jo skates

Skating in the key of life

My supple brain on skates


It’s minus ten degrees! Brrr!

Not even listening to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” (Sixth) Symphony with its gamboling sheep and woodwinds can make me feel warmer today. But I do intend to make it to the rink to test out some ideas about how adults learn skating.

I read an interesting blog entry in Neurosciencestuff on adult learning and brain function (“Old Schooled“) that echoed some of the things I’ve heard before about the differences between how adults learn and how children learn.

On the up side, the article suggests that adults can learn things as deeply as kids, given proper physical fitness and attention. The idea that old dogs can’t learn new tricks is more cultural myth than actual cognitive science, and while there are certainly differences between children and adults in visual and linguistic perception and motor skills, the adult brain is pliable, and as the article says, “it’s never to late to charge those grey cells.”

The differences, though, are the environments for learning. Adults don’t get to focus exclusively on learning certain skills. The article cites Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests, as saying that “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around. . . If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

Adults don’t test themselves regularly to remember what they’ve learned. And there is a difference in approach and confidence as well. As Ari and I have talked about, adults (surprise, surprise!) be their own undoing:

Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. This could be one of our biggest downfalls. “Adults think so much more about what they are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Children just copy what they see.”

According to the article, adults sometimes develop “overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning” and are too rigid about their activity.

The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue. Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks – when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it. The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

So the upshot is that adults should rotate through different skills using a “carousel” approach, making our brains work to apply what we’ve learned in new ways. Laurie and Ari have been doing the carousel thing to me all along. Those guys are genius!!!

And if all else fails, a little bit of arrogance is a good thing.

“As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I’m convinced that has a big impact on performance,” says Wulf. To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball. While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average. They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn’t get an ego boost.

More exercises:

  • Progressive, then a deep swing roll with an edge pull (make sure you really use your lean, don’t twist your upper body, and end the swing roll with the skating side arm forward)
  • Since you are having trouble doing that, try just edge pulls, making sure you do the edge pulls to gain speed forward rather than trying to create full half circles.
  • Oldie but a goodie: back crossover with change-edge in between (turn free leg in on inside edge, draw in free leg and bend both knees together, don’t do that annoying little free leg flick-thing)
  • So you think you can dance? Okay, now mohawk, change back inside to back outside (turn free leg in on inside edge, draw in free leg and bend both knees together, don’t do that annoying little free leg flick-thing), step forward outside, step forward inside, repeat starting with mohawk in other direction.
  • Almost forgot this one: forward cross stroke onto right, do what Ari calls a “syncopate” (not to be confused with a “sycophant”), which is to rise and sink, like in the Foxtrot. Repeat in other direction (cross stroke onto left, syncopate. This one is great for building strength in the hip muscles (especially in the rise and fall), and practicing that “short foot.”
  • Yay, my Euro-pattern threes are better! I still need to to work on stronger free leg extensions on the forward edges. These will counter the force of the skating side.
  • And one more important thing that I will test myself on today: I need to correct my posture skating backwards.  I discovered in doing my “short foot” thing in back outside-outside transitions (like in the dance-that-shall-not-be-named) that my weight was towards my toes, leading to (oh no!) that dreaded position that looks something like this:


rather than this:


Learn like a child, skate like a girl. I’ll dose myself up with arrogance and get out there.

Because “Jo” plus “why?” equals joy!

Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

6 thoughts on “My supple brain on skates

  1. Adults definitely learn things differently than kids. We need to know the mechanics of how and why things work to understand it. My coach tells me almost at every lesson, “you adults think too much.” Plus, we are afraid to fall because if and when we do, it takes a lot longer to heal!


  2. Right you are, Eva, though knowing the mechanics and doing the mechanics are two different things! Falling is a drag (I do it all the time!)


  3. Jo + why = Joy!
    I love this!


  4. “Children just copy what they see.” So true! My son and I started learning to skate at roughly the same time. He quickly developed a tremendous amount of speed, control and confidence, not just by following coaches’ direction, but by imitating skaters he admired. (Of note, he’s a hockey player so falling down and getting up is what they do, unlike figure skating where falling down means you screwed up; thus, we have a different perspective.) I think it’s cool the way he just goes for it!

    Also…bullets #3 and #5… love ’em!


    • That is so great that you and your son are sharing the experience of developing those skating skills. Those young skaters can really teach us a lot about how to let go of our reservations and just go for it! You’re so right that hockey players learn how to take those falls much more easily–but then again they have to wear those really flattering pants!


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