Learning to Roller Skate: Advice from a Fellow Newbie

I’m pretty new at roller-skating. I got my roller skates just six months ago, in the middle of April. Before that, I had never skated before. Not roller-skates, not roller blades, not ice-skating, not that silly side-to-side sliding exerciser they sell on late night TV, nada. Today, I’m not a very good skater, but I can at least stand up on skates and move around. So, while the experience is fresh, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on learning to skate as an adult.

Learning to skate as someone old enough to hold a mortgage is deeply terrifying, and I salute anyone who is giving it a shot. Just remember to take it slow, drink lots of milk, take your Vitamin D, and you probably won’t break a hip. If you are learning to skate in your teens, well, you’ve already stopped reading this, and have now mastered backwards crossovers. I hate you.

Disclaimer: I’m just somebody who recently learned to skate. I have no medical or sports knowledge! In fact, my sports knowledge has a negative score! Skating is dangerous! Don’t sue me!

Getting started

To learn to roller skate, all you need is roller skates, right? Wrong. Get your self a full set of safety gear: a helmet, thick kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guards, and a helmet. A mouth guard is good to have too, as you start to practice fancy things. Believe me, you need all of this gear. You will fall down, a lot. You may also want to invest in some sort of padded shorts. I haven’t used them myself, but my ass, with its lingering tailbone pain, wishes I had.

Now that you have all of your gear, what’s next? Learning to fall. Inside. On carpet.

If you have any interest in roller derby, you need to learn to fall safely. And even if you don’t, you need to learn to fall safely to roller skate. Practice inside, on a nice thick carpet or a couple of yoga mats, until you are very comfortable falling.

Falling Drill One: Knee Fall

Here is a helpful video on the knee fall.

  1. Get in all of your gear.
  2. Stand on carpet. You don’t want your wheels to roll yet. Keep your feet parallel, shoulder-width apart.
  3. Bend your knees. You never want your knees to be straight as you learn. The more you bend your knees, the more stable you are. If you stand up straight and lock your knees, you are going to fall over. Seriously—BEND YOUR KNEES.
  4. Do a front lunge, and let your knee rest on the carpet. Be sure to come down on your knee very gently.
  5. Stand up—but keep your knees bent.
  6. Do it again, and again, until you are comfortable. Dropping gently to one knee is the safest and surest way to stop for a beginner—assuming you are wearing your kneepads, of course. Always wear them!
  7. As you get more comfortable, work on dropping to a knee and getting back up without putting your hands down. Think about it. Fingers, wheels. Don’t put your hands down.

Falling Drill Two: Clench and Pick a Side

You will fall on your butt a lot as you learn. Do it safely.

  1. Stand up, but keep your knees bent.
  2. Stick your but out, and feel the bottom of your spine. Feel that? That’s actual spine. You don’t want to land on that. A tailbone bruise can take months to feel better, and a tailbone break takes at least six months to heal. That’s a long time to sit on a donut.
  3. Stand up (knees bent)
  4. Clench your butt, and feel for your tailbone. Can’t find it? That’s right. If you clench your glutes, the muscle protects your tailbone.
  5. Get down as low to the ground as you can. Really bend your knees.
  6. Clench your glutes, and let yourself fall on one cheek or the other. Always pick a side—don’t come right down on your tailbone.
  7. Practice step 6 a few times. This will help your body remember what to do if you start to fall backwards—clench and pick a side.

Remember the first rule of falling: Never, ever grab onto another skater. Train yourself to fall safely onto your pads or a butt cheek. Never grab out. You’ll hurt a lot more if another skater falls on top of you, and you will hurt them, too.

Practice your stance

As a complete beginner, you are going to feel like you are falling, and you will fall all the time. Use the proper stance on roller skates, and you will be a lot more stable. Even if you don’t want to play roller derby, a good derby stance will help you get started skating. Practice on carpet, so you know how it feels when you start moving.

