Last weekend our Salida High School Mountain Bike Racing team beat much larger programs, two of which were Boulder schools. These are bigger schools with bigger teams. We prevailed with grit and determination, hard work and sweat —but we also did it with a very underrated tool called laughter.
Coaches play a vital place in society as role models for demonstrating empathy as much as discipline, but this has little to do with winning or competition. It’s often about a sense of inclusion. I’m not talking about that politically correct aspect where everyone wins. I’m interested in how kids are exposed to a challenging world through the guidance of adults. How do we define an inspiring environment, and how do we gauge its success? Now that I’m a parent I see kids fall through the cracks in our schools. In Salida and most small towns we know these kids. We’ve watched them grow up.
I went to a big high school where coaches were primarily interested in building winning teams with athletes that were dedicated to their sport. They gave lip service to the idea of fun, but demanded that kids be serious. My school fed big colleges, and there are more than a few pro athletes that owe their careers to my school’s well funded athletics program.
When I speak with coaches and parents from other high school mountain bike teams I am overwhelmed by the similarly laid back approach characterized by Salida’s racing program. As we come to the conclusion of the second historic season of the Colorado league, I’ve come to appreciate that Salida’s team is unique, even amongst our stellar competitors from towns and cities across the state. First off, Salida coaches require that the kids travel as a team, and they camp at the venues together as a team. They go to haunted houses and they rap on impulse. Nicknames are rampant. They play flashlight tag, and they stay up later than other teams. They have campfires and they laugh —a lot. Winning is rarely discussed. Having fun is the goal.
Wheels on pine needles
When I arrived at the most recent race venue I saw familiar people from all over the state, waving and parking. There were hundreds of people with the primary goal of enjoying the day. Team members intermix as parents and coaches reunite to plan future post season rides. Competitors high five, try each other’s bikes —and build jumps.
Our coaches had rented a classic Boy Scout cabin on the race course. When I found the cabin, set amidst the rolling hills and Ponderosa Pines, the team was cleaning up after breakfast and working on their bikes. The cabin was loaded with bunk beds, gear and backpacks. Colorful groups of kids from various teams rolled by flirting and relaxed in a summer camp way.
Friends from Ft Collins rode through our camp (more high fives, bro hugs and sarcastic smack talking) and somewhere through the trees a casual P.A. announcer named Sean talked about the day’s schedule. People drifted toward the start of the girl’s categories.
The races are hard, and the game faces are focused and real, but the level of politeness and respect can be near comedic. This is, in part because so many kids are new to the sport. Protocols are unfamiliar, and everyone seems to understand that they are all pushing their limits together. Races continue through the early afternoon. The day moves slow, even while the racers are charging.
As the last of the races winds down in the Colorado autumn sun, I watch as our coaches greet the finishers. They welcome in the racers who, in some cases have raced between twelve and eighteen miles of singletrack trail. These kids have been climbing and descending at high speeds for over an hour and they’re tired. As I look across the finish line I see that every parent, and every coach is supporting every finisher. I am aware that the coaches, the parents, the volunteers, the organizers, the siblings and the food servers have bikes, and in many cases they’re passionate cyclists. They know what these kids have been through. This understanding is not rooted in some distant memory of sport, but rather from an intimate knowledge of the excitement that comes from going fast on a bike. For most of us it’s primal.
There is a common refrain that surfaces at the races, especially from the parents of freshman who have not attended a race before. The refrain is often preceded by a slow quiet head shake as frosh parents look across the festival atmosphere and wonder what it might have been like if they’d had a mountain biking team in their high school. Many adult athletes, and especially those turned off by intense coaches feel their school experience might have been much different. There are no whistles in site, and I’ve never heard anyone get angry or raise their voice on any team. Though the races, born from an inaugural league in Northern California are highly organized, they often feel like nobody is in charge —in the good way.
Bike racing demands the strategy of nascar, the cardio of a marathon runner, and the dexterity of two-handed tennis. If Colorado high school mountain bike racing continues its astronomical growth, it has the potential to rival traditional sports in participatory numbers, and kids are spreading the word themselves.
I have talked with other parents who have kids on the SHS mountain bike team. Everyone is blown away by the sport and particularly Salida’s coaching staff. It’s not just me. When a coach takes the time to understand every team member’s home life, makes tea for a nervous Freshman girl, and then reminds the team that “…all they are doing is riding bikes in circles, so have fun and enjoy the day,” we understand that an athlete’s motivation is not driven by pressure. It’s driven by a lack of pressure, and an intangible internal inspiration to perform for a coach and a team that sincerely believes in you. These coaches add something to kid’s lives that parents cannot, and they represent the best about what a coach can represent in a young person’s life.
Last weekend was a reminder that great coaching is rare, but can be as simple as providing a fun environment for kids to play, and supporting them while they do it.
So, what makes Salida such a winning program besides passionate coaching? After the last practice, and the last race of the 2010 season I made some calls to some kids on our team to ask them. Unfortunately, they weren’t available since they were all out riding their bikes. …er, I mean practicing.
-S A L I D A C I T I Z E N-