My fundamentals of skateboarding
I've been skateboarding for 17 years. It recently occurred to me that this fact makes skateboarding the longest-running activity I have done in my life. While I wouldn't consider myself an expert at most of skating—I haven't even learned how to tre flip consistently, for example—I am an expert in keeping skating in my life as a healthy and meditative practice.
For anyone looking to get into skating or get back into it in a healthier way, here's what I think you should learn to make skateboarding a sustainable part of your life. You won't find many tricks in here, because the real core ideas of skateboarding to learn actually have little to do with knowing how to backside nollie crook heel out, or even what it is for a long while.
Here's my full curriculum for being ready to skate for a lifetime:
- learn to fall
- learn to push
- learn to turn
- learn to ollie
- learn to ride on terribly-paved streets
- learn to pump
- learn to be alone
- learn to grind
- learn to push yourself
- learn to kickflip
- learn to rest
learn to fall
The trick you're going to execute most frequently in your life as a skateboarder is falling in a way that doesn't strain a muscle, tweak a tendon, or snap a bone. And that is like a magic trick. You will probably fall more than the number of times you ollie, 50-50, or drop in combined. Learning how to do this in a way that doesn't sap all your will to keep going is crucial to an enjoyable skateboarding career.
The most reliable way to fall that I have found is a forward roll in the direction of travel. Try to get the center of your body near the ground moving along it as smoothly as possible: go forward, not down. never lock any joint in your limbs: be ready to collapse your legs under your weight. Your knees are not the best shock absorption. The best shock absorption comes from letting your whole leg take the weight by bending, and letting them collapse if they need to. I've seen people have career ending injuries on small flat ledges because they landed on a stiff leg and tried to come to a complete stop.
Try with everything you can to refrain from catching yourself with your hands. Seriously, if your knees are underwhelming shock absorbers, your wrists are garbage at it. And they have a dozen pebble-sized bones that do not take kindly to repeated stress. This is the only bone I have ever broken, so I know what I'm talking about. Don't try to put your palm on the concrete to stop yourself.
If you need to break a fall with your arm, collapse from your forearm and let your elbow and shoulder bend with the impact. Then roll in the direction of travel over your shoulder if you need to. Rolling out of falls is the single biggest thing that has kept me skating.
learn to push
These first three real skate skills are the core of skateboarding to me, and can be grouped together as "learn to ride". I have seen a lot of very skilled skateboarders come and go over the years, and almost every one of them that didn't stick with it never felt comfortable just riding around. If you don't feel comfortable and eventually have fun riding on whatever you have access to, you're going to lose interest as soon as you hit a plateau in learning new tricks.
The first step in learning to ride is learning to push. There are two "schools" of pushing logic, but stick with the majority on this one. Normal pushing takes your back foot off the board and in front if it, turning your shoulder toward the direction of travel. There is another way called pushing "mongo", where you take off your front foot, but I highly recommend you fight this tendency if it feels more comfortable than pushing normal. The physics of pushing normally work out far better, and you can more reliably and safely push as you get comfortable going faster.
That being said, you should feel comfortable pushing however you need to for a given moment. The goal of these first few steps is to feel comfortable and connected to your board. So try pushing in weird ways, even before you can turn or ollie. Try pushing with both feet, try putting your push foot in front of the board and behind it, try pushing with your planted foot in different positions. Get strong and steady no matter where you stand on your board.
learn to turn
Turning, and in fact most of skateboarding, is about learning how to move your center of mass around. Beginner skaters tend to get caught up with the footwork involved in turning, but being able to lift the front of your board won't get you far if you can't get your center of mass to turn with you.
In general, your center of mass should feel a little leaned toward your back truck when you're riding. This will give you the ability to push your center of mass forward when jumping onto a ledge or rail, and to push your center of mass sideways when turning on a quarterpipe. When you approach a quarterpipe, lean your center of mass a little forward and into your turn while you execute the footwork of the turn. This will ensure that your center of mass is where you want it when you come out of the turn.
Here's a bonus learning area; learn to watch how more experienced skaters, whether in videos online or at your local park, hold their bodies as they push and turn. Try to copy the way they move, how they throw their weight around when they do it. There was this guy named Bobby at my hometown skatepark in Akron, Ohio that I swear made a kickturn on a quarterpipe look like art. He was so laid back on his board, sometimes it barely looked like he was riding it, like he was just sitting in a rocking chair that happened to be floating along with his board. I learned to ride by trying to figure out how he did that.
learn to ollie
Alright, now it's time to get really moving. Once you feel pretty comfortable pushing and turning on different inclines, and you can get going pretty fast, it's time to learn how to hop. Ollies are the only trick you absolutely need to know, because they open up a world of manuveurability and spots to you. It's not even necessary to learn big, Brandon Westgate-sized ollies. Just high enough to pop up a curb while you're riding down the street makes a world of difference.
There are a billion videos on how to ollie these days, so I'm not going to write that all out. What I will say is try out those little pops you see experienced skaters do over cracks while you're learning to ollie: they help you connect ollies to your natural riding. Learn in the grass a bit if that feels more comfortable to you, but remember that with skateboarding everything gets a lot easier when you do it with some speed. I still have trouble ollying in grass after all these years, because it feels completely alien to skateboarding to me.
Do these little pops everywhere you go, without trying to drag your front foot into your biggest ollie. Do them everywhere: going fast; at the top of your quarterpipe turn; into little ramps; and then try proper ollies going medium-slow on flat ground when you can. Over time you'll slowly start to the connect the two.
learn to ride on terribly-paved streets
If you're lucky enough to have a park near you that you primarily skate at, then more power to you: take advantage of those public parks whenever you can. But skateboarding is fundamentally tangled with city exploration, so you should explore your town on a board as part of a healthy skate diet. And that means you're gonna become intimately familiar with the wildly different qualities of road and sidewalk pavement in your city.
