Aspar Press Release: Controlling The Uncontrollable - The Role Of Ritual In Racing

While normally, MotoGP fans never get enough of seeing Valentino Rossi on TV, there is one shot they would (for the most part) gladly be spared. Every time the Italian leaves the pits for practice or qualifying, the TV director seems determined to show the same shot, from the camera on the back of Rossi's bike. As he leaves the pits, Rossi stands on the footpegs, and pulls his leathers from between his buttocks, before sitting back down again and leaving.

Why does he do this? Are his Dainese leathers so badly cut that they are continually creeping up between his buttocks whenever he's not on the bike? The answer to that is obviously no, his leathers are custom made to fit perfectly, yet still Rossi does this every time, whether he needs to or not. It is part of the long series of rituals he performs before he hits the track, rituals which include bend over and touching his toes, crouching down and holding the right footpeg, and only getting on from the right side of the bike. These rituals - part useful limbering up, part invocation of Lady Luck - are something many riders perform, in their attempt to exert control over themselves, and over their environment.

In a fascinating press release - by far the most interesting we have received in many months - the Aspar team today provided a discussion and explanation of what riders are trying to achieve through the use of these rituals. The press release - entitled 'Controlling the Uncontrollable' - walks the reader through the many factors which go in to making a champion, and emphasizes the enormous importance of the mental side of the sport. It is a fascinating insight, and a highly recommended read:


CONTROLLING THE UNCONTROLLABLE

Listening to the same song, straddling the bike from the same side every time, performing a particular stretch routine, making the sign of the cross or putting a certain glove or boot on first. Riders employ many methods in order to maintain focus, many of them with no logical basis. The objective is to try to block out the environment, focusing all thoughts into one, and above all reinforce the idea that everything is under control. Some of these gestures are virtually copyrighted and are sometimes copied by novices. Who is not curious to see Valentino Rossi always watching the Moto3 race start from the wall as a spectator, or bending his knees and clutching them before getting on his bike?

Manias, superstitions, fixations, ideas or routines, call it what you want, but all riders need a 'safe place'. They need to repeat a sequence of actions, however insignificant, to help them concentrate and stay focused. If you did a comprehensive survey many of them would admit to the same procedures, but each uses his own mechanism of concentration to try to have a sense of control over something that is beyond control. The rain, contact from a rival, a breakdown. . . These are just some of the drawbacks of motorcycling beyond the control of anyone, but still most riders convince themselves that they can be mastered.

Contrary to general thinking, concentration, disconnection, abstraction, responses to fear. . . these are all parameters that can be trained and over in a race weekend are almost evenly combined. Unfortunately, while the riders are elite athletes and act as such to many extents, they neglect to take care of certain aspects that are more important than their skill. Especially in the early days. Many extremely talented riders have been left behind due to their bad habits, which they try to cover up when their performance slumps.

Training daily, eating a healthy diet and resting is the bread and butter of an elite athlete. Training the mind in order to face the pressure of the big occasion is also fundamental to optimizing performance. Being able to concentrate and manage intense moments of concentration is basic. The rider must know how to structure the weekend in terms of priorities and focus to perform at their highest level in each session. There are two types of concentration: introspection, used to loosen up, and fixation on outside factors. Rest is also crucial to avoid excessive mental fatigue, which can affect physical performance. The better the results are, the easier it is to rest. If the rider is too self-critical and has not scored a good result, they will analyse all the reasons why and will not disconnect.

Do not confuse rest with isolation, which can sometimes form part of the period before concentration can begin. Finding a place to eat alone, escaping to the motorhome for a game on the console, or just a nap, are some basic mechanisms to release tension and drive away negative thoughts. There are riders who must be completely exhausted at the end of a Grand Prix weekend. Who has not asked for a picture with their favourite rider and the most they have managed is a posed shot. Some riders reach such levels of concentration that they are little more than zombies, their bodies roaming the paddock but their thoughts elsewhere.

'Controlling the uncontrollable' also applies to fear, the riders' biggest enemy. In sport there are many types of fear and one of the most significant is the fear of failure. In riders the most 'logical' fear is that of a big crash. The natural human response to fear is paralysis, avoidance and struggle. 'These riders who crash at 200km/h and ten minutes later get back on the bike are crazy!' It is a common remark but there is little truth to it. The accumulated level of adrenaline is such that a rider's first thought after a fall in the middle of a session is 'quick, I need to get back out because the session is nearly over,' not 'oh dear, I crashed.' Fear can appear later when in the cold light of day they think again about the damage they could have possibly done. This fear is more a friend than foe, as it helps to recognize the limits and impose a specific prudence in future. In contrast, excessive fear or panic may block logical though, becoming a handicap for a rider or indeed any other person.

In order to understand a little more the grey matter of motorcycle racers we see self-belief as another way to face reality. Very important indeed. There is scientific evidence that positive or indeed negative thinking influences brain responses. But be careful, your self-belief must come from an objective place. And humility must be your universal force. Think that it is best to be positive, without losing sight that in order to win every battle must be fought first. Arrogance and overconfidence are a fast track to failure.

That said, when you see an athlete doing some strange gesture or following a curious ritual, do not be surprised, it is their way of trying to get a sense of control over something that is basically uncontrollable.

2013

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Comments

I wish I'd know some of the other rituals done by the other riders apart from Rossi...

