The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Skateboarding
With advice from a lifetime skater who is ‘stoked to help you’
As a cultural trope, the skateboard is to anti-authoritarian rebellion as eyeglasses are to nerdiness. It's very presence in film and tv seems to signify delinquency and portend the general raising-of-hell. There is a reason that Bart, and not Lisa, skateboards through the opening credits of The Simpsons.
Although skateboarding retains some of these cultural associations of non-conformism and independence. The activity is enormously popular, and at the professional level, skateboarding is a big-money sport. Another sign that it's fully part of the mainstream is that municipal governments around the globe, hardly known for their anarchic spirit, have built public skateparks.
To get past the stereotypes and find out more about the world of skateboarding, we spoke to Parm Kaur. Kaur is a member of the Babes Brigade, an all-women's skateboarding group and brand based in Toronto. Babes Brigade holds weekly meetups, helps girls learn to skate, and compete in events and contests. Although skateboarding is very difficult to master, it's for that same reason very satisfying to learn. Also, skateboarding is a great way to make friends and connect with others. We also asked Kaur what we need to know, have, and do to get started in skateboarding.
The first skateboards were built in the 1940s or '50s, by hammering roller skate wheels to the bottom of wooden planks. Think of the scene in Back to the Future in which Marty escapes Biff and his gang on a skateboard improvised from a child's crate scooter. Although no one knows who invented the first one, "sidewalk surfin" became popular around California with surfers seeking an activity to do when the waves were bad and eventually became something of a national craze before going into decline.
The polyurethane wheel, invented by Franks Nasworthy in 1970, was one of the great technological breakthroughs that changed skateboarding forever. These wheels brought a massive jump in grip and performance over earlier metal and clay wheels. Boards handled much better and were safer than before. 1970's skating birthed the "vert" (for "vertical") skate style when skaters began skating empty swimming pools during the California drought of 1976. It was also in this period that Alan "Ollie" Gelfland invented the ollie, or vertical jump. This move opened up the sport to aerial tricks of all kinds, and still serves as the foundation for many skateboarding tricks.
It was only in the 80s that skating developed its longstanding cultural associations with punk rock, and the general spectrum of delinquency. This is in part due to the first big skate movies, such as Thrashin' (Josh Brolin) and Gleaming the Cube (Christian Slater). As you can see in clips from the period, 80's boards were wider and longer than the narrow "banana boards" of the 70's.
The skateboard settled in the basic shape that it still has today only in the 1990's. For a visual representation of how boards and skating have changed over the decades, check this video. The 90's is also when skateboarding really hit the mainstream in the 1990's. ESPN held its first X-games in 1995, putting skateboarding into the public spotlight where it has remained since. Gradually, associations with criminality faded and skating has become an entirely acceptable way to give yourself scabs.
What you need to know to get started
Parm Kaur of Babes Brigade, who has been skating since she was ten years old, told us that the first thing you need to know about skateboarding is that you are going to fall. That means bruises, cuts, and other (hopefully) minor injuries. Beginners fall and pros fall. The main difference is that good skaters can get up the speed to do it more spectacularly. According to Kaur, the quicker you can overcome the fear of bailing, the easier learning to skateboard will be for you. Also, consider this silver lining. Involuntarily and repeatedly hitting the pavement tends to build physical courage, which is part of why skate videos so often involve other activities that might worry the faint-hearted. For a civilized version of this, check out the Babes Brigade's Skate North video on YouTube. Also recall that the Jackass stunt franchise was born out a series of stunts on skateboarding videos.
The second thing you need to know about skateboarding is that it is hard. The learning curve in this sport is very gradual, and you will not be an expert right away. Even basic tricks can take months to master. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Kaur, noticing your gradual progress is "one of the most rewarding feelings you'll ever experience and you won't regret it."
What you need to have to get started
Kaur advises avoiding buying a really cheap board from a department store. They are often made with low-quality parts and will be more difficult to ride and more liable to break. Instead, head to your local skate shop. They are generally staffed with enthusiastic skaters with lots of experience who can help you choose a board that is right for you. Once you have the board, the world's your skate park.
Safety gear: helmets, knee pads, and wrist guards are all common pieces of safety equipment for skateboarders. While none of these items are absolutely necessary, they can reduce the damage you cause to yourself during your inevitable falls. Maybe even more importantly is that wearing safety gear can make you feel safer, giving you the confidence you require to really commit to tricks.
What you need to do to get started
The first thing you need to do is to just practice rolling around on your board, getting accustomed to balancing on a rolling plank. Even just standing up on one can be tricky at first. As you become more confident getting around on your deck, you can start attempting tricks.
The key to progression, as with any difficult skill, is consistency and persistency. Kaur recommends devoting a specific chunk of time, say 30 minutes every day, to play around with your new hobby.
It's also a good idea to seek out others to skate with. Although approaching more skilled skaters may seem intimidating, Kaur says that most would be really happy to help. Camaraderie and mentorship are essential elements of skate culture. You can find meetups online, or just look up your local skate spots and drop in.
Joining a skate group can provide a lot in terms of learning from those more experienced, but the motivation and mutual encouragement might be even more valuable. Kaur tells us that joining Babes Brigade was a "life-changing experience" because of all the support, motivation, and inspiration she got out of the group, not to mention new friendships.
Parm Kaur's top tips for beginning skaters in her own words:
- Wear safety gear if you aren't comfortable on a skateboard
- Stick with it, you're not going to miraculously land that kickflip first try
- Don't compare yourself to others – people progress at different rates
- Consistency and persistence is key, devote a specific amount of skateboarding every week
- Get over the fear of falling – it's going to happen so be prepared
- Skateboarding doesn't have to be so serious it's about having fun
- Get comfortable with the basics of riding around, once you've mastered that you can start getting fancy and start learning tricks
- Find people around you to skateboard with
- Don't feel intimidated or embarrassed – no one cares!
- Ask for help and tips from local skateboarders – they'll be stoked to help you
Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.