Skills Acquisition and Nonlinear Coaching

Warning – This blog forms part of my portfolio for the new Cycling Ireland Level 2 Coaching Qualification.  As such, it may not be the most entertaining article ever!  If you’re interested in coaching though and specifically the process of skills acquisition, grab a cuppa and read on.

Skills Acquisition and Nonlinear Pedagogy

I’ve been a professional mountain bike skills coach for over a decade, and pride myself on sessions that inspire the most appropriate and rapid improvements from riders.  To achieve this, my approach has altered vastly over the years, prioritising different techniques, and developing and learning new approaches, whilst also stealing any quality practice I’ve witnessed!  I’m almost entirely self-taught, having gleaned knowledge from various sources, mainly online, but also with much of the best thinking coming from other coaches that I was teaching.

Technical skills coaching in mountain biking is in a relatively infant phase, and so a self-led and self-reflective approach has been essential to combat the lack of hard-and-fast rules on fundamental movement in mountain bike skill development.  Technological advances, new disciplines, ever-expanding boundaries of possibility and increasingly technical trails have made the sport unrecognisable even from what it was when I started coaching in the late Noughties.  Keeping up with change is non-negotiable and standing still as a coach is not a viable approach!

Enjoying some extremely informative presentations at the initial weekend of the new level-two course, my head began to spin slightly.  Academic terminology was flying around the room, ‘constraints-based learning’, ‘nonlinear pedagogy’, phrases that I felt (particularly as a mentor on this programme) should maybe have been second nature to my vocabulary.  Feeling a touch overwhelmed I put on a composed face and listened hard to what was being said.  Following the presentation, and some excellent scones, we progressed outside where I slipped into a more comfortable zone, observing coaches delivering skills sessions and taking notes on questions I’d put to those coaches regarding their session development and delivery.  Very quickly it became clear to me that what I was witnessing wasn’t a revolutionary new approach that had somehow passed me by, it was in-fact a style that I’ve employed for many years, it had just got lost in translation, phew!

Let’s Get Layman

So what do these terms really mean?  Post-course I’ve been tucking into lots of blogs and thesis’ regarding linear and non-linear coaching and constraints-led and games based learning.

Linear Pedagogy – Is characterised by coach-centric learning with repetition, drills and technical demonstrations being key.  The advantage of this approach is that skills acquisition can be rapid as the coaching is very focused on individual aspects of movement.  The proven disadvantage is that once the athlete is removed from that exact movement or other factors are introduced, they haven’t developed the deeper understanding (conscious or unconscious) to adapt their movements and so subsequently are limited in their abilities.

Nonlinear Pedagogy – Is characterised by coaches placing constraints on the athletes or by using games, making the learning experience more experiential with many more factors to consider.  This develops problem-solving abilities in the athletes rather than being limited to particular rigidly taught movements.  Skills development in this style is generally considered to be slower but more robust and requires sessions to be much more learner-led.

They clearly both have their place, with their own pros and cons, but most of the academic subject matter I’ve come across has dealt with coaching team ball-sports.  As these sports all take place within a controlled environment where the main variable factors are the actions of teammates and the opposition, I’m interested in how these two approaches relate to the type of coaching I do?

Constraints Based Learning In Dangerous Environments

Given that the skills acquisition coaching I tend to focus on is in a non-competitive environment, the ‘real-world’ constraints don’t come from the actions of humans, and instead are provided by the terrain itself.  Theoretically, all sessions could be put into immediate context by basing them on trails where the terrain is constantly changing as you ride along, with weather factors providing further challenges by hugely altering the technicality whenever the ground is wet.  The fundamental problem with this approach is the fact that mountain biking is inherently dangerous and so when working with early-stage learners, placing them in those trail environments is both likely to cause injury and also (in my own fairly extensive experience) detrimental to learning, as survival, rather than improvement becomes the riders’ sole focus, and as a result skill development is limited.

The approach I’ve developed over the years, is instead to keep the environment initially as benign as possible in order to provide the psychological security necessary for learning to take place.  Using linear coaching to introduce fundamental movements, but also providing constraints where applicable, I’ve then tended to rapidly advance to trail features that allow experiential nonlinear learning to take place.  As I only have riders for a limited time period, the rapid skill generation of a linear approach suits well when immediately followed by constraints-based learning and an emphasis on rider ‘feel’.

As I don’t want to injure my riders, the sessions that are demonstrated here will initially be characterised by constraints on the rider themselves in-terms of their movements, before latterly allowing the nature of the terrain and trail features to facilitate the rider-led experiential learning.  Confidence will grow through repetition and it’s important to note that it’s this psychological strength as well as honing skills that necessitates repeat goes on set features.

My coaching philosophies focus on enjoyment and technical skill acquisition with a view to developing skilled riders who absolutely share my love of mountain biking.  I hope this comes across in the session videos.

The Rider

Rachel Sinnamon is an experienced roadie who has done a bit of mountain biking.  I put a few questions to her to gather a bit of background.

What’s your biking background? How long biking?  Road? A bit! Biking about since around 18 yrs as an additional way to keep fitness up for other sports. Road biking “properly” since 2012/3.

What’s your favoured discipline?  Road at the moment because I like long distances and have ambitions to do the Trans AM Race Across America. BUT as I’ve gotten better…or maybe more comfortable…on the MTB I’ve now ambitions to try things like Da Cooley Thriller and I’d like to do more mountain biking on actual mountain terrain in the Mournes and Highlands.

How would you describe your current mountain biking abilities?  Not too bad…but I can’t wheelie or manual.  I’m not fast as I want to gain more confidence in my skills; technical ability, before I go adding speed.  Confidence for me comes after competence.

