Winter Sports, Mental Toughness, Sports Psychology
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The Journey to Mastery: Embracing 10,000 Falls in Figure Skating and Life
I was at the rink today for freestyle practice, a closed session for figure skaters only. At my rink, we have all levels on the ice simultaneously (some rinks divide into lower-ability and higher-ability sessions for safety reasons). I was watching K, a hugely talented skater currently at the junior level and looks to be soon heading for the senior ranks. He is definitely an Olympic contender for the next games. He’s doing triples and quads. Also on the ice is his younger sister M, who is equally talented and has recently turned pairs skater from singles, working on a program with her partner.
The Art of the Fall in Skating
They make it look so beautiful and easy.
But sometimes, they fall.
Watching them makes me consider something I read – that an Olympic-class figure skater has fallen 10,000 times on the way to top-level competition. And has, obviously, gotten up 10,001 times. It’s kind of like that “10,000 hours to mastery” principle. Except skating’s 10,000 hours entail your butt and other body parts crashing on the ice. Hard.
Childhood Skaters vs. Adult Skaters
When you learn to skate as a child, you’re at a great advantage because you’re made of rubber. You fall, you bounce right back up and try again. Sometimes, you cry because it smarts, but you don’t leave the ice and refuse to return. I think I read somewhere that Scott Hamilton fell and knocked himself out the first time he tried skating. But he recovered and returned to it; the rest is history.
As a kid, you’re not fearful of falling or too interested in learning. I learned to skate when I was four, and I remember repeatedly falling, brushing myself off, and getting back on my feet to try the move again. At that point in our lives, our egos aren’t involved, and we aren’t yet terrified of breaking a bone. It’s just a fun challenge. It’s very easy to spot an adult skater who learned as a child – the fear factor is missing both on their faces and in their movements.
Skating Across Generations
I watch K and M, and I wonder what drives someone at such a young age to go out there and push themselves to learn and perfect such complicated moves. I’ve always just skated for fun because my family couldn’t provide the training necessary for me to skate at the Olympic level. Back in my day, figures were still part of the competition, and you needed two pairs of skates with different blades and different types of ice time. Today, it’s just freestyle and moves in the field, the movements from the figure eights taken across the ice (no special blade needed; all can be done with the same pair of skates).
Perseverance on Ice: K and M's Journey
K and M they’re in it for the big time. I admire them, and I feel inspired in my heart to keep working to be my best. They tumble, and they immediately scramble back to their feet. It’s automatic.
If you’re doing anything at a high level, falling is inevitable. Falling a lot. Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Wasn’t Babe Ruth the strike-out king and the home-run king??
I believe that’s the secret to getting up 10,000 times and becoming a champion, no matter what you’re doing. Popping back up to the surface like a cork has to become second nature, even when it’s painful. But that desire to get up and go again has to come from you; it has to be intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is only going to take you so far. I know of a girl I went to high school with who was a top tennis player and went to a major university to play. She was under tremendous pressure to perform from one of her parents. A mutual friend told me that one day, she just slammed her racket down on the court, walked off, and refused to return. Ever. A few years back, I personally saw a young figure skater of about 12 to 13 years old attempting to land triple jumps while her mother hovered in the stands and yelled at her to do better. The more the mother yelled, the more the poor girl fell. The falls got progressively uglier. I was considering alerting the rink staff, but right before I left the ice to speak with someone, a staff member told the mother to go to the lobby (and the rink banned her from coaching her daughter from the stands or the lobby). I skated by the girl at one point, and from the look on her face and body language, I don’t feel she would skate her entire life and enjoy it like I have.
So what makes you willing to stick it out for the 10,000 falls on the ice and in life, in anything you choose to do?
I believe it’s love, pure and simple.
You must be doing something you truly love with all your heart, or at some point, you will just stay down and let go. In some instances, it’s a case of burnout and a matter of time away to rejuvenate. Paul Wylie, 1992 Olympic silver medalist in men’s singles, took six months off the ice, played golf, and then returned to the ice in better form than ever. In other instances, it’s a clear sign you’re done.
And there’s a big difference in quitting because you know you have more in you but you just don’t care enough to keep falling and walking away because it’s the end of the road. I’ve done both. I’ve stopped doing things because I knew I wasn’t up for the hard work necessary to succeed, and I’ve stopped because I knew I’d given it my all and it was time to close the chapter. It’s important to remember everything you try isn’t going to end in smashing success. While you must be willing to tolerate being bad to be good, sometimes the bad stage is too much or not worth it.
We all want to feel successful. I believe life is too short to waste time being mediocre at something. Find the thing you can willingly take 10,000 falls to master. I think that’s the game of life and one of the things that brings the most meaning and joy to life. Some people know what that is early; others need to try this and that before they find the thing that lights them up. For me, skating and writing have been my life-long loves since I was small. I’m still looking for new things worthy of 10,000 falls, which will keep me forever young.
Here's to your 10,000 falls… and your 10,001 rises.