Ninja Mountain Bike Performance - Skills Clinics, MTB Jump Ramps and Bike Stands

So you managed to find your child a new bicycle … which is quite a feat given then extreme shortage in bicycles (and parts) this past year. Kudos to you as a busy parent, bicycle enthusiast, savvy craigslist hunter and now proud owner of a new (or new to you) kids bike! Now what do you do?

We all know that learning from a loved one, someone whom you’re emotionally connected to, can be very frustrating. Even if your loved one is exceptional at their skill, it’s hard to HEAR what their saying and take constructive criticism when you’re involved with each other on a deeper level. Don’t worry, we’re here to help with 11 Tips to get your kid shredding, no matter their age.

The Basics

#1 Wear a helmet!

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many people we see on the trail NOT wearing a helmet now days… Borrowing from an old motorcycle adage, there are two types of riders: those who have crashed and those who will.  Mountain biking and cycling are inherently dangerous activities, so wear a properly fitted helmet!  It may even be the law in your state.  Wearing a helmet that doesn’t fit is just as bad as not wearing one.

To Properly fit a helmet: Take a piece of string, ribbon, or twine and wrap it once around your child’s forehead, measuring the circumference of their noggin.  Mark that ribbon or string with your finger or cut it with scissors.  Then measure it with a ruler or tape measure.  Look for a helmet within that size range.  The more advanced helmets typically have two points of adjustment: a knob in the back to cinch the helmet to the head and a strap below the chin to keep it on. 

There should be two fingers width between the eyebrows and the helmet, if you can easily slide the helmet backwards off the forehead, try adjusting the cinch once more. The side straps should make a “Y” below the ear, and there should be less than ½ inch between your chin and the chin strap.  The knob in the back should be tightened down enough so when your child bends over and shakes their head, the helmet shouldn’t move too much.

Kids Under 6

#2 Teach them balance first

Can your child walk? Then what are you waiting for? It’s time for their first balance bike! Balance bikes (sometimes referred to as Striders) are a great tool for teaching your child the lifelong skill of balance.  Strider-style without cranks or pedals are perfect for kids under three.  As a budget conscious parent, you may feel that a bike without pedals is just another expense, especially if you have a rapidly growing 3-5 year old. However, if you’ve already purchased a bike with pedals, you can turn your child’s existing bike into a balance bike by simply removing the cranks/pedals. 

Protip: The pedal on left side of the bike (the non-drivetrain side) is reverse threaded.  Instead of lefty-loosey to loosen the pedal, turn it to the right.

Why teach balance first?

Why not training wheels?  If you’ve been mountain biking for any length of time, you may have realized how important balance is in not only staying upright, but getting over obstacles successfully.  Balance is a lifelong skill that changes with age and while training wheels may help your child learn to pedal, they do nothing for helping your child balance, which is typically a harder skill to learn than pedaling. once Balance is mastered, pedaling is easy!

#3 Learn the power pedal position

The power pedal position is the fastest way to get your bike going by maximizing the leverage and torque of your pedal and foot.  If you’re looking at the drivetrain side of the bike (right foot lead), the power pedal position is going to be in the 2 o’clock position. If you prefer to lead with your left foot, that’s going to be the 10 o’clock position. For those just learning to pedal their bike, try using the same lead foot every time as to not confuse the child. 

Be sure your child understands the position and how to manipulate the pedals to put them in the power pedal position, rather than doing it for them.  This will help your child understand how their bike works.  If you have a bike stand or rack that can hold the bike while you explain the position, use it! The power pedal position can also help a child who already knows how to pedal get their bike started faster and even help a newbie parent get enough power when stopped going uphill.

#4 Patience is more than a virtue

Teaching your kid to ride a bike depends on a lot of different factors.  Age, size, balance, temperament, and coordination all play a big role.  If you are starting out with a toddler, know this—it will take years before they are shredding the trail alongside you.  Even if you have a kindergartner, it may still take a long time.  There is no set age where “most” kids learn to ride a bike.  Every child is different and learns at their own pace. 

