How to Make Your Riding More Rad!*
It’s kind of an ugly move. For me that is. I sometimes stand at the top and kick some dirt toward the edge of the drop, as if that will help me ride it. It’s not very big, maybe 3 feet high, but it’s in what is essentially a creekbed. The drop is off an angled log and the landing is narrow and bony. Many riders would ride it the first time without thinking and some wouldn’t even consider it, but it’s not very hard and I have edged toward each group at different times.
It’s at the top of the trail and it’s been a monkey on my back. I haven’t dropped it since returning from injury a couple of years ago. I know I can do it but I end up just riding around it. If I spent some time there and rode it five or ten times I’d never have to think about it again, but I haven’t done that.Standing on the top I can visualize it all happening. Some speed but not too much, avoid that rock and the bank and then get things under control... But that hasn’t helped and the feeling that I have regressed leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
*Orginally published Apr 17, 2017
What is the secret sauce? How do mountain bikers get better? How do you get to be as good as Steve Peat or Brandon Semenuk? Most of us are trying to improve as we ride. Or at least hoping to. What’s radder than riding a section better than you ever have? Or even more satisfying, cleaning a section you haven’t had the nerve to attempt before? And of course there is going faster, beating your buddies, getting race results; that’s the pulpy goodness that gets us stoked about saddling up.If you have played any sport you probably know someone who seems to be naturally gifted. The sort of jerk who catches on quickly and before long is surpassing the experts. You probably also know those who have worked their asses off to get better by practicing, training and learning as much as possible. I often ponder the intersection of natural ability and practice, mainly to figure out where I can improve and how I should do it.
Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book about high achievers, was based partially on the work of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. Of all the anecdotes and conclusions found in Gladwell’s book, the one that people remember is that it takes 10,000 hours to become the best at something; a Michael Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald or Rachel Atherton. In emphasizing this Ericsson points out that people miss an important point; how you practice is as important as how much you practice.Ericsson goes on to detail two specific categories; purposeful practice and deliberate practice. Purposeful practice “is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” Taking that further, going for a ride may not be that useful in improving your skills. Ericsson continues, “purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.” So a hard ride may keep you sharp and perhaps work on your strength and stamina, but it might have limited value for ramping your skills.
Thinking about this topic led me directly to Ryan Leech. Trials is essentially all practice. Those who excel are able to work on skills at the edge of their ability almost constantly; hopping onto ever higher obstacles, leaping longer distances and riding skinnier and higher features. And once a goal has been achieved it must be refined; Ryan’s film Manifesto introduced a style of trials with no setup or recovery hops that was embraced by Danny MacAskill and others. Ryan says it like this; “I don’t consider myself a pro rider, I consider myself a pro practicer.”Beyond Ryan’s own journey with deliberate practice, he has used his experience to develop online courses for mountain bikers of all stripes. He will teach you to wheelie (whether you have the gene or not), to corner more effectively, to manual, to bunny hop; you name it. To teach you any skill or building block, Ryan applies both deliberate and purposeful practice. But before that he asks you to engage mentally.
“Deliberate practice needs two key ingredients for successful outcomes: An attainable goal and more importantly a deep desire to accomplish that goal that goes beyond ego projects.” Ryan asks his students why they want to learn a skill, and this question is presented in a variety of ways to put these “transient thoughts” into words for clarity. Ryan wants to ensure your success by having you understand why you’d like to achieve your goal, even if that is simply to impress your buddies.
Attainable goals for skills like wheelies or bunny hops are easily measured, literally with a tape measure. But with cornering it gets trickier. Generating forward momentum by turning on flat ground is one example of a building block Ryan uses to improve cornering awareness, because most of us corner subconsciously. “To improve, we need to first become aware of our current habits before we can experiment with adding new and more effective technique strategies.”
Ericsson, in an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, uses Mozart as an example of someone who was thought to have innate natural ability; a born genius. But Ericsson points out that Mozart started very young and worked very hard. Beyond that he wouldn’t be considered a prodigy by today’s standards; “If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart can play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average.”
Part of this disparity relates to the fact that human performance improves over time. Many factors contribute to this tendency, but Ericsson believes much of it relates to how we have learned how to learn. And this is where deliberate practice comes in; "deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established.” By studying the techniques of those who are accomplished or by using the methods of teachers who have shown strong results, we can leapfrog those who came before and dramatically improve our own results.
To be effective, deliberate practice must focus on specific outcomes rather than vague overall improvement. Without clear goals it is impossible to evaluate the success of what you are doing and make necessary adjustments. And it must also be challenging.
Because deliberate practice involves working on skills that are just beyond our reach, it can be a frustrating and tiresome process. Unless you are outside your comfort zone you are unlikely to get results. Ericsson explains, "Deliberate practice relies on this fact that if you make errors, you’re going to find ways to eliminate those errors. So if you’re not actually stretching yourself outside of what you already can do, you’re probably not engaging in deliberate practice."
Ryan doesn't share Ericsson's view that this must be unpleasant. "When there is a deep desire to learn and progress, then no matter how much fun can be had doing something else, I’ll choose deliberate practice because the nourishment and satisfaction that occurs are on a completely different spectrum that is much more alluring for me."
Many other sports, like skiing, swimming or tennis, have traditions that involve lessons, study and instructor qualifications. Mountain biking has always lagged in this area. Early on there were few instructors and virtually none with credentials but even today when schools and instructors are becoming more plentiful, riders don't gravitate toward clinics and personal instruction. There are other ways to learn and improve but without expert guidance, your rate of improvement won't likely be mind-blowing. Thankfully we live in the age of internetz where you can find tutorials on everything from building a turbo jet engine, tying your shoes more effectively to the 4 party tricks everyone should know. And 'how to mountain bike' serves up over 20k results on youtube alone. Or you could allow Ryan Leech to be your personal instructor
To sum up:
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance.
Tips to make your practice deliberate:
1. Be clear about your motivation. Write down why the goal is important to you. This will keep you on task when you lose focus or get frustrated.
2. Make goals that are specific and measurable and record your progress. ie. Wheelie 10 metres in 14 days.
3. Aim your practice beyond the edge of your current competence. If you can wheelie for 100 metres it's time to learn to manual. Learning occurs when you are stretching your abilities and trying to correct mistakes. You'll also get regular feedback by trying to correct mistakes allowing you to make corrections. Practicing will improve your skills in your areas of competence as well. It should be hard but, at least according to Ryan, it can still be enjoyable.
4. Learn from experts. Use the internet, take a course or observe the practice of riders who are committed to and known for improving their skills.
The bad news, for some of us at least, is that we all have a genetic ceiling. Whenever researchers look for genetic traits that explain ability they tend to hit paydirt. Within these limitations we can all improve if we are tenacious and curious, and recent discoveries of neuroplasticity indicate that our mental abilities can continue to grow indefinitely.
Look out Aaron Gwin...
Ryan Leech's courses are reasonably priced and there are even some free courses once you create an account for yourself. Find out more here...