Learning the Wheelchair Wheelie, Part I – Erik Kondo

Performing a wheelchair wheelie is mostly a nonconscious process executed by your nonconscious system (cerebellum based). Your nonconscious learns through experiencing physical actions and direct feedback. In order to most effectively teach your nonconscious, your conscious system (prefrontal cortex based) needs to conceptually understand the wheelie learning process such that you can replicate the physical movements that will lead to nonconscious learning.

Just like riding a bike, a wheelie is not an instinctive action. For example, at a basic level, fighting and rock climbing are instinctual. Someone who has never been in a fight before can just start fighting. Someone who has never rock climbed before, can just start climbing. But someone who has never ridden a bike before, can’t just start riding. The same with juggling. You can’t just start juggling three balls. To learn to ride a bike or juggle, you need to teach yourself in a systematic manner.

Learning to perform a wheelchair wheelie is easier than learning to ride a bike or juggle. But to accelerate the learning process, a systematic method is also required.

Safety Accelerates Learning

Performing a wheelie requires that your mind and body are relaxed and responsive. Accelerated learning happens when your mind and body are relaxed and responsive. Therefore, the first step in the learning process is to reduce fear. Typically, fear of falling is the primary issue. Having a spotter who will prevent you from falling will reduce your fear. Practicing on a padded surface will reduce your fear. Practicing with your back to a couch will reduce your fear of falling backwards.

First, You Need a Basic Understanding of Your Goal

When you can’t perform a wheelie, you don’t know what it looks and feels like for your wheelchair to be balanced in a wheelie. You need to experience this position since getting into it is your goal. Once your prefrontal cortex knows what this position feels like, you can artificially replicate this position so that your nonconscious system can get direct experience. Your nonconsconscious doesn’t care how you got into the balanced wheelie position, it just needs you in the wheelie position to start the ingraining process.

Wheelie Dynamics

A wheelie is maintained by balancing the wheelchair’s Center of Mass directly over the wheelchair’s rear axle. The Center of Mass can only move forward and rear of the axle in a single dimension like balancing a pencil on your finger. Rotating your finger changes the position of balance of the pencil. Rotating your wheelchair wheels changes the position of balance of your wheelchair. A forward wheel push moves your Center of Mass backwards, whereas, a backward wheel pull moves your Center of Mass forward, both due to the effect of inertia. Therefore, wheelie balance is maintained by rotating (pushing and pulling) your wheels forwards and backwards in some manner as you keep your Center of Mass over the axle.

When you are “falling” forward, you push your wheels forward to raise the front of your wheelchair back to the point of balance. When you are falling backwards, you pull your wheels backward to lower the front of your wheelchair back to your point of balance.

Teaching Your Nonconscious System

Your conscious system now understands that a wheelie is performed by pushing and pulling actions. But your nonconscious which will be processing the actions doesn’t “know” this yet. It needs to experience the actions of pushing and feeling direct feedback of the front raising, and pulling and feeling the direct feedback of the front lowering to develop these brain connections.

Ultimately, your nonconscious needs to process the actions because it is the part of the brain that responds very rapidly to balance demands. Ordinarily, your conscious system is too slow to handle to bodily balancing requirements. Your nonconscious needs wheelie experience to learn, but it can’t get experience until it can perform a wheelie. Thus, creating a Catch 22. Remember, your nonconscious needs direct and unambiguous feedback and repetition to learn. Whereas, your conscious system can learn conceptually by reading this document.

Therefore, providing your nonconscious with experience means slowing down the wheelie process such that your conscious can perform the wheelie and build the repetition learning experience for your nonconscious. As your nonconscious learns, it takes over the task from your conscious and transforms the wheelie from a conscious to nonconscious process.

In this case, “slowing” down the wheelie process means artificially creating an environment in which wheelie balance can still be maintained despite your slower conscious response time. You literally, fake it till you make it.