Thursday, June 12, 2008

April submission

(Note, for whatever reason the magazine used last month's headline on this article, an act not duplicated here.)

Track volunteers are (not) like television detectives.

Few things in life match the reality of a television detective show. You know the bit: Well groomed people in cool cars wearing $1,500 suits (on a detective's salary, no less) and, and this is the part that's most annoying, the way stuff just kind of falls in their lap. You got, what, 40 minutes plus commercials in a one-hour show, and in television detective world that's all the time you need to resolve the impossibly complex situation of the moment. It all just comes together: Important clues are left lying out in the open, the super-duper hacker detective breaks into the master computer system to find the crucial bit of data, the rental car had a tracking device (what luck!) or whatever – it just falls into place.

Just like life.

Wait, scratch that: Life does not just fall into place.

Don't believe me? Open a BMX track.

“Now all we have to do is print off motos,” and the printer bursts into flames and, if it's a typical day, figures out a way from behind its wall of elector-mechanical inertness to fire poison darts at anyone in the tower.

“Moto number one, get in the gate,” right about the time the air compressor decides that whole “working” thing is just too much and instead reverts to a paper-weight frame of mind.

On and on, and that's just race day.

If you're reading this magazine you probably already know the sort of last-minute mayhem being referenced, and you also know that BMX – just the rocking on the track part -- takes commitment. Oh sure, it's giant fun getting your moto on and being all groovy while everyone's watching and applauding your awesomeness (really dude, you looked good on that lap), but if you're consistently finishing well then what you really know is that you've been working a lot outside of your (awesome) lap, doing the stuff you need to do to make groovy look easy.

Don't believe BMX takes commitment? Open a BMX track.

Harry Leary once made a statement in an interview, here paraphrased, in that the reason he's kept coming back to BMX, the reason he's kept it up long after most people have moved the bikes to the attic, is because of the way it feels when you're wheeling a bike into the gate.

Yeah man, you know what Harry's talking about: You ducked all the poison darts from that (vile) printer, another role of duct tape and the compressor's happy, and now it's time, race time, time to rock it out. Helmet's on, glove's on, bike's ready, sliding the bike into the lane, fixing to show those other clowns your mad pull as you take off down that smooth front straight and into the first turn .....

Wait, what?

Yeah, the track looks good, good enough to race on. But check it out: Dirt, in its native state, is not smooth. Dirt does not just fall into place and left to its own devices will never make a good BMX track. Dirt, in its native state, is in fact the opposite of smooth. It has stuff in it, not-dirt stuff, and rain makes it sad, groovy in a bad way and too sad to race on.

What makes dirt happy enough to race on? People with rakes. And where do those people come from? They volunteer, and those people make your racing possible, they commit, in this case to do the work outside of race time to get the track in shape enough for you to be groovy.

And I know, if this was a television detective show, that right about now I would (from inside the comfort of my expensive suit) type exactly the words you need to tearfully, but with the joy of newfound resolve, go out to your local track and put in more hours raking, sweeping and grading, ducking the poison darts from the printer or duct taping a possum carcass to the compressor so it'll last for one more night, but seriously, let's not kid ourselves, this is real life. Here in real life time sometimes doesn't work our way, maybe physicality gets in the way, things happen and you can't make it out to work the track and it's left to other people.

So here's what you do: Just walk up to those people, the ones who made the commitment and volunteer, and say “thanks.”

Is that so hard? That's all it takes, just thank a volunteer. And buds, if your track is raceable, it has 'em. You'll be amazed, experience talking here, what that'll do to keep the vibe positive for everyone just by saying thanks. Everybody's happier, even you, from the magic of spreading good vibes.

And hey, no cheating, no sending someone else to do it for you, no waiting 'til next week, and if you're not sure who to thank, ask the track operator, I bet they got a list of names, a long list.

And for doing that, for when I come in from out of town to rock your track which is raceable smooth with a positive vibe, thanks.

