KEEP YOUR HEAD UP! LOOKING IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS IN MTB

We move through phases of learning, unconscious incompetence “I can’t do it and I can’t bloody well work out why” and then might visit a coach and feel consciously incompetent “ I can’t do it and I understand what I’m doing wrong”. With some tuition and guidance you then move to conscious competence “I’m doing it successfully and I know why/how” until finally we become unconsciously competent “I can do it and I don’t even think about it anymore”.

At all levels of coaching I emphasise the need to keep our heads up and to keep looking at the trail ahead. Of all the skills I teach (and this is a skill) this is one of the easiest to learn and also the easiest to let slip.

“Ok” you’re thinking, since when has “looking” been a skill and why is it so useful? Well the answer is as complicated as it is simple, so here are the key points.

Keeping our head up allows us to see where we are going.

Eureka a revelation! we need to see where we are going!! but let’s think about this in a bit more detail. When we are nervous or scared or in the infancy of our skill (of which successfully riding a trail is one), I have noticed from experience that riders will allow their heads to drop and attempt to find safe certainty in the immediate future, the “now” of the trail.

We are told to live for the moment, but in MTB we need to be creatures of 2 worlds, people of the moment and of the next, like a chess game. Lifting our heads allows us to scan ahead down the trail receiving and responding to visual stimulus. Improving VISUAL REACTION TIME allows our brain time to process the number of calculations needed and for our eyes to do their job of EYE-HAND-BODY COORDINATION. Our eyes are the leaders and the guide to our motor movements, so by fixating on the ground immediately in front of us we are already limiting our ability to perform a number of processes effectively.

Trust your eyes.

 If you have ever been coached by myself or one of my team, you have probably been asked to look into the distance and fix your gaze on a spot whilst we walk towards you wiggling fingers, flapping hands etc. to illustrate just how dynamic our vision is. CENTRAL PERIPHERAL AWARENESS is the ability to pay attention to what is immediately ahead (central) and yet aware of what is to the sides (peripheral to) without having to look away from where we are going. The Foveal region of the eye, the area that allows for the sharpest detail, accounts for only 1% of the retina, therefore if we are going to keep track or on track of where we need to be in what is a dynamic and changing environment, keeping our head up deliberately teaches us to trust this key process:

  • See roots across the trail
  • Make decision about position in relation to roots
  • Adjust/do not adjust position on trail
  • Look beyond roots for next movement
  • Allow peripheral vision to perform function
  • Instigate motor response (move) at roots i.e. “go light”
  • Successfully “float” over roots

 Fixating on the “wrong thing” can often lead us to trouble.

How often have we ridden a trail, noticed an object to the side of where we are headed (a root or rock) and perceived that if struck would prove disastrous and therefore fixated more and more until we start, oddly to be sucked into its tractor beam and begin to drift towards it in blind panic. This is perhaps the reverse process of that outlined above but a good example of the phrase “look where you go to go where you look”. Skilled riders will use peripheral vision to extract information from the display as well as to determine the next fixation location or “move”. This use of peripheral vision has been shown to give performers information regarding body and spatial orientation and Sivak and Mackenzie (1992) describe the contributions of the process as pointing, reaching and grasping.

So better looking lets us see things sooner and make decisions or movements in relation to these. Advance Cue Utilisation the ability to make accurate predictions based on this contextual information (Perceptual Anticipation) earlier in a sequence of events is likely to lead to a more successful outcome and limitations to reaction time or movement time such as looking down or narrowly focusing attention away from the trail are likely to lead to a negative outcome i.e. a crash or reduction in performance.

Of course we have so far missed out an important element in our development and that is skill. In order to negotiate the trail or perform a desired task, such as pumping, we must have a skill set that we can call upon in the given moment (I of course would humbly suggest that a visit to a good skills coach who understands the process of learning and works with it would be useful for most people).

There are a number of theories related to knowledge and its application in sport, one that I like a lot and that is useful to explain our learning is based on Anderson’s (1983) ACT theory. Remembering that this is a light hearted article and not a sports science journal, I will let you geek out should you choose to with further reading. Suffice to say that this theory breaks expertise in performance into a number of condition-action links called productions that are responsible for triggering the right responses in specific and appropriate circumstances, use the technique for matching the path of a bike to a landing on a gradient when doing a drop to flat and you will see evidence of this not working so well!

If the appropriate responses to a situation are located within our working memory then we can initiate a response/movement that is appropriate to that situation. The movement or “going light” over the roots we came across on the trail in our earlier process can be seen as an IF……THEN….DO…. cycle and is successfully initiated by looking ahead to capture and process successfully the “IF” allowing us to draw on learned/developed skill “THEN”, through to the action of the “DO”.

Not looking well down the trail, concentrating our 1% of clear vision inappropriately and not trusting the capabilities of our peripheral vision all detract from our ability to ACT appropriately. If skill is in it’s infancy we risk becoming disheartened if we don’t understand that embedding learning through repetition in the correct conditions is a process. A coach highlighting when we have done something successfully at the time allows us to form a physical and tangible blueprint for action. This in turn allows us to recognise when something doesn’t feel right and to say, “no that wasn’t good, I didn’t do… or could do” or to get feedback on how the movement might be improved.

So what can we do on the trail today to help improve?

Well if you are confident that you are doing it right or have the fundamental skill sets for a given movement here’s some tips to doing it better.

Slow down. Slowing down allows us to make more mental processing space for the actions we want to take, to think about the ifs and buts of, if…then…do… and to break down in our minds why we are doing it this way and what might happen if I did it like this here etc. Deliberately calling to mind the actions we need to take for given techniques and really emphasizing the component parts for success are much more likely to be repeated at higher speeds if we have conditioned ourselves to them at lower ones, giving ourselves freedom to look and keep our heads up. And if you haven’t already got that what I want you to do is slow down, look, keep your head up then the final tip is a good one for you.

Repetition. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, so doing something badly a few times is no substitute for practicing something well often. Pick a drop or a jump and session the hell out of it, then find something else. Above all remember that as scientific and technical as we want and can make things out there the main aim is to have fun, if you’re struggling to get things sorted on the trail and can’t work out why, then spend some time with someone who can help, above all enjoy yourselves and take it easy. Heads up!

2015 World 24hr endurance champion and Pro-rider Sonya Looney says:

“A lot of us never really learned how to mountain bike, we just started doing it.  It can be hard to break bad habits and every single one of us has as least one area we can improve.  I know that I had a bad habit of staring into the apex of a corner instead of looking through it.  To break the habit, have one work you say out loud to yourself as a reminder and a mantra.  Mine for cornering is brake (to remind myself to brake early to set my speed before the corner), then “look” to remind myself to look through the corner.  It’s helpful to have cues that are meaningful to you.  Breathing through obstacles is also so key!”

Chris has a BSc in Physical Education and Sports Studies and is a MIAS level 3 MTB instructor, he has worked with elite athletes studying visual anticipation in skill. He has a particular interest in sports psychology, and is working towards qualifying as a systemic psychotherapist. He and his highly skilled team of coaches operate in Nottinghamshire from their base at Sherwood Pines and work throughout the Peak District, Coaching Skills and Guiding. You can find out more about them at www.alliancemtb.com or follow @AllianceMTB on twitter of Facebook.

Anserson, J.R. (1983) The Architecture of Cognition, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Williams, A.M., Davids, K. and Williams, J.G.P., 1999. Visual perception and action in sport. Taylor & Francis.

Sivak, B. and Mackenzie, C.L. (1992) ‘The contributions of peripheral vision and central vision to prehension’, in L. proteau and D. Elliott (eds) Vision and Motor Control, Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

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