Great mountain bikers are confident; they flow up, over and around the numerous challenges singletrack provides. As you challenge yourself on new trails, with faster riders or as you come back after a crash, it’s normal to lack confidence in your ability.
To get to the point where you can be smooth and comfortable on trails again there are several methods to consider:
Most people learn to ride a bike as a kid, so it is easy to assume mountain biking is easy. The reality is mountain biking safely, quickly and enjoyably takes practice and coaching just like the other skills — like swimming, piano, golf, tennis — you had to learn. Getting feedback will give you things to work on and avoid training compensatory movements. As a bike skills coach, I help clients gain control on the bike and select appropriate terrain for their learning. Many clients start with flat pedals, a slightly lower seat and on terrain appropriate for their skill level to help them make improvements — and boost confidence — in their first session.
Don’t underestimate the importance of positive self-talk or the conversations we have with ourselves while we are fearful. Things like ‘you’re not ready,’ ‘you’re going to screw up,’ and ‘you crashed here before’ are not helpful cues. While just being positive won’t make you a pro overnight, you can use more helpful self-talk on technical trails.
Repeating words related to the skill (stay low, elbows out, etc.) is ‘action-oriented’ self-talk that Traci Stannard, coach and owner of Aspire Performance, suggests helps you stay in the present moment and make the situation the best it can be. You might draw from past things you have done that are similar or use the lack of similar things to motivate your future practice progressions to build your skills and confidence to the appropriate level.
Stannard also mentions it is important to be ready for bad days. Not every day in training can be your best; knowing this and preparing for it helps you bounce back. Getting through those tough days can help you get stronger or be a sign to take it easy and get yourself recovered and motivated for your next training day.
Also known as “fake it until you make it,” this is a powerful strategy Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, authors of “The Brave Athlete,” liken to the adoption of an alter ego. They suggest certain behaviors can affect our brain and therefore our confidence in our sport. To plan out your alter-ego think about who or what you need to do. Growing up I always envisioned some of my favorite riders and how they looked and acted in the situations I found myself in during races — race starts, strenuous climbs and technical downhills.
Often we lose confidence because we try a technical trail or hard group ride too soon. So our expectations of riding are not met because the challenge is far above our current ability. While it might be less exciting, start with something that is just slightly past what you can do already so you can get more repetitions at an appropriate level of challenge.
Coach Ryan Leech starts his online bike-skills courses with very small steps, often beginning off the bike. For wheelies, one of the first drills is simply learning to get the front wheel off the ground for an instant using a pedal-kick. Rather than aiming to ride across the parking lot with a wheel up in the air, just get it up for a second. That way you experience success, and
you learn a skill you can use frequently on the trail. Once you can get the wheel up, aim for two pedal strokes and do that until you can do those two pedal strokes consistently with control.
While breathing may seem like the furthest thing from a technical rock garden or drop-off, taking some time during the day to close your eyes and exhale deeply can be a great skill to have to help relax before tough sections of trail. I often take a deep belly breath as I go into technical sections. This mental reset also allows me to relax all my muscles and become more supple on the subsequent technical section, which, in cross-country racing, is often right after a strenuous climb!
Many riders start riding bikes and go to clipless pedals too early. They waste a lot of time trying to get clipped in and fearing not getting clipped out, and they never learn to push into the bike. While setting seat height appropriately for pedaling efficiency is important for endurance cycling, you may find a lower saddle or a dropper post quite helpful for improving confidence when learning new skills. Bigger, knobbier tires that are set up tubeless are a great addition to improve your confidence and not something that comes standard on bikes many beginners and novice riders are riding.