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!


Growing older and post-sweater project postings

Wrapping up my mom’s sweater project this week, and I’m thinking about some new ideas for future posts. Maybe I’ll write about some of the pre-gold and gold dances; I’m so excited to be working on these (finally!). I had a great lesson last week from Laurie on the Viennese waltz (the 1-1-3 timing on the forward and backwards progressives, outside-outside edges, and the outside mohawk). And all those new exercises that I need to write down or I will forget them, like the one I got last week: alternating back crossovers with a change of edge/edge pull in between.

It’s funny to be at an age when everyone seems to be talking about their bodies getting older and creakier, and I’m ranting about making progress on edges and turns that most elite figure skaters learn way before they hit adolescence. But I do seem to be moving along (or maybe I’m just imagining it).

But no, it must be true. A funny thing happened in my lesson this week. I was doing the three-step inside mohawk sequence (inside mohawk, inside edge, step forward to an inside edge and repeat on the other side) and Ari said “It’s getting better” and I was so surprised I almost fell down on the next one. Definitely not used to mohawk-inspired praise!

Speaking of life-long learning, Laurie sent me a link to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine: a lovely essay by Lewis Lapham and a set of interviews with some very famous people who, even in their 80s and 90s, are still working, still creative, still vital.  It is definitely worth reading. Here are my favorite excerpts (with my favorite quotes in bold):

Writer Lewis H. Lapham (who edited Harper’s Magazine for many years as well as wrote many books and articles):

Now I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

Runner Ginette Bedard (she is 81 and ran her first marathon at age 69), when asked “How long will you keep running marathons?”

I’m going to do this until destiny takes me away. When they gave me the last trophy last Sunday for the half marathon in Central Park, the trophy said, ‘‘From 80 to 99,’’ and I thought, O.K., I’ve got 20 years to go yet. There’s no one left. It’s easy to win.

Actor Christopher Plummer, who is 84. The interviewer says, “I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?” He replies:

Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

Actress Betty White who is 92, when asked “What do people get most wrong about being old?”

We’ve made age such a terrible thing that the younger people think that just getting to that age is awful. But if you’re blessed with good health, and I am, and I never take it for granted, you can get by with murder! You get spoiled rotten.

Speaking of spoiled rotten, here is what I can get away with in a leopard print top at age 54. This was also my mother’s (who wore it into her 80s!).

The last word on the subject belongs to Albert Camus, from his “Retour à Tipasa” (Return to Tipasa) [1952].

Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible. (In the midst of winter I found, there was, within me, an invincible summer.)