Report by Chris Bryant into MTB leadership and recommendations for practice with regards to his personal leadership and coaching practices.
Neutral Citation Number:  EWHC 2798 (QB) Case No: HQ/15P01239
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION . Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London, WC2A 2LL 10/November/2016
Following a tragic accident in Surrey during an introductory MTB coaching course on 25th March 2012 where an adult rider sustained life changing spinal injuries and following the subsequent court case and ruling through the English and Welsh Courts system I believe it is pertinent to address some of the technical issues that may impact on the wider MTB leadership industry in an attempt to foreshadow any implications on the industry and more specifically my own ability to successfully and safely lead mountain bike activities. I have followed the case through cycling media and having now read the court’s own report I feel that by addressing some of my observations at this point it will help to evidence some of the considerations in my future actions as a leader or employer of leaders.
Firstly it appears the court’s aim was to apportion blame in respect to the cause of the accident and not to determine best practice for the industry. An inquiry or investigation by official bodies may be forthcoming, however, some immediate guidance can be drawn out from the way in which the court approached this case. These views are my view and those of an experienced coach and leader and not of a legal expert.
The beginners course in question was run by a MIAS qualified leader, presumably meeting MIAS recognised levels of instruction. The leader is still operating (as of the date of this hearing) and the ruling judge believes there is no reason to believe he is doing so in anything other than a satisfactory manner.
Expert testimony from British Cycling’s Scheme and a MIAS qualified leader were given during the case. However MIAS or the Association Of British Cycle Coaches (who back them) did not field their own experts. The defence team chose to use a British Cycling qualified leader/tutor. Further evidence was quoted in respect of MIAS guidelines by the defence and these were compared to an American interscholastic associations guideline by the complainant. MIAS guidelines appear to encourage a greater degree of decision making to the rider and placed more emphasis upon speed. I fail to appreciate the relevance of an American school’s coaching award (NICA) when held up as best practice in a UK court. The NICA coaching guidelines are not available in the UK http://www.nationalmtb.org/nica-coaches-resources/ any mention to these by the complainant or in their expecting a UK based leader to know of their existence undermines the complainants case that the defendant, ..”having failed to take reasonable care of his (The rider’s) safety on the course”. I do not believe it is reasonable to hold the leader’s standard to that of an unknown, foreign award. I do however make an effort to stay current and up to date with changes in the industry standards.
A considerable amount of the court’s report is concerned with whether enough teaching was given to the correct application of brakes. The accident occurred on a section of trail where it would appear that the leader was encouraging an approach to a short descent at walking speed and that the accident occurred at less than walking speed. Therefore it seems, in my opinion, that the brakes were being used and that the accident may have occurred as a result of poor body weight shift and or foot position.
It is unknown at this point as to whether or not MIAS, ABCC or the insurance of the leader will be responsible for the legal settlement if indeed these are different.
In taking forward learning to my own practice and in terms of recommending best practice to others I would make the following notes.
Whilst qualification levels and remit of awards were not specifically addressed within the court the choice to employ a British Cycling qualified expert in the defence would suggest that any coach or leader operating within the mountain bike environment should be following the guidelines laid down by that body.
An assumption of rider ability should not be made without detailed observations on progressively more challenging terrain. Emergency braking, body position and how to descend steeper terrain should be covered and should not be undertaken without verbal agreement to proceed from the riders.
Written disclaimers are of little use in apportioning blame or responsibility. The signed waivers used in the case in question were effectively of no use because the injured party said he signed them but did not read them. The use of signed waivers pre course and post bike check would be above and beyond my own personal practice and would appear to be of no use in any respect. Not creating an environment where rider feel obliged to ride terrain they are uncomfortable is to be encouraged although it would appear that some people will feel peer pressure in any situation. I appreciate that and will seek to minimise pressure on my riders.
The MIAS guidance on braking and descending, whilst only quoted in short sections in the judge’s rulings to not be seem to appropriate by my own standards. ‘Horizontal feet’ and weight towards the ‘back of the bike’ are phrases that do not seem correct in all circumstances and may have been applied out of context. I would not be recommending MIAS training or employing those following that MIAS guideline.
It would appear that the leader took on the role of coach and pushed the claimant beyond his comfort zone but did not offer correct coaching interventions after incorrect efforts by the claimant, if fact it would appear that the leader encouraged the rider to ride faster which may or may not have been the appropriate coaching point. For this reason I believe that coaching awards significantly enhance the role of leader as it adds a greater range of intervention techniques and strategies to the leader’s capacity. I hold both leadership and coaching awards and refresh my knowledge as frequently as possible.
The majority of the evidence given in the case was from witness testimony. The other attendees on the course being the main point of reference for the sequence of events although their reliability was questioned due to there being a chance of them mis-recalling events or confusing the ride with previous rides with the same instructor. Were there some way of the leader recalling exactly what happened during the ride perhaps this would have strengthened the leader’s position. I would recommend that following the occurrence of an accident or injury as greater level of detail as is possible should be recorded by the leader and if at all possible be signed by a contemporary witness.
Chris Bryant 18/11/2016