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.

mountain bike braking

Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2

Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2, You Can’t Out Think Fear (Read part 1 here: http://wp.me/p49ApH-16D )

Fear is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion that has some effect on every mountain bike ride we do. The fear we ALL experience while mountain biking varies greatly in intensity from rider to rider and from trail to trail. Most riders think of pro downhill racers as fearless but in my 15 years of coaching them and 19 years of being one I have found that even the fastest pro downhill racers experience fear, on beginner trails! So the idea of “No Fear” is comical at best, we all experience fear and it isn’t always a bad thing, fear can save us from injury and keep us from doing things we aren’t skilled enough to do. On the other hand, fear that is not in proportion to the risk we are taking can really mess us up! Too little fear and we do things over our head and get hurt! Too much fear and we question our ability and end up not riding or crashing on a section of trail we are capable of riding smoothly and in control. There are a ton of macho guys reading this right now saying, “Not me, I am fearless!”, please, anyone saying that needs to ride a world cup downhill track or the new Redbull Rampage site! Do some people experience less fear than others?  Of course, that is why I and thousands of other mountain bikers have ended up in the emergency room! We either didn’t experience the appropriate amount of fear or charged in despite the fear. Fear that keeps you from riding Cam Zink’s line at the Redbull Rampage is good! Fear that keeps you from riding a section of trail you honestly have the skill to ride in control is bad. The worst fear though is that minor fear, where you keep riding but are too concerned with your own safety to ride at your best!

We are well known for our intense curriculum featuring perfect practice using drills in a safe, controlled environment (often a paved parking lot) and then applying those skills on trail. I have noticed a pattern that happens in all of our camps regardless of our students’ age/experience/perceived skill level, even at our downhill camps at Bootleg Canyon with pros like Cody Kelly and Luca Cometti, students do our cornering drills really well on pavement then not so well on dirt (at first, which is why drills are so important)! At Bootleg Canyon we use Girl Scout for our on trail cornering practice, the easiest trail on the mountain. Watching our students practicing deliberately on pavement (photos) I am always impressed by how quickly they catch on to correct cornering technique. Then we head over to Girl Scout and they aren’t doing what they were just doing in the parking lot, they look totally different. Why do they go from executing the skills well on pavement to not so well on dirt? Fear! No, pro downhill racers aren’t scared of Girl Scout Trail, but they are more concerned about their safety than they were in the parking lot. Even on a beginner trail there is not as much traction as the parking lot, there are rocks to avoid, bushes on the side of the trail, penalties for mistakes. This concern for your safety (fear) distracts you and hinders your performance.

Rick Practicing is mountain bike skills

BetterRide camper Rick practicing his cornering skills! Look at that outside elbow, up and out where it should be.

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Almost there just needs to lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Not a “scary” trail but he isn’t as sharp as in the parking lot. He needs to look a little further ahead and lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

 

Fear is stored in your “Lizard Brian” or “Reptilian Brian”, part of your brain stem where instincts and action occurs WITHOUT thought. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, despite knowing that you are supposed to do something (like look ahead) you don’t do it on trail? Have you ever driven home and upon getting home said to yourself, “how the heck did I get home?” That is because knowledge and your “thinking brain” don’t help you do, doing comes from the same Lizard brain where fear is stored, and doing is similar to being on autopilot, your body just does what the autopilot makes it do. This creates a problem as your conscious, thinking brain wants one thing (to float over that rock) while your Lizard brain wants something else, usually to protect you (get off your bike and walk over the rock). As you probably already know, when it comes to riding your mountain bike the lizard brain always wins! (On side note this often why you might know exactly how to do something yet still can’t do it.)

How do we get our Lizard Brain/autopilot and conscious thinking brain to work together? Drills! The whole goal of drills is to ingrain a habit or movement pattern. By ingrain, I mean make that habit so dominant that no matter how tough that trail is your body does the correct technique without any thought (hence the auto pilot analogy). There is an old saying that is so true, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong!” Once we understand the correct technique and do drills to ingrain that technique we need to upgrade our self-image as a mountain biker. Let’s say there is tough rock section that has troubled you for years, you have never made it (and probably think something like, “darn, he comes that rock that always messes me up” as you approach it. Then you take a BetterRide camp and learn the correct combination of skills to get over that rock and wham, you do it! This is when you need to stop, get off your bike, look at that rock and update your self-image. “Wow, that rock used to mess me up every ride, now it is easy, I simply look to victory, manual, shift my weight and off I go! That rock is so easy now, watch, I’ll do it again.” Then do it again and really cement the idea that that rock is now easy and you have the skill to do it consistently.

