Get your kicks – the psychological way

Chartered Psychologist Dr Flannan Geaney on achieving high goals, professionally and personally.

One of my greatest sources of satisfaction as a psychologist was seeing clients achieve their goals. How would I apply professional techniques to my own post-retirement challenge?

As a Chartered Educational Psychologist, I spent over 16 years working with people across all age ranges, from pre-school to adults requiring career guidance and emotional support. This work included both formal and informal assessment to identify learning, emotional, social and emotional needs. I would design learning programmes, facilitate group social skills interventions, and organise and deliver workshops to teachers and students on various issues such as bullying, behaviour management, self-harm, and critical incident management. In particular I worked with young people experiencing significant difficulty with attending school and the associated emotional aspects, including over-attachment to parents, fear of transitioning to second level, and perceptions of inability to cope alone. 

Key to success, in my experience, was setting achievable goals and designing well-defined targets which led to successful outcomes. Respect, listening, encouragement, expectation, feedback, etc… all ensured that the road to be negotiated would be manageable, albeit tough. I used a simple approach which could be applied across many areas of development, asking three questions: 

-       “Do you want things to be the same as they are now or do you want things to be different?” Without a positive answer to this question, how could an intervention be effective? 

-       “Are you prepared to put effort into making things different?” There is potential to work on this, if the person wants to change. 

-       “Will you do something different between now and the next time we meet?” 

A ‘Yes’ answer to these three questions gave me the opportunity tell the client that they were three-quarters of the way to achieving a goal. I found it very difficult to work with ‘I’ll do my best’ though, as it is vague, indecisive, and invites the imposition of limits. My thinking was based on the Reality Therapy model, which gave precedence to ‘doing’, after which thinking alters (“I can do this!”). Positive feelings emerge, generating a reinforcing feedback loop. I can still remember boys experiencing extreme levels of stress resulting in school avoidance, who were enjoying school after relatively short interventions ranging from four weeks to three months; all of them adhered to well-designed target-orientated intervention plans. Others who did not ‘commit’ to ‘action’ plans did not achieve their goals. 

Training

When I retired in 2017, I decided to see if I could set a challenging goal for myself and follow the same process I implemented with my clients. When I met young people experiencing ‘school phobia’, they often perceived going to school an insurmountable challenge; yet, with motivation, commitment, hard work and support, they became as happy going to school as their fellow students. So, I thought: “Why don’t you take on something that you perceive as an ‘insurmountable challenge’ for yourself?” I decided to learn how to drive a motorbike and drive Route 66 on a Harley-Davidson. 

I had a 125cc Kawasaki for nine months when I was at university in 1972, but that was over 40 years before. I didn’t even know where the controls were. So in October 2017 I took my first two-hour lesson on a 125cc Suzuki. I was very nervous and didn’t think I’d manage it, but after some manoeuvres around cones at the training school, I drove for over an hour on the road accompanied by the instructor. I hired that bike from him for a day and practised on my own. Then, I took a two-hour lesson on a 500cc Suzuki, and hired that bike for one day each week for eight weeks, practising around five hours each day. Finally, I had a two-hour lesson on a Suzuki 750cc.

I decided to join the Temple Street Children’s Hospital Route 66 Charity Challenge, which began in 2002 and has run every second year. To date, the charity had raised over €2 million in aid of sick children at Temple Street Hospital, Dublin. I bought a 2011 Harley-Davidson Deluxe (1580cc) for €15,000, with a view to selling it once I had achieved my goal. 

My first two-hour lesson on the Harley was in April 2018. I drove from the driver training centre at Waterford Airport (where I kept the bike) to a garage eight miles away, filled the bike with petrol and drove back to the airport. I figured that if I could drive independently and negotiate a garage forecourt, I could build up my competence from there. After that first lesson, I made a firm commitment to take the Harley out every second or third day. Each day, I reflected on what went well and what was difficult and planned the next day’s driving. If I found something difficult and I felt like avoiding it (e.g. driving around roundabouts), then that’s what I practised the following day. Sometimes, I took a bus along a route first to familiarise myself with the road and I used visualisation to prepare. I watched DVDs on motorcycling techniques and read a training manual. I had put the necessary structures in place to develop competence and a commitment to adhere to a plan.

The Gardai (the Irish Police Force) provided three hours training on a Sunday morning each month for six months, providing the opportunity to practise specific skills such as driving in small groups. In total from 16 April to 21 September, I took my Harley out on 59 days and drove 6,600 miles. This self-training was at times terrifying for me (and perhaps for other road users!) and I needed to do much self-affirmation, positive appraisal of what I was accomplishing, maintaining focus on the goal, dispelling negative and avoidant ideation. I forced myself to keep up the effort every time I took the bike out. 

The first day I attended the session at the Garda training centre, I was overwhelmed by the 50 experienced motorcyclists arriving and parking their motorcycles nicely in line. I went to the Garda organising that morning’s training and said: “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this, Eddie, as I haven’t had enough experience.” He replied “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you here”, and he did. He was neither a counsellor nor a psychologist, but his approach was like mine with clients: “Don’t worry, we’ll master this together”. That first day was as stressful a day as I can remember, but with support I managed it. I knew then that I had the potential to achieve the goal with sufficient practice. 

The trip

We were to leave Dublin on 21 September 2018 and return on 5 October. I knew the trip was going to be extremely demanding, as the mileage to be covered (2,450 miles in 9 days) would entail long days.

In all, 70 motorcyclists and 30 pillion passengers took part. We travelled in groups of about eight and everyone met at various places along Route 66 each day. Every group had a Garda leader and an experienced biker at the rear, and a back-up car accompanied each group. Two extra bikes were brought in case of breakdowns. Nothing was left to chance… it was meticulously organised. 

The morning after arriving in Chicago, we collected our Harley’s and were given a 30-mile police escort through Chicago to Joliet, Illinois, after which we organised into our respective groups and drove to Springfield, Illinois (200 miles). For eight of the following days, we drove over 300 hundred miles. The highlight of the trip was an escort by the LAPD from Sunset Boulevard, through Beverley Hills to Santa Monica Pier. Driving non-stop in pairs, the LAPD clearing all traffic on the route, the Los Angeles Fire Department engines at the roadside and the firemen waving at us passing; and an LAPD helicopter flying over Santa Monica Pier greeting us with its sirens. This was an unrepeatable experience. The trip raised a total of €395,000 for Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin. 

When I look back on this achievement, I would class it as one of the greatest in my life. I was 68 years of age, learned to drive a motorcycle, drove a 1750cc Harley-Davidson for a total of 2,722 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica (our group drove more miles due visiting more places on route), and returned without an ache or a pain. I fixed a camera to my bike and recorded two hours each day, so I have some spectacular footage of the iconic journey on Route 66. It will remind me what can be done when one sets realistic targets, puts the appropriate structures in place, commits fully to a rigid schedule, is prepared to put effort in regardless of negative thinking, overcomes fear through learning, modelling, practice and implementing skills, yet remains prudent and reduces risk to a minimum. 

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