  1. Bend your knees. Never, ever straighten them. You should always keep a mild bend in your knees, and the lower you can go, the better. Not only is a proper derby stance thigh-screamingly low, this is also the most stable way to skate. In order to protect your knees, don’t let your knees slide past your toes. Instead, think of sticking your butt out, like you are peeing in the woods.
  2. Keep your stance wide. Picture a sumo wrestler. They are very steady, because they are low and wide. As you get better, you will work on skating very small, with your skates close together, so you don’t trip skaters near you. Don’t worry about that for a while. Stay low and wide until you get the feel of skating.
  3. Keep your arms in front of you, with your elbows tucked into your sides. You want your center of gravity to be low, with your weight in front. Keeping your arms in front of you helps keep your weight to the front.

New skaters often do the flailing windmill when the feel unsteady. Don’t. You’ll go down, and you risk giving a black eye to people around you. Instead, when you feel unsteady, bring your arms in front, elbows close to your sides, and bend your knees more. If you feel unsteady, most of the time getting low, bringing your arms to the front, and widening your stance will stabilize you. If it doesn’t, at least you will fall forward safely onto your padding.

When I started skating, I kept chanting, “Forward, low, forward, low”, until it became second nature.

Get rolling

Ok, you’ve got safety gear, and you’ve practiced falling and a proper stance in front of the mirror. Now, it’s time to roll.

Find somewhere very, very smooth to skate. As a beginner, any bump or pebble will make you fall. As you get better, and pick up speed, you will roll over small bumps just fine. At first, the smoother the better.

If you have an indoor rink near you, that’s perfect. If you don’t, lacrosse boxes, tennis courts or paved track are good choices. Deserted parking lots can be good, but scan for pebbles, leaves, cracks, etc. Don’t go anywhere near traffic. Get a friend to be with you until you are comfortable.

Here goes:

Get your gear on. Put your skates on sitting down on a bench or on the ground.

Stand up. This is harder than it sounds. This is where a friend comes in handy.

If you are on a bench:

  1. Get your feet under you.
  2. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed over the skates.
  3. Engage your quads, and stand up very slowly.
  4. Stop with your knees very bent. Have your friend close, ready to steady you if needed.
  5. Stay still for a moment, and get used to standing.
  6. Once you are comfortable, get your friend to pull you, very gently, away from the bench, and then stop, be still and balance.

If you are on the ground:

  1. Put one foot in front of you, and get one foot behind you.
  2. Come up so that you are kneeling on one knee pad, with the other foot square on the ground in front of you.
  3. Place both hands on the ground in front of you.
  4. Balance your weight evenly on your hands and the one skate that’s on the ground.
  5. Press into the foot that’s on the ground, and bring your other foot under you.
  6. Pause, and get really stable, then stand very slowly, keeping your knees bent.
  7. Just stay still for a minute.
  8. As you get more comfortable on skates, work toward standing up without using your hands. Think about it. Fingers. Wheels. Don’t put your hands on the ground if you can help it.

Even standing can be scary at first. To prevent yourself from rolling if you are standing still, make a T with your skates. Turn one skate out to the side, and brace it against the other skate at a 90-degree angle. Practice standing like this.

Now that you can stand, try your knee falls a couple of times. Get used to the feel of it. You knee is your safe space. If you ever get nervous, drop gently to your knee.

Get very low, and practice falling onto a butt cheek. Again, you want to be comfortable falling safely.

Now, it’s time to move. To get comfortable on your skates, put your feet in a duck position. Toes in, heels out. This will keep you from rolling too much. Take very tiny steps, just to get the feel of your skates.

Once you are comfortable, graduate to proper skating form: With feet parallel, shoulder-width apart, push one foot straight out to the side, very gently, and bring it back to the centre. You are moving! Push the other foot straight out to the side, very slowly and gently, and bring it back to the centre. That’s it! That’s all there is to skating.

Don’t let yourself try to walk normally in skates. It won’t work. In skating, you propel forward by pushing to the side. Learn proper form right from the beginning.

Keep practicing! Go very slowly, and get the feel of moving. Keep practicing knee falls. They are your safest and surest stop.

