The beginning of each riding season brings a whole new group of riders -or those hoping to become riders- and as well as a constant need for new instructors. Several years ago, I decided I’d stopped by to watch enough Basic Riding Classes, and it was time to actually become an instructor. How tough could it be? I’d been riding for a very long time, with many miles under many tires, so I was sure this would be easy… right?
This article first printed in Midwest Motorcyclist, March 2009, several months after I completed my Instructor Prep course and had taught several classes. I love it, and continue to instruct for various Motorcycle Ohio facilities and Western Reserve Harley-Davidson Riding Academy. Think you have what it takes to be a RiderCoach? Check out Motorcycle Ohio and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) for certification opportunities.
The Other Side of the Basic Rider Course…
Anyone who knows me has heard my spiel about the benefits of rider training. Any time I’m asked about the best way to get started in motorcycles, I’ve always suggested a Motorcycle Safety foundation (MSF) Basic Rider Course (BRC) or Harley Davidson Rider’s Edge. Before dropping a large chunk of cash (or an expensive new bike!), you get to bang around on a bike belonging to someone else and decide if riding is even something you really want to do. It’s much less expensive to spend a weekend discovering it’s not really your thing, than the next 3-5 years paying off a bike that sits unused in the garage- or worse… Many people are taken by surprise when they realize the amount of coordination and skill involved in having each hand and each foot doing entirely different functions, many times simultaneously, while still trying to track and react to traffic and all the road throws at you. Much better to learn the riding part in a closed parking lot before taking on the cagers. By the end of the weekend you’ve either had a lot of fun but decided that cars are the better way to get around, or you’re completely hooked, and a safer beginning rider to boot. Having said all that many times, it occurred to me: Why don’t I become an Instructor? How tough could it be? I’ve been riding on and off for over thirty years, so teaching others to ride should be easy and fun. I’ve helped friends prepare for their motorcycle endorsement test, taught kid’s mountain biking clinics, coached soccer, ran autocross clinics and more- so becoming a MSF-certified RiderCoach should be the proverbial “piece of cake,” right? I could not have been more wrong!
I’m not sure why, but I believed teaching the BRC was a matter of volunteering and showing off years of accumulated riding skill. Again, WRONG! A visit to the Motorcycle Ohio website indicated requirements of considerable riding experience (OK), a good driving record (yep), good communication skills (I sure hope my readers think so!) and a “smile and sincere desire to help people”. Hmmnn… My wife tells me I’ve got a great smile (IF I smile), so I’ll be perfect! What’s this part about passing the Instructor Preparation Course (IPC)? And I need to have passed the Basic Rider Course within the last 2 years? I don’t just show up and volunteer? Nope, there’s plenty more to go, and now it was becoming clear; The RiderCoaches/ Instructors are much more than volunteers with good intentions, and it’s going to require serious commitment if I want this role in the future of motorcycling.
I sent my initial “screening” application in January of 2007. This is basically like any job application, with the addition of driving/ riding history including citations, suspensions and the like. The wait for the screening process to be completed ended with the notification I had been closed out for the ’07 IPC class. In Ohio, there were only 24 Instructor Candidate per facility, and I had not made the cut, though I would remain on the list for 2008. I was chosen in ’08, and lucked out- There would be a course held at Lakeland Community College this year, about 15 minutes from my house. A nice break for me, as the alternative was a 2.5 hour drive to Columbus for several weekends! I sent my non-refundable course fee, and a few days later my MSF RiderCourse Guide and home study assignment (homework already?) arrived. A glance at the huge study guide underscored the fact this is a serious training program. I was excited about the challenge, but more than a bit unnerved. I still attend classes at the local college, but now they’re purely for my own benefit or entertainment. I take them seriously, but I’m not in it for a grade or credits, so I can just enjoy the learning atmosphere. This was different, however. I not only wanted to pass and achieve certification, I needed to EXCEL. Before even beginning the IPC, I had unintentionally kicked my stress level up and knocked the “fun” level down a few notches.
