A while back my son and I were riding our mountain bikes on a particularly twisty trail, speeding through the corners, dodging trees and rocks when he suddenly says to me, “They say that playing video games helps with eye hand coordination, but I think being out here having to swerve through the trees beats that for sure”. It was a proud moment for me since there is a lot of talk these days about kids spending too much time in front of the television or playing online video games. As a longtime cyclist and athlete it got me thinking about what skills are learned though cycling that can be applied to life. In NICA we promote things like Teamwork, Leadership, Respect and we build Strong Character, Mind and Body. Cycling, and particularly racing will build all these traits, but we rarely tell the stories of how specific cycling skills lead to these, and other, important life lessons. So, besides improved eye hand coordination, here is a list of lessons that I personally have learned and that I hope every rider picks up and carries through life.
Perseverance– On a bike just as in life there are physical and mental obstacles that need to be overcome. Whether it is a rock ledge you are trying to clear, a math test you are trying to pass or a physical limitation you have the ability to work through those obstacles and keep trying is essential. I have watched kids begin the season by getting off and walking over every small rock and ledge but end the season riding through those same areas like they were riding over a smooth road. There are kids that start the season barely able to finish a five mile training ride that end the season riding for 10 or 15 miles or more at a time. The willingness to keep at it and constantly improve is essential to success. Related to Perseverance is having a Growth Mindset, which is the idea that no matter where you start you can always set goals to improve. It does not matter if your goal is to just finish or to finish first, the key to success is constant improvement over where you were yesterday or last week.
Facing fears – There are always going to be obstacles that look big and scary. Riding over a field of menacing looking rocks can cause a lot of people to turn back and find another path. In fact at most of the NICA races there is a bypass to some of the more difficult obstacles, the easy road, but the bypass is always longer so a price is paid for taking it. They say that the definition of fear is being scared but doing it anyway and facing those fears during a race means learning to eventually ignore the bypass. Extending your comfort zone is part of cycling and part of life and the rewards are always greater than taking the easy road.
Presence – In mountain biking as in life, distractions can ruin your ride and possibly get you hurt. The ability to focus is essential. Mountain biking is a whole body experience, it takes mental focus to make sure you are watching out for the next tree or ledge or tight turn. It requires you to be ever present in the moment, not living in the past or the future. If a rider dwells on a mistake made one minute ago he or she will miss the drop off that is coming up or the right turn around the big tree. Same goes for living in the future, a rider cannot be distracted by what is to come and must focus on the task at hand.
There is a phrase in cycling, “Embrace the suck”. The idea is that when you are tired, hungry and sore and still have ten miles to go, when the wind is in your face and you feel like you are moving backwards, and when you are halfway up a steep hill climb and your legs are on fire, embracing the pain, giving into the feeling, putting your head down and focusing on the task at hand will make it easier. In Yoga there is a similar saying, “The thing that we pay most attention to will grow”. I find them to be closely related and it helps me all the time when I am trying to work through a tough race, workout or just a hard day at work. If I focus my attention on the fact that my legs are on fire, they will burn more. If I focus on being tired and hungry then my hunger grow, but focusing on the goal or on catching the rider in front of me the pain subsides.
Self-Reliance – In the races and even while out training there is an expectation that every rider being prepared. Bringing the right gear for the job, and being able to fix things when they go wrong is a major part of being a mountain biker and a productive citizen. While racing riders are expected to change their own flats. If something breaks on the bike riders have to be prepared to fix it or figure out a way to keep the bike going. Riders carry their own water and food. Coaches, parents and other riders can sometimes help but it should not be expected. Knowing that you can take care of things yourself offers a sense of pride and builds self-esteem.
Complete what you set out to do – Cycling and racing just like any sport is about not giving up. Playing all four quarters or all nine innings, or whatever the sport may be. In mountain biking and especially in NICA we promote not just individual goals but team goals. Riders gain team points for finishing. So whether you are first or last you are working towards a team goal and trying to make the team successful. Doing everything in your ability to finish a race builds confidence and pride. I have seen kids carry their bikes on their shoulders across the finish line because it was broken. A rider on our team once finished a lap standing up on the bike the whole time while carrying his broken seat post in his hand. That attitude of pride in the team and pride in self and following through is essential in life.
Improvise, Overcome and adapt – There is rarely a perfect race and learning to adjust to what the day gives you whether it is a flat tire, rain, cold, or even a broken seat (see #6 above) is a lesson that can carry you through all kinds of situations in real life. Your reaction to unexpected changes or problems can be the difference between disaster and success. The skills you would use to finish a race when halfway through it started to downpour are the same skills you would use if your computer crashed right in the middle of an important presentation to the boss.
As a coach for the Bowie and Middle School Composite mountain bike teams I have seen some amazing things from the riders and I cannot believe the resilience and drive of some of these kids. There are times when something goes wrong and I am sure it is going to deter a kid from ever racing again but to my surprise they are geared up and ready to train the next day. I am confident that these lessons and so many more will make all of our riders stronger and more prepared for whatever life throws there way.