Getting your kids into sports at a young age is key to teaching them the importance of enjoying the outdoors. Not to mention that the younger they learn skills, the easier it will be for them catch on — and less likely that their fears will get in the way of their progression.
Progression: That’s the main word as a coach that I emphasize to all of my students — because without proper progression, they may fail. Teaching kids the basic skills of mountain biking and taking them on trails appropriate for their skill level is the best way to ensure that they have the proper groundwork to progress at a safe rate. Their confidence will build the more they practice, which will in turn help them be mentally and physically ready to try harder trails. It’s this connection between the mental and the physical that’s necessary for success in any sport. Especially in more extreme sports such as mountain biking, that when done at a higher level, can be dangerous.
Braking: One of the questions I ask all my students before we begin a lesson or clinic is “Which brake has more stopping power: the front or the rear?” Inevitably, most people think the answer is the rear, or right brake. But in truth, the front, or left brake has the most stopping power. If you are not using it when you are descending, you are not going to be able to stop or slow down as quickly and safely as you would if you were using it.
The reason that most of us, even as adults, don’t use our front brake enough (or at all) is because when we were kids, our parents told us not to use the front brake. Why? Because if you only use your front brake, you are going to go OTB (Over the Bars), aka a “Scorpion,” which will end even the happiest of trail rides. The key to using the front brake properly is to use it at the same time as the rear brake, and to use them both as if they were dimmer switches, with only your pointer fingers. In fact, those pointer fingers should ALWAYS be hovering over those brake levers — ALWAYS.
Teaching kids to brake properly is the best way to help build their confidence as well as to help them feel safe while they are riding trails.
Eyes on the Prize: Just as in skiing, if you look at the tree, you are probably going to hit the tree. So, when you’re on the trail, look where you want to go. Don’t look at that huge rock on the side of the trail, because you are probably going to hit it. Where your eyes go, so will your bike. Teaching your kids this skill may be hard at first, but once they learn to use it properly, their confidence will soar.
Speed is your Friend: Yakima is famous for our rocky mountain bike trails. Am I telling you to go teach your kids never to use their brakes? No. But what I am telling you is that when you do encounter rocks or roots on the trail, the faster you go over them, the easier it will be.
What Bike Should I Get My Kid? If your kiddo is walking, you can get them on a Coaster (aka a push or strider) bike. These bikes do not have pedals, but instead, many of them have small areas on the frame where kids can place their feet after they begin coasting. The goal for starting kids out on these bikes is that they will learn balance and some of the basic biking skills so that they will move straight to a pedal bike and skip the training wheels altogether.
For older kids, all of the larger mountain bike brands have nice entry-level bikes that will get them up and down most beginner trails. 24-inch or 26-inch wheel size will be better for smaller, younger kids. But if your kids do progress beyond the beginner/intermediate level, you might want to bump up to the ever-popular 27.5-inch wheel size so that they can grow with the bike. These bikes also tend to be a lot more spendy, especially when you bump up to a dual suspension, so when you do decide to take the leap, make sure that you get a bike that will work in the long run so that you aren’t switching out bikes every year or two.
My Last Piece Of Advice? Take a lesson or clinic and if you can afford it, put your kids in one as well. Even a basic beginner clinic will give you and your kids the skills to ride most of the trails in Yakima. It’s amazing to see how much the confidence level of my students changes between the morning when we meet and the afternoon when I send them home. It is the reason that I will continue to coach as long as I can. Because to me, there’s no greater gift in the world than being able to help change someone’s life for the better.