Guess what, guys. I’m going to become a Team Oregon motorcycle instructor! It feels so good to say it.
Back in January, a friend sent me the OSU job description from Team Oregon. When I first saw it, I thought, That would be cool! Maybe someday.
Then, as I thought about it more, I realized there was no reason I couldn’t start training now. So I signed up. I’m nervous as hell, but mostly excited. I’ve always wanted to help new riders, and so far Team Oregon seems like a wonderful program.
The process to become an instructor is going to take a while, though. Just to qualify for the training program, I’ve had to audit two classes, have an interview, get first aid certified, and (the scariest part) pass a skills test.
My first-ever driving skills test
Here’s a bit of trivia about me: before this year, I’d actually never passed a licensing test before — driving or riding.
Due to weird legislation when I was a teenager in Texas, to get my driver’s license all I had to do was complete at-home driving hours with a parent. Then, for my motorcycle endorsement, an early November ice storm cut our class short. The instructor let me pass with a caution to practice more before riding on the street.
So, on the weekend of my second class audit, I hopped on my FZ-07 and braced myself for the first driving test I actually had to pass in my decade of driving.
The instructor skills test itself is exactly the same as the student test, but graded on a stricter standard. All the coaches told me I was going to be fine, it wasn’t a big deal. But I was still uneasy.
After class ended and the students went home, the coaches began setting up for the test. It was a glorious day, 60 degrees and sunny in mid-March. I was sweating a little under my lightweight jacket, because of the weather or anxiety, it’s hard to say.
The very first exercise was an offset cone weave — the only exercise I’d actually ever done before. After a few cones, though, I started veering too wide, and there was no saving it.
That was mortifying, but I could have recovered. The second exercise, the quick-stop, is what did me in.
To get a reliable measure of stopping distance, the student can’t start stopping before the cone. You get two shots at the exercise, and if, as an instructor candidate, you stop too early both times, it’s an automatic failure. For the entire test.
Guess what I did.
Of course, they didn’t tell me right away that I had failed, they let me finish. But the rest didn’t go much better. Aside from the offset weave, I didn’t entirely mess anything up, I just didn’t do it quite right. I missed head turns, I braked in the wrong spots, I went too fast or too slow…
In all, I failed the test hard. And not only for an instructor. If I had been a student, they couldn’t even have given me my endorsement. And that hurt. I’m not one to get upset over a bruised ego, but this felt like a sucker punch to my ego’s gut. I was devastated. After riding for four years, failing the skills test so badly… it sucked.
Not to mention, I was having a bad weekend already (see: piston disaster). My complete and total failure on this test opened the floodgates.
I knew, though, that I still wanted to be an instructor. My failure hadn’t changed that. Once the tears finally ran dry, I resolved to pass my re-test, whatever it took.
If at first you don’t succeed…
In the weeks before my re-test, I practiced twice on the course, about an hour each time. The first time, I practiced alone, running through each exercise until I was sweaty and dizzy.
The second time, I brought J along and set him up with a stopwatch. Unfortunately, we got run off by the community college guards, but I got what I needed.
In the days before the re-test, I was ill with stress. Every night in bed, my mind ran through the drills again and again. Spot your next entrance; use both brakes; slow, look, lean, roll; BIG head turn. Every time I rode became an opportunity to practice Team Oregon habits. I couldn’t relax.
Finally, the day of the re-test arrived. It was another sunny, warm afternoon (I got lucky), and J rode down to Oregon City with me for moral support.
I tried to let the beautiful weather take my mind off things, but it wasn’t easy. By this point, I was pretty sure I had the exercises down. My biggest fear was that my performance anxiety would flare up and I would end up doing just as badly as — or worse than — the first time. So I tried to calm down. The ride helped, but not much.
When I arrived, I made small talk with the coaches while the other re-testers, all students, filtered in. When the coaches lined us up, they put me dead last. It helped my anxiety to watch the other students, but every now and then my stomach backflipped. I really didn’t want to fail.
The first exercise, the offset weave, started off shaky. The bike I was testing on (a Suzuki VanVan) was jerky in first gear, so I upshifted in the middle of the weave. But I held it together.
I wasn’t sure how I did on the quick-stop, but I didn’t have to repeat the exercise, which I took as a good sign. The rest of the exercises went the same way; I was pretty sure I did okay, but couldn’t know for sure until the scores were in.
After the test, the instructors took a few anxious minutes to calculate the scores. Finally they announced to the group: “You all passed!”
“Even me?” slipped out of my mouth, though I knew I was too far away for the coaches to hear.
The students all rushed the coaches for more information, so I tried to be patient. One of the coaches saw me hanging back and waved me over. “You did very well. We didn’t mark a single thing down.”
It took a moment to sink in. J spoke up behind me. “You got a perfect score!”
Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I had gone from utter failure to perfect execution. All the pent-up stress from the past two weeks melted away. “I got a perfect score!”
Instincts and Social Facilitation
Psychologists have long known that having an audience affects how people perform. Norman Triplett first documented this effect, known as social facilitation, in the 1890s. One of his early experiments showed that children wound fishing line faster when other children were watching than when they were alone.
Later, though, researchers found that spectators didn’t always improve performance. In the 1930s, Joseph Pessin and Richard Husband found that having an audience usually meant people did worse on a complicated maze.
For years, this puzzled psychologists. Did having an audience improve performance, or diminish it?
