mountain biking in Sedona

Mountain Bike Skills, How to Ride Your Best Under Pressure

This is an updated version of a mountain bike skills article I wrote in 2010. It starts off about racing but my answers will help in any “pressure situation” on trail (an unexpected gnarly rock garden, a challenging and/or exposed section of trail, etc).  I had received this email from a student:

“Hi Gene,
I’ve really started to feel the effects of your camp and my technique has got a hell of a lot better, when I’m racing i feel so confident and fast in practice.

But then when it gets to seeding and race runs this all goes out of the window and i just end up falling off, I’m not riding outside of my limits and i know that i can ride well enough to be threatening the top spot in my category but i just seem to not be able to manage the pressure and the mental side of things.

Any tips on race mentality etc??”

My updated answer for anytime you are mountain biking, not just racing:

This a tough thing for many racers and as I mentioned a few times in our camp, what good are all the mountain bike skills if you can’t use them when needed?

Before we get to your mental game, have you mastered the skills from the camp? As you know, one of my favorite sayings is, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong”. WHAT THIS MEANS IS,  just because you can do a skill doesn’t mean it is now hardwired as your “go to” skill. Your old habits are likely still dominant so the second you feel pressure your body reverts to what it knows best, you old, self taught “survival” skills. As you know, change takes work! The longer you have gone without learning the correct skills the more ingrained your bad habits are and the more likely they will fire under pressure instead of the correct skills. Double up your drill time and practice like Jerry Rice (who spent 99% of his football related time practicing) and you will overpower your old habits and create new, correct habits.

mountain bike skills

Mary Pat executing proper mountain bike skills over a log pile in our Durango camp last summer.

You can also toughen up your mental game. First, remember there is no difference between a race and a practice run, same track, same racer, same bike, same goal. The only difference between your race run and a practice run is the pressure YOU but on the run. Treat your race run as another practice run (especially if you are doing timed practice runs using a stopwatch) then, read these two blog posts and practice the mental skills in them: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/are-you-tough-part-1/ and http://betterride.net/blog/2010/are-you-tough-part-2/ and most importantly read, study, practice, master one of these books from your homework assignment:

The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists
by James E. Leohr, Chris Evert, Dan Jansen

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

The Mental Edge: Maximize Your Sports Potential with the Mind/Body Connection
by Ken Baum, Richard Trubo

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success in Sport and Life
by Dan Millman

Really, really great book that goes a little deeper into why you compete in sports and helps you integrate sport and life (helps you see and create balance in your life so the sport does not take over your life).

mountain bike skills

Jon Widen staying centered while descending one of the steepest lines at Whistler!

Most importantly have fun! That’s what keeps Steve Peat and Minnaar on top.

 

MTB Skills

MTB Skills, How We Actually Learn/ Why “Experts” Often Make Poor Coaches

There has been an amazing amount written about MTB skills and our students are always asking me to write a book on mtb skills. My book is in the works but it is taking a lot of time because I want the book to actually help you become better, not fill your head with knowledge. Knowledge is worthless if you can’t put that knowledge into action on your bike!

Why is so hard to actually do a skill you understand? You read a well written article on the skill, you know Exactly how to do the skill, yet you still struggle, why? Put simply that is because the wrong part of your brain understands the skill. The part of your brain that read that MTB skills article has absolutely zero input in doing a physical skill, a completely different part of your brain handles physical skills. What you need to do is train the correct part of your brain to do the skill, which is hard/impossible to do by just reading or listening.

The book “Choke” covers this well and I will explain what 26 years of coaching people just like you and what Choke has taught me. I have always noticed a disconnect between “knowing” something and being able to “do” what you know (both in me and in our students). Choke explained the reasons for this better than anything else I have read on the subject and they actually use riding a bike as an example!

 

mtb skills

When Greg Minnaar works with us he makes me sign a contract saying that he is not a qualified mtb coach as he realizes he isn’t the best at coaching.

According to “Choke” as an expert gets better and better at doing a skill they start to forget stuff. Their example: “Think about riding a bike. How exactly do you do this? Well, yes, first you have to get on a bike and pedal. But there is a lot more to it than that. You have to balance, hold on to the handlebars, look at what is in front of you. If you miss any of these steps, falling is a real possibility. This usually doesn’t happen when proficient bike riders are actually riding, but if you were to ask a bike rider to explain the “how tos” of this complex skill, he would forget details. This is because the proficient bike rider is trying to remember information about bike riding that is kept as a procedural memory, as we psychologists term it.”

“Procedural memory is implicit or unconscious. You can think of procedural memory as your cognitive tool box that contains a recipe that, if followed, will produce a successful bike ride, golf putt, baseball swing …. Interestingly, these recipes operate largely outside of your conscious awareness. … because when you are good at performing a skill, you do it too quickly to monitor it consciously. …”

“Procedural memory is often distinguished from another form of memory: our explicit memory that supports our ability to reason on the spot or to recall the exact details of a conversation we had with our spouse the week before. … Simply put, explicit and procedural memories or largely housed in different parts of the brain …” More on those different parts of the brain in this article: You Aren’t Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do!

So, how to we train our “procedural memory? Drills, with a focus on quality, not quantity! Remember, perfect practice makes perfect! Not just any drills of course, drills designed to get you doing the correct recipe. Our free mini-course has quite a few of these and our three day skills progressions are designed around specific drills to get you actually doing what we teach you.

