Little Bellas is a mountain bike community for young girls, but it’s about so much more than that.
We were lucky enough to chat to Sabra Davison, executive director and co-founder of Little Bellas, about the community she has built with her sister & co-founder Lea Davison (a Clif Women’s Pro Team rider) and fellow racer Angela Irvine over the past 11 years.
We may already be true believers in the opportunities that mountain biking offers to learn valuable life skills, but we honestly found it hard not to share Sabra’s infectious enthusiasm – grab a cuppa, settle in & get ready to be inspired for the future generations of women’s mountain biking! And check out the Little Bellas website for more info when you’re done.
T&S: We’re really stoked to get to chat with you today, after reading a bit about Little Bellas on your website – it’s such an exciting thing you’ve got going there!
Sabra: Oh, thanks! Yeah, it’s really been a labour of love.
T&S: Are you able to give us a brief overview of Little Bellas for our readers?
Sabra: Sure – we are a non-profit mentoring-on-mountain-bikes program for girls 7 and up, and we’ve been creating programs and getting girls who age out of our program at 13 into other programs and incorporating them as junior mentors, so we’re really trying to get girls & women on bikes through their whole lifecycle and make sure that they have community & connectedness around an endurance sport and are growing their confidence through those sort of inherent challenges that are rooted in mountain biking.
Currently, we’re in 15 states with 17 chapters, and we’re just at about 1,000 girls. I think the even better number is that we have 350 volunteer women around the country that ride bikes with girls! That’s the number I’m really proud of because so many of those women are returning year after year.
In Williston, Vermont where we started, we probably have 5 mentors that have been with us since our very first day. We have so many long-standing mentors throughout the country, it’s amazing. I don’t know what the national average is for return volunteers – I think we’re probably well above it.
It’s not about the girl who’s out the front, it’s about every girl. And kids learn at different times, they progress on different timetables!
T&S: Wow, that’s so amazing!
Sabra: I know, isn’t it so great? I love meeting them all! The women & the girls. It’s the best part of my job. They’re just all part of our community, it’s like a family when you have that many women coming back year after year!
T&S: Absolutely, and community is such an important part of what you get from sports, right?
Sabra: Well honestly, if you look at studies with kids around athletics, people often think things like winning and excelling are what drive kids to participate. But winning is actually seventh on the list! And making friends, being part of something, feeling like they’re progressing – not even being the best, just moving & progressing & gaining in confidence is more important.
And those are the kinds of things that we try to progress. It’s not about the girl who’s out the front, it’s about every girl. And kids learn at different times, they progress on different timetables! And so when it’s not about winning, you can take more time for the kid who’s less athletically-inclined, or just having a bad day, to make sure she’s feeling those things that are gratifying. Because kids get left behind, you know?
It can be such a little thing and they look at you and say, ‘I’m so scared!’ And you’re like, ‘ok, do you wanna walk today or do you wanna try it? I’m here, I can spot you!’
T&S: Yeah, and those are the things that resonate for all of us, not just kids, right? I mean just get out there and do stuff.
Sabra: Right, and the more fun you’re having when you’re doing all those things, the better.
T&S: And the sooner you learn that you don’t have to be the fastest one to still have fun out there…
Sabra: Exactly, and that nobody really cares about the end result! And in creating a space where there isn’t even a result, that message rings true.
T&S: Mountain biking is such a great sport like that, where most of it is going for a ride with your friends.
Sabra: Yeah exactly, and then you have to be able to tune in to where you are on that day, and be like, can I do this or can I not do this hard obstacle/root/rock? And what that hard obstacle or rock looks like for a 7-year-old is like the most terrible thing in the world!
It can be such a little thing and they look at you and say, ‘I’m so scared!’ And you’re like, ‘ok, do you wanna walk today or do you wanna try it? I’m here, I can spot you!’ And they’re like, ‘I think I wanna try it!’ And the best is when they get through it, and they say ‘that was really scary but I kinda had fun!’ (laughs) it’s the cutest thing in the world!
T&S: Those are awesome lessons for life, aren’t they – that right there is a metaphor for a lot of things!
Sabra: Yeah, and the best part about it that you have these women who are getting involved in a sport – we have a lot of women who are runners, and are general athletes who haven’t really mountain biked, but they just have to be a little better than a 7-year-old and be a positive force! And they learn alongside them, so we have mentors who progress through the groups with the girls!