Have you ever been coached before on a bike?  Not officially. Only picked up tips and help from fellow riders along the way.  Money I guess is a factor.  I always dreamed of a bike fit!

Any medical needs or injuries I should be aware of?  Nothing worth writing home about 🙂

Session One – Cornering Fundamentals

Session Aim – To explore and better understand body positioning in cornering.

Bike Set-Up Requirements – Seat down, front tyre pressure not overly-hard (20-25psi).

1) Car Park Handlebar Exercise

With no technical assistance from the coach, the rider has to see how close they can get the end of their handlebar to the ground on both sides. Constraints are to be introduced as the rider has more attempts.

Constraints are;
– Weight must fully be on one leg.
– One arm must be fully straight and the other must be a different shape.

After a few goes with these constraints, further ones are to be introduced;

– Weight must be fully on one hand with the fingers on the other hand spread to demonstrate a passive and loose grip.
– Head must be directly above the handlebars, not over the front wheel or behind the stem bolt.
– Chin must be no further than 20cm above a part of the bars at all times.

Questions to ask the rider;
How does weight on one leg feel?
How does weight on one hand feel?
What do you think those ‘pressure points’ are doing to the bike and to cornering grip?
What happens to the bike as you apply more weight on a particular hand?

Then discuss tyre design and the way that unless the bike is edged over on to the side knobbles, proper cornering can’t take place. That introduces the idea that the bike must be leaned over hard but the rider needs to stay upright to counteract the forces that are trying to make the bike wash out. The more pressure that is applied to outside foot and inside hand, the more grip comes as a result. This is counter to most people’s thoughts that more weight and pushing the bar downwards is MORE likely to make the front end wash out.

2) Car Park Coned Corner

Aim – To apply these techniques to a fixed corner and see how fast the rider can get.

Constraints are;
– Wheels must follow the shape of the corner and not get more than one metre away from the outside of the cones.
– No braking at all once into the corner.

Rider has a few goes with me observing/filming and giving encouragement to speed up if they’re successful in staying with the cones and to consider what they’ve already learned if drifting away as the corner sharpens. Again, no specific coaching points will be given, it’s purely experiential.

Questions to ask the rider;
What are you doing to stay with the cones as the corner sharpens?

Next Constraint;

– A cone is placed at the apex of the corner and I stand inside the corner. As soon as the rider gets to the apex (which is marked with a different coloured cone) they have to look at me instead of focusing on what’s in front of them. This brings their head around to beyond the exit of the corner which brings the shoulders, core, hips and feet and turns the bike effectively.

Questions to ask the rider;
How does that feel not looking the direction the bike is travelling?

We’ll then discuss head leading the body which leads the bike and the need to look where you want to get to.

Summarise key learnings with questions and conversation.
Key Learning – Head leads the body and therefore you need to always look the direction you want to go.

Further practice before next session – Keep practicing the tasks we’ve done and start to practice the techniques off-road.
The next sessions will move into different and progressively harder situations, bringing in environmental constraints

Unfortunately my cameraman temporarily paused the filming so it’s in two parts;

So how did the session go?

It’s rare to have the opportunity to closely analyse my own sessions like this after doing it so often for other coaches so it was a very worthwhile experience just from that perspective.  The immediate thing that struck me was the fact that all my friends who claim I sound Irish these days are plainly wrong!  But that’s unimportant; what really matters to me as a coach educator are two key questions.

  1. Did the session meet its aims?
  2. Did I stay true to my coaching philosophies?

The stated aim was ‘to explore and better understand body positioning in cornering’ and I think it’s fair to say that Rachel did explore the key body positions and pressure applications that create a more robust cornering technique.  What’s more, there was definite noticeable improvement in her abilities between initial efforts and the session end where she was carving some very good aggressive corners being lead by her head position.  ‘Better understand’ is a bit trickier to quantify.  Rachel is by nature analytical and I think that I used questioning and explanation fairly well to clarify understanding, backed up by the knowledge that she is both intelligent and curious enough to seek clarification when required.  Questioning is a good form of reassurance for the coach to demonstrate the rider is aware of why they are being asked to perform a certain movement or task, but it’s hard to fight the urge to feed answers to the student.  Proof of the pudding in this case was in the improvements in Rachel’s technique without being specifically told what to do.

Coaching philosophies wise, I’ll not deny the frustration of not ‘being able’ to tweak Rachel’s position in a linear style as I certainly would under more ‘normal’ circumstances.  The remit of delivering in a nonlinear manner using constraints definitely hindered the immediacy of my usual coaching tendencies.  It did, however, prompt questioning and possibly perform the function of nonlinear learning by more deeply involving the student in the learning process.  The session was light-hearted with plenty of laughter and a non-serious atmosphere which seemed to suit Rachel well.  She was buzzing after the session ended and clearly happy with her progress.

Was it a nonlinear session?

The constraints were definitely stated and used which ‘forced’ Rachel towards the preferred techniques without directly dictating her movements.  It does appear that this encouraged more analytical thinking in Rachel, as I often note in sessions, you could almost ‘see’ her brain computing at times.  However, the use of a fixed corner for part two, whilst useful for adding context to the first exercise, may not create an ability to transfer the skills to corners with other shapes and varying terrains.  The intention is to address this in future sessions so was deliberate at this point.  I’ll be interested to hear feedback from my mentors who will be more familiar with the exact definitions of nonlinear coaching.  The session really didn’t veer too far from how I’d usually deliver this skill to a rider of Rachel’s standard although I’d definitely have been more direct for simple fixes like dropping to a higher gear to prevent the instability of the choppy pedalling style evidenced during exercise one.  In that case, the nonlinear approach felt like a straitjacket which prevented learning.  I should’ve immediately added a new constraint regarding gear selection which would’ve got Rachel thinking about why she would benefit from being in a harder gear.  In this instance, it wasn’t the style that was the hindrance, it was actually my lack of adaptability as a coach, I should’ve thought faster on my feet.  All good learning.

