Riding the hard stuff: An instruction manual for your brain…

First up, my apologies for the lack of a post in the last few weeks – busy times. I’ll get back to a normal publishing schedule in a fortnight.

In the meantime – below is an article that I recently wrote for Flow mountain bike and which should be published later in the week – apologies: it’s mountain bike specific, but applicable to anyone involved in a sport that requires a combination of regular challenge, fine-motor control, and skill upgrades.

I’ve been riding mountain bikes for almost 20 years, and I like to think I’m pretty good. But last season a mate pointed out that my riding was really inefficient – my cornering was awful, and I overbraked on everything. When I started to think about it I realised that he was right, I was inefficient, and I was massively overthinking the technical stuff (and usually screwing it up as a result).


Then I realised something important: I’ve never really learnt how to ride a mountain bike properly. In fact, if you’re anything like me you probably learnt to ride your bike by trial and error with your mates (who were maybe slightly better riders than you). Like me you never learnt the basics, like efficient braking and balancing through corners, let alone the harder stuff, like drops, picking lines through rock gardens, or staying upright on sketchy corners.

So I spent the summer going back to basics. I rode easy trails at slower speeds, and forced myself to concentrate on what I was doing. By slowing down I was able to focus on riding my bike properly and, in the process, reprogram my brain so that these gains stayed with me when I sped up.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To be the riders we want to be, we’ve got to go back to basics and ask an important question: what controls our riding, our brains or our bodies (hint: it’s your brain)? So let’s start with a bit of neuropsych 101 (I’ll keep it brief).

As a mountain biker, one of the most important parts of your brain is a region called the cerebellum, an area responsible for most of your fine-motor control. Your cerebellum is the part of your brain that keeps you on the bike when things get sketchy before you’ve even figured out what’s going on*. Most importantly, you can’t access it consciously, it’s basically a completely separate system to ‘you’, that responds a lot faster than the ‘conscious’ parts of your brain. Because you can’t access it directly, there’s only one way to train it: lots and lots of practice (see below).

There are two other brain regions mountain bikers should know about: the limbic system (your monkey brain) and the prefrontal lobes (your human brain). The limbic system contains your ‘fear centre’ – it’s best to think of this part of your brain as a “don’t eat me” system. This fear centre activates a process called the ‘fight or flight’ response, which kept your ancestors alive when bears tried to eat them. When activated, it triggers a cascade of physiological reactions (including increased release of adrenaline and cortisol) that helps you to run away – including a shut down of your prefrontal lobes: the parts of your brain that you think with (you don’t need your prefrontal lobes when bears are chasing you). This is crap for riding, because it’s hard to ride well when you can’t think.

As humans, we’re often the victims of the more primitive parts of our brains (like the limbic system), but we’ve also evolved an amazing ability to learn to do complex and remarkable things. Being a good rider is about learning to use the parts of your brain that help, and getting over the parts that get in the way. So, let’s look at how to (re)program your brain to make you a better rider.

Let’s start with how we learn and what we can reasonably expect to learn. Riding a mountain bike is about programming in a very complex series of fine-motor controls so that we don’t have to think much on the trail. When we program our cerebellum to ride for us, it means we don’t have to think about every obstacle, so we can just ride over them (this is why good riders look like they’re riding without having to think about it – they’re not, at least not consciously). We can do this because our cerebellum reacts way faster than the conscious parts of our brain. The downside is that if you program in crap, you’ll ride like crap – automatically.

Learning a motor skill is a slow and frustrating process. When you learnt to drive, you had to think about everything, and it was hard to react properly in real time. Eventually though, you were able to program in these skills so you didn’t have to think about them. The same goes for mountain biking. When you’re learning you rely on conscious processing, and this is slow (reaction speed of seconds rather than milliseconds).

The good news is that while you’re riding under conscious control, you have the option to monitor what’s going on, and to make modifications – if you make the right modifications this means that you’re learning good stuff. In fact, whenever you’re riding under conscious control the conscious part of your brain is programming the automatic control systems (in your cerebellum) so you’ll be more efficient later on. But as soon as you speed up beyond what your conscious brain can process, you’ll be riding on your automatic systems without the ability to monitor or modify.

Annoyingly, most of us don’t learn to ride like we learn to drive. Rather than getting proper instruction and then practising until we’re competent, we usually just ‘go out and ride’. And because we often practise bad habits, we end up with these bad habits deeply programmed into our brains (meaning you’ll ride like crap whenever the trail gets tough and you don’t have time to think).

So here’s how to program your brain in order to learn or improve a bike skill (whether you’re a beginner or an expert), so that you won’t have to think about it on the trail.

1)   Start by figuring out what you want to improve: braking, balance, cornering, line selection, drops, rock gardens, whatever.

2)   Get some information on how to do whatever it is you want to learn. Maybe from an instructor, a mate who’s good at whatever it is you want to get better at, a website, or a video.

3)   Find an appropriate spot to practise and start basic and slow. For example, for a drop, find a kerb and start by rolling over it, concentrating on getting your weight distribution right. When this feels easy, try going a bit higher and slowly rolling off, focusing on smooth weight transitions and landings. The trick is to make sure that you’re always consciously aware of what you’re doing and in control of your actions. This will be frustrating and the temptation will be to speed up and go bigger. Don’t.

