Gene Hamilton is one of a handful of coaches that specializes in mountain bike skills coaching. He’s got that rare talent of being fast (Silver and Bronze in World Downhill Championships) and knowing why and how to teach it.
I had the great pleasure of taking a one-on-one private lesson from him last year. The session opened my eyes to a different way of approaching mountain biking and, as a direct result of my time with Gene, I’ve improved my XC skills significantly over the last few months.
The questions (and answers)
Shortcut To Useful Tips
- 1 Give us some history on your mountain biking background and the history of Better Ride Coaching?
- 2 Why does it seem there is resistance to mountain biking skills coaching? People don’t think twice about golf lessons?
- 3 Plenty of people are fast riders. What makes someone a good teacher?
- 4 Why can’t someone just read about skills in a book?
- 5 How important is the mental aspect of skills training and how do you teach that?
- 6 Your philosophy stresses fundamentals in a way that’s similar to the way other coaches talk about free throws and basketball. In a nutshell, what are the fundamentals for mountain biking?
- 7 What is the biggest mistake you see beginner mountain bikers making?
- 8 What is the biggest mistake you see advanced riders making?
- 9 What’s the best way to introduce beginners to mountain biking?
- 10 There’s more than one way to approach a skill, right? How does someone approach two ways of performing a skill that may be conflicting with each other?
- 11 They say you win XC races on the climbs. If that is true why should an XC racer devote significant time to skills?
- 12 What’s the right way to ‘practice’ skills?
Give us some history on your mountain biking background and the history of Better Ride Coaching?
Gene: BetterRide is one word that I invented, not two. I am so smart I can invent words. 😉
I started mountain biking (if you want to call it that) in 1988 in Norfolk, VA. There was an old trash dump behind one of the dorms (I was attending Old Dominion University) that we would ride. The “big hill” was around 30-40 vertical feet and I thought it was massive! I never thought I would be able to make it to the top without stopping to catch my breath! I still remember the first time I made it to the top, what a great feeling.
In the spring of 1993 I wanted a new mountain bike. Being a pro snowboarder who thought I should never pay retail for anything I tired to find a deal on a new bike. I met a KHS sales rep who told me to find a KHS dealer and join the Farm Team and I would get a bike for 10% below wholesale plus another 10% back if I went to five races.
As soon as I moved to San Diego I stopped by the local KHS dealer and he put me on the Farm Team and told me to come back in a few days and meet this woman who was also on the team. So a couple of days later I meet this tall woman covered in dried mud named Marla and we made plans to go riding. I remember thinking, “Walt said this girl is an “expert” so she thinks she pretty fast. I just moved here from high altitude (Aspen, CO) and I am a pretty fit pro snowboarder so go easy on the girl, I don’t want to hurt her self-esteem”.
On the way to the trail (some where in East San Diego) I was hungry and much to the amusement of this Marla woman I stopped at Taco Bell. She asked, “are you sure you want to eat that right before we ride?” Well, we got to the trail and she proceeded to kick my butt all over the place. She would be doing circles waiting for me at the top of every hill and say, “you’re doing better that most of the boys I ride with”. To this day I don’t know if she was telling the truth or just being nice. Getting my butt kicked by Marla really made me respect women athletes.
A few weeks later she asked me if I wanted to go to a race with her in Temecula. I replied, “sure, I should probably race expert because I used to race BMX”. She did her best not laugh and convinced me to try beginner first because I could always move up. Now I was really excited, I was going to win my first race! (at this point I have never seen a cross country race and think that everyone goes pretty hard on the climbs then coasts the descents while having fun and catching a little air).
So we drive Vidalia (Marla’s polkadotted VW camper) to Temecula, pre-ride the course and get some sleep. The next day I am shaking from excitement and nervousness while we register for the race. As my beginner class lines up for the start I look around and I am one of only two riders without shaved legs and the only one without clipless pedals. This is the beginner class?! A couple of the guys have calf muscles the size of grapefruits! The gun goes off and I have never suffered like this in my life! So much for coasting the downhills, this is a 12 mile sprint. I start near the back of the back and gain a little energy every time I pass a racer with shaved legs. I am so beat down from pushing myself so hard for an hour and a half that when I cross the finish line I don’t care what place I am in. Until this race the longest athletic competition in my life was the mile and half run during the Presidential Fitness Test in high school.
I ended up 13th out of 26 and to this day that is my proudest moment in sports. I didn’t have long to celebrate though. As it turned out Marla was having a great race too, she had moved into second place behind Factory KHS rider Mia Stockdale. Unfortunately Mia wouldn’t let Marla pass so an impatient Marla went for an off trail pass endoed and broke her collarbone.