What did Rachel make of the session?

1) What went well for you in the session?  Confidence in cornering feeling that body weight distribution and trusting it. The ground was wet and I was wary before starting that I was going to slide out!

2) Was the communication clear enough?  Crystal. Clear, concise and easy to understand. No big long words or technical jargon. It was like leaving breadcrumbs that my body instinctively took on board and figured out the rest. For once, I wasn’t overthinking. I was just doing exactly what you said.

3) Were the tasks well enough explained?  Yes and I loved how the progression was done. Just adding bits at a time worked very well for me in building my trust and confidence and it felt less overwhelming than you saying “yeah, just lean right down and look up on a sweeping bend on the wet” that would not have created the same outcome as the bite-sized step by step approach.

4) Would you have preferred a more direct coaching style (as in me explaining how to do things more?)  I do like knowing the nuts and bolts…but actually I would be happy to go through that AFTER the session. Doing it during would in fact cause me to overthink and make it more complicated than it needed to be. KISS. Keep It Super Simple.

5) What suggestions would you have to improve the experience for you?  More time! I could easily have done an hour and THEN a ride out lol! But I’d have to pay you. In Snickers bars…(?!)

6) What was your key learning from the session?  The weight thing. Knowing that as long as I have that weight on the outside pedal and pushing that handlebar down WILL achieve a grippy, smooth and sharp as I like bend. Putting my face to the stem and ass up, lowering that centre of gravity. I think I’ve got my body at least acquainted with that feeling and now after more practice I know I can lock it into muscle memory, be able to correct myself when it’s off (as I can now identify my key areas of pressure etc) and can confidently develop.

And gearing. F**k me, gearing. I’ll get that right. Looked like an elephant riding on toothpicks.

Session Two – Line Choice and Braking In Cornering

Session Aim – To explore the impact of line choice and braking points on cornering.

Bike Set-Up Requirements – Seat down, front tyre pressure not overly-hard (20-25psi).

1) Individual Pursuit

Two riders compete head to head in an eight lap individual pursuit on a flat car park with corners marked out with cones, forcing a wide line. Time the race without telling the riders it’ll be timed.

Constraints are;
– No brakes are allowed to be used.
– Riders must follow the shape of the coned corner with wheels not more than a 1.5 metres outside the cones.

Complete one race in a clockwise direction and then one in an anticlockwise direction.

Questions to ask the rider;
Was it difficult to measure your speed into the corner with no braking?
Do you feel you’d benefit from being able to brake at all?
If yes, at what point do you feel you should brake and how hard?
Which direction felt better, if either?

Re-do the two races but with braking allowed.

Questions to ask the rider;
How did that feel? Faster? Smoother?
Do you think it was more, or less energy-efficient than with no braking?

Share the feedback of the four times to possibly ascertain which approach is faster.

Next race, remove all except one cone from the ends so rider line choice is a lot more open and complete one clockwise and one anticlockwise race.

Constraints are;
– Riders must go around the cone at each end.
– No brakes are allowed to be used.

Questions to ask the rider;
What was the thinking behind your line choice?
Was it effective?

Re-do the two races but with braking allowed.

Questions to ask the rider;
Given open choice, what have you learned about braking and line choice in a corner?

Key Learnings – Use the space where available, wide in, tight out.  Adjust speed before the corner rather than in it.

2) Natural Terrain Cornering

Aim – To use prior knowledge and technique to carry as much speed as possible through the corner.

Proceed to a natural corner with features such as loose dirt, trees on the inside and enough room to choose a line. Mark out a start and finish line with cones and time the rider having an initial attempt to get round the corner as quickly as possible between the two points.

Following this initial attempt, allow the rider several goes to work out their technique in the corner with coaching using convergent questioning to re-affirm previous knowledge and apply it to a different terrain. Explore braking/not braking, wide line/narrow line, pedaling/not pedaling and keep the learning purely experiential without expressly dictating through constraints.  Time each go between the two set points to provide feedback and encourage the rider to change just one aspect of their approach each time, be it pedaling, braking, line choice rather than wholesale changes where the learning may be diluted. This will allow them a chance to formulate an idea of the fastest approach.

Once comfortable with their approach, ask the rider to describe what they think is most effective and then give them a couple of timed runs to get a final time. Compare this with the original run.

– The environment is the constraint with loose surfaces and obstacles that will force consideration of line choice, speed and the need to brake.  Exploration of different techniques will be facilitated by encouraging alternative approaches.

Questions to ask the rider;
What worked best for you when trying to carry speed through a corner?
Do you think that approach will work for all corners?

Summarise key learnings with questions and conversation.
Key Learning – Wait and see!

Further practice before next session – Take what you’ve learned so far and start to apply it to every corner you meet when riding trails. See if you need to use the techniques to their fullest on a range of different shaped corners (ie: do you need to drop the outside foot all the way on a shallow or bermed corner?).

The next session will move into a harder situation, bringing in technical environmental constraints.

How did session two go?

This session was obviously split into two distinct sections and it’s probably best analysing them separately.  It’s worth noting that I haven’t delivered either of these sessions before, preferring to trial new ideas for the sake of this study rather than ones that I have polished over many years.

