The Learning Curve Mountain Bike Technique

The Learning Curve

Technique / Psychological

Discover Victory in Failure

We've all done it and in all walks of life, yup… we have gone and fudged up! This is just a fact of life and one of the hardest learning curves to conquer, the process of not making mistakes and the art of recovering from them. Whether you are bouncing back from broken bones or merely trying to get the bike pointing the right way having encountered the infamous 'pine cone mid-corner moment' recovery is everything.

The Psychological Element

The focus of our feature and focal point for you is on the recovery made, be it from accident/injury or from just a simple slide out. To avoid getting into what I coined as 'the negative spiral of woe' where we beat ourselves up following a mistake, we have to focus our minds and reward ourselves for the way we handled the situation and recovered from it. We also need to evaluate these scenarios to avoid becoming a repeat offender. A reverse psychology half glass full trick helps to lower heart rate and in turn gives us the mental (and physical) space required to compose and continue, hopefully, mistake-free.

There is nothing new to this approach; it is ground well-trodden, from Shaolin monks studying Kung Fu to Gee Atherton preparing to drive Dafydd Davies Ford Fiesta World Rally Car. Calm minds enable us to process the information and move the limbs without thought or hesitation. But when all hell breaks loose and you find yourself in the realm of the pinball wizard ricocheting off everything in sight it is easier said than done.

Brain training and mental skill can be practised both off the bike as well as on the bike, the better prepared we are in life, the better we can glide through the terrain that lays ahead of us. From simple sound pre-ride preparations to adaptations in our day to day way of dealing with what some may consider 'stressful' situations the process of avoiding mistakes in the first place comes from a calm mind (prevention is better than cure) and in multi-faceted complex situations, an informed one. Decision making is based upon information, on the bike that is sight, sound and the feeling sensations through the grip and contact points, hand - bar, foot - pedal, tyre - terrain.

If your mates pre-ride faff has got to you, or someone has cut you up en-route to your favourite riding spot then you are already on the mental back foot as you head off on the trail, take five to chill and calm the mind, dump that information and the emotions that are attached to it, they are not relevant to the situation in hand. We need to engage our primordial brain and run on instinct alone, easier said than done but just 'get over it'.

Put those small frustrations to bed by putting them into perspective, let these life issues simply dissolve. I faced some pretty big life strife in my teens, and I recall a wise and way out buddy telling me quite flippantly but brilliantly that "things are only a problem if you decide to make them a problem". With that as a mantra bring only a big dose of PMA (positive mental attitude) to the trail, and you will see for yourself how you simply glide through sections that normally hook you up, this really is a 'can do' sport.

Now before we start sounding a bit too much like a self-help book, let's look at this somewhat closer to our world on the bike.

Let's say your day starts off by spilling breakfast all over the kitchen floor, rather than flipping your lid you compose and carry on by simply starting over, it didn't matter anyhow as your ride buddy rocks up half-hour late, instead of being sarcastic with them you hug them and load up the bikes. En-route to the trailhead you even let the angry driver go without flipping him off for nearly killing you, bravo.

With life 101 in action we now hit the trail, mistakes in our game are almost inevitable and with that in mind we are halfway there to overcoming them, recognising that all familiar process of what goes on when we lead ourselves into making mistakes we can 'snap out of it' and get back on track, hopefully avoiding the error but at best/worse scenario recovering from them gracefully. In the same way, we look for the grip, not the slip we sight the lines of success, concentration is vital and that 'can do' internal dialogue must be cranked up to 11. Any slight doubt that may creep in can soon amplify, weighting the wrong side of the hesitancy scale and potentially tipping us off down the helter-skelter negative spiral of woe.

The art of efficient, smooth trail riding really is a metaphorical and literal balancing act, polishing the psychological aspects of the sport alongside working on the physical ones we become that Tibetan whole capable of overcoming things that previously phased us and gave us the willies. But it is not just a clear cut A game, PMA, Zen-like state that will see us progress, oh no, imagine if it were only that simple.

