|Teaching Unicycling by Roger Davies
This article was originally written for the now deceased UniMagazine in 2006
Finding the ideal space for learning to ride is not as easy. Firstly it should get a smooth flat surface clear of any obstacles or debris. You should have at least one long clear wall, without any doors or alcoves in it. Ideally the bar should be at chest height.
The ideal space is often not available. So you are then picking the best space that is available. Here are some of the things to look out for:
- Doors - I have seen people hit by doors or fall through them when they put weight on them. In the worst case I have seen someone was using the door itself for support and fell backwards closing the door and then trapped their fingers as they went.
- Grass - It is not that this is unsafe, just a lot harder to teach on if the wheel is not on a smooth surface.
- Carpet - Unless it is very thin it tends to track the wheel and makes it hard to ride on.
- Astroturf / Composite Rubber - These can be found on tennis courts, there seams to be no set answer here; sometimes they are great places to learn other times they are nightmare with catching the tyre and tracking like carpets.
- Flagstones - Check for them being smooth and without large gaps between them.
- Tarmac - This can be good to ride on but when people fall they will get scrapes on their knees and hands.
- Glass - A lot of modern spaces now have large glass window panels. Avoid!
Reduction of Risk?
Here is a check list before you actually get to teaching.
- Environment Check - Be sure that there are no tripping obstacles on the floor or walls.
- Unicycle Check - Are all the unicycles in working order? Quick releases fitted and tightened properly and pointing down, pedals tight and tyres pumped up. You then need to be sure that it is fitted to the person correctly. From sitting on the seat the leg should be absolutely straight when the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke.
- Safety Talk - I warn people that this is a physical activity and that they should expect fall at some point. They should be aware of riders around them and not ride too close to them. They should listen to advice given as it is often guided towards keeping them safe. I often tailor the talk to warn people of the dangers of the environment they are in eg. Avoid doors, pillars, holes etc. I also ask people if they are prone to falling or breaking bones; if they are then I recommend wearing safety equipment.
- Clothing Check - No baggy trousers, no scarves, or dangling bits. I also make everyone tuck shoe laces in to their shoes. I always show my shoes, since I always tuck my laces in it is a good example.
- Safety Gear - When you are doing basic level teaching of unicycling I feel that most safety gear is superfluous, being only required if you want to totally reduce the risk of injury or are prone to injuries. I will add there that a learner should be taught to fall properly, without this then yes they do need protective gear. There are exceptions where I would recommend wearing safety gear; this is where the environment or the person requires them. For example if you are on tarmac; then knee, elbow and wrist guards are useful against grazes. In my opinion learning to ride a unicycle is safer than playing most sports played in schools.
There are 5 key stages to the riding. Different riders will need different amount of time at each stage. There are also different techniques to help at each stage which I hope I will explain.
1. Getting on the unicycle
- You need to find a wall next to some flat ground with a grab rail ideally at chest height.
- Get the learner to stand side on to the wall holding the wall bar with one hand and holding the front of the seat with the other.
- Ascertain which pedal is going to be their leading foot you can normally just ask them or look at which foot they want to put on pedal first.
- Ask them to then sit on the seat. Then show the learner the correct position for the lead pedal, it should be about the 4 o'clock position.
- Get the learner to then press on the pedal so that the unicycle winds up underneath them. The pedals will then be vertical then ask them to use the other pedal to ride backwards so that the pedals are horizontal.
2. Finding Balance
You should leave the learner for about 5 to 10 minutes just sitting on the unicycle. This is time just to allow them to familiarise themselves with the experience of sitting on the saddle and finding their balance. You need to emphasise:
- Keep their weight on the saddle
- Sit upright
- Keep the pedals horizontal (although some moving to find balance is good)
- Keep one hand one the wall while the other is straight out.
- Look at ahead at fixed object.
You need to show riders how to dismount safely. Get them to step forward off the unicycle letting it fall away to the floor. Do not let them catch the unicycle. Repeat this a few times. It will also help build confidence at getting on the unicycle.
Get them to move slowly along the wall bar at walking pace. Emphasise that they need to rotate the pedals smoothly, put all of their weight on the saddle and look forward. They should have only one hand on the wall and the other should be held out away for balance. If you have a large group you should set up a one way system along the wall. This stage varies in time between individuals from 5 minutes to an hour or so.
When they have succeeded in moving smoothly along the wall you need get them to launch away from the wall. There are 2 basic techniques here, you can get them to veer off from the moving position or launch out at 90 degrees from the wall. I personally prefer the second as it gets them safely away from the wall faster. Before you leave your learner to practice the launching you need to get them to practice dismounting. Do this several times and be confident that they are walking off the front of the unicycle upon dismount and not trying to catch the saddle.
At this point I will tell you about my brother. He does not ride a unicycle, but I tried to teach him at one time. He was at the launch from the wall stage, he did this and succeeded very well, getting half across the hall fist time (I claim it is in the genes although that is probably not true). I then encourage him to go further, thinking he may get to then full length of the hall second time! Well he did. Well almost, he panicked and dismounted to the rear a foot or so from the wall, this propelled him backwards across the floor in howls of pain. After his trip to the hospital he gave up learning to ride.
There are several additional aids and tip to help at each of these stages. I tend to demonstrate all the stages my self pointing out the key things at each stage, this helps the learner see what they should be doing clearly. The moving stage can be helped by using 2 assistants to hold a broom handle out at the right height in front of the rider for them to hold.
For nervous riders it is often useful to give them a hand to steady them. This can be done in several ways, for maximum stability use 2 hands, one to hold the elbow and the other with palm clenched and facing downwards down to allow them to hold your wrist. When they are more confident you can offer them just your or hand. A good technique at this stage is ride next to the learner holding their hand - be sure to have your hand palm outstretched so that they can disconnect at any stage. This offers moral support and a perfectly smooth platform that moves that the same speed as they do. When working with large groups I tend to split the group into pairs. This allows them to help each other, particularly in the moving stage where a steadying hand is helpful.
I think one of the best ways to help people to learn to ride is offer them encouragement. You can also encourage continuation of their learning by finding their local unicycle or juggling club.
Things not to do
1. Don't use walking poles, these are dangerous to the rider and other around them, they also encourage stooping.
2. Don't try and teach too many people at any one time,
3. Don't support the saddle at any stage except in an emergency to stop a rider from falling off backwards, then go back to teaching the correct dismount.
4. Do not stand in front of someone learning.
Teaching for me is often as rewarding as actually doing a new trick or playing a good game of unicycle hockey. I would love to also hear your comments on methods of teaching; mine works for me but I am certain that there are many others that are just as effective.
Selecting a unicycle?
It is important when that the unicycle you select is the right one for that person. This is often not an easy call and sometimes it takes several tries to get the right unicycle for a person.
12" - For children under 6 years old
16" - As soon as they can fit on them, but generally from 6 to 10 years old children.
20" - As soon as a person can fit on them and this is normally from 8 years old and upwards.
24" - People over 6 foot, road cyclists or mountain bikers
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