The MSF Instructor Preparation Course (IPC) is a 55-hour course spread over several 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, and 100% attendance is mandatory. Not included in that time is a half-day “pre-course” orientation to meet the instructors, watch a few hours of a Basic Rider Course in action and get a feel for what’s expected of candidates. I got the impression this might have been a “self-imposed” final screening of candidates, as well, giving us a chance to back out before class started. There is also plenty of homework, which extends that required 55 hours of course work by a substantial margin. Realistically, one can add at least 2-5 hours homework for each weekend of classwork! The time is split between classroom and range (the outdoor “track” the BRC is held on) instruction, and the amount of information from both is substantial. The final step is being evaluated while “student teaching” an actual Basic Rider Course overseen by experienced instructors. Oh yeah, if all that isn’t overwhelming enough, one needs to be certified in First-Aid and CPR before being OK’d to teach- yet another day of a different class! The IPC is a VERY complete and well-designed course, created to certify safe and capable Basic RiderCoaches who will follow a strict MSF curriculum that has been evolving and improving for over 30 years. There are occasionally muttered complaints of flaws in the curriculum, and there may well be, but there is no denying the program’s effectiveness. Now I would get my chance, as a RiderCoach Candidate, to learn how and why the program works as well as it does.
The first classroom session began with the usual introductory silliness, where everyone feels a bit foolish introducing one another. By the end of the exercise, though, the ice had been broken and we realized we were all in this together. The fear of “looking stupid” in front of everyone had diminished substantially- a good thing, as most of the course requires practicing concepts in front of the instructors and each other. In a very short time we were working well as a group, and having a bit of fun while trying to digest the plethora of information that was coming at us with machine gun ferocity. When I first heard the IPC was a 55-hour course, I couldn’t figure out what could possibly fill so much time- but it quickly became clear. Through the classroom sessions we were taught basic and advanced adult learning concepts, which are very different from those used to teach children. We learned range management, safety and design. We learned to control the flow motorcycles on the range through observation of rider’s abilities and time management. We trained ourselves to speak well before the group and to lead the class with confidence. And all of that knowledge being pressure fed into our skulls was just the classroom information! Getting outside to the range, and onto motorcycles would be fun- we all knew how to ride…
The range work was a bit more sporting as we finally got to ride, but it was far from easy. Each of us had the necessary skills on a bike to demonstrate the exercises, but, of course, there was much more to it. We had to master the ability to consistently ride each exercise at an appropriate speed (read SLOW) for a new rider to emulate, which was reasonably easy. Add the need to exaggerate our motions and body positions so students could easily see the correct action, all the while “unlearning” any poor riding habits, and the tasks became a lot more trying. While watching one another demonstrate riding techniques, we discussed and implemented methods of safely monitoring and guiding 12 individuals (the maximum class size with 2 instructors) through a bevy of range exercises. The underlying theme to both the classroom and the range was safety, instruction, safety and more safety,- the importance of which quickly became clear as we initially struggled with the logistics of getting bikes and riders through one exercise and into the next. Out of frustration, I actually mapped out a scaled range on a large piece of cardboard, using dimes as cones and toy motorcycles as, well, motorcycles. After a day on the range, I would go home and practice the exercises on my cardboard “range” with my kids! It took a few nights at the cardboard, but things finally began to click and my mental mayhem on the range began to settle and make sense. Unfortunately, as we got closer to “graduation, our class size began to shrink due to scheduling conflicts or personal issues. Anyone who left was missed- we had become a fairly tight group and, with few exceptions, worked quite well together. As I said, the IPC is a serious commitment of time and energy, and most candidates have families, jobs and a myriad of other pressures competing with their time in the class. Even I had a few moments of serious doubt, where I wondered why the heck I was putting myself through this. It’s certainly not as though I NEEDED to teach people to ride motorcycles. Fortunately, my wife and kids all reminded me it was something I definitely WANTED to do- and they thought I’d be good at it (Thanks guys!). So I pressed on.