Try to skate every day, or at least every other day in the beginning. Skating is new way of moving, and the more frequently you skate, the sooner it will feel natural.

How the Heck do I Stop on These Things?

As you get more comfortable rolling, you are going to want to learn other stops than the knee fall. Here is a link to video on several stops. This video shows the T-Stop, the Plow Stop, and the Tomahawk Stop. Tomahawks are an advanced move, and I’m not even going to talk about them here. Mostly because I can’t do them.

The Plow Stop

The plow stop on roller skates

Snow Crash demonstrates the plow stop.

If you have ever skied, this one will be easy for you. If you haven’t skied, think about pictures of beginning skiers—legs very wide, toes pointed in.

To do it:

  1. Skate slowly
  2. As you roll, let your legs get very wide.
  3. Point your toes in
  4. Put pressure on the outside of your skates, and squeeze your inner thighs, hard.
  5. Your skates will start to come together in a triangle, slowly stopping you. The key is to really work your inner thighs—otherwise, you’ll just slide your skates together without slowing down, and you may trip.
  6. At the start, your skates will be very close together by the time you stop. As you get better, you will come to a stop with your legs wider and wider apart. That’s your goal. You will stop faster, and with a more secure, stable stance.
  7. Play with your balance. Some people put even pressure on both legs, and some find it easier to keep one leg very grounded, and push out with the other leg.
  8. As you get better at the plow stop, you can use this technique to regulate your speed. With all eight wheels on the ground, slide wide to slow yourself, and closer together to speed up a bit. Eventually, you will be able to propel yourself without lifting your skates up. Just slide your legs in and out, drawing bubbles on the ground.

Warning: your inner thighs will burn the first few times you try this.

Warning II: keep going, and your legs will be smokin’. There’s a reason derby girls wear booty shorts.

The T-Stop

In the T-Stop, you will put your weight on one leg, pick up your other leg, and put your skate behind you, at a 90-degree angle, and very gently drag all 4 wheels on the ground until you slow down, and stop.

If you’ve ever done ballet, the T-Stop is basically 3rd position on skates.

The T-Stop can be tricky. Don’t start working on the T-stop until you are comfortable moving on skates.

  1. Without skates, try picking up one foot, and placing it behind you, instep to heel. Keep your weight on your front leg, and work on smoothly placing your foot behind you until it feels natural. One foot will feet more natural for this than the other. That’s fine. Most people T-Stop with just one foot. If you are ambidextrous, try T-Stopping with both feet, for mad skill bonus points.
  2. Stand still on skates, and practice placing your skate behind you, instep to heel.
  3. Once that motion feels natural, try rolling very gently, and pick up your foot and place it behind you. The object is to get all 4 wheels touching the ground evenly, and very, very gently. You should slow down. As you slow, you can very gradually increase the pressure on your back foot.
  4. Keep your weight on your front foot! If you put too much weight on your back leg too fast, you may fall backward. The idea is to gently increase the pressure on your back foot, and slow yourself with friction. As you get stronger, this will happen faster and faster.
  5. To get all four wheels on your back skate down on the ground, it helps to think of scooping up your back foot, as though you are checking for poo on your shoe. That will help you get your outside wheels down. Poo on your shoe! Say it with me now, Poo on your shoe!
  6. The T-Stop can be a full stop, or you can use it to slow yourself down, by just dragging your foot behind you, slowing down, and then continuing to skate. The T-Stop takes up much less space than the Plow stop, so it is very useful when you are skating close to others.

A Few Things to Remember About Roller Skates

Don’t get your skates wet, and don’t skate in the rain. Any moisture at all, and your bearings will rust, seize, and become badass paperweights. Also, if you skate through water, you might hydroplane. You don’t want that.

Don’t go downhill until you are extremely comfortable skating. Or, possibly never. Roller skates are not rollerblades. It is very, very hard to stop going downhill on skates. As a beginning, even the slightest slope is going to be scary. Keep it flat until you are very good, and then be extremely cautious with any kind of hill. Never, ever try a hill near any sort of traffic. Egads!