Having a judgement-free zone is so important. It’s the most critical positive environment that you can create for an ageing girl.
T&S: Awesome, so everyone’s getting something out of it?
Sabra: Yeah, in certain cases, for sure! There’s always one or two mentors at the start of the program who are in like running shoes, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ So we say ‘Ok, you’re with the 7-year-olds, you’re gonna be great, don’t worry about it.’And they’re like, ‘You’re right, I can totally walk with a 7-year-old!’ (laughs) but they’re still a positive force, and they’re doing great things – even if a mentor falls I’m like, that’s so good! You know, everybody falls, it shows them that.
T&S: And little girls do tend to feel embarrassment more keenly than anyone else on the planet, right?
Sabra: Yeah some do and some don’t, I’ve noticed. And there’s a switch that turns with this extreme self-awareness. At some point, they go from being a kid where anything goes, and they don’t have that sense of self that’s critical, and then all of a sudden they do, and suddenly they’re their own harshest critics.
And it’s shepherding them through that time, and having a judgement-free zone is so important. It’s the most critical positive environment that you can create for an ageing girl.
T&S: Yeah absolutely, I can see the value of that for sure.
Sabra: Yeah, because if they have a space where their mentors are silly and having fun with each other, and falling, and getting back up, and there’s no failure in that process, that sense of grit instead of being self-critical is huge. I think it’s one of the biggest indicators for a girl just to be successful long-term.
And there’s a level of care & trust that builds over time. I always say to our mentors that you’re not a mentor on the first day – you don’t have their trust yet.
T&S: Absolutely, so I guess it’s taking the power away from that voice as soon as possible.
Sabra: Yeah, because if that voice is too loud in the process of mountain biking, you don’t get very far, you know? You will perceive yourself as a failure in this sport because it’s hard. It’s something that’s a challenge, and very few people are just naturally good at it.
T&S: Yeah, for sure. Now, you use the word mentors rather than instructors or coaches – what do you see as the difference between those terms & why do you think it is important?
Sabra: Well, instructors & coaches are really skill-based, which is a component of it, and skills are a vehicle that you can build confidence with, but there’s more to it than that. Like, a coach comes in and out over time periods, whereas when I stop coaching, I feel like as a mentor I’m continuing to bond.
And there’s a level of care & trust that builds over time. I always say to our mentors that you’re not a mentor on the first day – you don’t have their trust yet. You’re a mentor to them when they decide you are, and that you’ve earned their trust.
Even if you’re just a vision of something like a different type of femininity or a range of possibilities of what they can be later, or even modelling friendship – they don’t see in their lives a lot of females interacting that aren’t their parents or teacher in that space, and so we really try to make sure that the mentors have time & space of their own to be friends.
T&S: I really like that, so it’s as much about building trust & positive friendship images as anything else.
Sabra: Totally, yeah, and there are some very conscious choices that are made in how the mentors communicate with each other – it has to be a positive space amongst the mentors.
T&S: Absolutely. And is it your background in Women’s & Gender studies that has driven a lot of those conscious choices?
Sabra: Um, you know it’s interesting, I think that drove a lot of my language around how to talk about a female-only space in a constructive way, but I don’t think it drove my choices, actually. It’s more time-tested, and in creating a space that worked incredibly well in Vermont, and a camaraderie that worked incredibly well here and then replicating that.
Then when things don’t go well, mistakes are made or things don’t look like our search image, that was the process that determined our ethos and what we valued.
I think people get frustrated with stagnation and not being part of an evolving system where mistakes can happen and you can evolve.
T&S: Ok, this might be a hard one, but what is the biggest learning that you’ve had from a mistake over the years?
Sabra: (laughing) Oh my gosh, I make mistakes all the time!! I have no problem pointing out mistakes and being like, ‘oh yeah that happened’, and I think it’s actually the process where you can separate your emotion of making the mistake and feeling bad about it – the faster you can get to change and improvement (without skipping the acknowledgement that you made it), you know, is probably the most important thing.
And it’s lead to rapid improvement in what we do because I can stand there and go, ‘I didn’t do this well, what can we do better?’ We have always had a process with our mentors where we sat around as a group, and we’d do a potluck or whatever it was, and we’d go ‘Ok mentors, how can we change?’
