The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given

This is a guest post from my friend and skills coach Gene Hamilton with Better Ride Skills Camps (…

As you may know I am obsessed with learning and teaching. How do we learn? What is the best way to learn a new skill? How can I best coach this skill? How can improve on my methods? These questions are constantly running through my head which is what makes coaching such a great passion for me. Well about 5 months ago I hit the Jackpot!

I have learned some truly amazing information on learning and mastering skill. Two books in particular have really opened my eyes, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster by Ernest Dras and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The first book is written by a renowned tennis coach about golf and the second explains the science of learning backing up (and then some) the first with the science behind why slow practice and “deep” practice work so well. If you are fascinated by learning and have always wondered how some people go on to be great at something while others seem to try hard but not get to the top these book are both great reads and I highly recommend them. If you are more a “cliff notes” type scholar I will give you some of my biggest takeaways from the books.

What both of these books explain is Slow, “Deep” or “Deliberate” practice is the best and fastest way to master anything, whether it is playing an instrument, mastering a martial art or becoming a better mountain biker.

Why slow, deep practice? Turns out we don’t fix or change bad habits, we need to produce brand new perfect habits. In layman’s terms a skill (such as doing a wheelie) is a series of impulses transmitted through a wire from your brain to all the muscles and nerves the skill requires. When we first do a skill we put the wire in place but it takes perfect repetition of that skill to make the wire work better. The “wire” starts out with no insulation (imagine a bare wire with no rubber coating under the hood of your car) so it shorts out easily and doesn’t always fire correctly. We build that insulation (called the Myelin Sheath) best through slow, deliberate practice.

BR Coach Gene Hamilton explaining cornering body position

How does this effect you and your mountain bike riding? If you are like me and all of my students so far, when you first started riding your either had no instruction or improper instruction and started doing somethings incorrectly (which for me meant, getting my weight back on descents, riding to upright with straight arms, braking in corners, etc. a ton of bad habits). Unfortunately the Myelin Sheath doesn’t know what is correct or not so the more you ride incorrectly the more you build up that insulation around that wire. Which means the more and more powerful that bad habit becomes. Then you read a “tip” on how to ride better (like in my mini-course) and now you know you should ride with your weight on the pedals instead of getting your weight back. You then practice this by coasting down your driveway with all of your weight on your pedals. Congratulations, you have just created a new, perfect habit! Don’t get too excited yet though, that habit or “wire” isn’t insulated to well so it doesn’t always fire correctly. You are committed to change though so you practice it five times a day for a week. Now the Myelin Sheath has gotten thicker and the wire works better but, the old wire has 8 years of Myelin Sheath building around it so the old habit still takes over when you aren’t focused on the new habit and when ever the least bit of fear creeps into you.

How do you build up enough insulation on the wire for the new, perfect habit take over the old habit? Slow, deliberate practice. What the heck is slow deliberate (or “deep”) practice? Slow, deliberate practice is working on one movement or short combinations of movements slower than you normally would do them. The best musicians learn songs much better and faster by taking 20 minutes to play a three minute song! They are focused on the tiniest of movements and the sounds they produce sound more like elephants in pain than music (my favorite quote from The Talent Code is from a music professor who says, “if a passerby can recognize the melody you are playing it too fast”).

Coach Gene Demonstrating how to practice deeply.

You may be saying, “What does this mean to me? I ride bikes!” Well for you it means we need to first learn the correct, in balance and in control techniques and then practice them at a very slow pace with an eye on perfection and stopping and correcting our mistakes. You are fooling yourself if you think riding a bike will make you better at it (maybe a hair more comfortable as you get used to your bad habits but not better).

Students doing "deep" practice while Gene coaches

If you want to reach your personal best as quickly as possible, slow down and practice deliberately!

-Gene Hamilton-

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James Wilson
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Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson