Odd as it sounds, sometimes the most beneficial riding practice takes place between your ears with your eyes shut and the ignition switch turned off. Mental visualization is used in many sports, and I actually picked it up from a coach while shooting small-bore rifle competition in college. The benefits were immediate and obvious, so I quickly applied it to my roadracing as well.
Visualization is obviously best used in conjunction with actual riding time, between sessions, but it has several advantages over track time alone. Over 80 percent of riding a motorcycle is mental. To get the full benefit of this technique, your visualization should be done in the most thorough detail possible. This means you're mentally going through not only all the visual information that you take in while riding but input from all your other senses as well. You should imagine your body position movements on the bike and each control input to the clutch, throttle and brake. Imagine hearing the engine note rising and falling with each throttle input, upshift and downshift. Feel the bumps and pavement changes, the bike leaning through the corners and the braking and acceleration forces as well.
I've heard the story of Yoshimura Suzuki hiring a former AMA Superbike Champion (whose name I'll withhold to protect the not-so-innocent) to its team in the mid-'90s and not knowing how to react when this rider performed his mental visualization on his bike, parked in the team garage, complete with body movements and even vroom-vroom sounds for the engine. I've seen a riding-school student of mine perform similar detailed movements in a classroom, though without the sounds, and when I asked him about it he explained quite unashamedly that he was part of a sky-diving team that made extensive use of mental visualization before ever attempting it for real. The point here is that while you can't visualize in too much detail, you may want to be careful selecting the company in which you do it.
Start your lap-or better yet, laps-at a specific point on the track, typically the start/finish line, and complete the lap at the same point in as much detail as possible. You'll likely find it difficult at first to complete the entire lap without pause or hesitation. These problem areas are often caused by a lack of information or a cloudy section of track where you're not quite sure where you are or what you're supposed to be doing. This is one of the biggest benefits of visualization: It tells you in no uncertain terms where you're struggling from a lack of visual reference points or uncertainty of how to handle particular situations. In actual riding at speed, failing to notice these blank areas is easy because of the constant distraction of motion and the never-ending stream of sensory input that goes with it. When lapping in your mind, however, the information gaps are painfully obvious. Go back over these areas over and over until you figure out what is causing the problem and what you need to do to solve it. Write down the gaps in a notebook and remind yourself to search for the needed information your next time on the track.
My routine for teaching two-day riding school formats always ends the first day with a mental visualization exercise. After explaining to students the method of experiencing the high level of detail using all their senses, I have them imagine approaching the start/finish line at speed-"You're crossing the line . . . now!"-and ask them to open their eyes when their lap is complete and remain quiet until the rest of class is done. If the track has a typical minute-and-a-half lap time, some students will open their eyes in as few as 45 seconds; most will complete their lap between one minute 15 seconds and one minute 45 seconds. A few students, often with grimaces on their faces, will not complete their visualized laps for well over two minutes. By the two-and-a-half-minute mark I'll end their misery and have them open their eyes.
The following discussion starts with a laugh over the new imaginary-lap record holders and asking them what they experienced. Typically, the quick visualized laps are a result of not enough information, sometimes skipping forward several corners while blanking out on entire sections of track. The slow visual laps are usually a result of the rider's mental process slowing down, searching for that next reference point or perhaps even backing up slightly and trying the troublesome section again in hopes of getting it right. Again, write down these problem zones and review them before your next time on the track. These are the areas you need to work on.
To really get serious about it, sit down with a stopwatch and time your visualized laps, say two or three in succession. If you really have a handle on the track, your mental laps should be within tenths of a second of your actual times. If they vary greatly and are too quick or too slow, use the above information to diagnose the situation.
A few tips for likely problem areas: Long straights are often confusing for people, so imagine the sound of the engine note rising under acceleration and dropping slightly for each shift. Try to keep the sense of timing in carrying each gear between shift points, watching the tachometer climb ever slower with each taller gear. Blind elevation rises require more reference points in a constant stream of information for you to avoid feeling lost.
Another advantage visualization has over actual saddle time is being able to imagine changes or improvements to your riding that you find difficult to institute at speed on the track. These situations often include pushing to a later beginning braking point or getting your downshifts done earlier in the braking zone. You might know and understand that it's possible to begin braking 15 or 20 feet later in the corner, for instance, because you find yourself fully off the brakes and back into neutral throttle before the turn-in point lap after lap, but seeing that turn rush up at speed you find it difficult not to clamp down on the brake at the same point as before. Visualize yourself holding that throttle open a tiny fraction of a second longer for five or six laps, using a new, deeper braking marker, and the next time you're out on the track it's almost like you've already done it.
I found mental visualization most useful in learning new tracks while traveling to AMA Pro Racing events early in my career. A single practice session each morning and afternoon at these new circuits left a lot of time in between to tune the bike and think about the track. My routine was to not only use visualization between practices to identify my problem areas to work on next time out (or better yet, a track walk or bicycle lap once the riding sessions are done for the day), I also made sure to do several laps in my head as I lay in bed that night before falling asleep and then again upon awaking. Though I can't explain why, sleeping on a problem like this has a way of reorganizing your thoughts far more effectively than attempting to solve it while you're awake.
Remember, next time you're tackling a new track or new section of road use your mind to its fullest: Think it, see it, be it. And then, finally, do it.
For more riding tips, visit www.sportrider.com/ride