Session one focused on the games side of nonlinear skills acquisition, utilising previously learned techniques in a familiar and benign environment but adding an element of competition.  Both riders immediately understood the tasks and the constraints were adhered to for some good experiential learning.  As witnessed in the summary Rachel and Jack both agreed that when given free choice over line and braking they would go wide on entry and then cut tight on the exit using a dab of brake if required to alter line when drifting too wide.  This was exactly the key learning I hoped they’d take from the session and to have them reach that conclusion with zero direct coaching, simply through constraints and the design of the games was both gratifying and revealing.  The nonlinear coaching worked!

Improvements could definitely be made though.  I think if the straight section of the velodrome were longer then the riders would be able to generate the required speed without needing to pedal through the corner entries/exits, allowing them to really accentuate the angle of carve.  It would also help further demonstrate the potential usefulness of a sharp dab on the brakes pre-corner if they were beginning to reach speeds that were drifting them wide of the cones, or alternatively decide that less pedaling and no braking was both smoother and more energy efficient, possibly without actually losing speed.  This is important when put into the context of an entire Enduro or Downhill race run where energy preservation through ‘flow’ is vital, pumping the ground rather than pedaling to generate momentum.

The second part of the session was much less successful and much more revealing because of it.  The session had many faults, resulting in inconclusive results and possibly a failure to enhance Rachel’s understanding of cornering beyond discovering that fear is a powerful hindrance to the learning environment.

Returning To The Dangerous Environments Question

For the first time with Rachel, this session moved away from the predictable and uniform surface of the tarmac to a real-world trail environment.  As any good coach would, I walked the section with Rachel and asked her to think about potential hazards from a safety perspective, but unfortunately that was where the empathy and quality ended abruptly.  As demonstrated in the video, environmental constraints in an off-road environment can have a profound impact on technique as the rider reverts to a ‘survival above learning’ response.  It’s classic Maslow and unfortunately I was so blinkered by wanting to adhere to my planned approach that I failed to notice the clear signals.  It was a painful watch and review session for me!

For a start, the timing plainly didn’t work.  The over-optimistic theory was that we’d gradually explore and hone Rachel’s technique to a logical conclusion and then compare and contrast a ponderous first run with a World Class conclusion.  Unfortunately, pitting her against the clock added unnecessary additional pressure to an already daunting environment, it contributed absolutely no learning, with times all over the place, failing to demonstrate the advantages/disadvantages of any alternate techniques.

As the timing element wasn’t working, I then reverted to a bit of direct coaching with advice over using both brakes, rather than just the front one Rachel was using.  Good advice definitely but delivered in the wrong style, and also I really should’ve seen that as indicative of the task being pitched a bit too high.

Rachel gave plenty of warnings, most obviously verbally, mentioning the trees and the gravel as distractions to technique but her stiff movement and body positioning was also clear evidence that a fear reaction was dominant.  At this stage, adaptability is key but I failed to heed the signals and ploughed on through.  What I should’ve done is shut my mouth, removed all the extra constraints and just let Rachel ride, answering questions when prompted but otherwise just allowing her to build confidence in that trail environment and gradually add technique when ready.  I feel that Rachel’s stellar performance improvements in the previous sections led me to believe that she is more competent and experienced on a mountain bike than she is.  My mistake, I’m just glad she didn’t crash and further dent her confidence.  If you watch her feet at 11:05 and 11:49, you can see that on a corner that definitely requires a solid lower body platform, standing firmly on the outside pedal to allow the body to rotate and drive around the tree, she has begun to ride with feet at 3 and 9.  This is actually a worse technique than her initial runs, not ideal from a coaching perspective.

Did the session meet its aims?

Having just ripped myself to pieces for a while there, it’s fair to put it all back into context.  The overall summary drew out conclusions regarding line choice and braking that were very much in line with what I’d hoped.  Rachel also demonstrated by drawing her line and talking through it that she’d taken key learning from the first task and was thinking about how to apply that learning.  Unfortunately, excessive constraints during part two meant that Rachel was unable to really apply prior learning to the new environment which rendered that session fairly inconclusive.  I’m not sure it added anything to the learning and am intrigued to get Rachel’s written feedback.  I think the next session should take a step back in technicality but still definitely remain off-road, allowing Rachel to apply that confident car park cornering style on dynamic and changing surfaces.

Where does this leave nonlinear coaching?

This is really interesting and comes back to a real chicken and egg scenario with regards to skill acquisition in psychologically challenging environments.  Two questions arise;

  1. Given that Rachel’s very solid technique learned in the car park rather fell apart when the environmental constraints were added, was there any benefit to those initial sessions?
  2. If we had begun in an off-road environment, would Rachel have ever developed the confidence to hone her technique to the degree that she did in the car park?

This is something that will be examined with Rachel’s feedback and also during the next session.  Can we successfully transfer her learning to every corner in any environment?  Having taken this approach successfully with literally hundreds of other riders, I’m confident that we can, but today was a chastening experience and clear demonstration of what happens when a coach sticks too closely to a plan rather than ‘reading’ the rider.  The untested nature of the session, and overthinking the need to follow a particular style definitely damaged my instincts.  I’m pretty sure I’d have read the signs better if delivering a familiar session; not an acceptable excuse but a reason nevertheless.

The concept of nonlinear coaching has clearly been given evidential backing by our experiences in these sessions.  Skill acquisition in isolation can very quickly fall apart when challenged by other multiple factors, demonstrating the limitations of direct coaching of set movements.  Despite previous success, it’s prompting me to reconsider the way that I coach technique, which in itself has to be a positive regardless of what conclusions I ultimately draw.

