Very few mountain-bikers will reach “excellence”; defining excellence alone is neigh on impossible. More importantly very few riders desire world class performance, they desire feelings of self actualisation, belonging and achievement. Competency is the word. Competency of technique application… i.e skills!
Following on from the Skill Acquisition 2.0 blog; this one is short and sweet. The Car-park…the place one may go to “drill” skills, doing skills drills. As that is what many a coach, internet guru or other expert claims to be the key part of the learning process. You see similar attempts in team sports; cones, bags, lights and lightning foot-work.
The issue lies in that as we’ve chatted about before, car-parks are not where we ride, no-one has the same kind of fun and experiences of awesomeness in a car-park as you get in the forest, mountains and trails! So while I could waffle on, again, about how the car-park drill serves little purpose as it is not the task environment and as soon as we remove the characteristic constraints of the environment we are then engaging in part practice and basically pissing into the wind, I’m gonna curve ball it as our USA friends would say.
Complex vs. Complicated
A core idea behind the rationale of less car-park more bike-park! Mountain-biking of any kind is complex, not complicated. Complicated is getting an internal combustion engine to work flawlessly for years on end. It takes, planning, design, mathematics, exact step-wise construction etc… Shredding your bike down a mountain side takes skill developed over practice in the environment. Those skills never develop in the same way for two people on the same time course, with the same challenges emerging and being dealt with. Contrast that with the Volkswagen production line…every single diesel engine follows the same exact timeline of construction.
So full circle, how does the distinction between complex and complicated relate to your car-park!? Getting better at applying technique in MTB is best done in the task environment…why? Because not only can you get better at the core skill in question but the complexity of the environment will always lead to expaptations…meaning that while outcome 1 was get better at off cambers, you will invariable through natural process of self organisation get better at or discover other solutions to numerous other movement problems on the hill!
To clarify with an example. Imagine a Long left side off-camber with a right hand corner on exit, numerous tree roots, variable soil type and a long bumpy entry before the off-camber versus a car-park drill with a long plank of wood or MDF propped up against a curb or wall. looking to “mimic” a left side off-camber.
Both may lead the learner to discover the necessary lateral weight shift, posture, speed control and braking to successful enter, roll on and exit the off camber. But only one environment will lead the learner to discover or organise better posture in rough terrain, adequate perceptive skills for organising posture during one skill to prep for the next required technique…only one scenario will allow the learner to discover the effect tire pressure or direction of travel has on bike and body when encountering roots and rocks etc…
The car-park scenario assumes complicated movement solutions to a problem. The mountain allows complex solutions to movement problems to emerge, solidify and exapt other positive learning experiences.
The King of the Pits is impressive but seldom King of the Hill!
I’ll expand on this more soon as we’ve not even covered the possible and plausible idea of “negative transfer” that may occur in exaggerated part practice. Nor have we covered the issue of the “car-park” removing so many affordances that should dictate technique that you may be just simply wasting time.
And for those who wish to read more about the above ideas in a general context – click here.
For the past 18 months or so I’ve wound my way around a slippy path of discovery. All to do with motor learning and how we acquire, learn, solidify and modify “skill”. Traditional theories (linear) versus non-linear theories!
Now skill is essentially the application of technique in the task environment; the constraints created by that environment lead to affordances or “relation between us and object in environment that allows actions to help achieve our task goal – e.g. pull versus push door handle” that allows us the rider to make decisions on the best course of action to successfully complete our task (getting bike and rider to another point on the hill)! That last sentence has all the hallmarks of the thoughts of someone who has read and attempted to apply to their sport, the theories of ecological psychology and dynamic systems to the perception-action model! All separate but now converging ways of theorising and modeling learning and doing.
Before I continue there is one thing you need to keep in mind; theories, even if widely accepted are not perfect nor correct and as for models, some may be very useful, but NONE are perfect.
Traditional theories (schema, top down) hold the central command centre of the brain on a pedestal as chief decision maker; we get info in from our senses, make a decision then act. The Ecological approach peppered with some dynamic systems modeling downplays the importance of our brains and instead takes the organism (rider) and the environments interaction as key. Rider perceives (searches for) info on trail and the action needed to complete the task is created not just by the brain but by the whole system.
So if you have got this far reading, what I’m going to waffle on about next is my very simplistic take on how some of these models and theories converge & can possibly be applied to getting better at riding your bike and how they may or may not work together to explain why you find improvement hard or not! This will be a lot briefer than it could be, mainly because I’m very very under-educated in motor-learning….for now!
“Skills” training on your bike must have clear intention. Designed in such a way as to increase your map of potential pathways to your destination. These “maps” though are not rigid set actions controlled by the brain and CNS, they are more so experiences banked so deep they become intrinsic, made up of knowledge of affordances (stuff we know the value or utility of in relation to our own physical abilities) that link together to make actions purposeful and successful.
The Intention – action model applied in relation to how we learn motor skills is useful. By in large our intentions are often similar; aiming to get to a certain point on a trail as fast and efficiency as possible. Linking up these points to the finish line or trail end. These intentions lead to the search for movement solutions to our problem of getting form A to B!
