Rab’s World: Coaching Smiles…

Our racing columnist Rab Wardell has been recovering from his recent MacAvalanche exertions by taking some time pondering the meaning of ‘coaching’ and what it offers non-professional riders…

Rab at the Macavalanche. Pic by Richard Bord

Coaching and mountain biking is an area which comes with much stigma attached: the traditional image of cones, clipboards, whistles, tracksuits and even your old high school PE teacher who was an arse and made you play rugby despite being built like a 9 year old girl… ahem. Even more daunting still is the prospect of spreadsheets, heart rate monitors, power meters and, gulp, turbo trainers. For a mountain biker it can all seem a little unrelated to what we do. I’m a firm believer that coaching can benefit all riders, from newbies to seasoned pros, despite these horrid preconceptions.

Coaching isn't always about tight clothing and hill reps. Pic by Sarah Mulholland

The first issue I see with coaching in relation to mountain biking, is that ‘coaching’ is generally thought to focus on fitness and competition. Most recreational riders using their mountain bike to enjoy the outdoors, to fuel an adrenalin rush or as a social event and can’t relate to this. The thought of hill repeats, nutrition plans and feedback of each ‘training session’ to a coach seems ridiculous.

Mountain bike coaching doesn’t have to be any of these things though. Don’t get me wrong, racers have to put themselves through the pain of riding hard, recording training and watching what they eat. However, any rider can benefit from a coaching day or regular coaching; purely by being able to enjoy riding their favourite trail faster, smoother, and more importantly, with a bigger smile on their face. Of the riders I work with, the majority ride for fun and would just like to be more ‘confident’. If you’re riding without confidence, that must mean that you’re riding with fear: and fear doesn’t lead to riding with smiles…

Now a coach, no matter how great a coach, can’t make you be more confident. What a good coach can do is help you realise why you don’t feel confident riding a certain trail section. Maybe your body position isn’t good or your braking point is too late. Or maybe you’re actually sitting down through a trail. Some of you will be reading this and thinking ‘who would sit down through a trail?’ or ‘everyone knows not to brake in the corner!’, however, fear can make you do things that you know you shouldn’t do…

We’ve all heard good tips from pro riders like ‘ride smooth and speed will come’ but how many of us really put that into practice? And how do you know what is meant by riding smooth? How do you ride smooth and stay relaxed through a steep rutted downhill?

More smiles per mile?

Something I hear a lot of is ‘I always ‘f’ this section up’ or ‘I hate this corner/drop/climb’. ‘Why is that?’ I ask and ‘I don’t know…’ is more often than not the response. The truth is that most of the time you ride something, and ‘f’ it up, you don’t know what’s gone wrong because you’ve not been able to see what it is you’ve done wrong, so often you don’t know what to correct.

It’s also surprising the number of riders who won’t check a section out before riding it, and even more surprising how few riders reflect on what they did on a section of trail, even if they do make a mistake or crash. I think this is because it’s difficult to address mistakes while on a ride with your buddies. Most of the time you’re out riding with friends, a crash or a problem can be welcomed with a bit of a ribbing, some unhelpful and/or poor advice such as ‘just go faster/lean back/pull up’, or worst of all, they’re just pissed off cos you’re holding the ride up and you’re not going to make it to ride that trail that’s dead good before it gets dark.

On a good quality coaching day this is removed. With a good coach present, riding style, lines and techniques can be observed and feed back can be given. It’s funny how you can be riding unconsciously while you think your nailing a trail, and a good coach can help you analyse your own riding and self assess what you’re doing. You should be able to ask questions about riding, often questions you’d be scared to ask in front of your usual riding group for fear of getting a hole ripped into you… Most of all it should be a relaxed environment where you can reflect on your own riding and then explore the limits of what you can do. I think that a good quality coaching day can increase self confidence in a big way and improve your riding experience volumes.

So, it seems that some summer like weather is here and your favourite trail is drying out and getting dusty. It would be sweet to ride it faster than ever before, and with a bigger smile, right? Is this the year you invest some time and money into improving your riding and not your ride? What’s the worst that could happen?

See you on the trails…

Rab

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