4)   Keep practising until what you’re doing feels easy, and then get some feedback from riders who know what they’re talking about. Modify based on their feedback and keep practising.

5)   Start speeding up and, or adding complexity. Make sure you never go beyond a point where you can maintain conscious control of your bike. As soon as you find yourself reacting rather than thinking, slow down.

6)   If you find yourself freaking out or getting anxious, stop. Go back to a simpler or slower version and practise until it feels easy.

7)   Likewise, try not to overthink. Picture what you have to do in your mind’s eye, and then do it, keeping track of the key factors (like hand and body position). If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the task at hand.

8)   As your ability increases, try mixing it up and trying out your skills on new sections of trail. Try to stay slowed down and in control.

9)   Remember that skills programming is slow, but not necessarily boring. Whenever you start to get bored, remind yourself that this will make you a much better rider. It’s worth thinking about what riding means to you, and remembering that mastery isn’t about getting to the bottom of a trail, or about having big balls, it’s about being good on the bike. Lots of riders can get down something or huck a big gap, but not many do it well.

If the steps above sound strange to you, you’re not alone. Very few of us actually learn to ride this way, so instead of consistently getting better at the thing we love, we just ride the same stuff week by week, making the same mistakes and getting frustrated because we’re not improving!

Obviously, it’d be boring to stop riding and just do skills work. I suggest taking a deliberate 1-2 weeks every 2-3 months (especially when you come up against an obstacle to your riding) and going through these steps.

As a psychologist I often advise athletes to trust their competence, not their confidence. Competence is about having the real skills to do something. Confidence, on the other hand, is unreliable and can get us in big trouble. If you know what you’re capable of, you can go out and do it. Confidence is mostly bullshit.

So how do you increase your competence? The best place to start is to learn to gauge both your skills and your limits. I always suggest developing a realistic skills hierarchy and to use other riders as a gauge for determining where you sit. For example, for drops, a hierarchy might start with drops or rolls of ½ metre or less with an easy exit, moving up to drops (no rollout option) of up to a metre, then incrementing all the way up to 2+metres with difficult exits. Maybe give each increment a grade (e.g., 1A –really easy, to 5D – stupidly hard) and then determine where you are now and where you could realistically get to (with practice). It’s then pretty easy to rate a given trail based on its features and level of technicality, and to decide whether you can do some or all of it, and what you’d need to improve in order to ride the whole thing.

Knowing your skills and limits also means that it’s realistically easier to say “no” when you come across a feature that you know is beyond your current skills. It’s worth pointing out that just because other guys make it look easy, doesn’t mean that it is, or that you should even ride it. If riding is about fun, then figuring out the maximum grade of risk you’re prepared to accept, and then working your way up to that level systematically, will result in a lot more fun.

Most importantly, grading trails and features, and then figuring out your current skills and limits, helps you to be able to ride without letting your head screw it up for you. Once you accept that a feature is beyond your current skill level, it’s a lot easier to simply walk your bike around it, and then work on developing a training program to build your skills up so you’re able to clear that section later on. This is probably the best way to get around the whole “my head won’t let me” scenario that all of us have come across. There’s no need to punish yourself or feel like an idiot because you don’t have the skills you want right now – instead of looking at a drop and giving yourself shit about not being able to ride it, use it as motivation to learn to be a better rider.

Increased competence is by far the best way to increase your enjoyment out on the bike. In sport psychology the term “flow” is used to describe a feeling of total immersion with an activity, where everything goes right, and time disappears. It’s an amazing feeling, and one of the main reason I mountain bike. Flow certainly isn’t guaranteed though, and there are lots of things that get in the way.

So how do you get to have one of those rides where everything just works, and you finish up feeling totally buzzed? Here’s my recipe for riding a trail with flow.

1)   Flow is much more likely to happen when you get the balance between your skills and the level of challenge just right. This means knowing your limits and your skill level and then matching it to the trail. A trail that keeps you on your toes, but doesn’t scare the crap out of you is a good match. Go for enough challenge so that you max out at about 80% of your skill threshold.

2)   You can also increase the chances of flow by upping the challenge on easier trails (e.g., focusing on technique, like attempting to keep your hands off the brakes in corners, or getting your balance just right on a drop). Increasing skills levels also helps, because it means you can attempt increased challenges. See part 2 for an idea of how to do this.

There are two things that will always kill flow: too much challenge (resulting in fear and overthinking) and not enough skill. The kicker is that, when the challenge is too high and you get a fear response, you’ll probably go into fight or flight (see part 1) which means that you won’t be able to think clearly and your fine-motor control will reduce, meaning you’re more likely to stuff up. In other words, too much challenge gets in the way of skill.

When this happens, don’t just balls through it. Stop, take a breath, come back into the present moment (look at your bike and the trail and the trees), and then get on your bike and ride something that you know is within your ability (ramp down the challenge to match your skill). If your head starts giving you grief, take another breath, acknowledge that your head is giving you shit, focus on the trail, and remind yourself why you’re out there – you’re not there to go big or go home, you’re there to enjoy the ride as much as you possibly can.

* We call this muscle memory. In reality, however, your muscles don’t have any memory: they’re controlled by our brains (specifically by a combination of our motor control strip and the cerebellum).

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