The power to deal with a problem does not lay in the ability to see it. Rather authority is given to those with the ability to see past a problem. This is the lesson I’ve practiced throughout my amateur motorcycling career, my mental health journey, and it’s the skill I carried with me to try my hand at downhill mountain biking. While I remain proficiently inexpert in my attempts on the racetrack, I can see how the introductory riding skills of vision can be applied to any endeavour on two wheels and indeed in mental health.
Target fixation; an attentional phenomenon observed in humans in which an individual becomes so focused on an observed object (be it a target or hazard) that they inadvertently increase their risk of colliding with the object (i.e. focusing on the problem only makes one more likes to hit it). Lifting the head, guiding the eyes, viewing a path past the problem, there’s the answer. It’s difficult to practice the skills of motorcycling racing anywhere outside of the race circuit. The speed, the flow, the fear, elicited from a race engine is uncanny. Yet I felt true delight as my head and heart fall into rhythm on my first descent on a mountain bicycle at Stromlo Forest Park in Canberra, Australia. The thrill of speed and motion slide together on the loose dirt and gravel. Heart beating with head processing; where’s the line? How hard do I go into this? Was that a jump?
The brakes bite hard, the suspension dives, the tyres lock, and I slide. The routine of dirt riding is simultaneously softer in touch and stronger in upper body. I release the brakes to find the wheels rolling again and a smooth progression of braking. The suspension unloads in time for me to drop into a berm — Banked turns, called berms, are a common feature of bike parks and local trail networks. Berms give your tires great support and traction so you can hit them faster than flat corners, and if you enter a berm just right, you can leave with even more speed than you had going in.
“Arms out. Elbows up.” Jono instructs so calmly while rocketing down the hill.
Late turn-in. Late apex. Bravery rewarded with a hard and smooth line. A beginner like me turns in too early, and wobbles out on a mix of gravel and fear, barely using the steep banking of the berm. This is where the practice of good vision becomes necessary. Look up. Look through. Look out. The process I’ve drilled at 250km/h on the motorcycle racetrack put into action at a fraction of the speed. The next berm approaches. Arms out. Elbows up. Turn in late. I repeat in my mind, Elbows up! Head up! A puff of dust follows me out the exit of a smoother line.
“Nice work” I hear Jono call out. I’ll take that.
The speed and confidence of riding with others is pushing me further and faster. Soon my vision is faced with its primary distraction — competition. There is no greater disguise for one’s own limits than the desire to win. With a target to chase the eyes dissolve the braking markers, the throttle points, the limits, and replaces them with those of the other rider. Suddenly you’re in a space of the unknown. In a motorcycle race I relish the focus and the flow. I trust my vision and my practice to work together against the red mist of competition. Out here, on a new course, with a new bike, and an entirely new skill I take note of the fixation on the other riders and resolve to return my focus.
“You guys go ahead, I’ve got to ride my on line.” I surprise myself with such wisdom.
If knowledge is gained from awareness then its application leads us to see past the problem. I’ve chased other riders right into an early race end and a ride in an ambulance. I’ve pushed myself past grief and into a world of confusion. The wisdom I enjoy now is in knowing that there is a difference in blindly following and guiding myself towards a solution. The bumps and cracks still appear in the dust kicked up by my tyres. However by focusing on my own line, my own moves, the flow of how I ride out the problems changes. I was worried my weekend riding a mountain bike would end with a broken bone. It turns out my biggest worry is finding my way into this new sport.
Following our latest trip to Thredbo in far south New South Wales. I’m currently nursing a fractured wrist, while Jono has his fractured elbow in a sling… and we are planning our next trip.
Always look past the problem in front of you.