I was raised on negativity. From the outset, the minimum acceptable standard in all things was ‘top’. Top of the class, top of the team, whatever. That made failure, in my case, routine.
Even success, rare as it was, was typically an opportunity to highlight failure. “Why couldn’t you do that last time?”, “Right, well I expect no less in future”. I remember one occasion when I thought I’d cracked it. Top of my year at Uni, I was invited to a silver service meal in Belfast and had my photograph in the Belfast Telegraph as one of the University’s top achievers of the year. It turns out this freak event was explained away with a simple observation – “Those exams must have been far too easy”…
So my mind is finely tuned to accept waves of negativity. Compliments are typically difficult to take, but criticism – well I lap that up. And I keep it, store it and let it fester, dwelling on it and using it to beat myself up. It’s a massive weakness, I am aware, but it seems to now be a defining part of who I am.
With that in mind, let me take you to Cartagena at the start of this year where I had a great opportunity to get back into the zone before the start of the race season. Danny and I hired a professional instructor, a former South African Superbike champion. We shared his coaching time, however rain in the morning meant very limited track time. After the first observation session, his words to me were,”You’re actually fast for someone who hasn’t a clue what they are doing”. That statement has impacted every minute I have been on the bike since. It isn’t the reason I’m not fast, but it is the reason my head is not in the right place to get better.
I have not achieved much in sport in my life – in fact pretty much nothing – so for me to reach club level bike racing and hold my own is the most significant achievement of my life. To be told by a professional that after 15 years riding bikes on track I don’t have a clue what I am doing? I can’t tell you how hurtful that is. It also flies somewhat in the face of the available evidence, given my top ten championship finish last year. Granted, I’m no national champion but ‘clueless’? What does that make the 20 riders who finished behind me every race last year?
Maybe that sort of kick in the stomach works for your typical hairy arse, thick skinned biker, but not for this one. Yes, I’ve heard all the ‘man up, get over it’ bullshit – but it isn’t happening. My brain won’t let go.
The instruction, for me, was a fairly painful affair. The instructor clearly regarded me as someone who he couldn’t really help in one afternoon, the contrast with how enthusiastic he was to nurture Danny’s natural potential was a bit hard to take. I tried to put a brave face on it, but in truth I felt a bit short changed. Different strokes work for different folks, this just didn’t work for me – I felt like the instructor wanted to spend his time on someone who he felt had potential, not someone like me.
A number of years ago when I was a very average track day rider, Simon Crafar coached me at Aragon. Simon was a successful MotoGP rider, the top level of motorcycle sport. His coaching was all about the positives – how someone with his experience can be so enthusiastic about riders like me is absolutely incredible – but I still to this day remember him pulling up beside me, flipping up his visor and fist pumping me. He was grinning from ear to ear because I had improved markedly from the previous session. Simon could have torn my riding to shreds, but instead he coached and encouraged me and it remains one of my best ever days on a bike. The contrast to the effect my most recent experience has had on me couldn’t be more apparent.
This weekend was Oulton Park race weekend. The weather was fine (until torrential rain meant the meeting was abandoned before our last race), my bike was ok (needs some suspension work) – no excuses. I went out and qualified 13th on a wet track, dry race saw me finish 19th and get a grid position of 17th for race two. Race Two I finished 29th. No rhyme, no reason, just couldn’t ride the bike. 2.4 seconds slower than my previous lap time. Doom, gloom, the words of my coach from Cartagena ringing in my ears. 26th on the grid for race three. FML.
Race three I finished 19th, but my times were at least two seconds off where they should be. The abandonment saved me the shame of lining up 25th on the grid. I was glad to get home to drink beer and try to forget a complete failure of a weekend.
What next? Well, I need to remove the self-doubt. I need to find a race face, I need a positive attitude and I need some hunger for a win. The guys disappearing into the distance at Oulton Park? I can ride with those guys. I have the talent, I have the skills. I just need to believe that enough for my head to tell my hand to tell the bike to go faster, everywhere. So I’m on the lookout for some coaching that will help me, not suck the life out of me.
The next thing I write will be a message to Simon Crafar to see if his colleague, John Reynolds is the right coach for me. Fingers crossed.
(If you have made it this far down this blog – thank you for your patience. This was a self-indulgent wallow in self pity, I recognise that and it is something I try to avoid in my blogs. It won’t happen again.