Episode 3: Getting better at identifying your mindset for practicing MTB skills


[Kitchen sounds, background dance music]

What you’re hearing is me doing the dishes after dinner in our kitchen while listening to a song, Oh Yeah, by the Swiss group, Yellow. The song was part of the soundtrack for the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, one of my all-time favorites. You can also hear me practicing.

[Voice: quick-quick, slow, slow; left-right, left, right; kitchen sounds, background dance music]

If you’ve ever tried to improve your dance skills beyond the klutz stage, you’re probably familiar with some version of the two-step. And instructors often try to get your brain and body synced up with drills that include those word patterns, quick-quick, slow, slow; left-right, left, right. 123-5

Or maybe it’s slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow; left, right, left-right, left, right.

Normally I have my Bose headphones on so that my wife Robbie, who’s upstairs in her office, doesn’t have to hear the thumping bass to songs I like. She says the vibrations travel right up the wall.  But yeah, I’ve started learning to dance and my wife is not likely to want to be in the same room with me, never mind make body contact, until I can at least find the beat and demonstrate a bit of rhythm.

[Audio: Background dance music fades]

So hey. Welcome to the MTB Practice Lab. I’m your host, Griff Wigley, Mountain Bike Geezer, and this a show about learning how to get better at practicing mountain biking skills with a few detours on other stuff I’m trying to get better at. 

This is episode 3 and it’s primarily about paying attention to the mindset you have when you’ve decided that you want to improve your mountain bike riding skills. And maybe other skills that you suck at but want to get better at like me and my desire to get better at dancing.

Why is mindset is important? “Because the way we think about getting better at something new can change the way we do it.” That’s a quote from Trevor Ragan, the founder of The Learner Lab, which, as I mentioned in Episode 2, is all about “unpacking the science of how to get better at getting better.”  Trevor has a very good overview of this principle of mindset on his website -- two videos, a short survey, and a list of resources if you really want to go deeper on it.

Sometimes we operate from two types of fixed mindsets in which we believe that talent is something you’re born with, that you have certain natural abilities or you don’t and that you can’t do much to change that. You either tend to think “I’m bad at that kind of stuff so there’s no point in trying.” Or you tend to think, “I’m good at that kind of stuff so I don’t really need to work too hard at it.” 

The latter is what philosopher Dean Yeong calls the ‘Be Good’ mindset. He’s written a helpful article titled, Be Good vs Get Better, in which he argues that too much praise for our smarts or our skilled performances can lead us into adopting a standard that’s based on comparing ourselves to others. Having flaws isn’t part of the Be Good mental package and we tend to have trouble dealing with setbacks and tough challenges.  

When I was a freshman in high school, I discovered I was pretty good at math. I got A’s in Geometry and Algebra 1. I remember my Algebra teacher, Father Gleason, exclaiming when I solved a problem before anyone else, “Mr. Wigley, you are a genius.” It was all downhill from there. As a sophomore and junior, I hit a wall with Algebra 2, and that wall got bigger with Trigonometry, and Pre-Calculus courses. C’s and D’s were the norms for me. “I’m bad at math” became my mindset and I never changed it. In retrospect, I got tripped up by my assumptions about my perceived natural talent, that I was smart, so I didn’t need to work hard or develop study habits. And then when that failed me, I needed to avoid math because then, as a smart person -- part of my Be Good identity -- I would look bad.

Other times we operate from more of a growth or Get Better mindset in which we believe that we can improve, that our innate or natural talent doesn’t matter all that much in the long run. What matters is our belief in our ability to build skills, that with the right approach, we can get better at whatever we want, that if we’re not improving -- and this is a biggie -- if we’re not improving, it’s often because we’re not practicing right, and that there are ways to figure out what the right way is.

It’s having an attitude, a mindset that says, “I don’t know how to do that and I might not have as much natural talent for it as some others but I’m confident I can get better at it.”

Here’s another school example. In my final semester as a senior in college, I discovered I was a few credits short of what was needed to graduate. A buddy told me I should take a pass/fail art course of some kind. “Just show up and you’ll pass, man,” he said.  And I’m thinking “No way, “I’m really bad at art.” 

