Overcoming Mistakes While Mountain Biking

When it comes to riding mountain bikes, perfection is not an option. Whether you are a top professional racer or a green-newbie, you will make mistakes out there on the track or trail every time you ride. How you recover from these mistakes – primarily mentally – will be vital to your performance, and perhaps more importantly, to your level of enjoyment while finishing the remainder of the ride.

Our goal, after we make a mistake, should be – as quickly and efficiently as possible mentally deal with the mistake, and then forget about it, and get back into our flow, or “zone”, as its been called, with clear and correct mental focus and proper physical technique.

On a training ride, maybe this means getting off the bike, figuring out what went wrong, and going back and working on cleaning the obstacle. But, in a race, or on a hard ride with our buddies, or five hours into that two-hour ride (because you got lost, whatever) when its now dark, you’re cold and exhausted, and you still have forty-five minutes left to go… now getting off the bike and re-working the obstacle or deep contemplation over what went wrong isn’t an option. Making a mental note for later contemplation, sure, but at this point your goal needs to be putting all your energy into moving forward – efficiently and correctly – and NOT dwelling on the mistake, compounding it into further energy (or speed) zapping errors.

Even the top racers in the world make mistakes. Whether you are a downhill racer or not, the following applies to you:
There has never been a World Championship winning race run that has been perfect (the annual World Championship is one race – one final race run that counts for all the marbles). Every World Champion has stated that they made a few small mistakes in their winning run. So, in the most prestigious and probably financially rewarding three minutes (or so) of the particular athlete’s racing life, the most intense pressure-cooker in mountain biking this person screwed up! A few times! And then overcame those mistakes to beat the best in the world on that day, with that run.

On the other hand, I know a few racers out there, once they make a mistake its game over! They get flustered, frustrated, angry. They then over-ride the bike and the track, dwelling on the mistake, forcing them into further mistakes. Maybe they give up altogether! I’ve seen it happen! I also know racers (and so do you, if you’ve been around racing) that are consistently near the top of the field, week in and week out, always right up there in the overall points … these athletes are making those same little mistakes, but obviously doing a much better job at dealing with them.

Of course, its not just racers that we’re talking abut here. We’ve all probably seen riders (maybe one of our buddies or even ourselves) make a mistake, drop an f-bomb, immediately make another mistake … a few more f-bombs (at a higher volume), and then two immediate mistakes later, they’re having a melt-down on the side of trail like a three-year-old in the grocery store.
… Improper technique AND straight up embarrassing!

On the other side of this, we’ve all had rides that started out crappy and ended up being awesome, with us finishing up the ride with some of the best riding we’ve ever done! What’s the difference and how do we not let mistakes affect us negatively further into the ride?

First, I’m very careful (sometimes hesitant) about dealing with the mental aspects of riding when it comes to other riders before I get to know them. Spotting bad technique and giving advice on how to correct it is usually fairly easy and nearly black and white. But because we all come from different places, with different motivations, different successes and failures, etc, the mental aspect and what motivates each individual rider can be a touchy subject. (I have seen riders get so angry, that they did literally will themselves over obstacles that were giving them problems. It worked in that case, but as I’ll explain, that’s probably not the best mental technique for most of us.)

In order to most effectively negotiate tricky terrain on your bike, you first need to be in balance. If you are in balance on your bike, you can now also be loose and nimble on the bike, allowing you to make the many tiny and instantaneous adjustments that are necessary in order to efficiently maintain control and maintain further balance. Also, when you are balanced and neutral on the bike, you are able to both react and be proactive to obstacles on the trail and/or movements of the bike. If you get off balance it becomes nearly impossible to remain loose and nimble on the bike. You become rigid and tense. This, of course, makes it nearly impossible to sense and create subtle movements and adjustments. We become ballistic in our movements, off balance, and it becomes even more difficult to regain balance, making us even more rigid and tense, putting us even more off balance … this is what is known as the “downward spiral of crappiness”, and we’ve all been there!
When we get angry, frustrated, or scared on the trail, we also become rigid and tense. The above is often what happens to us, but now its compounded by our improper mental state. So how do we deal with this? Everyone is different, but you have to find a way to keep an even keel!

There are tons of techniques, sports psychologies, you name it out there that may be able to help you with this problem. Two simple methods we use in BetterRide instruction are as follows:

One, is the “Circus Song” (that kinda goofy little ditty that accompanies clowns and monkeys and bearded ladies at the circus). This is often seen as somewhat humorous to our students (we have them ride down the trail while LOUDLY humming the “Circus Song”). We have students do this at a point in our camps when most students have experienced some frustration and mental fatigue. Doing this effectively takes your big brain – which is now causing you problems by complicating the situation with your emotions – out of the equation of riding. (How upset and frustrated can you be while humming the circus song and picturing monkeys and clowns riding bicycles under the big-top?!?!).

