Mountain Biking Skills Tips Are Worthless – How to Make Them Work!

I often say, “knowledge is worthless without action” and after writing my post on instincts I realized a great way to explain it. This is the follow up article to my original article on instincts, if you haven’t already I recommend reading it first (http://betterride.net/?p=1837 ) .

There are a million riders out there eager to help their fellow riders, but few are qualified. I will use a couple of common tips that are good, correct tips as examples.

One tip you hear a lot is “look ahead”, which is correct and vital to riding well. While there is nothing wrong with this advice it does a rider little good. Knowing something and actually doing it are too different things entirely! So knowing to look ahead is unlikely to help as that knowledge is in your smart, thinking brain, while action comes from your “reptilian brain” which doesn’t think, but simply acts according to instinct. Have you ever driven home and not remembered any of the drive? That is because you are not using your thinking, conscious brain. You didn’t think, “put on my blinker, slow down, stop, look both ways and turn right on 18th street”, you just did it! Skills need to be the same way!

Fear (and I don’t mean terror, just not wanting to crash or slide out) causes your survival instincts to kick in. Did millions of years of being hunter and gatherers and then farmers teach the correct survival instincts for mountain biking? No, have you ever entered a turn, felt like you were going too fast and hit your breaks in the middle of a turn? Well your survival instinct just made things a lot worse, by breaking you decreased your traction, greatly shifted your weight and decreased your lean angle, all making the problem worse.

So, the only way to make “skills tips” work is to make them instinctual. To do this we need 3 things: First, an understanding of how the skill works (how can I look ahead but still make it through all of those rocks?) Once we understand how the skill works we need to trust the skill. Just believing what someone said isn’t enough, we need proof that it works (and proof that it works in all situations). Now that we understand and trust the skill we need the skill to become instinctual which is often tough, right now our instincts tell us to do the opposite (such as look down when we know we are supposed to look ahead). Test this, go ride a rocky trail and see how often you catch yourself looking less than 10 feet ahead. Depending on your speed you should be looking 20-80 feet ahead. To make a skill instinctual we must do drills! Not just random drills, drills that are designed to get you to do the skill correctly and produce a new instinct or “habit “.

A second great tip is to stay centered on your mountain bike with your weight on the pedals when descending. Makes sense, works great, but is very hard to do. From my instincts post: “Moving your rear end way back on a descent feels good, you are moving away from danger! Skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers instinctively do this, yet it puts them in an out of balance, non-neutral (once shifted/leaned back we can only move or react in one direction, forward) out of control position. Despite all the logic that says we should be centered, without practicing staying centered and neutral we will naturally creep back on descents.” To stop this bad instinct of getting way back and start riding centered you must first understand why we should stay centered and how to do it (if you don’t know this please sign up for our free mini-course which explains this in detail with videos). Once you understand why and how to do it you must remove fear from the equation so you can practice perfectly. This can be done just riding down a paved hill and focusing on weight on the pedals. Once you are used to having you weight on the pedals and it feels comfortable and normal on a paved road start practicing it on mellow trails and work you way up to the toughest trails you can find (and you will realize that the steeper and tougher the trail the more you instinctively want to move back). Of course there is way more to descending body position than just where your weight is, but this is a huge head start!

If you have ever watched the best athletes in the world practice, this is what they do. Day after day, even when they have mastered a skill they continue to do drills because if they stop the old instincts will take over. All top athletes spend more time doing drills than actually playing/doing their sport. I don’t expect you to do that, but what percentage of your riding time do you spend doing structured drills designed to help you master a specific skill?

The entire BetterRide skills progression is based on explaining a skill, demonstrating the skill and then having you master the skill with carefully designed drills. This is the only way to learn to actually do something correctly.  Ask any top ski racer, tennis player, football player, martial artist, boxer, wrestler, MMA fighter or basketball player and they will tell you the same. Michael Jordan needed more drills than all his high school peers as he was a lousy basketball player his freshman and sophomore years. Jerry Rice set and holds nearly all receiving records in the NFL, yet he was not close to being the fastest receiver in the sport. Jerry Rice’s training and practice is legendary, he would practice running patterns by himself after practice ended. He was determined to make all the movements, skills and patterns instinctual.

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!

‘Worst Dressed’ Facebook Photo Contest

We recently had the pleasure of coaching the CEO of ZOIC Clothing, and it turns out we enjoy his gear as much as he enjoyed our camp! So we have teamed up to give our fans a chance to win some top of the line ZOIC apparel. This goes right along with our philosophy of creating your best ride yet; riding gear that helps you have a better ride. ZOIC designs mountain bike clothing for comfort and style using innovative fabrics and performance features like seam gussets, venting and advanced pad technology.

Purchase online, visit a ZOIC dealer or score it for FREE if you’re the lucky winner of our ‘Worst Dressed’ Facebook photo contest. Naturally, this has to be a riding shot, we are looking for you, on your bike and in serious need of some stylin’ new riding gear. First place with the most number of ‘likes’ will win a $150 ZOIC.com gift card. Just for good measure, ZOIC will hook up second, third AND fourth place with a ‘Style to Ride’ tee.

1 photo, 3 days to vote, 4 chances to win, starting September 12th. Submit your photo via e-mail to Katie@BetterRide.net from Sept 12-14. Photos will be posted on Facebook and judged by our fans in the way of ‘Likes’ from Sept 15-17. Winners will be announced on Sept 18. Stay connected on Facebook for all the details and while you’re there ‘Like’ our friends at ZOIC.