stupid human tricks

On Learned Athleticism & Balance

Last night, my boyfriend and I went to the family fun night at an outdoor skating rink near our house. It’s been open for a few days now – basically they flooded the giant pool and maintained it as it froze – and they celebrated the first Saturday night of its opening with hot dogs, hamburgers, and general merriment. (Vermont!)

I’m no stranger to skating; the boyfriend is a huge hockey fan and has used me to fill in an empty spot on a pickup game roster more than a few times. I grew up in New England, two towns over from Nancy Kerrigan, in the same town that the Bruins have their practice arena, and with more friends than I could count who were competitive figure skaters and hockey players.

It’s never been a focus of mine, though; more like, I have always owned a pair of skates and have enough proficiency to account well for myself, but no finesse or higher skills.

Last night, as we started to skate around, my feet cramped up badly within the skates. It wasn’t the skates, or any of my motions, and it took me a while to really figure it out but when I did it had me thinking for the rest of the night.

In short: I was applying all the body rules that I have drilled into myself while riding to figure skating. Horses are the main focus of my exercise and athletic endeavor these days, and my body has learned to associate being physically challenged with being on a horse.

I was dropping weight into my heels while skating. I was sinking down my spine, through my seatbones, and keeping weight out of my knees. Every time I wobbled or felt out off kilter, my body kicked in every horseback balance reaction it had. Within the first twenty minutes, this had really started adding up, and my feet were a tight mass of pain, as my heels drove deep into the skates but I was light in the balls of my foot, and my toes were nearly pushing against the top of the boot.

The solution was to skate correctly: put weight more into the balls of my feet and be lighter in my heel, be comfortable with balancing on the edge of the skate, bend my knees more, and tip my center of balance further forward over my knees, rather than my heels.

It was really hard. My body had learned and adapted to a certain instinct and it didn’t want to let go of that hard-won skill. I’ve never been the wildly athletic person whose body is flexible and poised and can tackle anything. I’m not exactly unathletic, either (except in the matter of hand-eye coordination, sigh), but I function best when I’m applying myself to one particular path, and disciplining my body for that.

Eventually, I repositioned myself, and my feet stopped cramping up, and motion came much more smoothly. We stayed for about an hour and the last 45 minutes were much easier than the first 15.

Have you ever tried another sport and found your riding instincts working against you?

5 thoughts on “On Learned Athleticism & Balance

  1. I was trying to think of something similar but I can't really think of anything. I don't skate. I've always found that I have a lot more core and leg strength from riding that comes in handy with a lot of sports/physical activities such as kickboxing, weightlifting and running.


  2. On the contrary! Skiing has your body in that same line, shoulder, hips, ankles. When rock climbing, if I'm starting to get Elvis leg (legs shaking) while on a climb where my tippy toes are the only area with a point of contact with the rock, I drop my heels deep like I would when riding and presto, the leg shaking ceases. Swimming…now that's a different world. But then again, that's a world I've not (sadly) been involved in in years!


  3. See I was trying to explain this to M. and he was insistent that skiing should be tipped forward much like skating: weight in the balls of your feet, center of gravity a bit forward. It's been a few years since I've gone downhill skiing but that didn't seem right to me. He learned to ski through instinct and repetition as a child; he's all experience, no finesse.

    Last time I went rock climbing I wasn't riding regularly, I wonder if I'd have fun going back now?


  4. The last sport I did with any regularity was field hockey, which requires fairly intense core and leg strength, though a different center of balance.

    Moral of the story, I guess, being athletic tends to make you more athletic?


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