Updated: Jun 2
"How do you feel about your protege leaving?" my boss from my adult job asked me. He was referring to one of my managers with whom I'd spent a lot of time developing and mentoring over the last 18 months. Someone who had just tendered his resignation.
I simply smiled and replied, "I'm happy for him. The first thing he told me when I first took this job was that he wanted to leave. I only convinced him to stay because he believed there were things I could help him learn. He's learnt all that he can from being here now and it's time for him to move on."
I thought it was an odd question for him to ask me until I realised that he might have thought I felt disappointed, even abandoned by the fact that someone that I had invested a significant amount of time and effort with was leaving the company. But to think that is to not understand the real job of a leader, mentor or coach - which at least from my perspective is one and the same. That said, it's understandable as to why someone could think a teacher would be disappointed with a student that has chosen a path that leads away from them.
In the world of mountain biking, I've noticed more and more coaches being trained on a regular basis by the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association and Mountain Bike Australia. This is a good thing because there has been an even larger number of new riders hitting the trails. Given the vast majority of us that help other riders to enhance their skills on the dirt are likely to be doing so on a casual or part time basis (definitely the case in my situation) which limits how many people we can help, more coaches to instruct riders on how to get better out there is a positive thing.
But as more people offering mountain bike coaching services become available, how does one actually choose a 'good' coach? A coaching accreditation, great photos, fancy marketing and even testomonials from strangers are often the only clues to figure out whether or not someone might be the right coach for you.
That last sentence is perhaps the first key point in determining whether or not you should consider a specific coach - are they the right fit for you? And there are a number of different things to think about when considering whether someone does in fact align with what you need.
What you want to learn is the obvious one. The specific skills that you want to become better at is generally what people focus on when looking for a coach. And despite the fact that a mountain biking coach in principle is likely to be able to teach a number of skills at a variety of different levels, the likely reality is that we all have an area of specialty where we like to focus. As an example, the instructor that prefers to coach advanced jumping may likely get bored with teaching people the very basics of mountain bike riding. Conversely, the coach that enjoys working with brand new riders may feel that they don't sufficiently work with advanced riders to create a safe, low risk environment for somone to learn more challenging skills in.
Specific coaching philosophies are likely to be the next area you'll see differences between mountain bike coaches. Perhaps not so evident with new coaches you're likely to, at least with more experienced coaches, observe a method or 'way' of coaching that they prefer to use. This is likely to be influenced by the types of riding a specific coach enjoys the most and how they themselves built up their own skills. Even though the foundations of riding skills are strictly speaking the same, as an example you may find that a coach who has a preferred style of cross country will potentially focus on mentoring a student to that specific riding discipline relative to someone that favours riding Enduro trails.
But while the specific skills or interests and the method of teaching can be gleaned from materials that you're likely to be able access online, there are other dimensions that are important to consider. These are things I've observed not just through mountain bike coaching (although there are some very specific coaching insights you glean from challenging people to do things they're absolutely petrified of attempting), but from also tutoring high school students, coaching other sports and mentoring people in business. First and foremost amongst these unseen things to consider is your ability to connect with your instructor. Fundamentally, a mountain bike coach is going to challenge your belief and perception of not only what you can do on your bike, but also in yourself as well and what you think you can actually achieve. In a lot of cases, this may include pushing you into places where you can become really uncomfortable in what you've been asked to attempt - to the point of being terrified, which in itself can create a dangerous situation. To allow yourself to do this you need to be able to establish a relationship of trust with any mountain bike instructor that is trying to help you become a better rider. If you look at someone and just have a weird feeling about them, there's a good chance you might not actually build up the trust you need to get the most out of a session with someone.
Next on the list of not so visible considerations is whether or not an instructor during sessions creates safe spaces for you to learn. Mountain biking is a sport with inherent risks and potential dangers which naturally make it difficult to learn. While young kids tend to suffer less from this, adults tend to have a finely tuned 'self-preservation' instinct that can prevent them from learning new skills simply because their brain deems it too dangerous. The creation of a safe learning environment in a challenging enviornment through selection of the right terrain that visibly reduces the risk of injury while the instruction of the coach and their position relative to you while performing a skill is an important factor in how well you might learn new skills. By asking a coach how they create these safe learning environments you can determine their approach to managing your risk and safety. One of the more challenging things to identify is how a mountain bike coach corrects a technique that a student might not be quite executing correctly. Small things such as foot position on a pedal, subtle body movements to balance weight and even control angles on a bike's cockpit can all make a very large difference to the execution of a skill. While spelling out a skill verbatim is something that most coaches will be able to do, coaching is rarely a one size fits all approach. Understanding your interpretation of their instruction and identifying those small nuances that are specific to helping you is important for own progression. A coach that hasn't seen you ride won't be able to specifically point out things that might affect your riding. They will likely however, be able to list out a number of common as well as not so common problems that afflict students which is something you can ask about.
I often tell my students that when you start off getting coaching, it's intially 90% skills and 10% mental training that you work on. But I also mention it very quickly flips around to the opposite where it becomes your brain that you're actually coaching because your body can perform a specific skill just fine if you let it. Working to help you increase your confidence in your own abilities, particularly as you advance your riding, is just as important as knowing the steps in coaching a skill. Being able to understand and work with your mindset to help you overcome fear, but also recognising when you're not quite ready mentally to attempt a technique is an important factor, particularly as the difficulty level progresses. A simple way to understand this with a new coach is to ask the question of how they know that can help you ride better. You'll get a sense of this from the confidence you get when you hear their answer.
And finally understanding what a coach is trying to achieve with their students is at least in my book, something that is an important consideration. From my perspective, the job of any coach, teacher or mentor is to give you the skills and confidence to continue to grow on your own to the level of riding that you want to achieve, to understand the possibilites of what your potential is and go after it without needing an instructor. With the right mindset and a solid base of skills you should find that there is a point in your riding where you can start improving your own skills with minimal guidance. Yes, it is helpful from time to time to have someone observe and correct things that might not be visible to you, but it's not something you as a rider should ever be reliant on. Being able to identify and remove the blocks that ultimately allow you to continue growing as a rider without the continued guidance of a coach is I believe what any instructor should be striving for.
Incidentally, that might also be a good lesson for life as well...