Relearning MTB: The Yips, part 2

If the first part in this series on the yips was about how to get them, this part is at least what I learned about how to get rid of them. So this is a little story about my journey to more intentional riding, and maybe it's also an allegory about a journey to intentional living. 

A couple of hard crashes at a bike park late in the summer rattled me and left me lacking in confidence. The next couple of times out - once at a local skills park with a short jump line (the dirt line at 1:36, not the wooden boosties at 2:20 - I'm not there yet) and another at Bryce Mountain - I was tentative approaching the jumps and couldn't find the point in my technique development where I left off before the crash. I'd roll into jumps and press into the bike on the ramp, aiming to load the bike to stabilize it in the air. But as soon as I left the ramp my rear wheel would kick out to the right. Every time. The more air I got, the further askew I was on landing. Naturally I corrected by getting less air by loading less and rolling into jumps slower - exactly the opposite of the progression I was looking for.

Brew Thru - the blue jump trail at Bryce Resort.

Then I met a guy riding up the lift, his left knee, elbow and shoulder showing the telltale dust and dirt from a crash. He told me his mind wandered a bit and he slid out hard in a berm. For the next couple of runs he was still a bit shaken and told me he couldn't find his rhythm or form, leaving him without the confidence he normally enjoys when attacking the flowy trails. "I feel like a passenger on the bike today, and I don't like it," he told me. 

Two things that he said resonated with me. Like him, I too felt like a passenger on the bike, and it wasn't until he said it that I realized that this was both the cause and the effect of my problem. Because also like him, I realized that it was my mind wandering that led to my poor form on the jump, and my inattentiveness on the technical trail, and the two crashes that resulted. I was a passenger in those moments, when I needed to be a driver. And I was still a passenger, not controlling my own destiny on the bike. At some point, technique becomes second nature and you can check out a bit (or entirely) and still benefit from impeccable form and decision-making. That's the whole point of practice - to groove the body and mind to operate without thinking. But I'm not there yet - I'm not close to the point where I can switch to auto pilot. That software hasn't even been installed. Before I can ride freely unthinking, I have to spend hours and hours thinking the bejeezus out of every approach, every takeoff, every flight, every landing. I have to be entirely present and conscious, and be an objective observer of myself while I'm doing it.

This is what meditation teaches you, and it's part of why I started practicing it again recently. Being present within a ride is the only way to improve. To me it's about being intentional every time I ride. I'm no Johann Bruyneel fan, but I think often about the title of his terrible book (that I won't link to), "We Might As Well Win." It's an awful justification for what he did, but the phrase sticks with me and helps me remain intentional. If I'm out here on a trail for an hour, I might as well try to roll each corner with the best form I have. I might as well aim to stop braking a little bit earlier and carry another mph of speed through. I might as well take the hard line on that short climb instead of the easy one since this is just about getting better anyway. I made the effort to be here - I might as well get something out it.

But being present and intentional is only half of it. Without the fundamentals, it would be very easy for me to complete dozens of thoughtful reps using awful form, creating habits that would then take a long time to unbreak. So after that lift ride with my colleague in crashing, I vowed to be present through my entire next run, focusing on the fundamentals I learned earlier. It took a few jumps of paying attention to myself to realize what I was doing wrong. I was unloading too quickly - almost popping - and relying too much on my arms to lift the bike. I suspect some asymmetrical strength imbalance in my body was causing the bike to kick always to the same direction when I did this. Within a few runs of pretty exhausting hyper focus, I found my form again, began loading the bike through more controlled pressing. Instead of pulling it up I kept my hands very soft on the bars (I envisioned holding onto eggs, not Ourys). Before long the bike was floating steadily up to my waiting hands, where they caught it and positioned it for a controlled landing on the back of the tabletops.

My yips really were all in my head. And it's because I left my head empty enough for them to make themselves at home there. Mindfull riding might not keep them out for good, but I know now it will help me spot them, observe them objectively, and then usher them out as I continue to work on building skills intentionally.


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