If you are honestly really skilled but you feel your fear level is not in proportion to your skill work on updating your self-image. If you aren’t really skilled work on improving your skills, then updating yourself image as your skills improve. Remember, fear is there for a reason and it often helps keep us safe but if it is holding you back work on getting your fear into proportion with your skill.

Fear is also where men and women differ greatly! In my next article on Fear and Mountain Biking I will explain what I have learned about how men and women respond to fear and how this difference affects your ride and often your relationship.

Mountain bike coach Gene Hamilton Mushroom rock

Overcoming Fear When Mountain Biking

Overcoming Fear When Mountain Biking

Mountain biking can be anything from a really fun experience to outright terrifying depending on the rider’s skills, experiences and perspective. Of course skill is the number one factor in overcoming fear, imagine our students who race World Cup downhills like National Champions Luca Cometti, Mitch Ropelato and Jackie Harmony riding your local trails. I doubt they would be scared of that section that scares you on your local trail (as World Cup Tracks are gnarly!). They have worked hard on ingraining the correct riding techniques so they are riding in balance and in control consistently so while they may have less “nerve” than you they have great skill.  I’m not trying to sell our coaching though, here are some ways to overcome fear with the skill you currently possess.

1.  Go at your own pace and take “baby steps” when progressing. Taking a big leap over your comfort zone is not a good way to learn. Have you ever been goaded into doing something that you felt was way above your skill level? Even if you make it you often don’t feel like you have gotten better, you feel like you got lucky. Feeling, “Holy cow, I nearly died, that was sketchy!” does not improve your confidence! If you don’t make it,  the crash will often set you back, decreasing your confidence and raising your level of fear. So be gentle with yourself and progress at a pace that is comfortable to you.

3. Focus on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. This sounds simple but pays off big. Our brains don’t understand “not” and “don’t” very well. If you are focusing on not falling your brain has to focus on the concept of falling and then quickly try to refocus on “not” doing what you are thinking about. It is much easier to focus on “getting to that tree” or “ride this section smooth and light” than telling yourself “don’t fall”.

4. Live to ride another day! If you are more focused on “not falling” than you are on getting to where you are going, get off your bike and walk that section. Who knows you might go right through it the next time when you are more warmed up and/or focused.

After/while walking that section figure out what about that section is scaring you then “baby step” your way up to doing it.

Example: If a four-foot drop on an exposed trail is scaring you find a one foot drop with no exposure, get really good a hitting that, work your way up to a four-foot drop with no exposure, then an exposed trail with a one foot drop working all the way to a four-foot drop on an exposed trail. This builds on a series of successes, increasing your confidence!

5. Breathe, relax, breathe and smile it is just a bike ride. Breathing and smiling releases tension which improves our balance, coordination and confidence. I mean deep, belly breathes from your diaphragm which are very calming. Smiling releases endorphins which relax you. The simple act of lifting the corners of your mouth, even if it is a grimis will release those endorphins and relax you!

6. As you improve make sure you update your self concept to match. Remember that the past doesn’t equal the future. You may have wrecked or not made a section last week/month but if your skills have improved since then the section may be easier for you now. (more on this in the next article on fear as this is very important!)

7. Wear knee pads and elbow pads when practicing a tough section are learning a new skill. I have found that having padding on really increases your confidence when learning or trying to push your limits. As a matter of fact I never ride without knee pads anymore, knees are too valuable and easily damaged!

8. Debunk your fear/s. Is your fear realistic? Often fear is not based in reality and when we realize this the fear goes away.

9. Learn from your mistakes. If you mess up or wreck do your best to figure out why it happened and correct that mistake or improve your technique so it will not happen again.

Stay tuned for part two which will cover why/how/when we feel fear and how this affects us and a few of these techniques in more detail.