We have the conflict between our physical fitness and psychology to battle with, this is where a lack of fitness or better said our fitness goals are not achieved. Consequently, we can become frustrated. It has become clear in sports psychology that goal setting can inhibit performance and in the worst-case degrade your potential ability. If we have a target that we do not hit or an expectation that we do not meet (think standard life scenarios and brush up on your Sigmund Freud knowledge here), then it is easy to head in a less desirable direction and find yourself on my now patented negative spiral of woe.

The Feedback Loop

We end up back at point zero of mistake/goal not met = frustration = negative feedback = more mistakes = cue the music, yup that deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball. But this oxymoron and conflicting theory might leave you wondering how the hell do we progress if we are not to set markers and measures? How is performance measured, and how can we make this make sense and have relevance to my ride? The easiest I can put this is to take into account that 'performance' is a double-edged sword, with the physical on one side and the psychological on the other.

Happy riders equal fast riders. If we move our observation/marker away from time, distance, did or did not to instead measure the psychological performance by simply asking ourselves 'how did that feel/how do I feel?' then the rest (physical performance) will follow. If, when reflecting on our ride, we feel or felt things that would be considered as negative emotions, anger, fear, frustration etc. then our performance could be deemed to have been below par.

On the flip side if we have 'progressed' and 'improved' we would be looking for feedback that what would be deemed as positive emotional responses. Something along the lines of, I had fun, I'm happy with the way I rode, I enjoyed that, but I know I can ride better on x, y and z sections. These demonstrate improvement and often statements like these correlate to better stats on the physical performance side of things.

Those other performance markers of time, distance, max wattage (your power output), sustained max wattage and the did or did not clean a technical section are still measurable but less significant to our emotional side, and honestly less relevant to most trail riders. These measures matter not unless you are a serious racer, they will wax and wane over time. Even though a steady climb on the graph is ideal it is not always possible unless you are a full-time athlete, and even then you would expect to see fluctuations due to seasonal changes (think race season and training/load cycles) and other parameters like travel, infection, peak goals for key events and so on. Now, this all starts to enter the elite high tech world of sport and performance, for most of you, this is a step too far so let me try and run an example so we can keep things in perspective and palatable.

This 21st century living with its day to day stress, lack of neutral space and all-important ride time can lead to frustration and tension even if not detected at a surface level, cause and effect result in a state or mood/feeling, we are after all emotional bodies. When presented with challenging sections on the trail, this more deep-seated frustration can lead to more obvious surface anxiety. The mind is not clear, and the daily stuff has already muddied the waters of a fluid passage along the terrain. All the if's, butt's, what's and maybe's come to the front of the brain when entering a technical passage. This is understandably human, we have responsibilities and being broken is a major bummer.

Problem passages, technically demanding sections and features are typically where it goes pear-shaped, when it goes wrong in more manageable sections, it is usually from being tired and not concentrating. To add more subconscious weighty pressure on us is the machismo naming of sections and nonsense (internet banter etc.) that goes with these tricky trails. It may be that during those daydreamy moments we have in our lives that we visualised the section that gives us problems further muddying the waters. We may have had an accident or near-miss at that point in the trail to further add to the anxiety. It may be that we recall riding at level 'A' through a section in the past and we now feel like we are riding at a lower level in the present, neglecting to take into account the massive amount of variables and changes in the environment and surrounding parameters. This all adds up to pre-ride tension and we are mentally beat before the going gets tough, my point being is that the section of trail has already won before we have left the house!

Breaking the Chain

It can be easy to neglect to use some basic and easy practices to clear the mind, ready for the ride and grab some cheeky mental training on the more manageable sections of trail. There are tricks we can use to get into the groove and mentally prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead.
Now the process doesn't have to look like a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, just a few simple things can help get you into that Zen-like state of mind. The car park warm-up and equipment double-check is an excellent way to ease into the job at hand, by focusing the mind on the overall package of mountain biking we help clear away the grime of the day to day stuff that has built up. Some car park skills can further improve the connection between man-machine before we set off.