As a postscript to the session, Rachel suggested that if she had someone to follow then she may be less distracted by the dangers and therefore focus more on her technique.  You can see the results here;

She did indeed take a wider line through the first corner, allowing a tighter line past the tree, something she seemed reticent to do previously.  Unfortunately Jack’s crash (which was actually worse than it looked) killed the learning somewhat and served to further underline the potential dangers.  There is a very strong risk versus reward element to mountain bike coaching, and the coach constantly walks a fine line between pushing riders to expand their perceptions of possibility, against scaring them and prompting a fear reaction which halts potential learning.  Understanding that Fun/Safety borderline is an essential facet for coaching in potentially dangerous environments and requires abilities beyond just technical know-how.

What did Rachel make of this session?

1) What went well for you in the session?  The first part because I felt more confident, went faster and trusted in my technique!

2) Was the communication clear enough?  Yes. What you can’t give me is confidence. That has to come, with time, from within. But your teaching IS inspiring the confidence. I just need time to let go and believe in myself 🙂 once that happens, that’s me away. The inch I need to grasp to take a mile.

3) Were the tasks well enough explained?  Yes. There was certainly more this time which felt less hand holding which is good. You weren’t madly hand holding last week – this week just felt like there was a little more letting go and starting to push me on. Regardless, it works for me.

4) Would you have preferred a more direct coaching style (as in me explaining how to do things more?)  No. I need to feel things for myself and let that intuition be guided on, not commanded. Command style does have its pros, but once you remove the commander, it may leave a person desolate. I think having that more guided and self (?) discovery gives the person more ownership over their skills (earned), builds confidence and trust in themselves and actually builds the relationship between them and their bike. Overall, more independence. Which, I guess all in all allows the rider to develop their own style and expression?

5) What suggestions would you have to improve the experience for you?  Maybe running the trail a few times (the whole thing) and getting a flow. Getting used to the environment, the trees, the surface. Playing. Then introducing the challenge, running that. Then introducing the speed to the challenge (stopwatch). BUT I know we were also on a timescale! 🙂

Example, when we went paddling up the North Coast (even in the pool on day one) with Oisin he would tell us to get in the water, float, jump about and (forgive me but…) become one with the water. That all REALLY works and pretty soon it became as comfy as your bed, inspired and encouraged all of us to get in a boat and go have fun! It doesn’t even take the sting out of the tail – more than that – the sting is never even there.

6) What was your key learning from the session?  Wide approach to gain the best exit line. It really is similar to the road – it’s just the body position and terrain is different (less fast but WAY more dynamic).


“You’re in the same amount of control, you’re just going faster” 🙂

And – Bring a first aid kit.

And – Jack should ALWAYS wear kneepads.

And – Get out and practice tomorrow.

So Rachel’s feedback reiterates my thoughts on the sessions to some degree.  She did pick out the key learning regarding line choice, and in the session feedback (although not here), she mentioned correct braking technique and timing.  I’m pleased to see that the sessions met their stated aims in that respect.  HOWEVER, the introduction of the terrain was more daunting and off-putting than I anticipated, which caused a definite reduction in the rate of learning, exacerbated by my unnecessary extra pressures and constraints.  This key learning will be very much reflected in my next session where I’ll let the environment be the only constraint and allow Rachel practice time on a technical corner to build confidence and begin to transfer the learned techniques.

Interestingly, she’s not only recognised the key facets of the nonlinear coaching style, she’s also stated that she prefers the approach in order to allow her to use her intuition to develop skills, rather than being told what positions and approaches to adopt.  I’ll be truly laissez-faire in the next session, just prompting Rachel to consider her prior knowledge and encouraging her to use it for greater success.


Session Three – Maintaining Speed and Flow Through Corners

Session Aim – To maintain and increase speed through a downhill corner by staying off the brakes and using learned techniques to hold the line.

Bike Set-Up Requirements – Seat down, front tyre pressure not overly-hard (20-25psi).

Constraints are;

– The environment provides substantial constraints with a moderate elevation drop, roots, rocks and trees to provide plenty for the rider to consider.

– Rider must release the brakes from the apex (marked with a cone) and not brake again for the duration of the corner.

Questions to ask the rider;

Questions to prompt the previously learned techniques to encourage correct foot position, arm shapes and pressures and head position.

The idea with this session is to take the learning from the previous session and allow Rachel to simply practice, familiarise and get comfortable with riding a technical off-road corner with all the accompanying distractions.  As she becomes more confident, she should be able to begin focusing on her known techniques rather than being put-off by the potential for crashing.

Key Learning – The essence of flow through corners is all about adjusting speed before the apex, releasing the brakes and using technique to hold the line.  This allows speed increase on downhill corners and speed maintenance on flatter corners reducing the need to constantly pedal out.

The session was again interrupted by GoPro issues so filming was split into two parts.  Here’s the rest.

How did session three go?

Surprisingly well!  It’s not that I doubted my coaching approach or Rachel’s abilities, and as mentioned before I’ve used this approach successfully in the past, but what was a bit of a shock is just how rapidly she met the session aims this time.  Within a couple of runs there was very little braking in evidence and after a handful of minutes Rachel was clearly not braking at all and was exiting the corner considerably faster than her entry speed.

I’d love to take all the credit and claim that by shutting up, giving her some head space and allowing the environmental constraints to provide the challenge I’d created an environment that facilitated such confidence.  To some degree that may be true, but from chatting to Rachel post-session it’s clear that her time spent on the bike between sessions two and three has instilled a new-found faith in her MTB abilities which was clearly in evidence here.  Through familiarisation with an off-road environment, the ‘dangers’ that hindered learning last time out have been pushed to the back of her conscience where they’re no longer impacting on movement.  As a result, and as hoped, Rachel was then able to transfer her techniques from the car park to a real trail environment without many issues.