Then, in the 1960s, social psychologist Bob Zajonc suggested that social facilitation only worked for certain kinds of tasks. In a famous experiment, he set up a cockroach “olympics” with two sports: one was easy (running in a straight line), the other more complex (solving a maze).
And he found his hypothesis held true. When the cockroaches competed in front of other cockroaches, they ran faster in the first test. But they floundered in the maze.
Psychologist Adam Alter detailed this research in his book Drunk Tank Pink. Alter summarizes:
Audiences accentuate our instinctive responses and make it more difficult to override those responses in favor of more carefully considered alternatives.”
In a way, my experience with the Team Oregon test was a case study in instincts and stress.
When I first took the test, all the exercises were new to me, and my brain was working hard to process everything. The pressure of the test and the two instructors watching me only made it worse.
But after practicing each exercise dozens of times, I aced the test despite my anxieties. According to Zajonc’s research, it’s likely my stress even helped me out a little, too.
Failing the instructor skills test felt horrible, and I wouldn’t choose to live it again. But it taught me a valuable lesson about instinct and stress.
If you build good instincts through practice and habit, those instincts will come through for you in moments of stress. And on a motorcycle, it’s not a matter of if you’ll need them but when.
The skills test also retaught you one other lesson: How to win. I wrote “retaught” because how to win is a lesson you had clearly already learned; and your life offers examples of support. Our 16th president famously said, “If you give me six hours to chop down a tree, I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Well, you sharpened your axe before the retake of the skills test, LT … very much akin to all the research and studying you did prior to embarking on your rebuild.
You’ll find that, for many things in life, when you sharpen your axe, audiences don’t matter … if you see/hear them at all.
I leave you with this one last quote:
“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.”
You’ve certainly got character, Kiddo … in spades. Best to you & J.
Ride on and Write on, because you’re Right on!
Thank you, Ohene! Certainly, something I’m learning in my motorcycle project is the classic lesson that you become what you do: as long as you devote time to a goal and stick with it, you’ll make it somehow 🙂
Scott Correy says
Congrats, that’s awesome! Are you planning on posting about being a rider coach in the future? It’s something that has always really intrigued me but I’ve still not looked into it due to time mostly.
Thanks, Scott!! Certainly I’m hoping the things I learn will help me share more and better information with new riders, so chances are you’ll hear more about it in the future 🙂
But I think if you want to do it, you should! Team Oregon’s training process is spread out over several months, and after that you’re only required to teach three classes a year to stay certified, so it’s actually pretty flexible. And so far I really like the program!
I’m only a little ways in to the process, but please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions 🙂
Dan Bateman says
Congratulations, Grasshopper! I’m impressed. Very insightful post, as well. Looking forward to sharing your journey toward becoming a Team Oregon instructor..
Thanks so much, Dan! That means a lot coming from you. I’m excited to start training and to get to know you and the rest of the Team Oregon crew 😀
Congratulations on passing your instructor test!
In the UK I think we have to pass a much more detailed motorbike test than you do in the US, it took me ages to pass mine but I’m so glad I have a bike licence now.
Thanks Sarah! You’re right, the motorcycle training is much more detailed in the UK than here. I wish we had more rigorous training (or at least better support), but the Team Oregon program is ranked one of the best in the US, so there’s that!
Good for you! I know what this stress feels like! I teach in Victoria, Canada. Teaching is a journey and it takes awhile to get the feel for it. If you have the opportunity to teach more than 3 classes do it! It hones the skills that make you a better instructor. I’ve been teaching novice practical parking lot sessions for almost 4 years now and have recently upgraded to teaching the classroom theory sessions and our two day traffic classes which are 8 hour days of guided riding. It’s all baby steps! Everytime I teach I volunteer to do the demo ride of the skills test, and believe it or not it gets easier! I know one of your colleagues at Team Oregon and have one of your decals on my bike. Good luck on your teaching journey! You will love it!
Thanks so much, Dar! It’s true, it will be a journey, and it seems the good people at Team Oregon have that perspective too, which I love. In two weeks I’m going to be attending the instructor prep course and I’m excited to get started!
It is lovely to read your essays, constructed carefully and patiently from a deep well of thought. I imagine this is a reflection of your personality, just as is the patient and meticulous manner in which you learned to ride.
As for myself, I am still working toward my endorsement, having taken the MSF course but not passed the riding skills test at the end. I will take your account of preparation for the riding exam as my example, and push on. Thank you.
You just made my day, thank you David!!
Sorry to hear your first shot at the MSF test didn’t go well. But as you read in the post, it happens! Remember to take it slow and steady, find challenges that push you just a little further but not so far you feel unsafe — and practice! If you need to take the MSF class again, it could help. Sometimes some of us just need that extra practice and coaching time.
Best of luck!! I’m rooting for ya 🙂
Loren, this is an update. On a rainy autumn morning a few weeks ago, I passed my Ohio riding skills test, and now I have the tiny “M” on my driver’s license. Who knows? Maybe reading your essay helped me get my head straight for success. Thank you for your encouragement.
That is phenomenal news, David, congratulations!! I’m sure the practice you put in to pass the skills test has made you a better rider, and you’ll be safer on the road for it. Thank you for following up and letting me know! Keep practicing, and keep the rubber side down 🙂
Yes, I am having fun doing U-turns everywhere, even when I don’t have to 8)