What gets in our way when learning the correct way to do something? Our experience! If we are experienced but doing things incorrectly we have solid (but in correct) procedural memories. In this case being a complete beginner is better than an experienced rider when learning as the complete beginner has no procedural memory. The experienced rider has to weaken their incorrect procedural memory while strengthening the new, correct procedural memory.

So, do the drills from our mini-course and/or take a skills progression camp but most importantly do your drills!

Lastly, this why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches, they can’t access their procedural memory to articulate what they are doing. Think of the great athletes who have made lousy coaches, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Mike Singletary, Ted Williams, Mike Ditka, Isiah Thomas, etc. as a matter of fact goggle “why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches” and there are a lot of articles on the topic!

Mountain Bike at your best

Mountain Bike At Your Best By Taking Care of This Overlooked Factor!

Most mountain bikers know that they get stronger through cycles of physical stress and recovery. A 100 mile ride wears you down, good nutrition and good sleep after that ride helps you recover and grow stronger. What I never realized (until I read “The New Toughness Training For Sports” years ago) is that mental and emotional stresses can be just as debilitating as physical stress. This means a lot of your life away from the bike and/or other forms of exercise can wear you out too. To mountain bike at your best you need to manage and make sure you recover from all stresses.

Mental stress is just as it sounds, anything that mentally taxes you. This can be a challenging problem at work or home, financial worry, learning, etc., basically anything that makes you concentrate intensely or think hard. Guess what is super mentally stressful, mountain biking! The harder the trail is skill wise (to you) the more intensely you have to concentrate and this can be really taxing. At places with high consequences for failure (like Bootleg Canyon) I find I can ride a max of three days in a row before I am worn out and my riding starts to suffer. After three days there I need some mental recovery before I can ride at my best again. I do this by taking a day off or riding easier trails which take less focus.

Mountain Bike at Your Best

Riding trails like King Kong is stressful!

How do you recover from mental stress? Relax! Shut your brain off! The absolute best way is to meditate (which will help in many other ways both on the bike and in life) but meditating is hard wish turns many people off. If you are interested in meditating and it positive effects start doing it! There are probably many teachers in your area and tons of information on the ole inter webs. If meditating isn’t your cup of tea then simply try shutting your brain down, deep breathing exercises, taking a nap, watching a simple movie (not an intense French film with subtitles), have a beer or glass of wine or two (much more than two and you may be harming yourself in other ways), yin yoga, anything that slows you down and shuts your brain off.

In our busy, over stimulated lives (smart phones, traffic, long work hours, etc) it is easy to become overloaded mentally and all aspects of your life will suffer. The “work hard, play harder” philosophy almost guarantees mental stress. SCHEDULE time to alleviate your mental stress and you will see a big difference in your performance on trail (and life in general) riding.

mtb skills

Cornering Your Mountain Bike, Get Low, Not Forward!

There is a lot of misleading advice for cornering your mountain bike, often from top racers who aren’t actually doing what they say they are doing! Greg Minnaar and I got a kick out of Myles Rockwell’s announcing at the world championships a few years ago. Myles was talking about Greg’s “forward” riding style. Greg will tell you that he rides centered with all of his weight on the pedals (and this is a case of top racer actually doing what he says he is doing). He is “forward” of being “back on the bike”? Yes, but he is not “forward” of centered on his bike. (Myles is a great rider (world champion!) and super nice guy, no offense was meant by this post, this is an excellent example of top athletes not being the best at explaining things (because it is not their job!)).

Cornering Centered

Greg in 2010 at Fort William, centered, balanced , fast and consistent!

This is a case of perception being distorted by “society”. In this case the 1980′s and 1990′s mountain biking “society” that was used to riders riding with their weight back (that, long stems, and narrow bars are why if you watch a downhill race video from 1995 or prior you will see tons of pro racers who look wobbly and out of control) created the expectation of seeing a rider in that weight back position, so when Greg (and Neko Mullay, Aaron Gwin, Rat Boy, etc.) rides centered he looks forward to riders expecting to see 1993 body position. This is because the rider’s head and chest are forward and low, but, their hips have scooted back, keeping them centered over the pedals. An important part of body position is “hinging at the hips” with a flat back. When you hinge your chest drops and goes forward as your hips go back so you stay centered. This puts you in a balanced, neutral and athletic position so you can respond to anything the trail throws at you, quickly and powerfully! It also lowers your center of gravity! Watch video of the world cup and notice how low Aaron Gwin, Steve Smith and Neko Mullay are. Like a sports car getting low helps you stay centered (braking, cornering and acceleration forces have less effect on a lower rider and/or vehicle).

cornering centered

Here is Greg in that same centered position going straight. Notice his “hinged” hips and flat back!

Focus on getting low! A great way to practice this is to ride straight down a smooth road and focus on hinging at the hip with a flat back and dropping your chest until you are in a half push-up position. Next make sure you have heavy feet and light hands (check if you are in the right position by loosening your grip and  sliding your hands side to side on the grips, if your hands won’t move you are too far forward, if it feel like you are pulling up on the grips you are too far back). Once you are solid at doing this in a straight line focus on maintaining this low, centered (fore-aft) position while turning in both directions. Once you are consistent at this then try cornering on pavement with weight too far back, then too far forward, then centered again. You will feel that your bike feels lighter and takes less effort to change direction when you are centered. When are are consistent at all of the above, keep practicing until you can’t get it wrong! More on cornering!

Get low! Corner your mountain bike

Aaron Gwin, low, centered and looking way ahead!