Things I Learned From Being a Motorcycle Instructor

This blog post was originally published internally at a previous employer, as part of a series on learning to coach and provide feedback to employees.

Introduction

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that one of my interests was motorcycling. In fact I was a volunteer instructor with the Ottawa Safety Council’s motorcycle rider course for about 10 years. I’ve retired from that now, although I still keep in touch with my fellow instructors as friends. That’s me in the back row, right hand side, behind the yellow coat.

The instructors with that organization are a group I was proud to be part of.  They are serious about riding and about teaching riding, and there is extensive training and coaching for the instructors on how to teach and coach.

In this blog post I’d like to share a few things I learned about teaching and coaching from this role. I note that the same lessons seem to apply to other training activities (such as dog training, and teaching martial arts), and I imagine that anyone who teaches or coaches a physical skill, like hockey or skiing, has similar experiences.

Teaching approach

First I’d like to share a couple of the most basic principles the group uses for teaching.

PARDED

The first was called PARDED, an acronym for a process that ensured that instructors spent a minimum of time talking about how to ride, and a maximum of time coaching students who were actually practicing riding.

PARDED stood for Preview, Aim, Reason, Demo, Explain, Demo. It was an approach to teaching a lesson segment, which might go like this:

Instructor: “In this lesson we’re going to learn to turn while starting from a stop. [Preview] By the end you’ll be able to turn right or left immediately after starting from a dead stop, while staying in the marked lane. [Aim] This is important because you need to be able to turn left or right from a stop sign or a traffic light without stalling your bike or losing control of your lane position. [Reason]

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” (Instructor, on a bike, demonstrates the procedure. [Demo]) Then, instructor quickly points out 3-4 important points of the techniques he just demonstrated. [Explain]

“Ok, now that you know what to look for, watch while I demonstrate again.” (Does it again). [Demo]

Then the students get on their bikes and spend time practicing and getting individual coaching.

The idea of PARDED is that a certain amount of theory and explanation is needed, but what we’re really trying to do is establish “muscle memory” so good techniques happen automatically when there is no time to think. And that happens by doing not by listening. So, if half an hour is allocated for a lesson, the students would be doing hands-on practice for 20-25 minutes of that half hour.

I found this teaching technique to be very effective, and I have successfully used it in other contexts. It is very effective for hands-on technical training of computer skills.

Teach the skill, not the test

This was a fundamental policy of the course – and sometimes controversial. Our course ended with a test that served as the student’s road test for their license. However, we consciously did not “teach them to pass the test”. Instead, we “taught them to ride well, and then tested if they had learned that”.

Some of them didn’t pass the test (although our success rate was high – I think something like 95%). Some of those who didn’t pass probably could have passed if they had been drilled on the actual test during the training.

We thought doing that was not in their interest. If a student really isn’t ready to ride in traffic on the street, but we help them pass the test (an artificial, controlled environment), how would we feel if they were then injured in an accident?

I think this applies to career coaching too. We could probably coach people on job interview skills to an extent that they would pass interviews for jobs for which they weren’t really qualified. But that would not be in anyone’s interest.

I’ve had conversations like the following both with people who didn’t pass the motorcycle test, and with people who didn’t pass a job interview:

The motorcycle version:

(them) It’s not fair. I can ride just fine. I just don’t take tests well.

(me) What do you mean?

(them) I can ride perfectly when it’s “for real”. But when I’m under pressure or being watched – the situation in a test – I get flustered and forget.

(me) So you’re saying you can drive a motorcycle just fine unless you are under pressure or being watched. Like, say, driving on the street in rush-hour traffic.

The job interview version:

(them) It’s not fair. I’m qualified for this management job. I just don’t take interviews well.

(me) What do you mean?

(them) I can do the job perfectly when it’s “for real”. But when I’m under pressure or being watched – the situation in an interview – I get flustered and forget.

(me) So you’re saying you can do the job of a manager just fine except for managing your time, responding to questions, defending your point of view, or dealing with pressure? (What did they think a management job was?)

When you are helping someone learn a skill on which they will then be tested, teach the skill, not the test.

Coaching lessons

Aside from the formal methods that we used to teach, I learned a number of things about coaching people who were practicing a skill. These things I learned from watching other good coaches, or being coached myself, or, in a few cases, by watching people doing it badly.

Positive coaching

This is certainly the most important thing I learned about coaching a skill: tell the student what to do, not what not to do.

Telling a student what not to do is not useful. They could do something else, still wrong, and yet be obeying your command to not do that first thing.

This is especially important when correcting an error. Don’t point to or describe their error and say “don’t do that”. Instead, tell them what they should do. Ideally, give them simple targets that they can follow that will cause the desired behavior, and have them repeat that several times so they are developing the habit and muscle memory of doing the thing properly.

Here are a few examples drawn from motorcycle training:

“Don’t look down!”

Students often have trouble balancing a bike when riding very slowly – like crawling along in a traffic jam. Often the biggest cause of this is looking down at the ground just in front of the bike.

We could say “don’t look down”. How is the student supposed to know what that means? They could close their eyes – that’s not looking down. They could look straight up over their head – that’s not looking down. Is that what we wanted?

Instead, tell them what to do and give them a target. I might pick a suitably- placed landmark in view from our training site, and say something like “See that low building over there in the distance? See the chimney on the roof? I want you to look at that chimney while you do this exercise.” Now they are looking level to the horizon and focusing into the distance, which is the behavior I wanted.

