Overcoming Anxiety: A Guide for Motorcyclists

As absurd as it may sound, I’ve always been a bit envious of people who possess that kind of (excessive) self-confidence. The ability to look at any obstacle, no matter how big, fast, or death-defying, and firmly believe that everything will be fine.

Now, it might be surprising to hear this from someone who races and has traveled extensively on motorcycles, but I’m an overthinker, I have anxiety, and it always seems to take me twice as long to feel comfortable doing things that the rest of the world can grasp in minutes. I’m an intellectual, not an athlete. I’m sure there’s a whole lifetime of confidence and psychology issues I could unravel here to explain it, but instead, let’s talk about how this applies to motorcycle riding.

Picture this, if you will, sitting atop a dirt bike in the backcountry. You’re a new rider. You don’t really know what you’re doing, and your mind has made sure you’re constantly aware of this fact. You see a pile of rocks on the trail, sitting at the other end of a deceptively steep slope. In a split second, you’ve conjured every possible thing that could go wrong. You’ve imagined all the ways you could get hurt, all the mistakes your inexperience is bound to cause. You haven’t even attempted the obstacle yet, but you’ve already decided it’s too much.

You hit the brakes. You stare at the rocks. And now the fear is even worse. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, your worry makes it more likely that you’ll make a mistake.

Your friends might urge you to stop being a wimp, and you want to stop being a wimp too. But that doesn’t change the fact that your body is paralyzed by fear. This is the simplest way I can think of to explain what it’s like trying to learn to ride when you’re an anxious person with an overactive imagination. But fortunately, there are some ways to overcome an excess of self-preservation that aren’t as barbaric as yelling “Send it!”

Training Grounds

It’s easy to simply say “seat time,” but it’s more complicated than that. Even if you’ve been riding for a while, your brain might still be mocking you because you know deep down you don’t really know what you’re doing. Maybe you’ve fallen a couple of times, gotten hurt, or are just humble enough to know the limits of your knowledge. Seat time is crucial, but quality seat time requires understanding the fundamentals.

One of the easiest ways to do that is to seek professional instruction. I’ve attended many schools in my 12 years of riding. I started with the MSF course and practiced the suggested exercises in a parking lot until I felt confident enough to start commuting. After six months of canyons and highways, I began to think I was a good rider… until I nearly sent my bike over the edge of Glendora Mountain Road in Southern California.

The next time I got on a bike, I shook every time I saw a curve. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but I knew I didn’t want it to happen again. So, I bought a bunch of riding books to try and address my mistakes, from “Twist of the Wrist” to “Proficient Motorcycling,” and decided it was time to hit the track and learn how to corner properly. I signed up for an introductory lesson (most track day organizations have control riders on staff who provide extra help and instruction to new riders) and made my way to Streets of Willow. I was probably one of the slowest riders to ever grace the back straight, but the more laps I did, the easier it became to implement the techniques I had read about.

Once I started racing, where progress is clearly quantifiable, it became apparent that I had hit a plateau between my speed and my fear threshold. What you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing don’t always align, so taking lessons with Ken Hill and Jason Pridmore, where they dissected my riding and showed me ways to maintain control even as my speed increased, was all I needed to keep improving.

But schools can be expensive, and not all of us have the time or money for professional critique, especially in the early days of riding. While I can argue that you should invest in training before investing in a new exhaust, that kind of willpower isn’t always realistic.

Fortunately, you can have your exhaust and enjoy the resources available on the internet for free. When I decided to learn off-road riding during the COVID times when everything was shut down, I watched some YouTube videos of skilled professional riders explaining techniques in detail. With the seeds of knowledge planted, instead of fixating on a drop-off and worrying about what would happen if I lost control and went too fast, I focused on clutch modulation in combination with front and rear brakes, forcing my mind to stay in the present. The previously terrifying obstacles began to look more like solving a puzzle than tempting death, and I love puzzles!

Know Your Enemy

On this last point, much of anxiety is about thinking too far ahead, fearing a future that probably won’t ever come to pass. It’s a combination of uncertainty and lack of confidence. Whether your bike will make it across the stream or you’ll get swept away, they seem like equal possibilities.

If uncertainty is your enemy, then maybe you just need to, well, dial it down. If your friend has suggested a trail or a road you’ve never been on, watch some videos of others who have been there. If there are no videos, study a map (topographic maps can be particularly helpful for dirt) or ask someone. Regional public forums or forest rangers are huge resources. Make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back on your own, in case something happens.

When you’re flying and don’t have time for pre-game — maybe you stumbled upon a darker creek than before or a loose hill with uncertain traction — walking the obstacle first can give you time to analyze the best way through, figure out how scary (or not scary) it is, and tackle it with logic instead of blind confidence.


When I decided last year that I wanted to learn off-road riding after years on asphalt, suddenly I felt like I was back at square one, even though I’ve been riding for over a decade. The feeling of sliding tires terrified me, rocks, hills, and sand brought out the ugliest fear I’ve ever swallowed. At one point, I literally cried as I looked down a steep hill that I had no choice but to conquer if I wanted to get back to the truck.

It’s easy to simply say, “Well, if it’s that scary, then maybe it’s not for you.” But I wanted it to be for me, and I knew that if I could push through the growing pains, the reward would be worth the struggle. While telling myself “You can do it!” didn’t silence my inner demons, telling myself “If you do it, you can get some of that amazing handcrafted ice cream with peanut butter cups” did.

Reward yourself.


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Overcoming Anxiety: A Guide for Motorcyclists


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