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Tips for coaching fundamentals for ALL of your athletes 

From first-time riders to MTB virtuosos – all of your athletes will benefit from great skills coaching

Photo by Deborah Hage – North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League

Many of our fall coaches are starting practices, and many of our spring coaches are already busy planning next year’s season. The beginning of the season is an exciting time! You get to meet and welcome new student-athletes, reconnect with your riders from previous seasons, build and establish a great team culture, and set the stage for a fantastic year of riding bikes together on dirt. 

As coaches, it’s our responsibility to know and understand our athlete’s skill levels before we bring them to singletrack trails. We all know how awesome it is to ride trails – and it is SO exciting to share that joy and experience with our student-athletes. That said, the beginning of the season is a critical time for revisiting (or, in the case of new athletes, introducing) the fundamental skills of mountain biking

Creating engaging, thoughtful, and FUN practices that include fundamental skill development is part of the art of coaching. It is also a pillar of how we create great experiences for athletes in NICA. A good coach knows that riders at different levels need different approaches. A GREAT coach knows that skills are free speed, and that a solid foundation of skills are also the pathway to a lifetime love of riding bikes. 

At the beginning of the season, your returning riders will benefit from skills review and games (it’s also a great way to see what progressions they’ve made since last season). Your new athletes will reap the fast rewards of fundamental skills learning. Bringing new athletes to ride trails before they are ready presents a range of challenges from anxiety (at best) to injury or quitting the sport entirely (at worst). As we think of how we define success for our teams, we encourage you to frame that success with a holistic view of your riders’ skills: are you developing athletes with a solid foundation, so they are set up for growth in the future? Success is not defined by how quickly you take your teams to ride dirt.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by coaches at the beginning of the season is the challenge of presenting skills to athletes who are at different levels of experience. We’ve all fielded the question, “Coach, when are we going to ride trails!?!” We’re navigating two extremes: bringing new athletes into the sport, while also fully engaging our experienced riders. It may seem impossible to do both things, but with proper planning and strategy, it can be done, and it can be done well. 

As you plan practices for the season, consider the following:

  • Don’t start on trails: We’re not trying to kill the fun here – we promise. We love trails as much as the next shredder! BUT: do you know any football teams who start their season with full pads, 11-on-11 scrimmages? All great teams (regardless of their sport) constantly revisit the fundamentals of their craft. Mountain biking is no different. Remember that as NICA coaches, we need to approach our work with an athlete-centered mindset. If you’re rushing to get to trails because it’s more fun to coach while riding trails, it’s time to recenter your riders’ experiences within your practice objectives.
  • Recalibrate your own judgment: It’s always a good idea for coaches to pre-ride trails every year before the season starts. As you scout trails for your team – even if you’ve ridden them a million times – re-ride as if you were someone who is brand new to mountain biking. Lock out your elbows (or your bike suspension), keep your butt in the saddle, and pedal in the wrong gear. After a couple miles of riding like this, you have a better understanding and sense of empathy for what trails feel like to our beginner riders. It can be eye-opening to realize that the green trail can still feel really challenging when you remove your foundation of solid MTB skills as you ride.
  • Use games: On the bike games and experiential learning (learning by doing, with reflection) can make performing new skills less intimidating for new riders, and bring a new sense of challenge and excitement for your experienced riders. Take bike limbo as an example: your beginner riders will be able to practice their new skills of bike body separation. Your experienced riders can get creative about balance and bike position as they challenge themselves to get lower and lower. Success can be achieved at all levels in this game (especially because your newest riders might also be your smallest – limbo gives them an opportunity to excel even when riding with varsity athletes!)
  • Differentiate your practices: Let’s say you’re planning a practice around the skill of bike body separation. You can run a variety of activities/drills to teach this skill, all of which take progression into consideration: 
    • A straightforward runway to demo bike body separation: beginner rider goals are to demonstrate the skill effectively; advanced riders can do so with speed, or ride on a line or small skinny feature while demonstrating the skill, or dodge obstacles as they ride.
    • A slalom course with cones, or a dual slalom race can be another progression or game, in addition to bike limbo (above). 
  • Rider groupings: At the beginning of the season, you might not have any idea where new student-athletes fall in terms of skill level. Consider your grouping strategies thoughtfully: to begin, you can try to group by age, newness to the sport, etc. Pair each group with level 2 or 3 coaches who can address the specific needs of those riders. Try keeping groups/coaches consistent for the first few weeks so it is easy for them to observe the skill levels of the small groups and provide feedback/informal skills summaries to the head coach for future groupings. The art of creating ride groups is nuanced, so check out our resources and tips on this topic, here.
  • Spotlight your advanced riders: Put your skilled athletes in a position of mentorship. Veteran riders can help you with demonstrations, assist with explaining skills/where they’re used, and share their experiences about why it is important to build each skill. 
  • A short course: When executed well, this activity simulates trail riding at the beginning of the season without the level of risk and intimidation presented by singletrack. You can observe riders’ skills easily, and you can do it all in a relatively low-risk environment. This activity is a perfect way to assess where your athletes are at after they’ve had an intro to all the basic MTB skills. For new riders, the challenge is to get through the course and demonstrate the fundamentals. For advanced riders, you can up the ante by creating a time-trial competition, lap competition, etc. Even better, have your experienced riders assist with creation of the short course: give them directives on what types of skills need to be included, and set them free with some cones, flags, and maybe a coach or two to provide light guidance.
Remember: skills are free speed!

These are great tips, and there are so many creative ways you can plan your first few weeks of fundamental skills practices to meet the needs of all your riders – all without riding a single section of trail. We encourage you to take advantage of the resources provided by NICA to make this easier for your planning purposes. Here are a few we recommend:

  1. The OTB 101 and 201 Manual: Available to any coach who has completed these courses, the manuals take a deep-dive into the fundamental skills and offer concrete progressions and printable appendices for use in practice. They also provide a concrete summary of the short course (above).
  2. NICA’s On-the-Bike Games: This list of activities includes the fundamental skills included in each game, so you can pick activities to match your skills focus for each practice.
  3. Practice Planning Resources: Did you know that we offer a tried-and-true season practice plan AND a set of sample plans? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You can easily slot these pre-planned activities into your own team’s schedule and roll with it! The plans even include games to use for each skill.

Do you think there’s a resource we’re missing? Do you have a great tip for how to create fun and engaging early-season fundamental skills practices? Share them with us! We want to hear from you and amplify your great coaching for the rest of our community. 

Thanks for all you do as NICA coaches – planning practices like these require a bit more time to plan than just riding trails, but the rewards and benefits for ALL of your student-athletes (regardless of their skill and experience level) are immeasurable. It may feel exciting to get on trail as early as possible, but remember that all good things come with time: our goal is to build riders who will love cycling for the rest of their lives.

NOTE: You can find all of these resources (and more) in the NICA Coach Education Center: log into Pit Zone and click the “Courses, Resources, & Benefits” button. Navigate to the right side of your dashboard for resource links/search features.

NICA’s Coach Education team exists to support a network of thousands of volunteer coaches across the country in their work to develop youth through the sport of mountain biking. NICA’s coach education provides coaches with the skills, knowledge, and abilities to be confident and effective leaders and role models who build strong minds, bodies, character, and communities through cycling. 

Special thanks to CANYON, a NICA silver level partner.

NICA Partners are enabling NICA to reinvent youth sports and engage families in a thriving cycling community, for life.

Our partners’ commitment to NICA’s mission has a huge impact on our student-athletes, their families and communities across the nation. NICA partners are changing the world by getting #MoreKidsOnBikes!