But I was desperate and decided to take a pottery course. I knew I’d suck at it -- no natural talent -- but I was determined to pass so I could graduate. So from day 1, my mindset was different. I was ready to work hard. I put in extra practice time whenever I could. I asked for extra help from the art instructor. I didn’t take his criticism personally. When I saw something cool that someone else did, I asked them to show me how they did it. And as I saw that I was getting better, my confidence grew. I passed the course, graduated, and promptly bought a pottery wheel. My new hobby. And then… well, more on this in a few minutes.

For most skills, our mindsets are not one or the other. A few years ago, I spent a day with a very advanced rider at an indoor skills park. He was excellent at jumping, pumping, cornering, drops, logs - just about everything the park had to offer. When I suggested we go ride some skinnies, he said, “I hate skinnies. I totally suck at them. Go ahead if you want.”  While he may have had a Get Better mindset as he improved all his other riding skills over the years, he had a Be Good mindset when it came to skinnies.

That pottery hobby I mentioned earlier? A year after I bought the pottery wheel and was cranking out pretty much the same beginner-level pots month after month, I fell in love with a woman with very good pottery skills. She made my stuff look like crap. I had plateaued and fell into the Be Good trap. I gave it up and sold my pottery wheel.

I suck at nearly every kind of dancing but my wife and I once won a Twist dance contest on a cruise ship, mainly because our twisting involved more wild gyrations than anyone else. So lately, with some two-step progress, while doing the dishes in my kitchen together with that memory of doing the Twist, my dancing mindset is now trending towards Hey, I Can Get Better. So I bought the online course Date Night - Living Room Dancing by Show Her Off and we started last week. Great line from the instructor: “Girls come with power steering…”

For the past few years, I’ve not been able to hold a wheelie for more than a few seconds without falling to one side or the other. So I moved on to other skills. But with a new approach to practicing, I got into the float zone for the first time a couple of weeks ago and held on for 14 pedal strokes. And so my wheelie mindset is now much more Hey, I Can Get Better.

I’m good at holding a track stand so last fall, I thought I’d learn to ride fakie fairly quickly. Not. I’m stuck at a half-fakie. I’ve plateaued. I finally learned how to bunny hop small logs a couple of years ago so I thought I’d be able to increase that height to a foot or more fairly easily. Nope. I’ve even regressed in the past year. I’ve plateaued.

So what can I do to change my mindset when it comes to the plateaus I’ve hit with fakies and bunnyhops? Do I just slowly sink into the frustration that turns into “I can’t. I’m not good enough. I just don’t have the talent to get beyond it.” Or do I get seduced by that sneaky rationalization, “I’m sure I could get past this plateau but I just don’t have the time to dedicate to it right now? I’d rather spend more time on...” What? Usually, for me, it’s practicing something I’m already pretty good at, like skinnies or logovers. The Be Good mindset. 

I’ll get into more details on how to get better at developing a Get Better mindset for my plateaus and yours in upcoming episodes. But be open to this possibility:

If you believe you can get better, you’re more likely to start and you’re more likely to stick with it when it gets hard and you plateau. 

I’ve started working on wheelies and dancing, mainly because of my recent shift to a Get Better mindset. And I now I think I’m more likely to stick with practicing my wheelies and my dancing when I plateau because I now believe it won’t be because of any lack of innate talent. However, it might be because of fear. And it might be because I’m practicing in the wrong way. More on those in upcoming episodes.

So here’s homework assignment #1 for you. It involves taking my poll. Here’s some background.

