The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

As you may know I am obsessed with learning and teaching. How do we learn? What is the best way to learn a new skill? How can I best coach this skill? How can improve on my methods? These questions are constantly running through my head which is what makes coaching such a great passion for me. Well about 5 months ago I hit the Jackpot!

I have learned some truly amazing information on learning and mastering skill. Two books in particular have really opened my eyes, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster by Ernest Dras and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The first book is written by a renowned tennis coach about golf and the second explains the science of learning backing up (and then some) the first with the science behind why slow practice and “deep” practice work so well. If you are fascinated by learning and have always wondered how some people go on to be great at something while others seem to try hard but not get to the top these book are both great reads and I highly recommend them. If you are more a “cliff notes” type scholar I will give you some of my biggest takeaways from the books.

What both of these books explain is Slow, “Deep” or “Deliberate” practice is the best and fastest way to master anything, whether it is playing an instrument, mastering a martial art or becoming a better mountain biker.

Why slow, deep practice? Turns out we don’t fix or change bad habits, we need to produce brand new perfect habits. In layman’s terms a skill (such as doing a wheelie) is a series of impulses transmitted through a wire from your brain to all the muscles and nerves the skill requires. When we first do a skill we put the wire in place but it takes perfect repetition of that skill to make the wire work better. The “wire” starts out with no insulation (imagine a bare wire with no rubber coating under the hood of your car) so it shorts out easily and doesn’t always fire correctly. We build that insulation (called the Myelin Sheath) best through slow, deliberate practice.

BR Coach Gene Hamilton explaining cornering body position

How does this effect you and your mountain bike riding? If you are like me and all of my students so far, when you first started riding your either had no instruction or improper instruction and started doing somethings incorrectly (which for me meant, getting my weight back on descents, riding to upright with straight arms, braking in corners, etc. a ton of bad habits). Unfortunately the Myelin Sheath doesn’t know what is correct or not so the more you ride incorrectly the more you build up that insulation around that wire. Which means the more and more powerful that bad habit becomes. Then you read a “tip” on how to ride better (like in my mini-course) and now you know you should ride with your weight on the pedals instead of getting your weight back. You then practice this by coasting down your driveway with all of your weight on your pedals. Congratulations, you have just created a new, perfect habit! Don’t get too excited yet though, that habit or “wire” isn’t insulated to well so it doesn’t always fire correctly. You are committed to change though so you practice it five times a day for a week. Now the Myelin Sheath has gotten thicker and the wire works better but, the old wire has 8 years of Myelin Sheath building around it so the old habit still takes over when you aren’t focused on the new habit and when ever the least bit of fear creeps into you.

How do you build up enough insulation on the wire for the new, perfect habit take over the old habit? Slow, deliberate practice. What the heck is slow deliberate (or “deep”) practice? Slow, deliberate practice is working on one movement or short combinations of movements slower than you normally would do them. The best musicians learn songs much better and faster by taking 20 minutes to play a three minute song! They are focused on the tiniest of movements and the sounds they produce sound more like elephants in pain than music (my favorite quote from The Talent Code is from a music professor who says, “if a passerby can recognize the melody you are playing it too fast”).

Coach Gene Demonstrating how to practice deeply.

You may be saying, “What does this mean to me? I ride bikes!” Well for you it means we need to first learn the correct, in balance and in control techniques and then practice them at a very slow pace with an eye on perfection and stopping and correcting our mistakes. You are fooling yourself if you think riding a bike will make you better at it (maybe a hair more comfortable as you get used to your bad habits but not better).

Students doing "deep" practice while Gene coaches

If you want to reach your personal best as quickly as possible, slow down and practice deliberately!

9 replies
  1. Don
    Don says:

    What a timely article for me. Last night I was doing my skills practice and I was not doing either wheelie very well. Kept pulling up with my arms instead of using the techniques you taught us. I stopped, refocused, slowed everything down and immediately improved. I am definitely a believer in “slow practice”. Thanks for the informative articles!
    Dallas ’10 camp

  2. Chris Cornelison
    Chris Cornelison says:

    I definitely agree with the value of slow deliberate practice and breaking skills down into their component parts.