Once on the bike and rolling proper, that sneaky practice and deeper meditative state can be reached by interacting with the subtleties of the ride, from threading the bike between stones on the trail to timing crank position perfectly to line up the smoothest shift of gears through the cassette. Stay focused on these small elements and use your internal dialogue to reward you for good work. If you get it a little wrong, look for the positive aspects of what you did and unstitch things to conclude what elements were done not so well. This is why tutors stick to key lingo and look at vision, speed control, body position and footwork, they form a reference to work from.

Looking at these elements is easy and good starting point when it comes to evaluating your own riding. Typically if you have three of those four ticked off, then you can get away with the odd slip, slide, rolling pinecone etc. When you have two elements missing or poorly executed, then it can result in a more significant mistake or possibly a dismount. The positive internal dialogue has to focus on the bits done well, recognise the bits done not so well and coolly, calmly compose and continue. In Shaolin martial arts they talk about extinguishing the mind, you have to let these processes/techniques on the bike happen naturally and only bring cognitive thought into the equation post-event (near miss or off) to evaluate, learn and progress.

In life and on the bike we have to make mistakes, it forces us into a state known as 'deep concentration'. Myelin is created when there is a new connection between neurons in the brain, this helps to consolidate the connections made, this chemical process of creating myelin between connecting neurons is a bit like building the insulating layer around a cable. The more times we trigger that connection, the more myelin is created, forming a sheath type coating to the connection for it to then become hard-wired in the neural network.

Deep concentration takes us into a state where we create that electrical connection and make it more robust. Now as the tasks performed while razzing down trails are a little out of the ordinary requirements of homo sapiens, so we do not regularly make these connections, if we leave the task for too long the connection becomes weak and breaks down. It takes thousands of hours of practice for tasks to become hard-wired and for a person to become a 'master craftsman', leave it alone for too long, and we get rusty.

With a bit of practice, we can polish up that skill and clean that section. That said, if we let other connections take president then the job is much harder, so forget about the last time you hurt yourself and a life in plaster, don't bother to think if you locked the house or fed the cat just focus on what matters in the now and flow through the section ahead.

At this exact moment in time, I recall reading a book titled 'Blink' that goes through the decision-making process and how we as humans are incredibly good at making split-second decisions based on limited information. Too much information clouds our judgment, and with too much info, we are likely to make 'less good' decisions. For mountain bikers hooning down the trail that translates to staying focused on fewer key 'significant' points/markers in the terrain and choosing that up trail view 'where do I want to be?' Targeting the desired line before switching vision to the close up 'am I on target' view. Vision tells us everything but if we have failed to put the bike where we need (and in the right gear) forcing us to recover from a poor line or being bumped elsewhere on the trail then the feeling through the bike and body should enable us to trigger muscles to put the bike back in line where we want.

This is why it is imperative to learn those core skills and be able to manoeuvre the bike about in an instant, riding the bike rather than just being a passenger plonked on top of it. There lies the rub, in order to do so and be a happy bunny on the trail, you have to be physically fit and engage with that other edge to the sword. The long and the short of it is you need to work on all aspects, mix up your riding and train muscles you didn't really know existed, and that includes your brain!

Stay mental and keep chipping away at the block. Ride safe, and I'll see you on the flip side.

This technique article was in Issue 61 of IMB.


By Clive Forth
Clive Forth is a rider who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt and cleaned his bike with it. He has grown with the UK scene and technological developments for the last 30 years and has competed at all levels in all disciplines riding for some prestigious brands along the way. Always looking for that extra edge with endless passion and drive he is geared up to bring you the inside line on all aspects of mountain biking skills and technique.

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