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Coaching in Mountain Biking


I was listening to BBC Radio 5 Live over the weekend and there was an interesting discussion about coaching in football and rugby union. They were discussing the difference between a trainer and a coach. It struck a chord with me because what they were talking about is especially relevant for mountain biking, where there are very few ‘coaches’ involved in the sport. Over the last two seasons Morrocco Media have been working with the MS-Mondraker Team on the downhill mountain biking world cup circuit, so we have had good insight into the way teams work and how the teams and athletes approach training and racing.

Many downhill mountain biking teams and athletes employ trainers and managers, but few, if any, teams and individual riders have someone they could call a coach. In very generalistic terms, trainers work on fitness, while coaches take more of a holistic view looking at technique improvement, race craft and preparation, and race management. Our video analysis service was a step towards having a coach on a team, because, as well as looking at line choice, we were looking at rider technique and course management.

In downhill mountain biking many of the athletes get to the top by mastering the skills required to ride these challenging courses. They do this by sessioning sections over and over again until they have mastered it, constantly learning from their mistakes. However, when they get to the top of the sport and are competing on the world cup circuit their approach changes and they focus, almost exclusively, on muscular and cardiovascular training, which they believe to be their limiting factor, often to the detriment of improving their technique. This approach has many limitations, including reducing the amount of time the rider spends riding their downhill mountain bike. There is a need for a paradigm shift to get back to working on technique, course management and race craft, whilst maintaining good cardiovascular and muscular fitness. This is where the more professional athletes will excel.

If we take golf as an example, golf is an individual sport, like downhill mountain biking, and the world’s best golfers have nutritionists, trainers and psychologists, but almost all the top golfers have a coach. The coach helps them improve their technique and their course and tournament management. Golfers will always mention their coach as one of the most important people in their team. Coaches, in golf, can demand large salaries, because their input is seen, by most, as fundamental to success in a sport where marginal gains are vitally important. So, why is it not the same in mountain biking?

Mountain biking is still a relatively young sport and one could argue that downhill mountain biking, has only recently shown signs of true professionalism, drawing in support to help with training. However, our analysis shows that every single downhill mountain biker could improve their technique. There is not a single rider out there that doesn’t have a weakness that could be improved and this is where a coach would be most beneficial by identifying the weakness and finding ways to help the rider overcome the weakness. For example, Aaron Gwin could improve his slow speed cornering where there are quick changes of direction, Troy Brosnan’s technique means he is prone to mistakes and Loic Bruni could improve his line choice decisions. These are three of the best and most professional riders and they all have room for improvement, which any good coach would be able to identify.

In a sport where a lot of testing and work is carried out on the bike geometry and construction, and, particularly, suspension settings, it is surprising that development and progression of rider ability is neglected. It’s not all about the bike; it should be more about the rider. If the sport wants to become more professional and attract external sponsors, this is one area where there is massive room for improvement.

After talking to many downhillers I was amazed at how little time they actually spent riding their downhill bike. If we take swimming as an example, Swimming, like downhilling, is a technique-dominated sport. Consequently, swimmers will work on an aspect of technique every day they are training and this would be achieved by doing drills in a swimming pool and slowing everything down to ensure the technique is correct through the full stroke (I speak from experience as a former triathlete training in the UK and Australia). Swimmers spend hours working on their technique in the pool slowing everything down to master the technique, even when they are at the top of the sport, and they all have coaches helping them analyse and improve their technique. Mountain bikers could learn from swimming by working on their technique, doing drills and slowing everything down to develop correct technique, which will not break down at race speed. And this is best done on the bike they will race on.

What skill sets do mountain bike coaches require? To be a good coach in mountain biking one requires a combination of video and data analytic, scientific, and research skills. A good coach will spend hours looking at video footage to understand how biomechanics affect performance and speed, they will have an understanding of the latest technologies that will help provide useful data to help a rider go quicker, they will manipulate and analyse that data to test different hypothesis and glean valuable, objective, information, and they will garner and scrutinise information from academic and grey literature. A great coach will have an inquisitive mind, questioning the current doctrine, and learning from other disciplines, but above all, they will have the confidence to test hypothesis, make changes and admit when something is not working.

If you feel you could benefit from rider-led performance analysis, please visit our Sports Lab page to find out more.

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