Always check your skates before you put them on. Toe stoppers get lose and fall off. Even wheels can loosen. Give them a quick check before you roll. Get in the habit right from the start.

People will talk to you. Roller skates are sexier than roller blades. People will stop and chat when they see you are on quads. As always, chat with humans at your own risk.

Things to Work on As You Get Better

1. Dance like a butterfly: As a new skater, I would push out ponderously with one foot, balance, put my foot down, take a moment to steady myself, push out slowly with the other foot, and so on. I was very heavy on my skates, and I transferred my weight very slowly.

As you learn to skate better, you want to become very light on your skates, and move your feet quickly, shifting your weight constantly, like a boxer. Do this for the same reason a boxer does. If you are heavily balanced on one leg, your leg can be swept out from under you. If you are light on your feet, and you hit an obstacle, you just shift naturally to the other foot. No big deal. What helped me master this was being told to keep my feet moving. Never keep them still. This will also help you go faster, but if you don’t want to go too fast yet, just move your feet the tiniest bit to the side. Really good skaters can glide along, hardly moving their feet.

2. Learn to relax (when people give you advice. If you think rain is bad for bearings, just think what blood would do, if you gave in and hit them over the head).

terrified new roller skater

Note the look of terror.

When you are learning to skate, two things will happen. First: you will look like a moose on skates, sliding toward a raging inferno.
Second: people will give you advice, all the time. Chief among that advice: Just relax!

Here’s the thing: great skaters are relaxed. They look effortless. The advice-givers see the difference between the relaxed posture of a great skater, and your terrified, Bambi-on-ice grimace, and they can’t help themselves. “Hey,” they say, “just relax!” And you will want to kill them.

You know why great skaters look relaxed? Because they can skate! They look calm and confident because their brain trusts their feet not to do something stupid, and crush their precious frontal lobes. Your brain does not trust your feet to do any such thing. In fact, your brain is convinced your feet, and those eight terrifying wheels, are trying to kill it. Your brain is doing what good brains do: keeping you alive so you can continue the species.

You won’t be able to relax on skates until you have convinced your brain that you have enough skill to keep it alive. You earn your relaxation, with hours on skates, building skills and confidence. Once you can relax a bit, it’s good to scan your body for tense spots, and try to loosen up, but that won’t come for a while. Just be terrified, keep skating, and don’t bludgeon anyone. It really is bad for your bearings.

3. Dance. At first, when you skate, you will just concentrate on not dying. As you get better, you will want to get your mind off of your skates, and let muscle memory guide you along. Your body is much better at moving you around than your brain, so you need to give your brain something to do. That’s where music, comes in, the cheesier the better. Bad 80’s is ideal.

Let yourself bop around to the music. This will get your mind off of your feet, and help the skating motion become automatic. Also, as you move in time to the music, and dance a bit, your feet will move in different patterns. You will naturally discover different things you can do with your feet, and you will grow as a skater. Besides, there is a pure, simple joy to be found in air-guitaring to Bon Jovi whilst roller-skating. Why skate at all if you are too cool to allow yourself such happiness?

4. Never, ever look directly at an obstacle. If you have ever ridden a bike, skied, or driven a car, you will be familiar with this principle. Your body goes where your eyes go. If you stare at the big tree in front of you, you will steer right into it, as sure as taxes.

Train yourself to always look where you want to be. Find the hole with your eyes, and your body will glide through it. Train yourself to keep your eyes on the empty spot, never ever on the obstacles.

This is both vitally useful and extremely difficult the first few times you go to a public skate, with people, idiots, and small children all skating around you. Little kids, especially, are terrifying. Keep looking past them, through them and between them, and you’ll be ok.

Just Do It

A certain multi-national corporation has it right. The only way to get better at roller-skating is to just do it. Skate as often as you can, for as long as you can, and pretty soon, you are going to feel better on eight wheels than two feet.

Happy skatin’!

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