By Helen Owton
The Isle of man Tourist Trophy (TT) races have been running since 1907 and is notoriously known as one of the most dangerous in motorsports. The riders must navigate around a 37mile track around the Isle of Man with over 200 twists and corners, many of them blind, with ‘No Room for Error’ and top speeds of 200 mph on narrow country roads littered with street furniture – lampposts, concrete walls, houses, pubs, pavements, cliff edges, and no runoffs . The event has claimed over 150 lives which makes those competing in the event a death-defying act; riders as well as spectators all too aware of the risks.
— Isle of Man TT Races (@ttracesofficial) June 9, 2023
What’s interesting about the TT is the wide range of personalities and ages; one of the highest achievers is 51yr old John McGuinness with 23 TT wins and is still one to beat. Racers participating in the IOM TT are living their lives on the edge and many wonder why they put their lives at such risk but maybe they’re not as ‘crazy’ as we think they are.
Successful athletes develop effective pre-performance routines or ‘rituals’ which can be used to help individuals perform under pressure and concentrate on factors that are in their control (Openlearn).
You might see the riders turning on their “Race Face” which is a term referring to the mental posture that prepares and readies a motorcyclist for their race (Code, 2009: Rider’s Race Face | Motorcyclist (motorcyclistonline.com), (LONDON 2012 VIDEO).
“You may say a race face is a protective mask to prevent outside influences from entering into a rider’s world. Or you may say the mask serves to bridle a rider’s own force, keeping it ready to be unleashed and do his bidding at the appointed time. Either way, it is a valuable tool-another piece of protective apparel we don before heading on-track” (Code, 2009).
Attuning the senses
Extreme sports are often associated with thrill seekers with a ‘death wish’ or adrenaline junkies searching for their next thrill (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). However, these individuals can be highly trained with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity, and the environment, who seek an experience that is life-enhancing and life-changing (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). Motorcycling, like other high-risk sports, requires a sharpening of senses, meticulous preparation, high work rates, swift recovery following setbacks and thriving in challenging situations (Crust et al., 2019). As Cole (2017) notes, it is important to set ourselves appropriate challenges and be attuned to one’s senses by anticipating, listening to engine sounds, being cool under pressure, being attuned to a constantly moving environment at speed, and positioning the body-motorcycle effectively round the corner; all run by one’s sub-conscious relying heavily on a deep knowledge of the TT circuit.
Building that deep knowledge of the course takes time and practice; riders don’t immediately ride the course at that speed, and they have a whole practice week before every TT before the racing starts. This can help build up their ‘muscle memory’ which can also be referred to as motor memory, referring to one’s body’s memory to perform certain actions. There are two parts of the brain that help to learn sequences of actions and help to adjust errors in learning to improve one’s ability to perform those movements correctly. Also, a concept known as proprioception can be described as our sense of balance, position, and muscular tension, provided by receptors in muscles, joints, tendons, and the inner ear. These bodily (somatic) senses inform our perception of “inside” and “outside,” of inner and outer space meaning that senses act together to help give us our embodied perceptions of space (Paterson, 2009). Riders who participate in the TT have highly trained and attuned their bodies to that environment – the TT course – through practice, breathing, focus and visualisation. To enable them to optimise their potential and perform at their personal best, they engage in an optimal psychological state known as flow.
Risk and Reward
To induce flow, it is about balancing the level of skill with the challenge we are faced with (Nakamura et al., 2009); balancing risk versus reward and assessing whether a risk is worth taking as James Hiller discusses:
How do you calculate risk VS reward when you’re traveling at over 200mph? James Hillier is no stranger to pushing himself to get into the winners enclosure, and emotions run high when you aren’t in there. No Room for Error, showing Monday 22nd May: 🇬🇧 9pm ITV4 and ITVX 🌎 9pm TT+ #TTPlus #LoveTT #NRFE #NoRoomForError #Motorbike #motorbikesoftiktok #isleofman #motorsport
A TT rider faces intense fears, accepts that control of the future is not always possible and moves through these fears to participate fully in the action and make choices to reduce risk and enhance personal control (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013; Crust et al., 2019).
Indeed, switching to what’s known as a ‘Clutch state’ which occurs under particular high-pressure conditions; it is similar to being “in the zone” but where there’s an important outcome. Clutch performances are comprised of focus, heightened awareness, and intense effort whereas flow states are viewed as effortless attention and automatic experiences (Swann and Goddard, 2020). Flow states are more aligned with “letting it happen” whereby confidence develops naturally whereas clutch states are associated with “making it happen” where there is a sudden increase in concentration and effort (Swann et al., 2015). To activate flow states or clutch states, there has been an association with certain goal types. For example, open goals such as “do your best” goals are more associated with inducing flow states, whereas specific goals with a fixed outcome such as “winning a race” and setting a task specific goal to “ride at 120mph round the next corner to overtake the next rider” to achieve that outcome is associated with ‘clutch’ performances. It is likely that there is a shifting or slippage in and out of the states and a blurring between and within the states and may link to how TT riders weigh up risk and reward.
Riding the TT where all the hard work has been done before the race, can induce a quietness of mind while you just breath and focus. While there is a thrill of speed and desire for a win, “One of the things that make motorcycling so great is because it never fails to give you a feeling of freedom and adventure” (Steve McQueen, 1930-1980).