Unfortunately, the session summary was cut off by the camera (yet more technology issues), but Rachel’s key learning echoed the session aims around pre-corner speed adjustment, allowing confident brake release and as a consequence more exit speed and flow.

Confession Time

I must admit that for this particular session I returned to the familiar, having delivered that exact session on that corner many times before, to the extent that I didn’t even produce a written plan.  It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the failings of the previous session, more a desire to unleash Rachel’s obvious potential in the best way I know.  I considered long and hard about whether this corner would be suitable for Rachel given that it’s ostensibly more technical than the corner that stunted her previous learning, with much more obvious hazards.  There was always the risk that she would react in the same way and be unable to release the brakes, much to the detriment of her development again, but I deemed it a risk worth taking and fortunately it paid off as she was buzzing at the end after comfortably achieving the stated aims.  What this also demonstrates is the fact that I’ve been utilising a constraints based approach for many years already, just without being aware of that particular moniker.  I’ve also long used questioning to draw conclusions from riders, asking how certain actions ‘feel’ in order to involve them fully in the learning process, developing the self-awareness to lead their own future development.  This study has certainly prompted more awareness of when I’m using particular styles though.

Further Learning

I’m a big fan of video analysis and have always found it a powerful tool when used correctly and in a timely manner.  It can definitely help form the mental link between the way movement feels to the rider and what it looks like in actuality, which is vital when trying to develop ‘correct’ positioning.  However, I’m also well aware that wrongly used it can be a hindrance, ruining the flow of sessions, using technology for the sake of wanting to appear current.  As a coach educator I’ve observed and analysed plenty of sessions that demonstrate both sides of that particular coin.  In this instance, having to both film and run the session definitely felt like an unnecessary burden, limiting the effectiveness of my own coaching.  Having to ensure the GoPro was correctly positioned meant that I was unable to watch Rachel as closely as I normally would in real time, limiting my ability to offer the highly detailed feedback that is a core aspect of my coaching philosophy.  I’ll hopefully be returning to having a camera operator for the final session which should assist critical analysis, and also get round the fact that I’m hopeless at operating anything that doesn’t have wheels!

What Next?

I could stop now.  Rachel has definitely reached a decent level of competence, beyond the abilities of the majority of ‘beginners’ I encounter who rarely look where they’re trying to get to when cornering.  It would be a shame to knock it on the head so soon though, not least because she’s improving so rapidly and massively enjoying herself, just as I’m really enjoying the challenge of coaching familiar skills in sometimes unfamiliar ways.  Riding back from this particular corner we hit up a couple of brilliant trails and Rachel was exhibiting a relaxed and dynamic style that was comfortably piloting her through some challenging features.  I think one more session is appropriate, focusing on linking turns and the weight transition between both sides.  Following that, I’d say she’ll be more than ready for a period of consolidation, pushing her skills on to steeper and more techy terrain whilst also learning the subtle touch required to handle the wetness that will inevitably soon hit, transforming the trails into a very different beast.

What did Rachel make of this session?

1) What went well for you in the session?  I cornered the berm and out of all the tries, there felt to be more consistency, and when I got it wrong, I knew what to correct and it wasn’t wildly wrong (i.e. didn’t end up in a ditch/tree/the camera).

2) Was the communication clear enough?  Yes. Crystal as always. Easy to understand. Bite-sized chunks that are really straight-forward.

3) Were the tasks well enough explained?  Yes. Simple is key.  I’m taking note for my TCL!

4) Would you have preferred a more direct coaching style (as in me explaining how to do things more?)  No.  Again, I need to learn the feeling for myself.  Having a direct style would make me ride how you think I should ride, rather than you guiding me with pointers and letting my body/mind figure it out and apply in a way that works for my mind/body and still gets the outcome.  Also allows for creative freedom 🙂 AND a direct style COULD be counter-productive…it could result in me only feeling confident riding under your watch/in your company. Dependent upon you.

5) What suggestions would you have to improve the experience for you?  Longer session! 😀

6) What was your key learning from the session?  Same as always, just trust the technique, practice and make that cornering feeling a permanent, confident feeling. Which is just through practice!

So, as witnessed, Rachel has improved both her cornering technique in actuality, but also her conscious understanding of how the skill should be performed and vitally how it should feel.  In terms of the role of the coach and the ‘cycle of learning’ that I firmly believe underpins the manner in which learners learn, Rachel has reached a solid level of conscious incompetence/conscious competence.  She has developed the essential understanding of how to further improve her own technique without the coach being present and without accidentally forming bad habits.  The nonlinear style evidently helps create the right framework for that self-analytical approach to develop, much more so than a direct style, something that Rachel herself is clearly aware of.
Image result for cycle of learning coaching unconscious competence

I’ve stolen this off the internet. If it’s yours and you’re angry, please let me know and I’ll remove it.


Session Four – Linking Turns

Session Aim – To link together left and right and different shaped turns smoothly.

Bike Set-Up Requirements – Seat down, front tyre pressure not overly-hard (20-25psi).

1) Individual Slalom

Rider descends a grassy slope slaloming round cones that prompt both left and right as well as sharp and wide turns.

Constraints are;
– Chain must be removed from the bike to prevent pedalling.
– Rider must round the cones without clipping them and with wheels not more than a two metres outside the cones.

Questions to ask the rider;
Does one side still feel preferable to the other?
What can you do to generate speed without pedalling?

Following three runs on the course, the rider will be invited to watch a more experienced rider have a couple of attempts at the same course to see if there is any opportunity for peer-learning.

