Yes, teaching bike safety and handling skills to kids is essential, but being a leading lady in a girl’s life is about more than learning how to brake safely. How we act and what we do lays a foundation of confidence, courage, and perseverance to last her a lifetime.
To see the impact that mentorship can have, we spoke with Sarah Schreib from Little Bellas in the US — a program of “mentoring on mountain bikes” — to gain perspective on the importance of showing up, sharing, and stepping up in our own lives.
The word “confidence” gets thrown around in the bike industry. Bikes are "confidence inspiring" and features like disc brakes and stable geometries raise your confidence at every turn. But the biggest boost to confidence is born from experience. As grown-ups, the more we accumulate, the more we think, “If only I’d had this confidence when I was a kid?”
Globally, numerous organizations and programs aim to do just that —give girls the confidence they need to take on the world. Take Lael Wilcox’s GRIT program (an after-school program in Alaska that empowers middle school girls through bikes), and the ever-growing chapters of Little Bellas in the USA, for example. The success of these programs speaks volumes to the value of role models on our girls’ lives, but how do they do it? Is there something we can take from their experience and fold into our own?
Sarah Schreib, Program Director in Vermont, has been a mentor with Little Bellas since the very beginning — over 10 years. She’s seen it grow from one chapter in Vermont to 15 chapters nationwide. Founders and sisters, Lea and Sabra Davison, originally saw it as a way of encouraging more girls to race, but it didn’t take long for Little Bellas to evolve into something else.
“I think, really quickly, they realized that just getting the girls on the bikes was the most important thing,” says Schreib. “The racing thing became very secondary, if at all. It was more about just getting them confident, getting them out, getting them riding.”
The sweet spot age range for Little Bellas is 7 to 16, and it’s not unusual for girls to come back year-after-year, with some even going on to become mentors themselves. Schreib sees, firsthand, the impact it can have and the changes that can take place over the course of their time in the Bellas. As the confidence grows, the future mentor-in-training shows.
“Girls that are shy come in and […] some of them are very timid and they keep to themselves a little bit,” says Schreib. “There’s maybe one or two girls that they talk to. Then, as the years progress, you see those one or two girls grow into four or five, and they’re interacting more and more — they’re not so timid. And by the third or fourth year, they’re one of the main people in the group because they know the program. They know how we run games, and they can help other girls who are now coming in the program who are new, [and] who may be shy.
“I think their role kind of changes the longer that they’re in the program. They go from being kind of like the freshman to being the senior — of not knowing how things run, to knowing how things go, and people can come to them and ask them. I think it’s a kind of a nice role for them to start to take on.”
Best of all, the girls aren’t the only ones to get something from the experience.
“For me,” says Schreib, “I just find it fun. I get to be a kid. I get to hang out and be silly and you know, just hanging out with a bunch of really cool girls who, on the one hand think I’m insane because I’ll dance at the drop of a hat and act funny and whatever. And then on the other hand, you know, they think I’m this like really cool, like, mountain bike rider?
“It’s fun. It’s just a fun way to get girls out interacting with other girls that’s not in a classroom, that’s not on a team. It’s someplace that’s low-to-no stress, where they can just go and be who they want to be and do what they want to do. Ride some bikes, you know, pick some flowers, put it in their helmets, throw color on each other some days.”
Sounds like a pretty good deal. Now knowing the impact being a mentor can have at an organized level, is there something we can learn and apply as we do our part to raise strong, gutsy, independent girls?
Start Your Cheer Squad At Home
As a rider, parent, friend or relative, you already have the capacity to be a role model to kids, and not just by volunteering for programs like Little Bellas. We asked Schreib how they, as mentors, manage to keep the girls’ confidence stoke high and self-doubt at bay? Her answers can easily be adapted to our lives as we teach our kids confidence through riding bikes.
1. Get To Know Their Skill Level.
“One of the biggest things that we’ve shown our mentors […] is just to really get to know the girls and really interact with them, so they know what a girl can handle and what a girl cannot handle in terms of, like, riding different trails. The biggest way to take confidence away is to put a girl on a trail she’s not comfortable with. So we spend a lot of time, you know, just watching the girls and watching them ride and you just get a sense of how they’re riding and what they can handle. Can they go down this steeper downhill, or should we do a mandatory walk that day? And [for] some things that are hard, we do mandatory walks, which evens the playing field for everyone so no girl feels, like, left out if she can’t ride it or is not comfortable enough to ride at that point in time.”
2. Respect The “Confidence Bubble”
You’ve built up her confidence, slowly inflating what the mentors at Little Bella’s call “the confidence bubble” to a healthy size. Don’t burst it! According to Schreib, you’ll sense if the bubble is in danger.
“When we are coming up on something like a downhill, we look for [cues]. Is the girl death-gripping her handlebars? If she is, she’s not ready to go down, and you shouldn’t force her to go down it. Is she in the right position when she’s riding through corners? It’s very telling of whether or not she’ll be able to handle something a little bit harder.”
3. Reinforce Trust
They will have confidence in you if you have confidence in them. Watch for signs of doubt, and reinforce your trust in their ability if needed.
“Anytime I bring them out on something that they’re a little bit sketched out about, I always say, 'I wouldn’t bring you out here if I didn’t feel that you could do it.' And that’s them having confidence in me — that I know where they’re at.”
We want to make sure that we’re setting good examples for them and we’re interacting with them in a really positive way that can give them confidence and help them to grow. Because, you know, we’re dealing with them at an impressionable age, so things that we do could possibly stick with them for a very long time. It’s a great responsibility that we make sure that we’re doing everything right.
While this story highlights a US-based program, research similar groups in your region and share with us. And if one doesn’t exist, you might be the kind of Leading Lady your community — and girls — have been waiting for! Never forget: gutsy girls become gutsy women, so let’s get to work and do this, together.