The Most Important Mountain Biking Skill

Have you ever been told you are really smart? Told/know that you have a high IQ? Are you really analytical?

Then you probably suffer from the same mountain biking skill error I have been fighting all my life, trying to think your way through physical skills!

This was written for a student who frustrated me because he reminded me so much of myself! They say people are mirrors of you and when something bugs you about someone it is a reflection of something about yourself. It definitely was in this case and I desperately wanted to help him overcome is reliance on his analytical, thinking brain. That part of your brain is great for solving math and engineering problems but terrible at athletic skills. It’s actually not so much that it is terrible at athletic skills it is that it has nothing to do with athletic skills.

Have you ever noticed that knowing a skill doesn’t seem to make you able to do that skill? That’s because you need to train your “procedural memory” not simply understand the skill. If understanding the skill was enough to get you to do a skill there would be no coaches, simply read a book and aha, you’re a great skier, snowboarder, surfer, mountain biker, etc.

I’ve had the same problem as this student all my life. I have to completely understand a skill before I will commit to it! Ever hear the phrase “dumb jock”? Well, most jocks aren’t dumb but often the best athletes don’t sound too bright when they are asked about their performance.

This has nothing to do with what we think as intelligence, the reason they don’t sound bright is the questions they are asked can’t really be answered. “What were you thinking as you took off for the double backflip?” Well, she wasn’t thinking, she was doing. Her conscious, thinking brain was shut off. So she has to make stuff up when asked that question.

You’ve experienced this, it’s called the zone. Where everything just seems to happen perfectly as when it needs to be done. It is a blissful state and one of the main reasons you enjoy mountain biking enough to read this article but, you wish you could hit that state more often.

Another hard question is, “how did you do that?” Often, top athletes have trouble with this question because they don’t know exactly what they are doing and have trouble putting it into words. This is because skills are stored in our procedural memory, where a circuit is designed for each skill. That circuit is called the cortex-basal ganglia-thalamus-cortex loop.

The book Choke goes into great detail about this. I noticed this the first time I worked with Greg Minnaar. I was explaining a skill and Greg kept saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s exactly what I do! You could tell he was astounded that I could break it down and put it into words. Greg executes most skills so well he has long forgotten or maybe never knew the mechanics of the skill.

You know what, Greg is very bright too! His good fortune is though he is bright in the IQ sense he also bright in the body sense (using his basal ganglia). He knows when to use his IQ (managing his career, businesses, and investments) and when to turn off that thinking brain and use his basal ganglia (all physical activities).

I’ve been a geek trying to be cool all my life. It all started one day when I was seven and came home really upset that I didn’t make the baseball team. My sweet mom trying to protect me said, “honey, your just not a natural athlete but, you are so much smarter than those boys, your IQ is blah, blah, blah ..”. Not exactly what this seven-year-old boy wanted to hear.

Looking back though there was a lot of truth in that statement. School was easy for me, I didn’t even buy textbooks my senior year of college, I just went to class and paid attention and got mostly A grades. Sports, they were a struggle though. I never passed the presidential fitness test (was often the slowest in the 50-yard dash) and in college, I learned that I had asthma.

So when it came to the two sports I actually did okay in, snowboarding and mountain biking, I knew I couldn’t out power the competition so I tried to outsmart them! Sometimes it worked a bit with strategy and “smarter” training programs but where it didn’t work was in the skills department. I tried to think my way through the skills.

Are you proud of your knowledge of skills? But, deep down you know that you aren’t always or perhaps are rarely doing what you know? That was me.

In 2007 I took a great motorcycle camp (American Supercamps) with the hope of learning more about bike handling. I was the only one who asked questions, out of 16-20 riders. When I asked questions all the other students just looked at me with that STFU look. They completely trusted the coach and just did what he said (lucky guys!). I had to know “why” before I would buy in, which, looking back was my problem all through my athletic career (or lack thereof!).

The athletes that just do what the coach says are the lucky ones, their mind doesn’t get in the way! Now, knowing why a skill works does help most of us buy in and I have spent the last 28 years helping students understand that why. However, my best students, aren’t focused on why it works. Once they felt a skill work that was all they needed, they practiced it until they couldn’t get it wrong.

There is hope for the rest of us though. We simply need to find ways to either shut off the over analyzing part of our brain or distract it.

I first experienced this in 1992 when my snowboard coach would yell multiplication problems at me when I was training. He said when I was solving problems I rode my best. Unfortunately, I didn’t truly understand it then, as a matter of fact, I was confused. How could being distracted be good?

That was before I knew about procedural memory. Once we have trained our procedural memory with structured practice (something I had plenty of as a snowboarder) when we shut off or distract our analytical brain our procedural memory takes over and we rip!

So far, the best way I have found to distract my analytical brain is to use music. I ride best with music at low volume (I have to be able to hear my tires, chain slap, and wind all of which give us cues to what is happening). My favorite riding song is the Gin and Juice cover by The Gourds.

I also practice meditation which also helps by focusing my analytical mind on my breathing, letting my body “just do”.

Your assignment is to drill, drill, drill the proper skills in (riding trail is not skills training as you quickly lose focus and return to any dominant habits you have (which are often, old ingrained bad habits)) in a controlled environment like an empty parking lot. On the trail work on shutting off or distracting your analytical mind and letting the drilled in skills take over.

