'Fall seven times,
stand up eight'
A few years ago I decided to learn to figure skate. My goals were modest: as a child I'd fractured my skull while sliding around on ice, so I wanted to learn to skate backwards without fear. No jumps or spins for this kid, no sir; one foot on the ice at all times, that was the plan.
Learning to figure skate is a lot like learning to fly: you spend your time throwing yourself at the ground. Unfortunately, you frequently fail to miss the ground. To paraphrase the estimable Douglas Adams, the trick is to not think about the ice or falling or how much it will hurt when you do fall; just let your body do it:
You will then learn all sorts of things about how to control your flight, your speed, your maneuverability, and the trick usually lies in not thinking too hard about whatever you want to do, but just allowing it to happen as if it were going to anyway.
You will also learn about how to land properly, which is something you will almost certainly screw up, and screw up badly, on your first attempt.
The first thing a would-be skater learns is to 'land' - er, fall - properly, namely on the rear end and not the head, knee, or other important body part. The trick is to roll into the fall. This is about as intuitive as turning the front wheels of a car into rather than away from the direction of a skid. With practice a skater can fall and continue rolling right up onto his feet again. This sounds reasonably easy but many people, particularly adults, instinctively stiffen up when they begin to lose their balance, making a fall all the more likely. So learning to fall correctly is important; fortunately the beginning skater will have plenty of opportunities to practice this new skill.
Landing is the part of skating that children, especially boys, like the best. You can always tell when an instructor has lost control of her charges. The boys will spend their time racing across the ice, throwing themselves down and sliding into their buddies. The more bodies on the ice the better, as far as they're concerned; if blood is spilled, the lesson is a rousing success. These youngsters are soon herded into the Beginner Hockey class. Meanwhile the rest of the class will be trying to march across the ice and to glide and generally remain upright. Children are endlessly cute when they first attempt to skate, no matter how ungainly they are. They toddle across the ice, knees and ankles buckling, and fall on their little bums while Mum or Dad catches it all on film for posterity.
After mastering the proper landing technique, the skater then learns how to actually go somewhere. This means basic stroking, gliding on two feet, gliding on one foot, and swizzling (where the blades make a series of hourglass shapes on the ice). Then he learns how to stop. Falling down is always an option but it lacks style. Stops involve a controlled scraping of one or both blades across the ice. The operative word here is 'controlled'. Jamming a blade into the ice will make the skater stop immediately. At least his feet will stop; the rest of him will continue moving, and he'll lay himself out flat on the ice. This move is called 'The Human Zamboni', and performing it is instructive. Once is enough for most people.
Then it's time to learn to skate with crossed legs. (I'm not making this up, I swear.) The crossed-leg moves are called, oddly enough, crossovers. The skater crosses the free leg (the leg that doesn't have any weight on it) in front of the skating leg (the one with weight on it) and as he does so shifts his weight onto the free leg. Crossovers allow a skater to move with speed and power across the ice. They also allow him to kick his feet out from under himself if he's not paying attention. Pride may or may not goeth before a fall, but it certainly goeth after one. After he's gotten the hang of crossovers, he learns some basic turns so that he can move smoothly from forward to backward skating. Learning turns usually involves another round of falling over.
Note that our skater hasn't yet gotten anywhere near 'cool' skating tricks like jumps and spins. He's still in the middle of learning the basics. It's at this point that he starts to suspect that this skating stuff is a lot harder than it looks.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Learning to skate when you're an adult is a whole 'nother matter. You will not look cute, no matter how much you toddle and wobble, unless you're over the age of eighty. And the average adult is up against something that children don't have to deal with.
Imagine stepping onto the ice with a wild-eyed, overweight badger clamped onto your shoulders with its front legs wrapped around your head. This wild-eyed badger is your brain. It will entertain you with a running monologue:
What was I thinking?
I must look like an idiot.
On ONE FOOT?!
I'm gonna die.
We're going to do WHAT?!
I don't think so.
I feel so stupid.
I'm gonna D-D-D-D-I-I-I-I-I-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E!!!!
And on and on. The badger never shuts up. That is, until you fall. Then it will sit in stunned silence while your body runs diagnostics to determine whether all systems are operating normally. Once all body parts have reported it, the badger will resume its monologue. You need to learn to ignore it.
It's difficult to get the hang of this figure skating business. A skater tries to 'dance' on a sheet of ice wearing what feels like a pair of concrete blocks with sharp things attached to the bottoms. In addition to the difficulties experienced by all skaters, the adult has additional issues to deal with. One is physics. In a sport with very small margins of error, it pays to be short. Think about spinning. To spin successfully, a skater has to stay perfectly vertical and centered over his skating foot. A tilt away from vertical can cause problems. But for any given degree of tilt, a taller skater's head will be further away from the center of the spin than a shorter skater's head, so the taller one will be less likely to be able to 'save' the spin.
Another issue is fear: skaters fall. Children are less bothered by this. They're closer to the ice and there is a lot less of them to fall onto and injure. And when they do get hurt, their bodies repair themselves faster. Adults, however, study the waiver form that they sign before they begin lessons, especially the list of injuries that can result, 'up to and including death' according to one form I recently looked at. Death?! Whoa up there, buddy - let's think about this for a minute.
Which brings me to the main reason adults have trouble learning to skate, and that is: they think too much. Children just watch the instructor and try to do likewise. The adult brain figures that it's gotten the hang of moving the body from point A to point B and doesn't like to be proven wrong. On a slippery surface where the body's normal impulses don't work, the brain will try to take over and direct traffic. Unfortunately, it can't get out of its own way, and gridlock results. Whoever said that the mind and body are one obviously never tried ice skating.
Ain't We Got Fun
Why do you skate? I'm asked this question a lot by my non-skating friends, especially when they find me limping around nursing the latest bumps and bruises. (I frequently ask myself this question as well.). Mainly, it's fun:
- Because of the great feeling of freedom as you zip around the rink to a favourite piece of music.
- Because of the joy of doing things you never thought you could.
- Because of the satisfaction of staring down your fears.
- Because of the camaraderie and friendship you'll find among other skaters.
- Because of the silly things you'll do.
- Because there is no end to the challenges this sport provides.
On bad days, I approach skating in the spirit of scientific inquiry. There seems to be an endless number of ways to perform a move incorrectly, and sometimes I have to try every one of 'em before I figure things out. This can be entertaining. And I live in hope that one day the badger will come up with something new to say. Something like 'lookin' good, kid!'