By increasing your experience of technique application you create more usable and adaptable road maps to successful completion of a task. In essence a wider or more complete map of possible movement solutions to these problems. These solutions become “stable” when they are transferred to our hard disk of learned skills. But unlike in top down theory of motor learning and control, this hard disk storage does not mean we have to apply rigid solutions to each technique application problem, but instead we have stable solutions that then allows the body/organism freedom to make very fine necessary changes to posture, control and technique application without consulting some sort of master plan maker in the brain! “Preflex” control is how it is termed in Dynamical Systems thinking.
For us the MTB rider it makes perfect sense! Very conscious deliberate technique application takes time, often feels cumbersome and even if it leads to successful outcomes often does not leave the learner satisfied! This comes back to coaching also, repetitive reinforcement of internal cues, telling a rider to get that foot down or elbow up etc… leads to often quick but very short lived or limited retention of proficient. Instead letting the rider learn that their technique in switchbacks is developing well by how much exit speed they carry is far more successful, sure it may take some direct internal cues at first, but true mastery will only come if the organism/rider can be left enough time to self organise and eliminate shitty solutions to the motor problem on their own.
Basically give yourself some building blocks of what the solution may be but then go wild with attempting the different solutions until brain and body gel with the environment. After all all task are environment specific.
Repetitive non characteristic technique training (car-park and cones) serves purpose only for beginners. Removing yourself from the task environment (mountains and dirt and rocks and the like) means little opportunity to pave new roads or improve the surface and width of existing ones. You want to immerse yourself in the environment of your sport so you can build a bigger more robust network of potential choices of action (solutions) for you to use to achieve the task goal at progressively increasing speeds.
Your body and brain as a dynamic system will decide based on current physiological state and past experiences of similar tasks in that environment whether you have the required capacities to safely achieve the movement intention. If you’ve not developed prior successful completion of such a task then aiming to complete it at speed is not going to happen.
Thus progressive overload of technique application in the task environment is the most efficient way to improve “skill”. At first “overload” will be expensive, physically and metabolically, but economic learning will lead to a large reduction in cost once we’ve banked up some technique application experience!
Start small and slow but aim to do so in your characteristic sporting environment. In our case that’s the woods, hills, mountains, forest and wilderness of MTB. If a solution to a movement problem (lets say hopping onto a slippy bank to rail a left hander with more exit speed) requires a very basic technique like lateral balance & a bunny hop then these can be developed short term outside of the environment but need to be swiftly applied to the task environment if you are going to solidify that movement solution and bank it deep as a permanent solution!
No coach or friend would need to tell you how good your bunny hop is if the bank you hop onto is high enough; as the end result dictates that you have indeed mastered bunny-hops because otherwise you would not have made it up onto that bank!
Another example; Freezing up on steep muddy terrain and sliding to a stop on your bum just means that your brain and body have decided that you do not poses the required physical and movement skills to reach your “destinations” so playing/riding in the mud; progressively adding in more and more contextual challenges is the only option to improvement. Or at least riding in loose slippy terrain. For weather it’s sand or mud many of the solutions and self organization that occurs to be proficient in these environments are highly transferable!
Likewise a longitudinal analysis of whether you have any physiological or bio-mechanical limitations that reduce your ability to maintain the postures and limb positions needed to apply technique is needed for many. Off and on the bike training can serve the purpose of improvement in this area!
So to sum up for now on what will hopefully be an evolving blog topic
Whole Practice always – Part Practice Seldom
Discipline Characteristics matter when elite performance is desired.
Gross technique mastery first but swiftly applied to various task environments.
Unfamiliar links between sensory perceptions and motor skill lead to acquisition of new skill – as-long as system perceives task and environmental constraints as achievable given current physiological state!
Core Movement patterns, Core Techniques and adequate basic motor skill (balance etc..) are fundamental to improvement on the bike & can be trained both on and off the bike to a finite point when looking for improvement.
New techniques can be introduced outside of the task environment but cannot ever be mastered anywhere but the task environment.
Although visually and perceptually similar, core techniques like cornering must be applied in all environments under all constraints encountered for it to become a universal “skill”. Berms vs flat turns, mud versus gravel etc..
Knowledge of your performance is not as effective as knowledge of your results. Think “ohh coach said my elbow was in a good position for cornering” vs. “I slayed that turn and carried huge exit speed out – 4km/h faster than before”
Think about “overloading” your skill training with more varite of terrain and possible task solutions over more repetition. Slamming the same turn 100 times will never be as useful as slamming 100 different turns.
If you are bad at riding in a particular environment, ride in it more.
If you can’t bunny hop because of poor ankle mobility, fix the mobility off the bike, but don’t wait to apply technique when new found ankle mobility occurs….it goes hand in hand. As you will not see linear, step-wise improvements in either quality.
Improving your riding is a constant renovation; not a 1 time re-build.
The gym can be used to improve technique application but only if movement patterns, muscle action and intentions carry over to your on the bike movement.
Provide yourself with variety in your task environment to achieve meaningful improvements in performance. But avoid part practice when doing so.
Variation in technique application via varied environment constraints = robustness and less fragility in skilled movement.
Getting better is fun because it requires riding often, in varied terrain in various conditions under a variety of physical, ecological, meteorological and psychological conditions!