10,000 Hours of Seat Time

by Mark DeGross

The 2011 Supercross  season recently started and I can’t help but watch these riders in amazement of what they do.  Doubles, triples, blitzing the whoops section; they make it look all so easy with the mastery of control they have over their machines and bodies.  When I go ride, I struggle with bigger jumps, have never done a triple, and the last time I met a whoops section,  it bit me back bad enough requiring knee surgery and supplied many of my buddies with gut busting humor from the not so gratifying pictures on the internet of my carnage, compliments of a friend.  I’ve only been riding in the dirt off and on since 2005 and my talent level on a dirt bike pales in comparison to these young studs. Stewart, Dungey, Villapoto, Reed and others; they are like gods on dirt bikes, doing things the rest of us only dream about or dare attempt after a few beers!  However, as someone whose parents and grandparents ingrained in my psyche to form the belief system that there’s nothing in the world I can’t do, I wrestle as to why these guys are so dang good and how they would school me like a child if I ever were to have the chance to be on a track with them.  I know what unbelievable raw ability looks like…having played Division 1 NCAA football; I’ve seen guys that had the gift of speed and agility to perform like no others.  Yet, they’ve also developed that talent for years and years.  Somehow my anal retentive mind wonders if there’s a correlation of time and talent.  These Supercross & Motocross riders have been riding since before they could walk and have had their young butts on the saddle of a dirtbike for eons.  My thoughts ponder the hours of practice these iron horse jockeys have put in and I begin to compare that to the grueling hours any other top athlete pours into their sport or for that matter, anyone who is a master at their profession.  My thoughts are not purely my own…let me digress for a few moments to explain.

Dungey Airs it Out

I’ve also been bouncing between a few good reads: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance by Boris Groysberg and Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  Groysberg’s focus is challenging the myth that professional talent in the workplace is portable and transfers with the individual.  While Gladwell’s intent is pretty much surmised by the point that someone becomes a master at something when they’ve put in 10,000 hours honing their skills and knowledge at it.  Both authors write persuasively about their premises and I want to tie Outliners into my own thoughts first.

Like I began in the opening paragraph, the current crop of top Supercross riders have sown in a massive amount of seat time on their dirt bikes.  How many for each?  Certainly a hard number to quantify, but I’m betting it’s around Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.  To give you a feel for this, 2080 hours comprises a full 52 week, 8 hour a day work year…so one can safely say after 5 years, the time would be met.  A more realistic approach that is laid out in Outliers, is 3 hours a day for 10 years.  Hmmm…these young dirt hounds begin around age 4 to 6 and by 14, 15, & 16 we see them emerging as top riders who in just a few short years after their debuting, have the shot at being crowned a world champion Supercross rider.  Imagining mom and pops dragging their boy to the local mx track for a few hours each day along with entering many a race in the process, it looks like Malcolm’s rule isn’t far off…but is his theory unconventional or just common knowledge packaged into a book for the rest of us to nod and agree?  I believe it to be the latter.  For years I’ve listened to my mentors and teachers pound into my head; seat time, seat time, seat time…that’s how you’ll get better Mark.  Now I find myself encouraging students and friends to do the same.  There is only so much information you can cram into your cranium and after that, you gotta get down and dirty with application, trial and error, success followed by failure then re-applied with wisdom from what you’ve learned which will eventually lead to talent or what I would say is a mastery of skills.   And after all, isn’t that what we deem talent to be; a set of skills that have been mastered and the ability to perform those when needed?  I believe it to be so!  Thus these young riders are a result of ability coupled with lots of long hard hours of practice.  Or as what my coaches always drilled into me…paying the price!  Pay the full price, so you can reap the full rewards that success can offer!  These riders are doing just that.  Riding a dirt bike so well, at such high rates of speed, against gnarly terrain…on top of that, getting paid the big dollas that they deserve.  Hard work has paid off for them and it can for all of us too…perhaps not in the form of high grossing salaries, but in the noticeable improvement of our lap times and ease at which we do them.  Seat time, seat time, seat time, put in your seat time…