The other time students have a problem because of looking down is when turning (especially to the right) while starting from a dead stop. Think, for example, turning right from a stop sign.

“Don’t look at the ground” is not useful feedback – see above. Instead tell them what to do, and give them a target. I would walk 10 or 12 metres away, along the side of the road, point to my own face, and say, “Look here! Look at me!”. Then they would generally have no trouble with their balance or lane position while starting and turning. It was quite remarkable.

“Don’t Pop the Clutch!”

Most motorcycles are standard transmission vehicles, and students would have trouble stalling because they were letting the clutch out too fast. “Don’t Pop the Clutch” is not useful advice. Do students even know what that archaic phrase means?

Instead, tell them what to do, and give them a target. I’d put a cone on the ground about 5 metres away, and say, “Start letting out the clutch until you feel the bike just start to move. Continue to let it out, slowly, at a rate that results in you just finishing letting it out as you pass that cone.”

It might take them one time to work out how slow that is, but after 2 or 3 times, they would be starting perfectly with no stalling.

“Don’t look at the obstacle!”

One of the lessons was to swerve around something on the road – an oil slick, a squirrel, or, in our practice, a traffic cone and, later, an instructor – without hitting it. Beginners would often hit it, or at least come frighteningly close.

An interesting phenomenon called “target fixation” was at play. If you stare at an obstacle while riding, you will likely steer towards it. Realizing you’re going to hit it makes you stare harder, which makes it worse.

Shouting “don’t look at the obstacle” doesn’t help. It only raises the student’s stress level and makes the obstacle even more attractive to stare at.

Instead, tell them what to do, and give them a target. We’d put a small mark on the pavement – a leaf, a bit of tape – in the safe path, such as 1 metre to the right or left of the obstacle, then say “look at this mark while you are swerving”. They’d ride right over the harmless mark, and not into the obstacle.

There are many other examples, but this is not an article on how to ride a motorcycle, so I’ll stop. But I’d like to repeat that this is the most important thing I learned about coaching: Don’t tell them what not to do. Tell them what to do, and give them a target.

Correct one thing at a time – more important first

It’s common to see a coach giving someone feedback in which they list every single thing they saw done wrong, as though there will never be another chance.

Here’s a paraphrase of feedback I once heard an instructor trainee giving a student after a braking exercise.

You were looking down, and your wrists were bent, and you gave it too much gas, and you shifted gears too soon, and your knees weren’t against the tank, and you stomped on the rear brake, and you were sitting too far back on the seat, and your foot wasn’t centered on the foot peg.

What did they think the student would do with this feedback? Make a list and consult it while riding?

One of those errors was far more serious than the others (stomping on the brake). The senior instructor working with the above trainee stepped in and corrected just that error, giving the student instructions on what to do instead. Once they were braking safely, they tackled the next most important problem, and so on.

Never demonstrate the wrong way to do something

Our teaching method made heavy use of demonstration, showing how to do a given skill, not telling how to do it. This was supported by an important rule: always demonstrate proper technique, never demonstrate incorrect technique.

Why on earth would one ever demonstrate incorrect technique? It seems obvious. But, sometimes, a novice instructor would think along these lines:

I’m trying to teach that a certain technique (like using only the rear brake when stopping) is a bad idea, and the students aren’t convinced. Why not do it wrong so they can see it’s a bad idea?

e.g. to show people how ineffective it is to use the rear brake alone, I’ll demonstrate trying to do a high-speed stop using only the rear brake, and they’ll see that it doesn’t work well.

We were very firm that instructors should never do this, for several reasons:

Liability: How would we explain it if your demo goes wrong and you are injured, while doing something that you know you shouldn’t do? What if, in crashing, you injure someone else?

Anchoring: There is a psychological phenomenon that people tend to remember and recall the first things they see or hear, more than other things. Demonstrate the wrong way to do something before demonstrating the right way, and we risk that the student will remember only the wrong way, and will forget that it is wrong.

One-upmanship: Your demonstration won’t convince people who are already convinced that the technique in question is, in fact, the right way to do things. There is a risk they will try to demonstrate that you are wrong by using the bad technique and making it work. Then there is a high risk they’ll be injured.

Diversity in class

We taught in small groups, two instructors with 5-6 students. In every group there were “good” students and “less good” students – those who easily picked up the skills and excelled, and those who struggled.

It was tempting to spend the majority of coaching time working with the lowest- performing students. After all, they need the most help. But this would be an error. Don’t neglect the good students.

  • The good students are also paying customers, and they deserve time and attention. Our objective isn’t to bring all students to the same level, it’s to improve them all. Even the good students should leave the course better.
  • The bad students are learning by watching you coach the good students too. For some students that’s actually more effective, since they are not defensive about feedback they hear you giving to someone else.

Peer performance is powerful. Every time a good student executes a technique properly, that’s like you doing another demo, and the bad students are learning from that.

I used to have the students in my group take the test in what I said was “random” order. I put “random” in quotes because it wasn’t quite random. I would secretly pick the student who I considered the best rider to go first, so the other students were seeing a demonstration of the test being done well by a peer – good for a final clarification, and to establish the confidence that it can be executed successfully.

Others?

I learned a lot from teaching adults a physical skill, and a lot of what I learned has been applicable in other coaching situations. I bet others who teach or coach have similar experiences, and I’d like to invite you to share – in your own blog, in lunchtime presentations, or in the comments section here.