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Authored by 2023 Kaden Ambassador Ashley Taylor
As a mom, hiking guide, former group fitness-instructor, and ski-instructor working primarily with 3-6 year olds, it’s safe to say I’ve had my fair share of experiences teaching and coaching outdoor activities. I’ve witnessed kids have both a great time, and a not-so-great time out on the mountain. The goal obviously being to turn as many of those experiences into ones that are both positive and memorable.
I am teaching my daughter Leila the basics of mountain biking and she is learning quickly that mountain biking can be challenging. Leila is a confident skier, easily cruising down double black diamonds, handling steep and technically challenging off-piste terrain with the confidence and skill of someone well beyond her years. Yet learning a new sport that requires different skills, and managing the numerous things you have to have on your mind (shift gears, sit in the saddle, get out of the saddle, be careful where you place your next pedal stroke) can feel overwhelming when also cruising down a wooded trail.
I am not PMBIA certified by any means, but coaching is a switch that I can’t seem to always turn off. Through my adventures with Leila in the woods, I have learned a few tricks about how to help introduce mountain biking to kids. Here are some of my tips for introducing mountain biking to children. Some of this guidance may seem obvious, but hopefully this article provides some tips to keep in your back pocket.
One thing I have encountered are parents who are over zealous about their children attaining as many skills in one day on the mountain as possible. The reality is progression is a slow process. It takes time and mileage to get kids comfortable not only with their gear and equipment, but with the terrain as well. If kids are placed in challenging terrain before their time, it’s common for them to feel overwhelmed and forfeit. If you want your kids in it for the long haul, start slow and let them master the smaller trails and networks before moving them into more advanced terrain.
Kids want to have fun. If you approach your time together on trails in a pedagogical manner, you will lose them. Every single time. Remember back to when you were a child. How did you learn best? Were you a visual, kinesthetic, auditorial, or hybrid learner? I often find kids are a mix of two or more learning styles. Turning trail time into a sequence of games (“let’s play follow the leader - follow my tracks”) are helpful ways to have them watch and mimic your moves on the bike. When we come across a feature on the trail that is within her skill set, we get off our bikes, talk about the feature, and decide how to best approach. I will demo a technical part of the trail for her to watch first and attempt second. That way she has a better idea what she's signing up for before attempting the trail.
This comes second nature to parents, but praise can’t be understated. The more positive reinforcement kids get for the work they put into learning and developing new skills, the more their confidence soars. I know when I get praised for doing something well, it makes me want to invest even more time into the activity. Kids are no different - they need reassurance that the work they put into climbing (or walking their bike) up a heavy, terrible hill (my daughter’s words not mine!) is given the recognition it deserves.
Recently I took Leila to the Catamount Outdoor Family Center (a family-friendly trail network in Williston, VT). There was one trail she rode well until the end, where the trail featured a small section that Leila didn’t feel comfortable on. After sessioning and discussing with the group we were riding with, Leila decided to walk the section and save it for another time. About a week later, we returned to Catamount. Leila wanted to go and attempt the trail again. This time was a complete success! We danced, cheered, high-fived, and she rode through the section multiple times while this over-the-top cheer mom caught it all on camera. Basically, get silly! Turn their accomplishments (both big and small) into a big deal. Do what works best for you and your child to find fun and special ways to let them know how incredible they are for mountain biking.
The magic, aka the ‘fun’ of being outdoors participating in sports can run dry for several reasons (weather, physical factors, etc.). If your child reaches a point where they are no longer able to enjoy themselves or the sport, it enters the territory of turning a positive event into a negative one. It’s like the logic of three strikes. The more negative events associated with a sport, the less likely kids want to attempt it again. Know when to call it quits to avoid reaching your kids' breaking point. Sometimes even a few stops along some scenic vistas or interesting places on the trail for snack break can make all the difference.
There’s a full season of riding ahead! I can’t wait to see how much progress Leila makes from now until fall. Wednesdays we plan on spending at Bolton Valley Resort (a lift-served ski/bike resort in Richmond, VT) riding their new green trail Ebascootcha, to continue building her downhill skills. If you see us, please say hello! We would love to take a lap with you and your kid(s). Happy trails to you and your little ones too!