I thought before I started one of my biggest problems was going to be stepping out of my “know-it-all” attitude of questioning everything and humbly being a student. What I didn’t expect was just how well the adult learning concepts we were being introduced to would work on us! The same methods used to teach the Basic Rider Course were being used to teach the Instructor Preparation Course, and it succeeds like some Jedi mind game tricking one into learning huge amounts without realizing anything is sinking in! When the big picture finally coalesced the individual units into a whole, I was struck by just how well the MSF Rider programs allow adults to learn, and learn quickly. When the time came for our evaluations, I was far better prepared than I would have believed possible. This didn’t make me any less nervous, but I passed and did well. The final piece before being able to call ourselves RiderCoaches, or be hired by any of the programs, was to teach a class of actual students under the watchful eyes of an experienced instructor and the Chief Instructors. No pressure, but we’d come this far and now it was make-or-break time. Needless to say, tensions were running high for all of us!
We broke into smaller groups for the student teaching, working in three groups of two. The class of 12 thought it was pretty cool to have such personalized attention, being nearly one-to-one when the Chiefs and the supervising instruction were added in. I’d like to say everything went perfectly, but it didn’t. We all had our gaffes, and faced the Chiefs for our “constructive criticisms”, some harsher than others. But we did OK in the classroom and accomplished our goals. The range, however… When I mentioned the frustrating logistics of safely moving riders through exercises and on to the next exercise, or break, or evaluation, as well as setting up the cones for the next exercise, it was reflecting a controlled situation with fellow candidates. We could joke and laugh about one another’s screw-ups at that point, and move on to fix them. Add the stress of teaching a real class, while being scrutinized by the Chief Instructors, and a reasonably talented group of candidates became “Blunders’R’Us”. Maybe that’s too harsh. We did OK, and most of the mistakes were minor, but times ran long, exercises were unintentionally “improvised” (a serious no-no to the MSF curriculum), randomly drawn partners did not particularly “gel” and, in my group at least, we had a particularly difficult group of mostly brand new riders. We all felt the wrath of the Chiefs at some point in the two days on the range, but we made it through. When the smoke finally cleared, there were zero incidents or injuries, most of the new riders passed, and most of the instructor candidates, myself included, passed to become certified RiderCoaches! I can’t speak for the rest, but I was exhausted, needed a shower and just wanted to go home, sit on the deck and have an ice-cold beer or three. Man, I felt good though- I had done it!
Many times I’ve wondered about the instructors I saw guiding people around the parking lot cones at the local college. What made them different, set them apart from other riders? Who says they’re so much better than anyone else when it came to teaching new riders, and why? Now I have some answers. I’m biased, of course, because I’ve accomplished that status, but I now know the difference. It’s not just riding experience- many of us have plenty of that, and I know some incredibly skilled riders. It’s riding ability/ experience, knowledge, communication skills, personality, desire and, above all, dedication. It’s all those traits and more, drawn out, sharpened and polished through an Instructor course that turned out to be much more comprehensive and intensive than expected. I met some terrific people, had a great time and was one of the select group that made it through to the end to become certified as a MSF RiderCoach- but it was much tougher than I imagined.
Was it all worth it? Absolutely. I’ll need to keep my certification current, which means more learning and more teaching, but being paid a bit to spend a day riding and teaching motorcycle skills is pretty cool. Plus, everything I’ve done helps to make me a better rider. More than that, teaching the Basic Rider Course is an incredibly gratifying experience. Having only taught a few classes, I’m still a bit anxious on my way to the school, but then I remember just how much I’ve learned, and why the curriculum is so rigid. Then I remember how much fun I have being a RiderCoach, and I can’t wait to meet the new students. It’s an absolute blast to see a new rider nervously mount a motorcycle on Saturday morning, many for their first time, and by Sunday afternoon competently pass a skill evaluation. There are many points of frustration between, but there’s something special about seeing that point where a rider with little or no experience on a motorcycle suddenly “gets it”, and it all starts to come together. Their face lights up and the smiles come easier. The intensity is still there, but the nervousness gives way to excitement and the realization that “hey, I can do this”! At that moment, their feeling of pride is directly shared with yours as you think, “I helped them do that- I’m really an Instructor”! It’s a beautiful thing!
For more information on becoming a MSF RiderCoach, check out the Motorcycle Safety Foundation at: www.msf-usa.org
Motorcycle Ohio: www.motorycle.ohio.gov
Be seen, ride smart, stay safe and I’ll see you on the road!