Stoner always dragged his boots one by one coming out of pitlane. Ritual or purposeful, who knows. If you watch closely the riders coming out for the first time, they always do the same things. Also their rituals right before the lights go out are very consistent.
I always gear up and mount the bike the same way each time. It wouldn't feel right if I didn't.

I once pulled out of our garage on my bike with my wife on hers behind me and as a joke I dragged each foot one by one as I road out of our back lane. My wife instantly knew I was mimicking Stoner. It's amazing how we pick up on the racer's rituals whether we realize it or not.

My big question is: Is Crutchlow really making a last minute bathroom visit after every sighting lap like the commentators suggest, or if not where is he going?

On Sunday, Brad Binder (Moto3) told me that he's probably the least superstitious person in the paddock but even he has his own little ritual. His earplugs come in different colours and he always wears one of each. Red & yellow iirc.

Some riders always wear the same underwear or t-shirt under their leathers from when they first won a race. Just look at that torn, faded old t-shirt Colin Edwards always wears.

Many of the Spanish and Italian riders cross themselves as they leave pit lane.

If you pay attention you can spot a lot of the rituals.

I dont know if you are into road racing,but john mcguiness,who has won an astonishing 19 times on isle of man,drops a penny down his leathers before each race.and i read somewhere he uses the same pair of socks for each race.

Casey Stoner would always touch the soles of both boots on the ground in pit lane while riding to pit lane exit. He would lean on the tank with his left arm across the tank and then briefly scrape the sole of his (I think) left boot and then right boot on the tarmac.

Great article - thanks, David.

From a neurological perspective, we know that our brains have three parts: the cognitive logical brain, the limbic/dog/emotional brain and deep down the reptilian brain that is the seat of our survival and procreation instincts. The best racers train their behaviours to come from the instinctive brain. It is about who goes faster, stronger, longer and wins. It is hard-wired in.

Rituals are different from habits and routines. Smoking is a habit, a 3pm smoke is a routine but always stepping out alone for a smoke before a tense meeting is a ritual. Rituals help us as the article says - manage our unknown fears. They train and activate our reptilian brain which when activated - will always overcome and win over our logical and emotional brains. They fire racers into a fight. And keep them focused on winning.

Cheers!

Thanx for posting this, David, as usual you're reaching deeper than anyone else ! This happens in many areas of sport (Djokovic and his endless tennis balls bouncing before a serve) or else (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory when banging three times on Penny's door saying Penny...Penny...Penny) and to some extent in our lives too.

I guess, as Desmonaut points out, it tackles in our most ancient brain ressources and helps the riders get "into the zone".

I just wonder how they do balance the fact that going thru these "mantras" may help them get some victories but also didn't stop many defeats. When does a fixed gesture go from being something positive to something negative....

David...David...David ?

I am an athiest and the the most skeptical person regarding superstitions, that was until I went onto a race track. The quickly developed my own superstitions and rituals. I every racer does it to some degree.

Oh yes...my frens that had a season in AFM/AMA developed this habit of not bringing any kinds of nuts on a race weekend. I had to hide my stash of cashews in my van and snack on them behind closed van doors, ha!

I am reminded of the great line from Andy Kaufman, who said "mindless superstition and pointless ritual is all that separates us from the animals!". Excellent piece.

Great article and whoever wrote it is a very articulate writer - it's of the same quality as the essays in the "Art Of The Motorcycle" catalogue from the Guggenheim exhibition of the same name.

not to be the contrarian but did I miss the "in depth" part of this press release?
Oh, riders are superstitious? You mean they have rituals before they get on the bike? It makes them feel better when they do these rituals? Wow!
I was hoping for a bit more, maybe asking the riders their exact ritual and having them explain why they do things, I don't know, but this article only covers things I'm pretty sure most of us were aware of. I was hoping for some surprises I guess

DE, I don't mind viewing Rossi's rituals (because it's only practice) as so much as I mind viewing the winning race crews as the winners nears the finish line (during the race). The TV director always pans to crews/mechanics leaning half-way over the wall almost falling on to the track. Who cares that the crews scream and raise their fists stupidly? There's usually a battle going on for 2nd/3rd on the last corner but yet, they insist on showing over-excited, odorous imbeciles!

Those guys and girls hanging over the pit wall when their rider brings it home are the people who've done 25 hour days since getting off the plane or bus or truck, to make sure their rider has everything in place to take the bike to the win. Before each race they've worked their arses off to make sure their rider has the best possible bike for the weekend. And after the race, whether their rider has won or not, they are packing all the gear away for transport to the next race, which is a long and arduous task that usually sees them missing the celebratory dinners that go on in the town that has hosted the race that weekend.

Why shouldn't the winning team get their place in the sun each race weekend? And what makes them stupid? Why would you think that these seriously professional people who live and breath motorcycle racing might fall onto the racetrack during their celebrations? What exactly defines them as over-excited odorous imbeciles?

It is extremely irritating when the TV crews pan over to winning crew celebrations. I don't object to the winning crew enjoying the spotlight, but when one rider romps away with the event and their exists a battle royal like last weekend for 4th spot,they need to focus on it.
Maybe its a TV crew and broadcaster entrenched ritual.
Enjoyable article David.

Sure, we've all seen Valentino's performance before he gets on his bike. So what?

Ayrton Senna used to have the same pointless rituals, such as always wearing his driving gloves inside out.

Did'nt do him much good at Imola in 1994 did it?