Experiment, try singing, listening to music at a low volume, do multiplication problems, learn to meditate, anything you can do to let your procedural memory take over.

Do have a favorite way to shut off that overactive mind? Let us know below.

If you know anyone who could benefit from this article feel free to share it.

Shut that brain off and create your best ride yet!




dumb motorcycle camp guys asked zero questions

used to think I needed to know every little detail of how and why a skill worked to commit to it.

I have work with GM, very bright guy, was amazed I can but what he does into words so smarter than me because he knows when to use analytical brain and when to use body brain

For this article we have two brains, our “smart, thinking brain that solves math problems” and our “body brain” called procedural memory (book Choke?) when to use each… smart when stopped and figuring out a line, body while riding

Answers: meditation, music, distract the overthinking brain, math problems racing slalom  examples to prove my point but condoning these uses Doc Ellis , Wille Warren , Sutton,  ross rab, Jimi Scott

8 replies
  1. Ray Marvez
    Ray Marvez says:

    Gene, You must have one hell of a camp. I say that because I read everything that you put out and follow up on the bikes as best as I can. I read Body, Mind, Mastery as you recommended. That was followed up by, Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, Taosports and I now , at age 63 have found ‘flow’ on the trails. My body, not my mind, is now dialed in like crazy. Last week, I looked at my spinning legs and realized that I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to. I haul almost effortlessly and have difficulty remembering pain after a training ride. Its the journey to the goal that has me moving forward. Here and Now by Del Amitri makes me focus on what my body is doing and how it’s feeling. Good Stuff.

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Thanks, Ray. I have been coaching mtb for 19 years and I’ve put my heart and soul into so I appreciate your comments.

      Glad to hear you have read all of my blog articles and have gotten something positive out of them! Awesome that you have found flow!



  2. David
    David says:

    Hey Gene,

    Interesting read, and funny you should mention a motorcycle camp. I attended Keith Code’s school when I got started riding — I didn’t learn much right then (because you can’t learn to ride in a day or two) but I did get a copy of “a twist of the wrist” which gave me a plan to start with and a compass to improve. Do you think some of his thoughts carry over to learning skills on an MTB?

    – Regards, David

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Hi David,

      Interesting, my students tell me they learn a lot in each day of my camp. Maybe his camps are like his books, a little hard to read but there is good info in there if you can sift through it. When you ask, “Do you think some of his thoughts carry over to learning skills on an MTB?”, what thoughts are you referring to?

      • David
        David says:

        Hi Gene,

        There’s that joke where a kid comes back from the first day at school and his parents ask him “How did it go?” and the kid answers “Oh, OK but we ran out of time. I’ll have to go back tomorrow.”

        I don’t remember much about the curriculum my first day of school or the track day camp, but I do know I found out I wasn’t going to be standing on the podium the next day, there was going to be a bit of homework involved.

        For sure your camps are essential, and there’s no better way to make a lot of progress in such a short time. It’s great to have someone who can suggest how to take a better approach to technical skills and bike setup. I’m a slow learner and not that talented, so I wouldn’t expect to come in to a camp never having left the ground with the expectation of doing backflips over doubles after two days.

        Keith Code is certainly not a neurobiologist, but if you find his analogy of an attention budget useful I can see how listening to music or solving arithmetic problems could help train cutting the cost of executing drills. I’ll definitely pay attention to what happens when there is music playing as opposed to without. As for being too analytical, I’m not sure about giving part of my attention the day off to listen to music when riding. Maybe the part of my brain not involved with executing
        a skill isn’t much use, but if it’s along for the ride it should be paying attention to what’s going on so I know what I was doing afterward?

  3. Corey
    Corey says:

    It’s also important to note that how you practice and develop skills matters too. I highly recommend “Make it Stick” for the latest research and application on how we learn and build skills and knowledge. I found much to be surprising and counter intuitive but was amazed at the difference it has made in all areas of learning once I applied the various techniques.

  4. Mark Scarton
    Mark Scarton says:

    Gene, My wife and I have taken your camp (I am considering doing it again). I’ve also read all of your blogs and articles, as well as many of the references that you cite. But what you’ve described here is *exactly* where I get hung up. I’m a software engineer; I live my life locked up in my head. That’s why I love mountain biking and skiing; they give me a chance to reconnect with my body and to experience real life.

    What I need is a “skills and drills” book. One that will give me 7 essential drills that I need to be practicing as well as the key indicators that I can use to know when I’ve performed them properly. One skill a day for each day of the week. I’ve tried those provided by other instructors, but I’m not as confident in what they are telling me nor having me do as I am with your instruction.

    Any chance that you might offer a resource like this any time soon? Without it, I’m just repeating my prior mistakes. Can you help a brother out???

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for the inspiration on the skills and drills book. I had already planned on doing something similar during my winter break but the 7 skills and drills will actually be a better idea. Look for it this winter! In the meantime, I wrote this blog article specifically for my students and it will help you get the most out of your practice.

      You should take another camp. My most famous students, Mitch Ropelato, Cody Kelly, Shawn Neer and McKay Vezina (who are all racing the Enduro World Series and getting top 10 and top 20 finishes) took at least four of my core skills camps. They all said they got more each time as the first time they got the big picture and each successive camp they picked up on the details they either missed or weren’t ready for yet in their previous camps.


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