Regular practice (even for 5-10 minutes at a time a few times a week) and a lot of patience will work in both the parent’s and the child’s favor.  Riding a bike is not only fun, it means of freedom! However, it is also the mastery of a new skill and this takes time.  Try explaining this to your child when they get frustrated (because it will happen)… it takes a lot of time to become a master.

Kids 6+ or “The Peddler”

#5 Refine their skills on pavement

So your kid already knows how to pedal and you’re ready to move them to dirt.  This tip may seem a little counter intuitive, but hear us out: refine their skills on pavement first. 

Pavement rolls quicker and has less resistance than dirt or grass.  Younger kids already have a slower reaction time than adults.  When you put them on a harder surface with less resistance, they automatically have to adjust and react quicker to an evolving landscape.  Once they’ve mastered pedaling, try putting together an obstacle course in your driveway or neighborhood before hitting the dirt.  Make them weave in and out of cones or ride a “skinny” that’s lying flat on the ground.  Draw some lines on the pavement with chalk or flour that they have to stay in.  Get creative! 

Once they master obstacles like that on pavement in a quicker paced setting, it will improve their reaction times when you transfer them to dirt.  Worried about your kid falling on pavement? Every parent is!  Knee and elbow pads are a great investment for the accident prone child.

#6 Transition them to the trail slowly

Once they’ve mastered a few obstacles on pavement, move them to the trail slowly by transitioning them to a flat trail that is mostly hardpack or finely crushed gravel.  Loose, chunky rocks, loose gravel, and excessively rooty trails aren’t going to set your child up for success.  Got a nice pump track?  That works great!  The small bumps and berms are perfect for those new peddlers and even those seasoned balance bikers.

#7 Get your kid comfortable standing up on the pedals and coasting

One of the first things to master in mountain biking is proper body position.  Getting comfortable with the “ready” and “neutral” positions are essential to thriving on the trail and increasing the fun!

First, get your child standing up on the pedals and coasting.  To do this, the pedals must be level, that is, neither pedal is up and neither pedal is down.  Have them stand up, nice and tall, with only the slightest bend in their knees and elbows.  Their chin should be over their stem and their weight should be centered on the bike.  For a lot of younger riders and new mountain bikers, this concept of standing up and coasting will be completely foreign (back to that patience thing…).  This is the “neutral” position.

Once they get used to standing up nice and tall on level pedals, get your child used to the “ready” position.  When in the neutral position, have your child bend their knees and elbows even more while hinging at the hips.  The chin should still be over the stem and their weight should be low, wide and centered.  This is the “ready” position and is the first step of successful mountain biking.  If you have a stick or even a pool noodle, try playing a game of limbo on the bike to help drive these body positions home.  Have them stand up in neutral to tap the pool noodle with their helmet.  Have them limbo under it in the neutral position.  Play around with it and see how low they can go!

Kids 8+ or “The Seasoned Peddler”

#8 Make sure your kid understands how their bike works

By now your kid is probably shredding your neighborhood, local park, or even trails just as hard as you are!  With increased age and experience comes increased knowledge and coordination.  If you haven’t already, now is the time to explain to your child exactly how their bike works and how that knowledge can transfer to the trails.  Have them be responsible for doing some basic maintenance on it, like washing it after rides, cleaning and lubing the chain, and inflating the tires. 

Having them learn basic maintenance will give them a sense of pride in their bike and odds are, they will be more inclined to take care of it.  Also, learning about how the bike works and how it feels when something is off (“hey, my gears are making a funny noise!” or “Something feels funny!”) will lead to the longevity of their whip and make them more aware of their bike-body relationship.

