The first time I took our son to the local skate park over a year ago I sat and watched as he made his way around the pavement. But I’m not very good at sitting and watching—I’d rather be doing. I’m not very good at skate boarding either, but I’m having a ton of fun going to the skate park with John.
I went out and bought a skateboard for me, put on my snowboarding helmet (sans goggles, and I removed the ear-warmers in an attempt to disguise it as a skater helmet) and from then on I was out there with our son and lots of the local middle school boys (much to my mortified middle-school daughter’s dismay). The last time I really rode a skateboard was probably in middle school (roughly 19 to 32 years ago).
So here I am, a middle-aged dad out at the skate park with my boy—and loving it. Things have changed since I was a little skater. When I was riding around in the late 70s my level was simply cruising around and trying to pull off a 360—never left the ground except to go off a curb. I’m not even sure Ollie had shown his face at that time—if he did I never met him. The rad skaters were riding in drained backyard pools, but I wasn’t a rad skater. Even in my low-risk riding style, I suffered a few concussions. One was bad enough that I rode past my house and just kept on going.
These days my modus operandi is to bail before I fall. Falling leads to injury. Bailing preserves my body. My greatest fear associated with skating is breaking my wrist and then having to explain my cast to a recruit and her mother. Not sure a coach who is breaking limbs at the skate park is going to win over the hearts and minds of moms.
The difference between bailing and falling is simple. Bailing is safe (chicken) and is a pre-emptive maneuver designed to get your feet on solid ground as quickly as possible before it is no longer possible. Falling is dangerous and usually is a result of trying to pull off a trick and failing. Falling happens after the bailing point.
There’s a kid who comes to the skate park named Jordan. Jordan falls more than any other skater at the park. I know because when I am not trying to make it around the park unscathed I observe the other skaters. When he falls it is usually pretty spectacular—it hurts to watch.
Jordan is always trying to pull off tricks and is failing regularly. Remember that I rarely every fall—I bail.
Here’s the other thing about Jordan—he is without question the best skater I have ever seen at our skate park. When he arrives at the park everyone stops to watch. He’s that good.
How is it that the kid who falls the most is also the best? Shouldn’t he be good enough to keep his feet on his board?
Much of the discussion about developing talent (learning) is based on Anders Ericsson’s theory of 10,000 hours. Failure (falling) is a key concept in the process of developing talent. Daniel Coyle, who wrote The Talent Code, says in his blog:
“mistakes create unique conditions of high-velocity learning that cannot be matched by more stable, “successful” situations. When it comes to building fast, beautiful neural circuits, mistakes aren’t really mistakes — they’re information. They are the navigation points from which those circuits are constructed, wire by wire. The lesson is that business operates by exactly the same evolutionary principles as sports or art or math or music: we have to take risks, make mistakes, screw up in order to build better brains.”
That’s why Jordan has gotten to be as good as he is—he fails repeatedly. He is constantly pushing the envelope. When he is skating, he is practicing, and he is doing it mindfully. He is practicing at the edge of his ability level, the place where failure lurks.
The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, by David Shenk is reviewed by Annie Murphy Paul in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. She says:
“Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.”
Nobody learns without failure. If you are never failing then you are simply doing things that you are already good at. That’s the comfort zone. In contrast, getting out of one’s comfort zone means attempting to pull off a trick that you haven’t nailed yet. It means falling. Failure. Progress.
Are we ok with failure in our gym? Do our practices allow for failure, or are we more into doing things that we are already good at so that everyone feels good about themselves (see Bailing)? Much of practice should be uncomfortable and arrhythmic—kind of like a volleyball match.
When our athletes fail in an attempt to be better, we should teach them to embrace it because it is necessary for positive change to occur.
My goal at the skate park is to spend good times with my son. For Jordan, on the other hand—keep falling, little bro. Because even though it’s entertaining to watch you fall, it’s awesome to see you pull off tricks that nobody else dares to attempt.