I’ve now been ice skating three times in so many weeks, and I’m completely hooked. I’ve even bought my own skates! Yay!
Why is ice skating so fun? Here’s a problem: it is not fun when you are just beginning. In fact, it is miserable.
Most of our lives, we walk around on solid shoes on solid ground and it suits us just fine. Our feet are on the floor. Or we run and that can be fun. In either regular walking or running, there is no question of balance or falling or disorientation.
Why do we strap on these weird shoes with a thin, sharp blade on them and then deliberately put ourselves on this crazy slippery surface? Are we are just trying to make ourselves miserable?
It’s one thing if you live in a cold climate where ice is everywhere. You can’t go anywhere without dealing with ice. Perhaps skating serves an actual purpose under those regrettable conditions.
But in warmer climates, this is not what’s going on. Here we deliberately construct surfaces and cause them to be iced over so that we can step on them with thin blades and risk breaking our necks for no apparent reason. And we pay for it!
I put it that way because that is precisely what the first-time skater surely thinks. Now that I can zip around the rink and actually have fun, I’m very aware of all the people crawling around on the bar around the rink. They are suffering. No question. I can imagine what is going through their heads.
“‘Let’s go ice skating’, they said. ‘It will be fun!’ Oh sure. This is the now the worst evening I can remember. I thought I would hang out with friends but instead I find myself doing this dangerous and stupid activity, holding on for dear life, and doing it front of everyone I’m otherwise trying to impress. Then there’s that stupid guy over there who disgusts me and, it just so happens that because he is from Michigan or something, he is great on skates. I hate him. I hate skating. I hate my life right now.”
I totally get it. It makes no sense at all.
But then, you watch the Winter Olympics! Amaze, amaze. The stunning people enter the rink as if they are flying. They transverse huge spaces in a flash and look impossibly elegant. They leap, spin, float on air, inspiring and delighting us. Nothing like this seems possible in the whole world. It’s pure magic.
But of course, here’s the problem: these are the best people in the world at ice skating. None of the rest of us can be that. And before we look like that, we are not too impressive. Why should this matter? That there are great singers doesn’t stop us from singing along while driving. That there are professional basketball players doesn’t stop us from shooting hoops with friends on Sunday afternoon.
More closely, there’s an analogy between dancing and skating. We all know of the guys who are wallflowers at the wedding party. “I don’t dance,” they grunt, thereby ruining the evening for their dates. But what they really mean is that they are unwilling to undertake the hard work and risk that comes with doing something new and potentially embarrassing. After enough drinks — famously reducing inhibitions — almost everyone is willing to get out there and dance, especially if he thinks it is possible to hide in the crowds.
It’s much worse with ice skating. It is a radically individualized sport. Whatever you do, you cannot rely on others. What happens when you are on skates is due to you alone. Whatever skills you have, you can deploy. If you lack any skills, you can hardly move at all. Skating is centered on the individual body and that alone. There is no master but the skater alone.
What’s more striking is how public it all is. People are invariably curious what’s going on within the rink itself. It’s a spectator sport. We stand outside the rink and say, wow, that person is wonderful. Look at how she goes backwards! Look at how it turns! Look at how she spins!
If you are not good at this, everyone will be watching and they will know. They judge. In fact, you have some sense that people are kind of mean: look at that guy who seemed like such a big shot but now he is reduced to crawling along the side of the rink looking like a fool!
Our willingness to undertake new activities is bound up with our egos in the face of other’s judgement. This prospect instills fear in us. We don’t want our peers, or even strangers, thinking that we are not good at something. And yet: with ice skating, the only way to become better is actually doing it. We have to be willing to put it all out there. We have to be willing to look terrible and incompetent. It’s the only way we can go from no skills to actually possessing skills.
In many ways, then, the willingness to take up skating is a profound test of our personal courage. Are we willing to get out there and have everyone how absolutely terrible we are at something? Are we willing to submerge our short-term and egotistical concerns for long-term gain? Are we prepared to pay the price now for a payoff later?
There’s another factor to ice skating that came as something of a surprise to me. It’s not like riding a bike. With a bike, you can’t and then suddenly you can and you improve very quickly. With skating, it takes time and the ability to improve is gradual. This fact disappointed me profoundly. But what I discovered is that you do improve slightly each time, on the margin. This is where we find the payoff.
It goes something like this. The first time is 99% misery. The second time is 80% misery. The third time is only 50% misery. And so on. The non-miserable moments are incredibly satisfying! When you are not feeling like you are about to die, you do feel a sense of moving fast, of doing something implausible, of sliding around in a way that is just uniquely fun!
You quickly develop this hunger to experience that sense of getting in the groove more and more. What makes ice skater delightful for the beginner, then, is not that you are good at it; it’s that you get marginally better at it with each experience. It becomes an occasion for rediscovering that great truth in life: the goal in life should not be perfection; it can only be improvement.
After the third time, you can look back at say: here was something that I could not do before but which now I do think I can at least get better at. Herein lies the reward that comes from willing to undertake the potentially embarrassing and risky activity. Learning is hard. Always. Are we willing to do it? Or will we forever be satisfied to define ourselves as people who can’t skate?
Think of it this way. There was a time when we couldn’t walk. But in our childhood, we had an aspirational quality within us. We wanted to do it because the adults around us could do it. We were not shy. We fell but we got back up again. After some time, we could walk.
Learning to walk as children was our first great experience with what it means to improve and actually make life progress. Is there a point in life in which we give that up? At that very moment, we’ve already started to die. To learn new things is to live fully. To discover and finally master ice skating, then, embodies that beautiful and aspirational spirit of childhood that we should never leave behind.