Having never competed in an endurance sport I was hooked after this race. I moved back to Aspen that fall and continued coaching and competing in snowboard events but missed the endorphin rush of aerobic sports. The following spring I “retired” from snowboard competition and devoted my energy to mountain bike racing.
In 1995 at Marla and Toby Henderson’s urging “you aren’t going to get anywhere racing expert” I upgraded to the pro class. My first major race was the 1995 Vail NORBA National. There were over 150 pro downhill racers from all over the world signed up. I was practicing with all of the guys I read about in magazines and really not sure if I belonged in the pro class. With so many racers back then they had a qualifying run and only the top 50 qualifiers went on to the finals. I qualified 48th! I made the finals. This was a big boost of confidence and decided to quit my job and start racing fulltime.
Little did I know this would be an addiction that would leave me $6,000 to $7,000 in debt after every summer for the next eight years. 😉
My coaching career started at Wisp Resort in Western Maryland where I was one of the snowboard directors in 1990. I coached myself and a few teammates who competed in the mid-Atlantic region.
In 1991 I moved to Colorado to train with team Breckenridge. The coaches were really good technique coaches but actually hurt many of their athletes’ mental game and self-esteem. The coaches would say things like, “are you sure you are a pro, that run really didn’t look good”. Having these lousy coaches was frustrating and made me realize I could do a better job.
The next season I trained with Nick Colavito in Aspen who was a much more positive coach. I was fortunate in that I learned both how to and how not to coach from these coaches. In late summer 1995 I was hired as the head snowboard coach of the Steamboat Springs Winters Sports Club. The winter Sports Club’s mission was to use sport as a metaphor for life and to help create happier/healthier human beings. With this mission in mind they defined success as doing your personal best (ie. not winning). This really fit my philosophy and I really enjoyed coaching the team.
I was in for quite a surprise when I found out how serious this job was. This was demanding full-time job (with a part-time salary) with a lot of pressure and late night phone calls from parents. It was also an extremely rewarding experience. Seeing kids grow more confident and having their parents’ thank you for helping them grow felt really great. During my three years there I learned a lot about coaching took a lot of coaching courses from USA Skiing and Snowboarding eventually become a Level II coach.
During this time I was racing downhill mountain bikes in the summers and coaching in the winters. My passion for snowboarding was declining as my passion for mountain biking was growing. At the end of my third season I decided to move to Boulder where I could train all winter and start coaching mountain bike racers. That was in 1998 and unfortunately I found very little market for my coaching skills. I kept plugging away at coaching while racing and working as a bartender for the next six years until I was able to coach full time in the fall of 2004.
Why does it seem there is resistance to mountain biking skills coaching? People don’t think twice about golf lessons?
Gene: I think there are a few reasons for this. There is a big difference between men and women in this area. If a woman can’t do something as well as she would like to she seeks out a teacher. If a man can’t do something as well as he wants to he simply tries harder.
I have read a lot of books that cover this subject (why men don’t ask for directions) and it goes back millions of years. Men feel like failures when they can’t grasp a task well in front of others, especially loved ones. To ask for help is a sign of weakness. This is why men often rib each other about taking lessons and why a guy who won’t ask for directions with his wife will ask for directions when he is alone.
Secondly, almost anyone can “ride” a bike so they don’t often realize how much skill is involved in riding a bike off road. Riding over roots and rocks is quite a bit different from riding your bike down the sidewalk to school.
Thirdly, many riders think the only difference between themselves and the best riders in the world is fitness and / or fearlessness. These riders don’t realize how much skill is involved and how much time and energy they could save with better skills.
Plenty of people are fast riders. What makes someone a good teacher?
Gene: There are many aspects to being a good teacher. A good teacher must be able to break down what they are teaching into to digestible parts, he must have the ability to articulate what he does and why.
Experience and coaching education are two of big factors that help an athlete become a good teacher. In the 17 years that I have been coaching I am constantly learning how to do it better. I learn from my clients, from taking coaching courses, and from reading. A good coach realizes he doesn’t know it all and is constantly trying to improve his methods.
Why can’t someone just read about skills in a book?
Gene: Well you certainly can read about skills in a book. There is nothing wrong with that. Why go to a camp? Getting coached by a good coach is a much faster and more effective way to learn any sport. That is why top athletes in all sports have coaches. Learning from a book is limited by how well it is written, how well the reader understands the book, how internally motivated the reader is and how often the reader returns to the book.
Reading about something gives some people an understanding of a skill while coaching gives a 3d example of the skill and allows the student to realize how it feels. A good coach explains the technique, why the technique works, how to do it, how it should feel and what it should look like. Then the coach makes sure the student understands it on all of those levels.
In addition coaches can answer questions, explain things in different ways, physically adjust your position (many athletes are kinesthetic learners, i.e. they learn best through manipulating their bodies) and evaluate the rider and tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Often you think / feel like you are doing something correctly but are actually doing it wrong. Top coaches also inspire an athlete to perform / practice at their best.