I work for Ryan Leech at the Ryan Leech Connection where I’m a part-time online coach. He was featured in a video recently by mountain biker and filmmaker Matt Dennison of Mahalo My Dudes titled Wheelies are Easy, with the tagline, "Can Ryan Leech teach Matt how to wheelie in one day?" Here’s how Matt introduces the video:

[audio clip - edited]

I suck at wheelies. Catwalks, wheelies, manuals, it doesn’t matter what you call it, if it’s on one wheel, I suck. And the thing is, I can’t understand why. I mean, I’ve been riding mountain bikes for pretty much as long as I can remember and learning how to endlessly ride on one wheel has always been a dream of mine so trust me when I say I've practiced a lot. I figured with enough practice it would just click. Yet still to this day, you won't see me popping a wheelie for more than just a few seconds. But why? I have excellent balance, I love riding skinnies, and generally, I'm a quick learner. But wheelies? No dice. At this point, no amount of YouTube tutorials can save me. I need help.

There you have it, Matt’s wheelie plateau. Now listen to the short sermon Ryan Leech delivers later in the video in response to Matt’s nearly lifelong doubt, that maybe he just doesn’t have the wheelie gene. Ryan says:

[audio clip - edited]

The wheelie gene? The wheelie gene is just an excuse to make you feel better about yourself. It's just a bunch of doubt, disbelief, mistrust of your own potential, your own abilities. And when you have that deep down ingrained in your soul, you're not going to learn how to wheelie. It's not going to happen. You're going to practice and practice and you're going to have this thing in the back of your head saying, "Oh no, you're never going to be able to learn how to wheelie" and that's going to influence your practice. It's going to influence your results.

Your homework? Consider to what extent it was the wheelie gene belief that was holding Matt back. Or was it something else? And then take my poll. See the show notes for the link.

Homework assignment #2: Make a list of skills that you’ve told yourself you’re bad at or that you believe you could never get any better at.

Here’s my ever-growing list: Remembering people’s names. Telling jokes. Cooking. Drawing. Understanding photography. Basketball. Getting 7 hours of quality sleep. Acting. Financial management. Learning a second language. Meditation. Forehand Frisbee. Wolf whistle. Cursive handwriting. Playing the harmonica. Fixing and building stuff with my hands  -  “I’m not mechanically inclined.” Singing. Swimming, especially floating. I can hack my way across a pool but I can’t float. My wife can practically take a nap floating. And yeah, dancing. 

See if you can come up with a list like that. Make a list on your phone or in a notebook that you carry with you. I came up with a few right away but over the past month, I’ve continually added to my list. 

And then find someone to share it with -- a trusted friend or partner -- someone who might do the same with you. Talking about our vulnerabilities with somebody else who matters to us can make us a little more lovable sometimes.

You could also share your list or a portion of it with me and maybe even our audience of podcast listeners. See the show notes on how you can contact me and leave a voice message.

And homework assignment #3? Start thinking about learning something new, something not related to mountain biking skills and maybe something that’s not on your “I’m bad at” list. I’m considering learning to yoyo, as it’s something I could practice around the house for a few minutes at a time and there are plenty of free online resources to get me started.

Before I wrap this up, I wanted to draw your attention to some posts to the MTB Practice Lab Patreon page that are related to previous episodes 1 and 2, as well as some posts that I published while I was working on this episode.

In ep 1, you heard my 6-year old granddaughter Ava make a statement about muscle memory. I put up a post of photos showing her first ride on a mountain bike trail last summer.

In ep 2, you heard me mention my trip to Denver for The Learner Lab workshop with Trevor Ragan. I have a post with some photos of that.

Also in ep 2, I told the story of my painful but ultimately fruitful crash on a beginner tabletop. I have a video of that crash in a post.

And while I was working on episode 3, I published a post with an audio preview of the intro, a video from one of my recent wheelie practice sessions, and a 2-minute video of me practicing dancing in my kitchen to a couple of old rock ‘n roll songs while doing the dishes. 

So that’s it for Episode 3. In upcoming episodes I’ll talk about what gets in the way of developing our skills, even if it seems like we’ve adopted a Get Better mindset: 1) our fears; and 2) not practicing in the right way. 

Thanks for listening. See you next time.

Email: [email protected]

Voicemail via phone: dial ‪(507) 301-6243‬

Voicemail via your computer: My contact page 

Discussion: comment below

Show notes:

Complementary posts