Mr. Groysberg challenges the myth that talent is transferrable in the workplace.  He illustrates that a star employee of one company, when lured away and hired at another company will NOT produce the same stellar results at the new company, even though the commensurate salary and expectation is that they will.  Only a very small percentage do, who are the masters at their profession and have put in the ‘time’ having learned to recognize what changes they need to make to produce top results in a similar, but yet different environment and situation.  One can read his book to understand his point in depth, but he shows a good case study where this employment transfer phenomenon happens regularly in the financial institutions of New York City.  So if Groysberg is correct, why have and do we see riders switch the “color” of bike they are riding, yet still produce smilar, if not identical results?  Carmichael, Reed, & Stewart are three big names that come to mind. Because these top riders have paid their “10,000 hours” price and it really doesn’t matter what brand of bike they are on; their skill level supersedes the subtle difference in machinery. (Oh sheesh, how the manufacturers hate that point I’m sure!)  Not every rider makes this successful transfer from one team to another or the bump from the 250 class to 450 class, which is right along the lines of what Grosyberg is stating.  I’m willing to bet that the top 5 riders, along with the intangible of good ability, have just worked harder longer than the other riders.  If those other struggling riders continue to intensify their work habits, I’ll argue we’ll see them rise from a good rider to a top rider.

I can hear a few of you now, wondering why the heck I’m bringing up these two books and their points to discuss on my blog.  Most of us ride to get away from the stresses of the business world, not delve back into it, analyzing nuances to help our riding!  I however believe that principles transcend disciplines, and thus we can apply them unilaterally to help us achieve the success we desire in our riding.  A classic example we see in our schools many times are the people who have grown up riding in the dirt or have raced motocross in the past.  These folks have put in many hours and have developed a good skill set they’ve honed, specific to an off road environment.  To make the transition to road riding, we work mostly on body position changes and the effectiveness of the front brake on pavement, while trying to break them of their habitual rear brake use.  Most students struggle with these changes, but if they are tenacious and don’t give up, they typically show great ‘talent’ as their lap times drop dramatically.  Case in point…we have two staff members that raced motocross in their past and recently came into the OMRRA novice program.  They worked hard to learn the changes specific to road racing and now are throwing down very respectable times most experts would be proud of.  It won’t be long until they are petitioned or graduated out to expert status and I expect them both to be challenging for podium positions in their first year as experts.  Are they talented?  Certainly so, but that talent was developed by hard work, study, tenacity, along with certainly a bit of God given ability.  However, I’m willing to bet that the amount of time they’ve spent ‘in the seat’ riding a bike, is sizeable and most likely out weighs that of their other novice counter parts.  Another example we all will be able to watch this year will be Rossi on the Ducati.  If preseason testing is an indication of regular season results, he’s got his work cut out for him.  Knowing Rossi though, he will find a way to put an Italian rider and bike on the podium and probably win on it by the end of the year.  A master of masters?  Isn’t that what being the GOAT is?

Italia on Italia - Doctor Rossi

What I’m trying to illustrate is how to bust the myth of talent by putting in the hours on your bike.  That you can approach mastery on a bike with more seat time and track time.  I’m sure we are all pretty dang good at what we do for a living…Lord knows we ought to be, we’ve been doing it long enough.  So let’s take Gladwell’s principle (forget the exact amount of hours) and hone our skills as best we can, the more time we ride, the better we’ll be.  Soon enough, our friends will be calling us talented and marveling at what we can do on a bike.   For those that have hit a wall or are struggling to learn the different styles to go fast on a sportbike, don’t accept it to become a statistic that Grosyberg describes.  Press on, keep improving and press through that breaking point to achieve a new personal best.  With time, mastery will come!  So when you set that HDTV of yours to watch the next Supercross or MotoGP race, just realize, the riders you see competing are not freaks of nature, uniquely blessed with ability from Zeus himself.  Rather, they are the products of countless hours of track time which you can develop a bit of yourself, should you venture to put the time in.  I encourage you to do so and let the results speak for themselves in the coming year.

I’m looking forward to seeing you at the track!

3 Comments

  1. Mark I agree whole heartedly. I and my teammate Marcel Irnie would love to participate in most all of 2fast track days as i did localy here at Pacific and Portland last season. Unfortunatly my salary has been generated by huge overtime and that no longer exists in this economy.I am a public servant and work for local government I have a
    new house with a big mortgage, two teenage daughters. My teammate makes a third of what I make. We want to be a part of 2fast. We are going to compete for the OMMRA Championship and most WMRRA rounds and as you know that costs huge money . We need your help to go fast and be competative but financialy its impossible at this point this season. I paid for five track days last season for friends and now thats all they can do and dream about. Thanks for your time.. Sincerly Aaron Holmberg

  2. David Flowers says:

    I had that same general thought when I read Outliers. Unfortunately seat time goes both ways! As I get older and have had less time to ride, my lap times have dropped off. After reading Outliers it gave me a better understanding of why, and also helped me understand that to improve it will take seat time. If seat time is not possible then I just have to be happy with what I can do and not force the issue.

  3. Hey thats a very nice post you got there, Ill be checking back sometimes for more updates thx

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