I forget where I first heard it but one of the most powerful bits of advice I’ve ever read was “nothing fails like success”. Once people experience a little bit of success with something they tend to stop looking for better methods and end up failing to really improve as much as they could. Remember that unless you are the world champion of something then odds are you can improve no matter how successful your past methods have been.
I call it the Fat Person Curling Soup Cans analogy – you can take a fat person who sits on the couch all day and have them start walking around the block curling soup cans, they’ll lose some weight. However, that doesn’t make curling soup cans the best fat loss method on the planet. If that person assumed that a little bit of success meant that they just needed to keep walking around the block curling soup cans then they would ultimately fail in their goal to attain a normal weight.
I bring this up because when I work with the high school mountain bike team I am reminded of how much this applies to mountain biking. There is a mix of kids, from those who are just learning how to ride to those who have a few years under their belt. What I’ve noticed is that the new kids are just trying to get down the trail – whatever body position and methods are getting them back to the parking lot in one piece are fair game. I can coach them on some basic stuff but at the end of the day they are using whatever methods they find successful and they will have to build a certain “comfort level” on the trail before they can start be conscious of what they are doing.
What I see with the better kids is that they ride like more competent beginners – they still employ the same methods the new kids are using to survive, they are just more competent at them and more comfortable on the trail. Sure, they are pretty fast on the trails that they know really well but their fundamentals are still off, based on bad habits they picked up early on.
What I also see is reluctance from some of them to try new methods that push them out of their comfort zone yet ultimately will make them better. They have two thoughts – 1) I can’t go as fast when I do that and 2) I’ve had success with this other way.
For example, one of the things that was observed at the last race was that the “fast kids” all stood up and pedaled far more than any of the kids on our team. Standing pedaling is a specific skill and type of fitness that needs to be trained yet most riders are pretty uncomfortable standing up and instead prefer to sit down, which is what they learned to do when they first started riding.
So, we know that one of the skills that separate fast riders from average riders is the ability to stand and hammer at will without becoming fatigued. You can’t train this by logging a bunch of miles sitting down – you have to specifically train standing pedaling if you want to improve at that specific skill.
However, if you take a rider who is pretty good at seated pedaling and have them stand more they will fatigue faster and they will have a learning curve on standing climbing to deal with – but we all know that if they continue to work on it eventually they will get stronger and more competent at standing pedaling and be faster for it. If they fell back on the “I’ve always had success with seated pedaling” excuse they will fail to become a complete rider and be as fast as they can.
On a side note, one of the things I recommend to riders when having them try something new is to go on a purposefully short ride, something in the 20-30 minute range. When you are on this ride you are not concerned about anything but applying the skill. If you try to go on a normal ride you’ll be tempted to fall back on your old habits as you fatigue or your ego starts to get hurt from not going as fast. Try going on one of these rides with your seat all the way down, forcing you to stand the whole time – this is one of the drills I have the kids do to force them to get better at standing pedaling.
There are a lot of examples of how this applies on the bike – standing up more, using flat pedals, changing your body position and skills techniques to name a few – but it all boils down to one thing. Having a willingness to empty your cup of what you think you know and take in another way of looking at things is the hallmark of successful person, both on the trail and in life. Don’t get held back by your success.