Thursday, April 11, 2013

Becoming a Mountain Bike Coach (file under: A Place for Everyone)

 I was at Interbike in Las Vegas when I first heard about NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) and high school mountain biking teams. I thought the idea of high school mountain biking was brilliant - an opportunity for high school kids to find a sport that would allow them an opportunity to develop and excel on a personal level, while allowing them to come together as a team with a common goal. 

Unlike other team sports in which the more athletically gifted or coordinated players get time on the field while other kids warm the benches, in mountain biking, everyone participates, as long as the rider is not a danger to himself or to others. So really, with just a bit of training, unlike many other aspects of high school that favor the strong, the talented, the beautiful, or the popular, in high school mountain biking I have found that there truly is a place for everyone. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I remember meeting the SoCal League Director, Matt Gunnell, a man with a ready smile and a focused mission to promote high school cycling, a couple years ago at Interbike. I smiled and shook his hand as he told me about high school cycling, and I took one of the SoCal League stickers stacked on the table in front of him, then I stepped away from the table and was immediately distracted by something new and shiny, and did not give it much more thought. My own child was only two, so this didn't seem to touch my world. Of course, I love working with teens (I have volunteered with the church youth for years), and I love mountain biking (I raced gravity events for several years), and I'm a compulsive teacher, taking any opportunity to spread knowledge in an almost "brace-yourself-and-prepare-to-be-taught" kind of mode, but I didn't see myself as having any place in his mission. 

Then one afternoon about six months ago, I responded to a Facebook post by Matt, who commented somewhat off-handedly that it wouldn't be so much work for everyone if more people would volunteer. When I responded, saying I had a 4-year-old, a bike trailer, and a flexible schedule, within days I found myself helping organize a girls' skills clinic and then suddenly attending a League Coach's 2-day seminar. Oh, and somewhere along the way I had become the girls mountain bike coach for a SoCal League team. 

Wait. What just happened? 

Then it quickly dawned on me why Matt Gunnell friends people on Facebook who show even the remotest interest in high school cycling. Because you never know where a potential volunteer is lurking, just waiting to be asked to help out.

Before I signed on as the Eastlake Girls Coach, I expressed my apprehension to my husband, telling him that I didn't think I was really qualified. While I might have really good technical skills, these girls were cross-country racers, and all of them would be faster than me. How could I possibly be their coach?

He smiled and asked me simply, "Laura, how many Olympic athletes have coaches that can run faster or jump higher than them? How many high school football coaches have you seen that stand on the sidelines with a huge beer gut? A coach's job is not to be the fastest or the strongest. The coach's job is to help the athlete reach his or her potential."

Yes, this is one of the many reasons I married this man. 

Over the past six months, I gotten to know my team. It's taken a while for me to find my place as their coach, define boundaries, become confident in my role, to learn their individual potentials, and match up those potentials with their goals. We have grown together over time, learning, trying, failing, forgiving, trying again... each of us finding our own identity while finding our place within the team. I've found that even for coaches who are the slowest ones up the hill, on a mountain bike team, there truly is a place for everyone. And I'm really glad I'm here. 

Coach Drexler and the Eastlake Girls

So, if you like mountain biking, like working with teens, enjoy teaching, and want to help a student athlete reach his or her potential, there is a place for you in high school mountain biking. You don't have to have a kid in high school, and you don't have to be fast uphill. You don't even have to be the coach; you can support a local team by becoming a general volunteer or ride leader. Trust me, this is a ride you won't want to miss!

To get involved in high school mountain biking, go to the NICA website. Leagues exist in SoCal and NorCal, and we have project leagues in Colorado, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, Utah, New York, Tennessee, and Arizona. And if you are in a state not listed, just remember that if you build it, they will come.