I am so proud to say I was a part of the beginning of the high school mountain biking movement. From managing a juniors’ team in the early 2000’s to being a Founding Committee Member and coach of the SoCal league, I’ve attempted to be a part of helping girls and boys get into the sport I love so much. It’s incredibly rewarding to see kids grow into adults who ride, and sometimes even race professionally and work in the industry. My biggest fear, and failure if it happens near me, though, is to see talented young riders burn out. They quit racing and even worse, they quit riding bikes altogether. It’s heartbreaking, but preventable. If we work together as a community, we can help keep kids on bikes into their adult lives.
As a coach and/or a parent, there is a very heavy responsibility to keep a young rider healthy, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.
When she wins, it’s easy to get caught up in dreams of future championships and Olympic gold. When your athlete (daughter, son or coached athlete) handily wins races it makes us all feel good and accomplished.
We push a little, and she gets faster, stronger, fiercer. We push even harder and suddenly the athlete is now a couch potato. How does burnout happen, and how can a parent and coach help keep the young rider on the bike?
Define Your Role
As a parent, your role is parent: to encourage, to show interest and support by any means reasonable. The key is to set expectations early on. Solid expectations could be:
- Show up for practice
- Finish all of the races
- Keep equipment clean, tuned, in good condition and put away
- Follow the mores of the team and school
- Stay clean (no doping or cheating)
- Communicate (keep an open line in case of injury or burn out)
As a parent keep track of how you’re doing in your parental role:
- Communication. Allow the athlete to say how she feels and allow her to be real. Stay tuned for signs of burnout and eating disorders.
- Interest. Show interest in what she is doing and what she has to say. How was your ride? Did you have fun? What challenges did you face today? What did you do to overcome those challenges? How can I support you now? (That answer may be “to leave me alone” and if that’s the answer, give her some space, you know teenagers!)
- Encouragement. First place? Last place? DNF? Offer the same level of encouragement no matter how she does. Don’t spend more time on the win than on the loss. Mountain bike racing is hard. It’s one of the hardest sports, so keeping positive in tough times is very important. There are so many factors, uncontrollable factors, in mountain bike racing that it’s difficult to have a perfect race as planned every time.
- Support. Equipment makes a difference in cross country mountain bike racing but giving a young athlete the top of the line equipment without earning it induces little sense of ownership. Ownership ensures the athlete will care for the equipment and show gratitude. Reward good behavior and meeting expectations keeping in mind the many uncontrollable variables in mountain bike racing. Other forms of support are being open to her changes in diet (she may want more veggies after all! but don’t make a big deal if she wants to eat more), giving her a chance to ride with other women (through clinics or group rides) and understanding if she wants to give up another activity in order to put more into cycling (ok this probably goes the other way as well, but we’d all really love to see her as a cyclist!).
For the coach, it’s important to stay realistic at all times. Certifications do not automatically make someone a good coach. For female athletes, I’d recommend finding a female Pro mountain bike racer. That experience is the best experience possible, because it means that the coach understands all aspects of mountain bike racing including the emotional side of being female. A good coach- female or male- can learn, adapt and be an excellent coach without being a Pro. If you are a coach, spend time learning how to help young women if you’re responsible for them.
The coach’s role is simple: provide structure, inspire discipline and watch out for eating disorders and burnout.
- Provide Structure. Develop a flexible plan for the athlete to follow. Flexibility comes into play as schedules, injury, illness, school and family obligations take over.
- Inspire Discipline. Like motivating employees, inspiring discipline means knowing the athlete, their buttons, their pressure points and how to keep them on top of their plan without wrecking them emotional and physically.
- Rest and Recovery. More is not better. Rest weeks and days to go do fun teenager things are of utmost importance. Skipping a practice to go to Disneyland falls into that area. If you remove the fun of being a teen, you’ll lose the athlete (maybe not this year, but the burnout is going to be significant.)
- Eating Disorders. Very common in women’s cycling (and men’s), eating disorders are hard to see but hugely impactful. Monitor the girl’s menstruation (as a coach you have to) and her body fat and weight. Ensure the athlete has access to a psychologist, via the parents, if a problem arises. Eating disorders can be mitigated with the right support.
- Burnout. Maybe do a fun ride with no strings attached every once in a while to monitor the athlete’s mindset. Too much rigorous training is never good for mental health. The real goal with high school mountain biking is to create a community of people who ride bikes, have respect for others and nature. Take time to nurture this side of mountain biking. Those who want to race at the top will rise.
To all coaches and parents: Don’t be afraid to ask for help in unfamiliar territory. Many have been where you are and are willing to help. Remember, cheering, supporting and offering a shoulder to cry on can go a long way. Keep it fun, and see you at the races!
And if you are a parent or a coach, feel free to reach out to me directly. I am here to help!