Silverstone Racecourse – United Kingdom 8 June 2010
I was pondering some CommScrum discussions recently, about competence and confidence and which is more important. The debate is that it’s more important to have confidence than to have a list of specific communication competencies that someone, somewhere (probably running a “Black Belt” training course) has decided are what you need to do your job well.
I strongly believe that confidence, for better or for worse, trumps competence on the basis that competency can be acquired, but confidence is a less tangible attribute.
I am a motorcycling enthusiast and have completed Level 3 out of 4 levels at California Superbike School here in the UK. Yesterday morning in the Midlands at 7 a.m. I rolled up to Silverstone Circuit – a very wide, very fast Formula 1 track that will host the MotoGP in coming years. I have to admit trepidation, since I did a track day here a couple of years ago and hit the rev limiter on my bike in 6th gear on the back straight every time. It is a very fast, very scary track in the dry weather.
And it was dumping down rain. The track was soaked. Motorcycles and rain are not a good combination.
As we kicked off the morning safety briefing, the lead instructor lit up and said, “Why the long faces? Training in weather like this is going to teach you more about riding than a week on a dry track. Let’s get started…”
The school runs 5 classroom sessions for each group, each session followed by an on-track session with your instructor. So you learn a technique, one that is completely new and untried (unlearning bad habits along the way) and then your instructor tails you and coaches you.
For example, if you want to tighten your line and you are already in the entry to your corner, changing your lean angle will reduce your grip (not the best solution) – so you learn to push your body forward and down. This compresses the front suspension, which shortens the wheelbase of the bike. Shorter wheelbase = tighter arc. Yes, understanding that theory is great, and rational. Then you are expected to apply it to a 130 horsepower bike going into a series of wet corners at speeds some would call dangerous.
So I was shown a competence — “flick turn” — and how to identify how to use it. Then I tried it out and by Jove it worked, as did the 7-8 other competencies I was trained in. Over five track sessions I built up and combined the competencies and by the final session I was nailing my lines, apexing kerbs and driving hard out of corners.
All of this done in weather conditions that were designed to prevent me from doing this – my animal, fear-responsive brain telling me “If you try to maintain this line through this corner at this speed you are going to die.” The new competence gave me the confidence to say back to my brain “Oh yeah? Well, watch me compress the front suspension, smarty pants.”
The scary moments – the bike wobbling at the same point in the same corner every time – got predictable, and manageable. I knew it would destabilise at that point, and not to panic. The rear end trying to slip under acceleration in the wet – I learned to push the outside bar to maintain my weight but reduce the lean angle and increase the contact patch that gives the tyre more grip.
Maybe that’s a long-winded way of recasting the issue. As communicators, of course competence is important. they are the technical building blocks we use. Combined with experience, ideally in the worst possible situation — wet track or hostile takeover — and you learn them faster, and when to predict how they might behave.
Competence plus experience have thus built my confidence immensely.
Ah – and I can hear the voice of Mike Klein already – I had the confidence to get on a motorcycle on a grand prix circuit in the pouring down rain in the first place…