Outlaw Mentoring Young Athletes
Competitive Cycling for Kids & Teens

Building the Best Riders: How to Develop Young Mountain Bikers

By: Jim Rusnak  June 01, 2022

Mountain biking can be a fun, challenging and sometimes daunting sport for young cyclists. Developing the passion, confidence and fundamental skills necessary to progress in the sport takes time.

Tyson Henrie, coach of the Outlaw Bike Team in Utah, has been mentoring young riders in downhill mountain bike racing for eight years now.

He recently offered some insight on how to develop young mountain bikers.

Let Kids Be Kids

Assuming the kid can already ride a bike, Henrie suggest adults step back a little bit and just let their kids enjoy the freedom and joy that comes with that basic skill of just pedaling around. Let the kids drive the direction they want to go. It’s absolutely essential in helping them develop a passion for the sport.

“The less that parents and adults can do to get in the way of that freedom of riding a bike, the better off the kids are going to be,” Henrie said. “It’s where adults step in and make it an adult thing to do, that’s where the kids struggle. They lose the interest and the passion for it. We’ve all seen [the parents] who get too crazy. They just force these kids to do all these events, all this training, put in the mileage on the trainer, and it just leads to burnout. Let them ride, let them be free as much as possible, and as the kids progress and start to need additional assistance or coaching beyond what the parents can provide, then definitely seek out a team or a group—or even individual coaching—to just fuel that passion and give them the skills to be as safe as possible on the bike.”

Coaching the Fundamentals

Based on Henrie’s experience, once a kid has mastered some of the basics of riding a bike and shows a passion for the sport, that’s when it’s helpful for them to receive some kind of formal coaching – be it in a team or group setting, or individually.

He said there are many good programs and coaches out there that can help young riders find success on a bike by developing their fundamental skills.

“Just giving them a few drills or pointers at a young age helps a lot to develop their habits on a bike,” Henrie said. “From our experience, I think establishing a few, key fundamental points at a young age really helps a lot. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown program to make that happen, as long as there’s an adequate coach that’s able to spot the bad habits forming and help the good habits form.”

Some of the fundamental points Henrie starts with are drilling and establishing a balanced body position, proper braking for traction and control, and cornering in all conditions. From there, he progresses into jumps, drops and other obstacles. He also teaches trail vision to all his athletes, from beginner to advanced. This includes line choice and how to read the terrain.

In addition to coaching, Henrie says peer support is also important in a young rider’s development. In fact, it’s just as important or even more important as having adult mentors. Managed correctly, it can be the biggest boost to their riding, as athletes often push each other the most.

“It definitely helps to have a coach, but even more importantly, to have a group of other kids their age or similar ability that they can see doing these things and doing hard things on a bike that they thought were impossible a day ago,” Henrie said. “Then they think, ‘if Timmy can do it, I can totally do it.’”

Have Fun and Face Challenges, but Not Too Much, Too Soon

As cliched as it sounds, if the kids aren’t having fun, they’re not going to stick with it very long. They love challenges, as long as those challenges are in proportion to their skill.

“It’s got to be fun for them at all levels, whether that’s who they’re riding with, how they’re riding, what trails they’re on,” Henrie said. “If they’ve stepped up to a difficult trail too fast, then that can ruin the fun. [The challenges are] also the best part about mountain biking, especially for kids. They start to realize that they really can do all these hard things on a bike, the scary challenges that translate over to everything in life, as well. The mindset is the most important thing, and we work on it as a team, all the time.”

Passion drives consistency and success

Aside from the support system that it takes to develop a successful athlete, Henrie says the riders that see the most success are the ones who are the most consistent, and the most passionate. The two qualities feed on each other to produce the best results. According to Henrie, the consistency builds the passion, but it’s the passion that starts the consistency.

“Those are the two key ingredients for success in mountain biking,” Henrie said. “The passion drives the consistency. [The passionate ones] are the ones out in the driveway working on jibs and bunny hops and manuels every day. They’re the ones out pedaling just because they want to. They’re the ones out digging trails, and building new trails and jumps, and riding with their mates as much as possible.”

If you’re a coach or a parent of a young mountain biker, Henrie suggests two things to help build this symbiotic relationship between passion and consistency: keep it positive and highlight the successes while learning from the failures.

“Provide as many opportunities as possible to find that success, and be patient,” Henrie said. “They’re kids, and they’re going to be kids until they’re in their 20s. There’s no reason they need to be a world champion at 15 years old. It’s fun, but it could also not be fun.”

Setbacks and Plateaus

As with athletes in any sport, a young mountain biker might hit a plateau in their progression for any number of reasons.

When this happens, Henrie suggests introducing variety into a rider’s routine. This might include taking time off to participate in another sport for a season, or even shifting the focus of their riding for a while to another discipline. For example, a BMXer might want to take some time away from racing to ride dirt jumps, or a downhiller might want to try XC training for a few weeks.

Other motivation—such finding a new training partner or working toward a special training trip or race—might also help.

“I think where the plateaus come from is that they do lose that passion, and they’re not out there riding their bikes as much as possible,” Henrie said. “Try to be proactive with that with trying to anticipate any of those plateaus or slumps. Keep the variety, keep the passion high, and then be proactive about seeing when the motivation and passion might be slipping.”

Support Your Athletes

Coaches and parents play many roles in their young riders’ lives. For example, Henrie says that he is a skills coach, a strength and conditioning coach, a performance coach, a social coach and sometimes even a family counselor. It’s important to be there for your athletes and let them know you’ve got their backs in their development as both riders and as kids.

“It’s a huge role that most coaches play,” Henrie said. “It is just being that voice, that questioning guide to keep the passion high for their athletes without being pushy. It’s a fine line of being demanding, but also understanding individual athletes’ needs, and having those conversations when needed to help navigate growing up. Specifically with sports, it’s about how to handle successes, how to handle failures, how to be consistent.”

And never lose sight of the fun.

“It’s great to see the sport growing so much, especially downhill,” Henrie said. “And so cool to see so many parents and kids getting into it at a younger and younger age. I can’t stress how important it is just to keep it fun. I just don’t want that to become a cliché – the thing that we say, but don’t actually follow up on.”