And I remember the very first year, I wasn’t communicating enough with the mentors and giving them all a plan that they could execute on. I had the plan in my head and I tried to tell them as the program was going, and one of the mentors goes, ‘Will you send an email, every week, 3 days before the program that says exactly what we’re gonna do instead of when we show up?’ And I was like, ‘absolutely, that would be so much better!’ And now we do it everywhere in the country. Her suggestion was taken from that moment forward, and now it’s the standard.
If you can say ‘Yes! Ok yeah, the way I’m doing it isn’t working, that’s a better way’ and then move to that, it’s so much better. And sometimes we’re like, nope, pull back, that didn’t work! (laughs) It’s a fun process to be involved in, when things can change. I think people get frustrated with stagnation and not being part of an evolving system where mistakes can happen and you can evolve, and so I’m really passionate about being part of that process.
You don’t lift anybody up by putting anyone down, it just doesn’t make any sense.
T&S: Awesome. So you have men on the board, then? How important is that male support & sponsorship?
Sabra: Oh absolutely! Everything on the ground is very much female, but 50% of our board is male. My dad actually maintains our loaner bike fleet for all scholarships, and we have all these male supporters who buoy this all-female organisation. You know, I think it’s probably one of the most detrimental things when something all-female is man-hating in any way, or to the detriment of men – they propel this organisation forward! Richard (board chair) has been one of the most positive driving forces in the growth and success of our organisation, period.
I feel like if we were all female in every aspect there’s no balance & perspective in that, you’re only seeing one side of the puzzle. And you don’t lift anybody up by putting anyone down, it just doesn’t make any sense. There’s no reason we can’t create a female community and include men in that when it’s the right place and time, you know, and have them support it. So many men do! We have so much positive male feedback, it’s amazing to be a part of and see.
I just feel really passionately about managing strong growth, because you can’t get a kid all excited about something and then take it away from them.
T&S: Yeah, I bet. So when you started out, female participation in endurance sports was pretty abysmal – have you noticed a shift over time? How do you feel about the future now?
Sabra: Oh my gosh, yeah, I have noticed a shift! And it’s for the positive. If you look at one event that we do – the Beti Bike Bash, this all-female race in Colorado, I think when we started going there 8 years ago, there were 9 juniors who participated in the race. And we partnered, brought camps, brought our community, rallied our mentors, gave them space where the girls would ride the course before, feel comfortable, work on skills and now there are over 200 girls that show up at that race!
And they had to break apart age groups even further – it used to be like Juniors and then, Really Tiny Juniors, and now it’s every age and different laps, and it’s almost as many women as they get in some fields! I mean there are as many 8 year-olds that start that race now as there were, you know, beginner women! And it’s amazing, we run a non-competitive camp alongside it and we were able to help them move the needle on that.
Then we’ve also seen that in our participation numbers – some of our programs fill up in 6 minutes, and that did not happen in the beginning! It’s wild. We’re just trying to make more programs as fast as we can, because you can’t have a program fill in 6 minutes!!
T&S: Wow that’s amazing! So how many programs do you run a year?
Sabra: Just under 40, I believe. And it’s always creeping up because we’re adding one-day “Give-it-a-whirl” days, but a lot of them are summer-long things. And there’s a winter ride program in Arkansas, that runs over 12 weeks.
T&S: Oh great, so I guess that’s where they get to develop the friendships, and the trust, and all the good stuff.
Sabra: Yeah, that all takes time; there’s a magic thing that happens at around 5 days together.
T&S: So cool. And finally, are you guys thinking at all about broadening your horizons from the continental US to anywhere else in the world?
Sabra: I mean, yeah, eventually, yes – at some point we’ll be ready and we’ll do that, it’s gonna be really exciting. At this point, we’re still cutting our teeth in the multiple-state game and doing well with regional management and starting to test the system that we’re close to, and make sure that we have it right – I just feel really passionately about managing strong growth, because you can’t get a kid all excited about something and then take it away from them. So I’d rather grow more slowly and do that well.
T&S: Fantastic! Well thank you so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you – it’s a super exciting thing to see happening, all the best for the future!
Author: Natalie Ganderton
A Kiwi who (like most other kiwis) now lives in Sydney. I caught a love of the outdoors (also like most other kiwis) from a young age, and over the years have thrown myself with varying degrees of enthusiasm into sports like orienteering, trail running, adventure racing, triathlons and more recently mountain biking. You’ll find me most weekends out and about on the local NSW MTB trails, mostly squawking excitedly about Australian wildlife.