Questions to ask the rider;
Do you notice any differences between the rider’s technique and your own?
If yes, how is that making them faster?

2) Dual Slalom

Riders compete side-by-side on the same marked course aiming to be the first down the hill through the slalom.  Two races, swapping line between the two and a decider if required.

Constraints are;
– Chain must be removed from the bike to prevent pedaling.
– Riders must round the cones without clipping them and with wheels not straying on to the other rider’s line.

This games and competition based approach should hopefully bring out the best of the rider’s techniques.  The surface, although benign in terms of being a relatively soft landing in the event of a crash, is also one which rewards the best cornering technique as there is no favourable camber and the surface may be greasy.  Having no chain rewards technique over power and is a great leveller.  The competitive element will provide a new constraint and challenge.  Above all else, it should be FUN!

Key Learnings – This should be the culmination of the previous sessions, allowing the rider to focus purely on correct cornering technique with constraints designed to reward implementation of prior learning in a competitive but objectively safe environment.  Hopefully observation of the result should speak for itself.

And next…

So my observations so far;

I wish I didn’t have my hands in my pockets so much, it’s a defensive and disinterested body language that instantly annoyed me when watching.  In my defence I was freezing; how Jack is in a t-shirt is beyond me!  Also, in terms of coach positioning, I’m definitely not in my usual places, there is an uneasy balancing act between talking to camera and simply coaching.  Being filmed too much is clearly going to my head and I’m starting to think I’m actually a TV presenter.

I’m also doing a bit more direct coaching, but only to re-iterate points that Rachel is already aware of.  I suppose I could’ve placed the same constraints that had forged that initial understanding but it would’ve seemed contrived when a gentle reminder was all that was required.  Speed was also slightly of the essence, partly so as not to produce an epic thirty minute filmed session, but also in recognition of the fact that Rachel is carrying an injury so I didn’t want to cause further damage.

I decided to ditch the chain removal constraint and went for no pedaling instead, partly because Jack has a chain device fitted but also because having no chain removes resistance from the drive train which can make correct foot positioning more difficult.

Call it games, call it competition, it definitely works for the right type of learner and Rachel is a racer at heart so was bound to enjoy this part of the session.  What was really interesting though was the instant improvement that the added element brought out in her technique.  The cognitive process went out of the window and the temptation to overthink was overridden by the will to win.  Brilliant!  The games aspect of nonlinear coaching can often be overlooked, particularly when coaching adults, but it can be a powerful tool as ably demonstrated here.

At this point we stopped filming but Jack and Rachel were mad keen to keep riding and Rachel’s technique was rapidly improving and progressing to the extent that I really wanted to document it.  They’d also been discussing line choice, as Jack was getting good results from using speed generated through the corner to angle back up the slope, make the next corner really wide and then drop directly into the fall line.

And that was that, a clear demonstration of smooth bilateral weight transfer on a range of cornering types; session objectives met and smiles on faces, I’ll be using that one again.  Except the session wasn’t quite over because they wanted to keep riding, and out of that came some more positive outcomes.  Whilst observing a session delivered by one of my mentees recently, I was impressed by the way he deflected some nervousness and reticence to push themselves from his group by encouraging them to create their own constraints.  That allowed them to discuss potential hazards and how to deal with them without it seeming like the coach was ‘forcing’ them to take risks.  I’ll touch on that concept more in a second, but without my prompting, that began to happen in a really organic manner here, with both students deciding to make their lives harder by adding further constraint.

I was delighted to see this happen.  Once riders begin to self-challenge like that they’re clearly taking responsibility for their own learning, which in-turn shifts that coach to student relationship to a different place, where the coach becomes a mentor and someone to consult for occasional advice and reassurance.  This is a far cry from the situation highlighted by the almost total reliance created by excessive use of direct coaching styles.

Coming back to the ongoing ‘learning in hazardous situations’ issue, maybe allowing riders to formulate their own constraints may be a great way to manage learning with environmental constraints, with riders picking features that they find challenging and daunting but not unreasonably so.  That way, they’ll retain the psychological security required for learning by being in control of their own development.  The initial skills acquisition stage will still need to be managed by the coach but once the rider understands and feels the technique then they can rapidly take over responsibility for further progression.  The only downsides to this that I can envisage would emanate from;

  1. The overly confident riders who’s perception of personal ability dangerously outweighs actuality.
  2. The excessively nervous riders who need gentle pushing to avoid stagnation in progression.

Both of these scenarios can be managed by the coach, provided they possess the right mix of experience, empathy and motivational ability.  As an experienced practitioner in these dangerous environments, I’m confident I now meet those criteria, but it’s taken time, with some notable errors and learning experiences along the way.  Whenever teaching future bike guides, leaders and coaches I go to great pains to share all my stories and help them develop the essential ‘sixth sense’ of impending accidents.

How did session four go?

I always think that you can judge the success of a coaching session by the response of the riders; if they refuse to stop going long after you’ve stopped actively coaching then you’ve done something right, provided the further practice is to the benefit of their learning.  That was how this panned out with Rachel still improving, planning further constraints, peer-learning from Jack and sprinting back up the hill to go again despite the aforementioned injuries.  I was delighted, but more importantly, how did Rachel feel about this session and the process overall?

How did you find the last coaching session?  It was a lot of fun.  Doing the off-camber stuff felt like a natural progression as the trails out there tend not to be level playing fields, so to speak!

Looking at the process overall;

How did you find the experience of being coached?  I felt pretty self-aware/self-conscious at the start, but once we got going I relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Especially when I could feel progress.

