I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve screwed up when trying to get my kids into mountain biking. As a parent, the act of motivating our kids is a constant struggle. What works for one kid, may not work for others. I have 2 boys, 9-½ and 11 at the time of writing. And they are VERY different in their learning styles. So I thought I’d share what I have found has worked for me and my boys.
- Find out where the “Line” is. Every kid has their “Line”. It’s the place where a good time suddenly turns into a complete meltdown. It could be triggered by a fall, or the inability to climb a hill, or it’s just too hot. With 2 boys, I’ve found that this “Line” is a dynamic thing. But what I’ve learned is to keep my plans realistic and, if need be, adjust them for what’s currently happening. We all have bad days. Our kids will too. If we get mid ride and no one is having fun, it’s time to bail. Getting upset or disappointed doesn’t help at all. I made that mistake once and almost destroyed biking for both my kids. Keep it fun and they will WANT to ride.
- Learn what kind of coaching your kid responds to. I tend to analyze everything I do. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make everything better. Can I shift earlier, carry a bigger gear up this hill, take the turn sharper, what if I put my weight more back when cornering … etc … but some kids DO NOT respond well to a constant barrage of helpful hints. My youngest (9-½ years old) does not like advice while riding. I find he gets frustrated. So I’ve learned to sit back and just let him ride. Even if that means he will be in too big of a gear for a climb. If he gets frustrated, then I offer help.
- Ride with other kids. It doesn’t matter if the kids have the same ability or not. Or even if they are the same age. Riding with better, or older, kids will help them see what they are capable of. And riding with slower, or younger, kids will allow them to analyze themselves while giving advice to others. Try to sit back and just let them ride. This is a great time to teach trail etiquette.
- Have LOTS of treats on hand. When a ride seems like it’s going down hill (not in the fun way), I find taking a break and eating some snacks, or energy chews, is a great reset. Even taking a break to look at a cool tree, or animal by the trail can be a good distraction.
- Check their gear. No one likes gear that doesn’t work. And nothing will frustrate a kid more than a bike that doesn’t shift. Rusty bearings or a heavy bike will wear them out. Bad brakes will make for scary descents for both of you!
- Start small. Pick trails that will be easy for them to conquer at first. Build confidence. Starting a kid on a trail that is too hard will only have them falling on rocks and walking up hills that are too steep. Find trails that are easy to jump on and off of at different distances. Do a small loop a couple times to let them learn it.
- Set realistic goals. This one can be tough. I have had some success with picking a hill on a trail and giving an incentive for them to make the climb. Whether it’s a big prize (like a jersey) or a smaller prize (ice cream). The challenge needs to be within their grasp. But not so hard that they can get too disappointed and give up. This one has been tough for me to gauge as, just with all the others, some kids do not respond well to not attaining a goal. Especially if they are in a group where all the others do. Start with short distances and increase when you see fit. Remember though – goals need to be fluid. Well all have bad days.
- Bigger wheels are better. Speaking from a purely cross country standpoint, we all know 29” wheels are better for us adults. So why wouldn’t it be the same for kids? Every time I got my boys to jump up to the next size of wheel I saw their abilities increase dramatically. This may be tough to do for a shorter rider, and this may go against what others may say, but in my opinion bigger is better.
- Swap kids. This technique will work really well if you have a kid that doesn’t like to take instruction. If you have a friend that you trust, let them ride with your kid. Sometimes, hearing tips from someone OTHER than DAD is more effective. Kids will change behaviour with mom and dad. I’ve witnessed whiney kids turn into hill-slaying maniacs within a matter of minutes while riding with someone other than their parent. Try to observe if your friend is giving different instruction that you normally do. Have a conversation after the ride to find out what they learned from riding with your child.
- BE FLUID. Like the famous Bruce Lee quote – “Be water my friend” – you need to be very flexible with everything regarding riding with kids. Be prepared to take extra time. To stop. To talk. To share water when they forgot to bring theirs. To jump on to the road when the trail gets too hard. To cut a ride short because they are having an “off” day. Just because a technique worked one year, doesn’t mean it will work the next.
I am NOT an expert. These are only a few of the techniques I have noticed while riding with my boys. I am sure that there are many other ones that you, as a parent, will need to invent to help your child progress. Cycling is hard. Mountain biking is even harder. Take a step back and remember what it was like to start on the trails. We are attempting to nurture a life-long activity. These crucial first few years are what can make, or break, the love of biking in a kid. So let’s take our time and do it right.