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Acquiring Skill 2.0

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.

Skill, technique, beginner!?
Skill basic with beginners – the right approach?

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!

More to come

Sorry!

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2 replies on “Acquiring Skill 2.0”

I’ve been following BikeJames’ workouts for a few years now and am frustrated by my lack of ‘guts’ on the trail. This post helps break down the elements – I (think I) have the physiological movement capabilities (from the BikeJames program) but lack the psychological element: I think I can’t do features, so I tickle the brakes!
You talk about training the physiological side, but how do you improve the mind/confidence? The same advice? Practice, variety…? (Good lick this year, btw!)

Hi Gary,

Cheers for the comment – they often get lost among the Spam!

I think you’ve identified one of the biggest issues with training for real world “improvements” in MTB. There are so many “types” of rider out there that fall along different continuum of proficiency.

Some have plenty of physiological capabilities but lack technique and others developed good riding technique etc… early on and then could pretty successfully lump good training on top of that.

It’s one of the core issues with following an online program and one thing I tried to work around or improve upon in my own online programs i.e. the integrative approach to improving.

All the training and car-park drills in the world won’t lead to lasting improvements unless it’s transferred or dealt with on the trial. So while many online coaches will just add in a “weekend” ride to their programs you buy I think the key for a guy like you will be knowing what is beneficial in the gym and what is also a key way to approach improvements on the trail.

So to help calrify…keep variay in exercises choosen in the gym but reduce variation in movements. That means keeping a solid similar hip hinge when swinging or a powerful lock out when deadlifitng.

then when on the trail – it’s part practice or intense focus on particular areas of weakness that leads to internal focus, tightness and overall stagnation in improvements.

So try this: if for example you struggle with drop offs – ride a long section of trail with a drop somewhere in the middle – focus on nothing but carrying maximum speed out of each distinct section leading to the drop. When you get to the drop, think of 3 things only. Where I want to go after the drop. Where I need to be before the drop to get to where I want to go, and how stable does my posture need to be to be successful in the drop and thus reach your intention.

As-long as you’ve started with that same 3 things on smaller drops and can control weight shifting on your bike then you’ll be fine! Start smart and small and progressively overload!

Simple! And that same principle applies to much of your riding.

Training to improve strength and posture in the gym is one of the most valuable things rider can do…but understanding that minimizing variation in key postures in the gym and maximizing time on your bike to apply physiological improvements is the “holy-grail” maybe!

Hope that helps.

I

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