Did the coaching style work for you?  Yes.  The first day was a bit of self-discovery, guided discovery.  There was self-checking which was encouraging me to take responsibility and really think about what I was doing.  When you asked what I needed to do to improve the cornering, I could answer.  Sometimes I struggled to explain what I needed to do or sometimes I missed the mark in the earlier sessions, but once you explained, it made sense.  There was only a touch of command coaching when you could see I had the foundation of the cornering down and I just needed to apply a bit more commitment.  That was really only when you asked me to look at you/a point (first day, 3rd day up in Tollymore) but there wasn’t really any solid command style ‘monkey see, monkey do’ which I think is better. Allows me to try and find the answers for myself and take ownership.  There was plenty of encouragement, smiles and support but you still pushed me.  Even if I THINK I don’t want to be pushed, I need to be pushed. That’s when I get real progress.

Do you feel that your technique and confidence has improved?  Yes.  But also my UNDERSTANDING.  I had fluked cornering in the past, and was oblivious to it at the time.  But now I know what cornering actually is, it has totally changed the game for me.  I can’t wait to find that sweet spot and ‘zen’ like I get with other sports.  Getting to that stage where you just disappear and completely immerse in the full joy of it!

Do you feel empowered to further practice on your own?  Already am 🙂 Had a BALL on the Rostrevor red run.

What suggestions would you make to improve the process?  Not improve, but to comment that having Jack was great.  When you get too boxed in to all the things you need to remember, it’s a great technique to…almost hit the ‘stop’ button, throw in another rider and simply say “follow him”.  Maybe this could go one way or the other… But I think that that ‘shift in focus’ can result in the beginner’s instincts kicking in because they’re focused on the rider in front, watching his line and trying to follow it… so the body just adapts and will mostly throw itself into the right movement to achieve the same as the rider in front.  It also builds self-confidence and self-trust.  “Oh, he can go really low there by doing exactly what I’ve been taught… so I guess I could too?!”  You’re more game to give it a go.  It’s that classic scenario.  You think it’s not possible until you see someone else do it.  I’ve done it myself in climbing and have seen it too.  Once one person completes the route, a chain of success soon follows.

What should Ian do more of (if anything)?  Longer sessions, ending on a jaunt round some twisty trails (end on a high and a good way of shifting that focus and engaging with the instincts!)

What should Ian do less of (if anything)?  Trying to use a camera.  He’s as useful as a chocolate teapot.

So that’s that.  Rachel has obviously been pretty aware of the style in which she was being coached, and with a background in other sports has clearly been exposed to various other styles in the past.  Whilst she continually analysed my approach, it wasn’t to question it, more to work out where I was going with the coaching styles.  It’s evident that the nonlinear approach worked well for her, allowing self-awareness and self-led learning through constraints, games and questioning.  I’m glad of the feedback on the positive aspects of the peer learning too, it’s a luxury I don’t often have as I work alone, and I feel that it can be a lot more effective than coach demonstration because;

  1. Coaches are often put on a pedestal by learners and so seeing a skill performed by the coach, whilst useful from a technical breakdown perspective, doesn’t engender the same believability that comes from watching a peer.
  2. It allows the coach to stand back and still observe and give feedback to the rider in real time.

I’ll always aim to coach myself out of a job as rapidly as possible by creating confident self-led learners and on this occasion, with this technique, it’s clearly worked.  I’ll be interested to see if Rachel will be able to transfer that confidence to other techniques through personal research.  I’ll be encouraging her to glean as much as she can from watching other riders both in-person, and also watching edits of professional riders online.

One final point.  Whilst Rachel is being slightly tongue-in-cheek about the camera work, it’s a very valid point.  The ability to effectively utilise filming equipment is a vital coaching skill, as video playback can be a powerful tool.  It’s a big development point for me later in this process and I’ll be seeking advice from mentors and other participants.


Wow!  What a great experience.  A decade of technical skills coaching has brought a certain self-assuredness, a confidence that allows me to think on my feet, free from the shackles of session plans or prescribed styles.  Beyond that, I do pride myself on also remaining strongly self-analytical, to the extent that when my wife asks me after a session how it went, I’ll bore her to tears with a detailed analysis rather than giving the ‘ahhh, grand’ answer she’d hoped for.

This process has definitely brought me back to the planning phase, deliberately generating and trialing new approaches rather than relying on the tried and tested.  Some clearly worked, whilst others didn’t, and that’s the joy of experimentation.  I’ll keep the best bits and re-design the rest but it’s all useful learning and can be re-used whenever appropriate for future students.

Being ‘forced’, and I use that term loosely, to use a nonlinear, constraints and games based style definitely took me back to early coaching experiences where I’d question the validity of my approach in real time, creating crises of confidence to the detriment of the sessions.  Part two of the second session was superb for me, feeling the helplessness of a lesson going totally awry but not having the quickness of thought to rescue it in a nonlinear manner.  Complacency is a killer and this experience has definitely reminded me that continual learning is of paramount importance, not just reflecting on how things went, but constantly researching and developing new coaching approaches as the sport continues to change.

Prior to this exercise the term ‘nonlinear pedagogy’ was certainly new to me, but its practical application was already very familiar.  However, pushing the concept further than usual and adapting away from my initial tendency to direct coach fundamental movement proved enlightening, adding depth to the initial stage understanding of my learner which carried through well into higher-level skill acquisition in real-trail environments.  I’ll be taking that key learning on board and using it accordingly.

Further than that, the challenge of avoiding the comfort of familiar styles re-awakened old emotions and served to get me thinking more deeply about how I coach.  My philosophies will obviously remain, but within that, more thought will definitely go back into whether alternate coaching techniques may bring better, longer lasting results and more robust learning in my riders.