Preparedness, Control & Performance: Psychological Aspects Of Mountain Biking

Controlled terrain with timing markers

A few years ago, I read and article on a prominent MTB blog that said, “if you’r’e crashing, you’re learning.  It’s a necessary part of becoming a better mountain biker.”

Here’s the thing.  It isn’t necessary at all.  

Mainly those are words of comfort offered by friends to someone who has crashed, or used by someone who crashes regularly and uses this mental approach as an excuse for their inability to keep rubber side down on a trail. Suppressing your fear of crashing and just accepting it will happen so you can try and huck off bigger things is not how professional athletes seek improvements.  This cliché implies you will get better as a rider if you just throw yourself at bigger stuff on harder terrain. This is not a good strategy for most people and often it ends with a moderate to severe injury, lots of time off the bike and increased fear or riding.

The idea that you need to crash to improve is totally incorrect. If downhill ski racer had to crash repeatedly in order to get better and faster every season, they would never make it to an Olympic level.  A ski crash is often a career ending knee injury.  For skiers, strength training and repetition (lots of repetition) on specific manageable ski runs are the formula for practice and improvement.

Controlled terrain for better learning

The Right Conditions For Learning 

Your unconscious brain is always trying to protect you.  Anytime the ancient animal inside you is threatened, the brain floods your body with adrenaline and other chemicals to help you act.  Fear is a main trigger for this resulting SURVIVAL MODE.  As an instructor, it’s my job to create and manage the right conditions for students to succeed in lessons.

The correct conditions for safe and effective learning do not put an athlete into SURVIVAL MODE.  In this amped up state an athlete can’t process verbal or visual instruction, loses control over kinesthetics, and can’t successfully experiment and create variations in performance to better understand and feel the skills they are practicing.  Riding beyond your ability and trying to survive is not a good methodology for MTB improvement.  How can you learn a trail and remember details bombing down at full-speed? Even if you manage to ride or survive a particular feature after failed attempts, how will you know what you did that made the difference?  What did you change?  How much? What was the timing?  How will you repeat it I order to build muscle memory if you don’t know what adjustments you made?  It’s impossible to reliably repeat skills if they were done through unconscious instinct and were not intentional.

As an instructor, I will tell you that if you are crashing, then something is missing in your skill set.  It could be many things.  Riders crash when they are not combining skills well for particular trails or features, often when they are tired.  Experienced riders make mistakes too, and in my own experience, they tend to be significant because they are traveling at higher speeds, on steep or more technical terrain, where the forces acting on the bike and rider are much higher.  A pedal strike at low speed is uncomfortable; a pedal strike at 20km/h results in the bike immediately riding off the ground, one or both tires losing grip and a significant rotational force around the pedal spinning the bike.  It is almost impossible to recovery.  It’s much safer to practice new cornering skills in a parking lot until you get a sense of the required movements and timing before taking it to the trail. A controlled environment allows for safe and more effective learning.  Once we’ve practiced and processed, we can head to a section of trail and apply the skills and techniques and refine further.

Challenging Terrain

Up for a challenge, or under threat?

There is a decent body of sport psychology research that deals with the emotional states of athletes and how they affect performance.  The short version is; Feeling CHALLENGED can be good.  Feeling THREATENED is not.  Athletes who believe they do not have the resources to cope with stressful encounters in sports events focus on what could potentially go wrong, are considered to have a ‘threat’ mentality.  They also have elevated cardiovascular responses to the treat condition triggered by adrenaline which have negative impacts on response times and physical output.  Delayed reactions and unresponsive muscles are not good for riding hard features.

Disregarding your gut feelings about safety is not something we encourage during lessons.  Ever.  Fear triggers the threat response.  I use preparedness to maintain a challenge response, at least most of the time.

Preparing for a big MTB ride in Pemberton

Emotional & mental strength & conditioning

From the original article, I like the idea of mental preparedness and managing emotions that may hold you back while doing your sport. Fear is a handy and useful emotion that can save your butt sometimes, and the challenge is to use your thinking brain to compare your preparedness to the risk scenario, and see how your emotional response changes. It’s also very valuable to question WHY you are considering a new feature or risky move. Are your friends “encouraging” you? Do you have something to prove? To who? What are you supposed to do tomorrow? If you fail, what are the consequences? Would it be worth to fail? What would you learn? Or is more practice and preparation a better decision.

During lessons, we have a “no pressure” philosophy and mantra. We NEVER push anyone to ride terrain or features they are uncomfortable with. We always try to say, “If you’re not feeling it, this [rock, roll, jump, whatever] will be here next time”. Riders that choose to bypass or walk risky features are safe people to go on bike trips with. “Know your limits” is a real thing.

Feeling prepared and confident is the key for me when I want to attempt bigger trails or features. Personally, this comes to me through repetition, variation, and visualization.

Repetition trains muscles for specific movements, builds muscle memory so you can repeat the movements without thinking, conditions your eyes and brain to see and understand what is happening, and establishes the foundation for timing of moves.

Variation is the process of practicing skills at faster and slower speeds, on different degrees and steepness of terrain, and in different weather and trail conditions in order to adapt the skills from practice so we can use them on any trail in any terrain or conditions.

This preparedness is what matters to me and gives me confidence. I know that I have practiced the skills, tested them with variation, and I can mentally think of the steps I need to do to succeed.

Preparedness also applies to your riding uniform, safety equipment, bike set-up, trail knowledge, directions and way-finding, and the additional equipment you carry. Manage as much as you can with your equipment to reduce distraction. Building routines to cover off each of these areas can go a long way to adding confidence to your ride.

Grippy rocks and just enough steepness

More skills practice on green or blue trails

Riders need a solid foundation of skills including body position, movement and timing to be able to tackle ever more challenging terrain and features.  You will not achieve this quickly or as effectively simply by riding trails and “just going for it”.  Don’t get me wrong here, riding MORE is the key to putting things into practice to make them into habits.  To do maneuvers like drops, you need to practice on controlled and safe terrain which is typically smaller or less gnarly than your desired feature.   Blue trails, not black.  Typically this is smaller drop that can be repeated a bunch of times until you are consistent.  Then you can make small changes in your position, timing, pressure (or whatever) to see what happens.  But the consequences of getting that new variation wrong are low.  You practice with variation until you are consistent.  Then you find the next slightly bigger drop and apply proper form and control to that feature.

Lots of reps builds skills


You may crash when you’re biking.  It’s not a sign that you are getting better, especially if you keep doing it.  Mental preparedness and control is part of becoming a better athlete.  As an instructor, I believe that learning foundation skills and then more complex maneuvers  in controlled conditions helps leads to better mental preparedness.  This creates better conditions for learning new skills and experimenting, and additional practice and refinement leads to greater control because you will be able to apply your skills across more variable conditions.  More control ultimately leads to more performance; and that might mean more speed, bigger drops, or just more fun.