem areas I had previously hidden, or didn’t even recognize.

I learned everyone had to learn to ride well; it wasn’t just a function of inborn abilities or superhuman courage. I could orient to the process of getting a riding education (both formal and informal), which meant I finally had an alternative to pretending and avoiding—strategies I’m now certain were laughably transparent. I wince at the realization my initial cohort must have generously tolerated me as an obvious fraud in their midst when I first entered the sport riding scene. You see, I had only ridden the flat, straight roads of Central Florida for many years before moving to East Tennessee, where I was introduced to mountain twisties. I’d never gotten any riding instruction (I didn’t even realize it existed), and I knew nothing about cornering a street bike. Ridiculously, I expected to master cornering the same way I’d developed the ability to go fast in a straight line—just by yanking open the throttle, hanging on, and getting used to it. That’s not how it works.

After the paradigm shift from trying to become braver to trying to ride more skillfully, I no longer needed to obscure my “cowardice” (this fear was actually good judgment, given my ineptitude). I could now focus on practical methods of getting a motorcycle to do what I wanted it to do. The necessary methods weren’t arcane mysteries magically unlocked by becoming a fearless road warrior. They were concrete actions which could be explained/understood and then practiced, with results reflecting the amount of effort I devoted. If I wanted to hang with the faster riders, I need only spend the time required to master the relevant skills—a much more prosaic process than I’d envisioned. This involved reading books and articles, watching videos, and engaging instructors to gain a conceptual framework, then practicing the applications on a moving bike. Ideas got translated into activities, which then became competencies with enough repetition—and plenty of correction by knowledgeable observers who could alert me to discrepancies between what I thought I was doing and what I was actually doing, and instruct me on what I should be doing. In other words, true proficiency was a product of humility, not swagger. I had to both a) tolerate the frustrations of learning new things which didn’t come automatically, quickly or easily, and b) ask for help from others who would see my naked flaws and point them out to me, adding constructive guidance. Even without a brittle ego to protect, these are difficult things to do because they require so much hard work and perseverance.

Improvement in virtually any domain requires a willingness to accept our limitations and then invest in their incremental expansion. Pushing the envelope of personal growth means leaving our comfort zone. By definition, this is uncomfortable. Sometimes the discomfort involves fear, sometimes physical pain, sometimes the boredom of repetition, sometimes the bewilderment associated with complexity—and always the tension of endurance. Without sustained effort over the long haul, any gains are apt to be ephemeral. New grooves must be worn in so our thinking is consistently altered, our habits and reflexes are reprogrammed, and our muscle memory is, well, memorized in accord with the change in method. There’s no substitute for time spent in this process, which always takes longer than we want or would have guessed. Only with copious redundancy does something alien and awkward become familiar and graceful. This is why it’s an awful waste of time and money to attend a riding school and then not diligently practice those lessons over the subsequent months and years. Even mastered skills decay with disuse (regardless of what’s recalled intellectually).

The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes is brought to you by the MOA Foundation. You can join the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America quickly and easily to better take advantage of the Paul B Grant and Clark Luster programs mentioned in this episode.

When dealing with a new challenge, it can be helpful to remind ourselves of the challenges already faced and conquered. For example, when working on my trail braking—trading braking force for lean angle during the early portion of a corner—I can get a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of precisely coordinating these two actions: deftly easing off the brake as I simultaneously countersteer to achieve the desired arc and lean angle. I must also attend to all the other variables I’m trying to juggle at the same time (e.g., eye direction, line selection, body position, foot peg weighting). Sometimes I feel I just don’t have enough mental bandwidth to squeeze in one more element and I get discouraged. Then I remember I somehow learned to delicately feather the clutch in concert with subtle throttle rotations to feed just the right amount of power to the rear wheel, avoid stalling, and sustain momentum while navigating rock gardens on my dirt bike—while also balancing and steering the bucking chassis and not focusing on my fear of a compound fracture in the middle of nowhere. That accomplishment suggests I’ve got the capacity, I just need more practice to make precision trail braking take up less mental space. Really, trail braking (in isolation) is no more complicated than the throttle/clutch coordination every rider manages every time they pull away from a stop; it’s just adding one thing while subtracting another.

Challenges are only daunting until they’re not. Think about how often new riders fumble friction zone management while trying to take off, yet it becomes second nature with practice. What had required lots of deliberate concentration is now automatic and occupies no space whatsoever in consciousness, and what had been an isolated task is now integrated with other actions and the rider’s intentions. This will happen with trail braking, too, and any other riding skill we focus on and repeat correctly enough times.

It’s not easy bein’ green. There’s a great deal of work to be done to go from newbie to average to advanced—mental work, physical work and emotional work. On the other hand, starting out is really not much different from any other stage for riders who value and pursue growth. An MSF Rider Coach friend of mine, who’s one of the most competent motorcyclists I know, calls himself a “Professional Beginner.” He means he’s always learning, always striving to approach the process with the wide-openness of someone starting fresh, and forever fighting the natural tendencies to narrow ones mind and calcify ones conceptual models. Zen Buddhists call this Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind,” and it’s a worthy aspiration, not a basis for self-reproach.

New information must be welcomed, despite its demands for flexibility and ongoing adaptation. With this approach, bein’ green isn’t only difficult, it’s also exhilarating, a journey of endless discovery and self-improvement, and best when solidly grounded in a community of others traveling the same path and offering each other the benefits of their respective experiences with trial and error. We needn’t consider our inadequacies cause for shame; they characterize every rider at our stage of development (whatever stage we’re in), and every rider who has ventured beyond our level had to contend with the same frustrations. They simply figured out how to engage successfully in the unavoidable struggles, and some are willing and able to pass along what worked. Bein’ green includes being the fortunate recipient of others’ hard-won insights, even when we must still do the work of making those truths our own through practice.

Kermit came to embrace bein’ green, despite its downside. We can, too.

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.