Get comfortable riding where there is stray gravel, where there are frequent cracks in the sidewalk, where the asphalt on the road feels like pushing through sticky tack. To me this is a key facet of the perspective shift that comes with skateboarding. As a skateboarder you know where the pushbrooms don't go, you've spent hours "Rat-a-tatting in forgotten back lots" as Aesop Rock said.
learn to pump
Don't be a skateboarder who only likes "street" or "vert": that's video game nonsense. When I tell you to learn to ride I mean learn to ride anything, including vert skating like halfpipes and bowls. And pumping is the pushing of vert. It's the heart of the whole thing.
Get comfortable bending your knees as you come down a ramp to transfer your vertical momentum into horizontal speed. Do it so much that it gets into your brain stem, and you don't even know you're doing it. Combine this with turning, and maybe the occasional ollie, and you've mastered 80% of all vert skating.
And vert skating becomes way more important once you get older like me. If I skate a handrail for an hour these days I'm icing my knees when I get home. Riding the mini ramp and pool at my neighborhood park is the lowest-impact skateboarding I can do, and it's what I fall back on when I want to skate but my body is angry at me.
learn to be alone
The oldest debate in skateboarding is whether it's a sport or not. I think it is more fundamental than that: it's a practice. Skateboarding the Sport is one of many games you can play on the platform of skateboarding the practice. This makes it completely different than true sports like football or basketball.
Unlike those sports, skateboarding is something that can take place alone or in groups, can be competitive or contemplative. That's the magic of it. A day at the skatepark can be full of code switching. You start the day warming up with headphones. You accept a game of s.k.a.t.e. with stranger. You join in a mini ramp session. You go off and work on a new trick on the flatbar by yourself. You can go from braggadocio to meditation in the span of seconds.
If you want to skate for a lifetime, you need to try out as many of the different kinds of experiences that skateboarding offers as you can. And part of that is skating a stupid little spot by yourself in the morning, or on a random Wednesday evening when none of the friends can make it. Bring your headphones and a new album. Stay safe, text someone where you're at. And learn to enjoy the quiet meditation of hucking yourself at and down metal and concrete.
learn to grind
Learn to grind because it feels incredible. It's my favorite thing in the world, seriously even if you only ever do a front 50-50 on a metal-capped curb, get yourself up onto something and slide like a miracle. Roll away and throw your fists up like a hero.
It sounds a little silly, but there's something important in there. Longevity in skateboarding—or any hobby really—is about "falling in love with boredom" to paraphrase James Clear in Atomic Habits. Fall in love with at least one feeling that skating gives you, because that'll keep you coming back when you're old and busy. I don't actually care if that's grinds, flip tricks, or carving, fall in love with a part of it.
And, as mentioned above, maybe try to fall in love with a part of it that's easier on your knees
learn to push yourself
Ay wordplay, fun. It's connected to the points above, but even though skating isn't a sport, it is inextricably linked with doing things that scare you. Seeing yourself roll away from a wildly irresponsible maneuver is one of the most giddy feelings you can experience.
This is another part of the perspective shift that skateboarding gives you. To keep coming back to it over the years, keep it interesting by pushing what you think your body and board are capable of.
The most classic way to do this is to learn new tricks. And I highly recommend this, especially when you're young. Think of all the different variations of a trick and try a new combination. "What if I tried that switch?" "I wonder if I could do the whole ledge?"
But even if something keeps you from learning new named tricks, you can push yourself in hundreds of other ways. Try going faster. Try popping into that ramp. Try rolling into that quarterpipe. Try to ride that spot the wrong way. Witness yourself while you get creative.
learn to kickflip (optional)
According to some idiots this is the point when you're actually skateboarding. But they're wrong. If you feel the urge to learn kickflips, it should be as an extension of learning to push yourself, an outlet of going further than you ever have before. It feels excellent to get a crisp kickflip down something big or as a part of your lines.
If you've made it this far in your skateboarding journey, you should learn to do something tricky and relatively difficult to execute to see yourself conquer it, and recenter yourself when you're feeling out of it at the skatepark. For me and a lot of others, that's a nice little kickflip to wake up your flick.
learn to rest
We've come full circle: this is the companion to learning to fall. Learning to properly fall is about understanding your body's mechanics and honoring its limits. Resting is the same way. Skateboarding can restore you after a tough day and reward you with triumphant exhaustion on a killer one. You just need to know and respect what your body wants from today.
This is my toughest area. I still have the urge to stay at the park or the spot until I get something I can feel good rolling out on. And that can be a healthy way of pushing myself, but knowing when to take a breather, drink some water, or come back another day is the best way to ensure you'll want to come out next time.
Aesop Rock has a lot of lines in his music that speak to the true joy of skateboarding, but this one from Legerdemain usually hits me when I'm at my neighborhood park lately,
Wander Eden, not a meter predetermined
Turn a curb into an evening, that's the key to freezer burning ... It's epic to a people who would rather push than teleport
That's the essence of skateboarding. It's a way to explore your city, aimlessly sometimes, and see something special in the curbs and "some forgotten block of uncommon geometry". To get lost in finding all the ways you can send yourself across some obstacle that are unique or interesting or that feel great. Sometimes you get to do it with friends, sometimes it's a solo jam session. But it's all good, it's all freeing.
If you have any questions or comments on this article, or want someone to skate with in New York City hit me up, and godspeed 🛹🚀