Training your Brain: Part 2 – Skills Acquisition

Let’s start with how we learn and what we can reasonably expect to learn. Riding a mountain bike is about programming in a very complex series of fine-motor controls so that we don’t have to think much on the trail. When we program our cerebellum to ride for us, it means we don’t have to think about every obstacle, so we can just ride over them (this is why good riders look like they’re riding without having to think about it – they’re not, at least not consciously). We can do this because our cerebellum reacts way faster than the conscious parts of our brain. The downside is that if you program in crap, you’ll ride like crap – automatically.

Danny sunset drop copy
Danny Macaskill; highly tuned.

As you speed up beyond what your conscious brain can process, you’ll be riding on your automatic systems without the ability to monitor or modify.

Learning a motor skill is a slow and frustrating process. When you learnt to drive, you had to think about everything, and it was hard to react properly in real time. Eventually though, you were able to program in these skills so you didn’t have to think about them. The same goes for mountain biking. When you’re learning you rely on conscious processing, and this is slow (reaction speed of seconds rather than milliseconds).

The good news is that while you’re riding under conscious control, you have the option to monitor what’s going on, and to make modifications – if you make the right modifications this means that you’re learning good stuff. In fact, whenever you’re riding under conscious control the conscious part of your brain is programming the automatic control systems (in your cerebellum) so you’ll be more efficient later on. But as soon as you speed up beyond what your conscious brain can process, you’ll be riding on your automatic systems without the ability to monitor or modify.

Annoyingly, most of us don’t learn to ride like we learn to drive. Rather than getting proper instruction and then practising until we’re competent, we usually just ‘go out and ride’. And because we often practise bad habits, we end up with these bad habits deeply programmed into our brains (meaning you’ll ride like crap whenever the trail gets tough and you don’t have time to think).

Because we often practise bad habits, we end up with these bad habits deeply programmed into our brains

So here’s how to program your brain in order to learn or improve a bike skill (whether you’re a beginner or an expert), so that you won’t have to think about it on the trail.

1)   Start by figuring out what you want to improve: braking, balance, cornering, line selection, drops, rock gardens, whatever.

2)   Get some information on how to do whatever it is you want to learn. Maybe from an instructor, a mate who’s good at whatever it is you want to get better at, a website, or a video.

3)   Find an appropriate spot to practise and start basic and slow. For example, for a drop, find a kerb and start by rolling over it, concentrating on getting your weight distribution right. When this feels easy, try going a bit higher and slowly rolling off, focusing on smooth weight transitions and landings. The trick is to make sure that you’re always consciously aware of what you’re doing and in control of your actions. This will be frustrating and the temptation will be to speed up and go bigger. Don’t.

4)   Keep practising until what you’re doing feels easy, and then get some feedback from riders who know what they’re talking about. Modify based on their feedback and keep practising.

5)   Start speeding up and, or adding complexity. Make sure you never go beyond a point where you can maintain conscious control of your bike. As soon as you find yourself reacting rather than thinking, slow down.

6)   If you find yourself freaking out or getting anxious, stop. Go back to a simpler or slower version and practise until it feels easy.

7)   Likewise, try not to overthink. Picture what you have to do in your mind’s eye, and then do it, keeping track of the key factors (like hand and body position). If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the task at hand.

8)   As your ability increases, try mixing it up and trying out your skills on new sections of trail. Try to stay slowed down and in control.

9)   Remember that skills programming is slow, but not necessarily boring. Whenever you start to get bored, remind yourself that this will make you a much better rider. It’s worth thinking about what riding means to you, and remembering that mastery isn’t about getting to the bottom of a trail, or about having big balls, it’s about being good on the bike. Lots of riders can get down something or huck a big gap, but not many do it well.

Chris Kovarik. Effortlessly amazing around a filthy off-camber corner.

If the steps above sound strange to you, you’re not alone. Very few of us actually learn to ride this way, so instead of consistently getting better at the thing we love, we just ride the same stuff week by week, making the same mistakes and getting frustrated because we’re not improving!

Obviously, it’d be boring to stop riding and just do skills work. I suggest taking a deliberate 1-2 weeks every 2-3 months (especially when you come up against an obstacle to your riding) and going through these steps.

In part 1 of this series we looked at how your brain helps and hinders your riding. In this section we looked at how to use your brain to program in good riding. In part 3 we’ll look at putting this all together so that you can ride with flow out on the trail.


About the author:

Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.

In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (

Jeremy is based in Melbourne and can be contacted through his website (

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