    Gene, do you think there are any examples in mountain biking where doing a movement slower could actually have a detrimental effect? I have two examples from other technical sports, XC skiing and swimming, both of which have a very distinctive rhythm to them.

    For XC skiing, I’ll quote from a wax vendors website. Granted they are in the business of selling wax, but what they say makes sense to me both logically and from experience skiing.

    “Skiing is a neurological technique driven sport, if you ski on slow skis you will develop a short choppy stride, work hard and not really develop the good technique needed to ski fast ! ”

    In swimming, we are trying to learn to be as streamlined and efficient as possible in the water. Drag is our enemy, so we put on flippers and hand paddles to artificially increase our speed in the water and give our bodies and our nervous system the sensation of what swimming fast feels like. Essentially we re-enforce the rhythmic muscular patterns of swimming fast.

    In some of the more complex mountain biking skills such as getting over logs, there definitely seems to be a natural rhythm to it.

    Just some thoughts,

  3. Craig Harris
    Craig Harris says:

    Chris: if that skiing statement is referring to equipment, then the analogy would be a seized wheel hub – right?

    The only thing I don’t fancy trying too slowly are drop-offs … it’s the slow ones I can’t do anyway as you have to keep the front wheel up for a relatively long time.

    In general though deep, slow practice works really well.

  4. Gene
    Gene says:


    That is what happens when you take advice from someone not qualified to give it. Is the wax maker an expert coach? I doubt it. All sports and certainly playing an instrument require rhythm and usually high speed. The problem with speed is doesn’t allow you to detect a flaw and then fix it. The whole goal is to do just as long an xc ski stride and see if/where it breaks down.

    In your swimming example I am assuming (remember I am not a swim coach) the coach makes sure you have a perfect stroke before he worries about speed. I can’t see how doing something extremely fast but imperfectly could help (it definitely doesn’t help in tennis, golf or downhill skiing).

    Once your body can do something perfectly speed is easy (that was the main point the two books I read were making). This has been proven in tennis and music.

  5. D Lo
    D Lo says:

    Very interesting topi1 Gene, you may be interested to learn that your assumption regarding swim coaching is right on. Total Immersion, perhaps the country’s leading swim coaching “system,” emphasizes slow, mindful, and deliberate drills that break down swim technique into small indvidual movements. As in mountain biking, the movements in swimming are mechanically complex yet subtle–the details matter a lot, and are discoverable (to all but a lucky few) only by slow, repeated, perfect practice. For more, see

  6. Josh
    Josh says:

    Reminds me a lot of Tai-Chi. Slow, almost painfully slow, deliberate movements, but searching for perfection. But if you can do it perfectly slow, it gets easier to do it perfectly faxt.

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Nice Josh! I have been saying for years, “if your skills are perfect going fast is easy, working on going fast without proper technique is scary”.

  7. Chris Cornelison
    Chris Cornelison says:

    Don’t mean to indicate that I disagree in any way with the slow deliberate practice of movements. I studied music in college, and know that slow, perfectly even mechanics are the only way to be able to play very fast. We actually used all kinds of distorted rhythms at very slow speeds to train clean mechanics.

    As I think a little more about the skiing and swimming examples, I realize that I am actually breaking the movements down to components through the use of drills. In XC skiing, when my stride starts to get choppy, I use the boot touch drill which has you touch your boots between strides and forces you to get your weight centered on the glide ski thus lengthening your stride. I also realized after swimming last night that what actually happens when using equipment is that your speed in the water increases but your stoke actually slows down. Instead 15 strokes per length, I actually take more 8. I may have just missed the point (ie. not to move faster, but to put your stroke under the magnifying glass and expose the imperfections).

    Perhaps the rhythm aspect I trying to capture in my mind is more of a macro-level thing. Undoubtedly, when a better skate skier passes me on a climb, as soon as they are in in front, I see their movement and feel their rhythm, and it brings my technique into focus. Unless they are way faster than me, I almost always fall into synchronization with them.

    Thanks for the thoughts, helps me clarify mine.


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