So whaddaya' think? Got something you need this column to cover? Got a question you need asked? A subject explored? Bikes? Tracks? People? Stuff? I don't care, I'll ask anybody anything (warning, this also means I'll type up whatever they state, which may include you being a jerk for asking it). Just Email just use the link to the right This is a private Email address so nobody other than me, including the ABA, will see what you wrote. Anonymous Emails to me (“I can't give you my name, but ...”) will be ignored, or possibly mocked.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

March submission

Consider the mental game.

Anyone of us who's caught a gate knows what I'm talking about: When you're getting ready to go you have to have your head in the right place. But what is that place? If you've been there, you know it isn't as easy as it sounds.

Maybe we can look outside of BMX for a minute and into bull riding to get some tips on the mental game. My son's taken up bull riding in the last year or so and I've been learning about it through him. I'm sure if you've been near a television you've seen the drill: Bull's in a chute, cowboy gets on the bull and adjusts the equipment, nods, the chute gate opens and the bull does everything it can to get the cowboy off. If the cowboy can stay on it for eight seconds he makes the main, as it were, and is in the running to bring home some money.

It doesn't take a PhD in rocket surgery to see it's not easy. Bulls are big, muscular, willful and not wanting to be ridden. Getting it right requires the proper application of technique, while blowing it means you're laying in the dirt – so at least in that way it's like BMX.

Let's assume when you've only got eight seconds to get it right, your head has got to be in the right place. And with that narrow performance window when compared to BMX, maybe bull riding can teach us something.

I take this notion to Lyle Sankey. Sankey's a many-time award-winning bull rider, and having retired as a competitor runs a successful series of clinics across the country (, teaching everyone from one-time fantasy camp riders to hard core pros and pro wannabes how to stay on top of bucking bulls. We met last year when my son signed up for one of his clinics. He's done it for awhile, and one of the things he really works on in training someone to ride well is getting their head in the right place.

I call up Sankey and ask: What does he tell riders to keep their mental game on track?

Sankey's a pretty no-nonsense guy and cuts right to the chase: “Focus on one thing at a time,” he responds. “You have to trust in your preparation, your equipment and your ability.” The problem comes, he adds, when people “try to think about six or 10 things at a time, it leads to confusion.” A rider has to trust in their training which would make their response to a given action by the bull automatic, he says.

It makes sense. While the cowboy's getting on the bull, thinking “what if” this that or the other can pretty quick lead to a sort of overload (what Zen practitioners call “monkey mind”) where you brain's trying to keep up with everything and winds up keeping up with nothing. The chute opens and you're so six kinds of flummoxed playing the “what if” game that you're just along for the ride --which will be short.

So can this notion of keeping your focus on one thing at a time like a bull rider work for a BMXer?

Greg Hill thinks so. Hill, himself a BMX success story with a laundry list of championships and BMX training successes (, as well as a long reputation for having a well-tuned mental game, thought Sankey's advice was spot on after I repeated it to him.

He called the problem “paralysis by analysis” where the rider's got so much going on in his or her mind (the gate, the turn, the other riders, etc) that they just sort of, well, get flummoxed, fall off the bull, as it were.

Echoing Sankey (which was almost spooky, since it was two separate phone calls) Hill explained the importance of keeping negative thoughts out of the process of getting your race on. Hill advocated what he called a “mindless” approach, where you're not doing a lot of thinking, just getting on your bike and doing what you've trained yourself to do.

What? Two successful athletes and trainers in two different sports echoing each other's thoughts on the mental game?

“Turn into a doll made of wood: It has no ego, it thinks nothing, it is not grasping or sticky. Let the body and limbs work themselves out in accordance with the discipline they have undergone,” -- Bruce Lee, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Okay, three.

So from these two (three) pros it comes down to this: Getting your head in the game means getting all the stupid stuff out of the game. When you're sliding up to that moment, be it strapping on a bull or into the gate, keep your mind clear. Just concentrate on making a good lap and leave the stupid stuff, the “what if” stuff, behind you, don't worry about it, just do what you trained yourself to do and be confident you trained yourself to do it.

Man I wish I'd had this conversation before the last round of Grands a couple of years ago.