How important is the mental aspect of skills training and how do you teach that?
Gene: The mental aspect of skills training is equally important as the physical skills. What good is skill if you can’t access it when you need it? At the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club I learned that sport is a metaphor for life, confidence gained in sport makes the athlete a more confident person. This is a circular pattern, as you get more confident in sport you get more confident in life as you get more confident in life you get more confident in sport.
I teach mental skills throughout my camps as a situation arises where a certain mental skill will help a rider. The mind is very powerful, Henry Ford said, “those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right”. As both an athlete and coach I have found Mr. Ford’s statement is true.
Your philosophy stresses fundamentals in a way that’s similar to the way other coaches talk about free throws and basketball. In a nutshell, what are the fundamentals for mountain biking?
Vision. Where and how to focus.
Balance and body position. How to stay smooth and balanced in all riding situations and conditions.
Braking. When and how to brake effectively, economically and stay in control.
Lifting the bike, (wheelies/manuals, rear wheel lifts, bunny hops, etc.) how to get over obstacles the fastest and most economical way.
Cornering, the purpose of cornering and how to accomplish it through vision, body position, braking.
Slow speed riding and switchbacks, this includes more balance, body position and vision techniques.
Bike set up, a bike set up correctly is much easier to ride. 😉
Ashwin: A majority of your drills are performed in a controlled environment like a parking lot. Why?
Gene: People learn best in a non-threatening environment. When people are concerned about their safety their instincts take over and they revert to old habits.
This often happens on trail where there are all kinds of penalty points for mistakes. It is much easier to learn in a safe, controlled environment then apply what you learned on trail. In all sports most of the progress comes through drills (which is why over 70% of most athletes time is spent on drills) not actually racing/competing. As an example; golfers, ski racers, football players and basketball players spend 60 to 90% of their training time working on skills and only 10 to 40% of their training time simulating competition.
What is the biggest mistake you see beginner mountain bikers making?
Gene: Not looking ahead correctly and looking down at the times when it is most important to look ahead.
What is the biggest mistake you see advanced riders making?
Gene: Confusing fitness with skill, many advanced riders muscle through trails instead of using skill. This approach is inconsistent and wastes energy.
What’s the best way to introduce beginners to mountain biking?
Gene: It really depends on their aggressiveness. Take an aggressive skier / snowboarder/kayaker to some fun, easy singletrack (such as Rustlers Loop in Fruita). Take less aggressive people to a dirt road. The goal is to get them having fun and gradually increase the skill level and fitness level.
There’s more than one way to approach a skill, right? How does someone approach two ways of performing a skill that may be conflicting with each other?
Gene: In most cases there is a best way, I teach techniques that work 100% of the time, not techniques that work well in some situations but not others. Such as bunny hopping, simply yanking up like many people do works over small obstacles with the right speed but bunny hopping correctly (what some people call the J hop) works better and in more situations (going slower or over taller obstacles).
They say you win XC races on the climbs. If that is true why should an XC racer devote significant time to skills?
Gene: Time wise, climbs are probably 70% of a race so climbing ability is very important. A racer should devote time to skills because there is a much bigger pay off per hour of training. Most XC racers are close to their peak fitness level but are far from their potential skill wise.
Improving skill (both climbing and descending) makes a rider more confident, more efficient, and quite a bit faster. Just this weekend at the Sugar, NC national a non-mountain biking friend of mine asked, “why are those guys walking their bikes, I thought they were pros”. We saw a lot of racers walking while skilled racers like Adam Craig, Ross Schnell, Mike West, and Ariel Lindsey were riding and increasing their lead (while using less energy) on the riders walking the tough sections.
What’s the right way to ‘practice’ skills?
Gene: To practice skills you must first understand the skill you want to practice. Simply practicing “cornering” without knowing how to corner correctly will get you really good at your bad habits.
So rule # 1 is: Perfect practice make perfect.
With this in mind quality is much more important than quantity. Coaches in many sports have found that your quality starts to decline after the third attempt at any skill/movement. These coaches have come up with the rule of threes, do something three times then move on to another skill. In doing something 10 times your last 5 times may do more harm to your technique than the first three attempts did good for your technique.
Rule # 2 is: Have a purpose.
Many riders simply go out and ride, some even with a plan to work on skills. But what skills? To improve you must have an exact purpose, i.e. “Today I am going to focus on braking before corners and exiting with speed” or “for the first 10 minutes of my ride I am going to focus on being relaxed with a light rip on the bars then focus on pumping and contouring the trail”.
We thank Gene for his time in answering our questions and encourage you to visit BetterRide for more info about his skills coaching.