#9 Instill proper braking technique

Make sure your child understands the difference between their front and rear brake, and when to use which one and with how much force.   Try having them play a braking game where they ride a section of trail at a safe speed, and only use their rear brake.  Next, have them ride that same section of trail using only their front brake and let them feel the difference.  If the winter weather has closed your trails, something like this can be done easily in the grass.  Just set up a cone, stick, or obstacle that they have to ride their bike at and stop at using the various brakes.  Once they feel the difference in the power of their front vs their rear brake, explain feathering and trying to use only one finger to brake.

#10 Make sure they understand how gears work

By now your child should be on a large enough bike where it has gears.  Gears can be hard to explain, even to adults sometimes. Try to explain it in the easiest way (with the simplest terms) possible.  Kids can get hung up on numbers and what gear they should be in.  A good game to play that helps explain gears is what we call “Easy Gear, Hard Gear, Happy Gear.”

Have your child pedal around in a circle and tell them to get into their easiest gear.  This should be a “1,” no matter what bike they’re on.  When you say “go” have them pedal around and around the circle, as fast as they can, without stopping in “gear 1.”  If you have more than one kid or if you want to play along too, you can even turn this into a “easy gear race” by doing it on a straightaway instead of a circle.  Just make sure they get plenty of revolutions in—enough to feel really silly!

Next, do the same thing, but have your child do it in their hardest gear.  This will obviously depend on the make and model of their bike.  Ask them which one they liked better and what were the differences in the easiest gear versus the hardest gear.  Finally, do it a third time, but have your child pick their “happy gear”—whichever gear they want between their hardest and their easiest that they feel most comfortable in.  This game should be done on a relatively flat surface, however, if your child doesn’t quite grasp the concept, feel free to throw in a little elevation! 

#11 Teach them trail scanning

I’ve heard a lot of parents teaching their kids to look as far down the trail as possible, which is great, but what’s happening right underneath you is important too!  Ideally, your vision and focus should be almost constantly shifting between “what comes now” and “what comes next.”  For this, I love to play a game I call “find the gnomes.”  I have some small gnome figurines that I’ll stop and hide in different places on the trail.  The goal is to ride at a decent pace and find all the gnomes.  If they don’t—they have to go back and ride that section of trail again. Make sure you’re putting gnomes in places they can actually see, and can see either at a distance or up close.  If they are any rock cairns on the side of the trail, these are perfect spots, as well as on any large roots in the middle of the trail.  Looking for gnomes (or playing cards, or small animals, or Hot Wheels cars) is a great way of getting them aware of their surroundings and paying attention to the terrain in a fun way.

These are just a few tips for getting your little one(s) excited and motivated to ride without overwhelming them or sending them into the pain cave unnecessarily. We understand that every child is different, and their motivations differ as well. Take this tips and apply them as they apply to your child, change the motivation slightly, or up the ante if they’re ready to progress faster. Above all – ALWAYS END EVERY RIDE ON A POSITIVE & HAPPY NOTE.

About the author: Kat Volzer lives in Chattanooga, TN with her husband (Jake), her son (Heath), and two crazy trail dogs (Chicken and Waffles).  Kat has been out on the trails mountain biking since she was a middle schooler in the early 2000s.  When she’s not getting rad herself or teaching others to shred, she teaches kids how to ride bikes and leads bicycle safety education programs for kids in East Tennessee as the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator through a federal grant.  In a nutshell, if Kat isn’t out riding and/or camping, she’s getting other people out riding (and hopefully smiling too!)

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the tips. I like the pool noodle and gnome ideas. They seem like the kids will like them and learn the associated skill.

  2. Thanks for these tips. We are on steps 5 and 7 with my 3 year old. Any advise on different obstacle course set ups to improve his skills?

    1. I like using a couple long pieces of rope — by laying these out parallel to each other, you can make paths that bend and twist. The objective it to stay between the lines. Also, a stack of soccer cones can be tons of fun — set them up randomly for a game of hot lava! Hope that helps!

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