A second technique is to develop a “Mantra”. When I ride, when things start getting a little gnarly – especially in race situations – I have a three-word mantra that I run through my brain of “Look, Feet, Breathe … Look, Feet, Breathe …” (or something of that nature). While the circus song (or riding with ipods or whatever) actually takes your mind off of riding, a mantra gives your mind something positive and necessary to focus on, instead of running off in all kinds of undesirable directions (in this case, anger and frustration and the effects that come with these). The word “look” keys my vision (the most important part of riding a MTB and impossible to cover in the space of this article), the word “feet” reminds me to keep my weight on my feet and to stay low and neutral on the bike (this is the cornerstone of proper body position – which is integral to riding the bike correctly and effectively). And the word breathe … well, that’s obvious.

The mantra keeps me focused on the important elements of riding the bike, and it makes it impossible for my mind to wander or to take off in bad directions – its impossible to focus on the negatives if I’m focusing on the positives! I can make a mistake or two and leave them right where they occurred on the trail, instead of mentally dragging them along with me!

However, anger and frustration WILL creep into your riding. The only way out is to DO THINGS RIGHT – maintain proper form and technique, maintain mental clarity and focus. But, like lots of other things, we know what we SHOULD do but, often its difficult to do these things – especially under the stresses we encounter out on the trail. And sometimes this does require us to be (or become) mentally tough. How do we become mentally tough? Every rider is different, but read the article by Gene, titled “Are You Tough? (part 1 http://betterride.net/?p=476 and 2 http://betterride.net/?p=470)” for more techniques that will help you in these situations.

Another thing we can do to help us recover mentally from mistakes on the trail is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst”. What do I mean by this? Let’s think about those World Champions that I mentioned earlier in this article. Did they expect to have completely flawless race runs? Of course not. Therefore, when they did make a mistake, it wasn’t a huge surprise and it didn’t throw their game plan out the window. Likewise, recreational riders need to expect to make mistakes. Expect to feel frustrated and angry, but then what you do after this (or with this) is what really counts!

Finally, once you are familiar with some of these techniques, use mental imagery to help incorporate them into your riding. Imagine yourself riding along, having the best day of your life, then you make a mistake, then another… allow yourself to feel the negative emotions as if you were really out on the trail, then imagine yourself engaging in these mental techniques and regaining your focus and flow.

Just like all physical techniques, we need to practice this (these) until they become automatic. Like most of the physical techniques of riding the bike, these aren’t complicated, yet they can still be quite difficult to pull off out on the trail. Use that mental imagery to work these into your program. Fortunately, (Ha Ha) no matter who you are, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use them out on the trail!

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6 replies
  1. David says:

    Thanks for the emphasizing the positive. I used to get very negative when I messed up (fell down, etc.). These days I try to employ what you mention in the article, figure out what went wrong. See if I can correct it and move on. I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong when I fell and broke a rib a month ago, but going back and sessioning that spot wasn’t much of an option at the time. I did finish out the run though.
    Thanks to you and Gene for all the great articles.

    Reply
  2. Gene says:

    You are welcome David, we love what we do! If you would like some help finding out what went wrong when you broke you rib attend one of our camps! You will not only learn why that cash happened but how to ride more in balance and in control so you will avoid other crashes and enjoy every ride much more!

    Create your best ride yet,

    Gene

    Reply
  3. Rey says:

    The mantra thing works for me. I repeat out loud “ride like a bird”. It’s kinda odd but it works for me.

    Reply
  4. jane andraka says:

    i really want to come to a camp next season but i need to know different fitness levels expected…i am a whitewater kayaker and when i was learning it was super helpful to know what skills were needed to keep up or progress to a certain camp level!
    i hate being the very worst/slowest person cuz then frustration and fear of holding others back gets in the way of learning.
    so…riding a certain test piece in an area would be a good check…or riding a certain length of time at a certain speed…or having certain skills under the belt would be great indicators!

    Reply
  5. Gene says:

    Hi Jane,

    The first 3-4 hours each day consist of learning skills and doing drills (not physically taxing) and then 2 to 2.5 hours of on trail practice (at a moderate, learning pace, think jogging pace) with a lot of stopping to review and practice sections of trail. If you can ride at a moderate pace for 10 -15 minutes, stop rest and repeat 5-6 times you should be fine. Again, these are skills camps, not fitness camps. Skills cannot be learned at a fast pace because survival instincts will override the coaching you have received.

    Reply

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