The sharp blade of helmet therapy and improper inputs.
By Nick Ienatsch, January 21, 2020
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a clinical psychologist who wrote that getting his patients to ride a motorcycle would be his number-one therapy choice to cure depression. He himself started riding later in life and found the intoxication that many of us take for granted—that soul-purifying joy that comes from two-wheeled motorized transport. We call it “helmet therapy,” as in, “It’s been a crazy day, I’m gonna grab some helmet therapy.”
I then wrote about my gang of instructors at YCRS but didn’t get too deep into it. This week I will, and not just my coaches, but every rider in the country who teaches, coaches, instructs, or guides. We’ve got a lot on our shoulders.
Our load is heavy because if we do a poor job, riders get hurt by helmet therapy. That could be due to our lack of attention on a vital problem, our lack of knowledge regarding bike dynamics, our lack of respect for our students:
A. Lack of attention on a vital problem. Coaches must be positive and affirming during the learning curve, but our main job is to improve the weak spots. We can’t glaze over something like aggressive control use or poor braking performance. A rider’s weak spots become fatal problems when we add speed or pressure, so the best coaches beat on the weak spots and never let up until the rider improves. “Good enough” is not.
B. Lack of knowledge regarding bike dynamics. Coaches don’t need to become chassis engineers, but we must know what speed does to radius, what weight change does to tire loads, and how abruptness in control inputs loses grip. We must know how much better the front brake stops the bike than the rear brake and why.
Do you think this is universal knowledge in this day and age? A new rider just told me that the coaching she received was focused on the rear brake. Other riders report being expressly forbidden to cover the brakes or to trail-brake; these are vital skills to have in a rider’s tool bag no matter how long that rider has been riding.
C. Lack of respect for new riders. I’ve heard of schools that sometimes tell struggling riders they should not ride motorcycles, rather than encourage them with exact next steps. I’ve heard coaches talk disrespectfully about new riders, as if their memories were wiped out regarding their own motorcycle beginnings. I’ve heard that some riding techniques are expert-only, as if new riders don’t have the coordination or brains to grasp such complex tasks, yet are going to venture onto the same streets and canyons and racetracks the experts ride, on the same bikes.
New riders need to be exposed to every technique that makes the bike function as designed. Some may not master them in the allotted time, but they will be on the proper path. To be directly told to not cover the brakes or trail-brake, for instance, severely handicaps a new rider and puts them on a path that will scare them into quitting. Some will stick it out and realize they received poor instruction, but the majority will stop riding because a motorcycle doesn’t work well with flawed riding technique.
“Man, this isn’t for me,” the poorly coached rider will say, even though they spent money on a new-rider school and took a few days of their lives to pursue what was a lifelong dream. At the end of the school the dream isn’t working because the bike isn’t working.
What the student hoped would be a joy-filled freedom machine is a lumbering beast that won’t stop or turn at their will and inputs. And it never will until those riders’ inputs match the inputs of the riders who designed the bikes. New riders ride the same bikes experts ride and they must be exposed to proper techniques from the start. Poorly coached riders become non-riders.
The Sharp Blade
And that is the sharp blade of helmet therapy: A therapy could kill you if done poorly. All the passion and desire in the world won’t keep riders riding if they have flawed technique. That flawed technique grows larger the faster these riders ride; running a little wide in the corner becomes crossing the centerline. Failing to get stopped before the limit line becomes piling into a car. Add speed to poor technique and the rider is quickly scared because the bike quits working in dramatic ways. It’s not fun, it’s not free, and it doesn’t feel good.
I’m all about helmet therapy with the caveat that the system won’t work if riders don’t operate the bike as it was designed to be operated. Fortunately, the difference between proper and improper techniques are easily discerned, immediately felt, and quickly adopted forever with the proper instruction.
We can’t just plunk people on bikes for them to feel the joys of riding; we must coach them in certain, exact procedures in order for the therapy machine to work. These procedures are not complicated but do require understanding and perfect practice.
This is the burden I share with my team of instructors. Riders come to us for the keys to riding joy. They are motivated by passion and desire, perhaps even fleeting glimpses of riding nirvana caught willy-nilly through their riding careers, but the risks and uncertainty are still on the radar due to holes in their riding system.
Our goal is to make every inch of every ride into that feeling of “I got this,” and to that end we must put in every effort. Every instructor we employ has been helped in their riding careers by timely and exact coaching. It makes all the difference as we knife through the world on one of the most amazing machines man has fashioned.
Coaches: Realize that your knowledge, skills, and patience while teaching expert-level riding techniques is at the core of industry health and the continuing spread of helmet therapy. Getting our message right builds on the passion students bring to class. Getting it wrong puts them back into cars.