Posted in Cycle
Clair Buchar riding her mountain bike

Words by Claire Buchar

We all train physically. Whether it's in the gym for strength, or on the trail for strength, endurance, speed and skill. But what good is all that if sometimes 90% of the game is mental? What good is strength and endurance when you're intimidated by a section of trail?

We've all experienced a section of trail that scares us. It may be a rocky chute or a tricky line through some slippery roots. Whatever level you are at, if you are like me, you are constantly trying to improve, progress and step up your riding.

Challenge your comfort zone

First off, please be realistic about your skill level. This is important. You need to be realistic about what you think you can attempt. Don't try something way beyond your skills, you won't last long on the bike that way, but at the same time, don't sell yourself short. So, in other words, know your limits but challenge your comfort zone.

I'm not going to get too scientific here but there is plenty of research to show that repetitive action of motor skills creates a learning "groove" in the brain. The more you practice, the deeper the groove. The deeper the groove, the more natural the skill will feel. So practice really can make perfect.

The best way to go about progressing safely is building up your riding incrementally. Build your confidence in your ability by starting small and gradually going bigger or steeper or further. For the purpose of this article, lets say the obstacle we want to tackle is a basic drop with a basic run in, basic take off and basic landing in good conditions. This is about the mental approach, after all.

Claire cornering at the Ranch Camp in Kamloops, British Columbia

Stop and look

Always stop and have a good look at what you are about to ride off. Get off your bike and stand above it or walk it if possible. If it's blind, make a little visual mark in the dirt or with a stick, something to aim for so you are heading in the right direction on your approach.

Claire and others looking down a mountain bike path in Kamloops

Compare and contrast

Compare the section you are about to ride with something else you have done before that was similar. You'll be able to draw from that experience and add confidence into this scenario.

Observe and learn from others

Watch someone else that is capable go off of it. See how much speed they had going in, what line they took, how they were in the air and on landing. Ask them how it felt if possible. Make a judgement call: how does your riding stack up to theirs?

Creative visualisation

Visualization is like creating a scene in your mind that refers to your best performance. It's like creating a movie where every detail is recorded and can involve all of your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and feel. Mental rehearsal puts the brain through a nervous system workout similar to the real thing. It's like a free practice run! It can also facilitate the development of motor skills by forming those grooves in the nervous pathways that we talked about earlier.

So properly visualize yourself nailing the drop. If any self doubt tries to creep in and you see yourself falter, start again. Don't let those thoughts and feelings in!

Claire in mid-air clearing a gap on her mountain bike

Commit or leave

Commit: Draw from your mental strength, breathe, ground yourself. Being nervous is ok. It's your body's natural physiological reaction to the situation at hand. Say a positive affirmation if you need to: "I can do this. I am focused and capable". Whatever you find works for you. Then go. Remember that on any obstacle, there is a point of commitment on that run in. The point where afterwards you can't brake or stop safely anymore, you must be fully committed. No hesitation!

Leave it: If you just aren't feeling it, can't overcome the nerves then walk or ride away. If you've been up there contemplating for more than five minutes, let it go. Save it for your next lap or for next day, week, whatever. Come back when you're a bit more reset. Simple as that.

Keep your focus at all times

Remember, you shouldn't be trying something that you aren't pretty sure you can do. But if you've been realistic with your skill level and what you are capable of, nine times out of ten after completing the obstacle you'll be like: "That was so easy, what was I so worried about". Yes, sometimes you might crash. This is the reality of the sport we're in. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and try again. Or leave it for a while. Critique yourself and think about what went wrong. Think positive. Whether you think you can or you can't , you're right. I've been picked up and spat out of obstacles that I've done near perfect ten times before that. Remember and focus on the time(s) that you nailed it: "I've done it before well, I can do it again".

I hope that some of these mental and tactical tools can help you with your progression on your bike! And all the best on those obstacles!

All images courtesy of Justin Kious

Claire and Chris Kovarik smiling


Claire Buchar is a PMBI (Professional Mountain Bike Instructor) Level 2. She is also a Canadian National Team Member, World Championships Bronze Medalist, multiple Canadian National Champion. If you're interested in being coached by Claire then check out the Kovarik Racing website.