Learning Challenge: To learn the motor skills required to rollerblade

Author: Alistair Knock, March 2006

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Background

The learner challenge initially chosen was to master the art of constructing several pieces of origami, to an extent where it could be done from memory. However, as the course progressed it became very clear that an important learning aid was motivation, and the ability to contextualise the skills being learned so they had a real and tangible application to the learner. At the time my partner, Marie, and I were looking at new forms of exercise, having "lapsed" over winter, and rollerblading seemed an unlikely but interesting candidate to fulfil both roles.

Aim

The goal was to reach a level of understanding and ability to confidently travel short-medium distances using rollerblades, to achieve the same understanding in a partner, while sharing/teaching each other techniques and discussing possible improvements.

Approach

Alistair's RollerbladesSuccess in the challenge had three requisites: equipment, information, experience. Engaging in each at different levels of sophistication would result in different outcomes - more comfortable/fitted equipment, for example, may enable an increase in experience, while more information (e.g. research/training) might result in less experience required due to the skills being picked up more quickly.

At the outset we identified what we felt would be a natural learning progression:

  1. learning how to use the equipment
  2. learning how to stand without falling
  3. learning how to fall safely
  4. learning how to move forwards
  5. learning how to slow down without falling
  6. learning how to stop effectively using the brake
  7. learning how to turn shallow corners

Equipment

As beginners we purchased the second most inexpensive set of blades discovered on a very brief research expedition. We did not look at other options or identify whether the equipment was ideally suited to us, other than to ensure a good fit. Wisely we also procured elbow, wrist, and knee pads.

Information

Very few skills can be satisfactorily learned solely by the learner reflecting on experience. For this challenge the information available was phased: the first outings were not informed by any external party; the middle outings were informed by some basic research on the internet as to the type of techniques and exercises that beginners should engage with, and it was hoped that the final stages would be informed by discussion and guidance with a fellow rollerblader - unfortunately this was not possible. Information was shared throughout between both participants and technique critiqued and reflected on.

Experience

Neither participant had experience on rollerblades, or inline skates, although both had briefly used 'quad' skates many years ago. Neither had recently engaged in sports which use similar movements, such as skiing, snowboarding, or ice skating.

It was quickly identified that other sports skills were not applicable to the task - maintaining balance when running or cycling, for instance, is generally applied to side-to-side balance rather than forwards/backwards balance. During the initial stages of learning to rollerblade (AVI movie, 3.5Mb) it was clear that the opposite was the case.

We also identified that the motions required were unfamiliar - the "stride and glide" motion of moving forward involves (when observed from the right of the participant) an anti-clockwise movement of the foot, whereas cycling and running require a clockwise movement. Mentally this initially causes confusion, as the participant expects to move backwards when applying an anti-clockwise motion.

Barriers and challenges

Fear

A significant part of the learning experience was dominated by fear and uncertainty. This was double-edge: on the one hand it provided a motivation to overcome fear and to progress, but opposed to this were conflicting desires to learn too quickly and to delay learning at all! Had there been no external motivator, either in the form of the challenge or the personal commitment, it would have been easy to abandon the task and select something simpler and safer.

Overcoming fear of this nature is a gradual process and is perhaps proportional to a rise in technique and ability, rather than a rise in experience. Whereas concerns about driving a car fade the more a person does it, this isn't necessarily connected to an improvement in their driving. It is more likely be to connected to the fact that the more attempts the person makes without actually meeting their concerns, such as crashing, the less important the concerns become to them.

With rollerblading, facing danger appears to be a constant part of the experience even when expert, and it is technique which allows the person to avoid running into problems. The "retaining motivation" to continue rollerblading may then require narrowed achievements and rewards: even the 7 natural progressions outlined above may be too broad; smaller successes over a long period of time is more likely to lead to mastery.

Logical Hurdles

As a result of fear, and pain through falling, a lot of time was spent thinking about what to do rather than doing it. Learning was therefore an evolutionary, trial-by-error, process, but one which was restrained by the inability to fully apply any error corrections. As an example, once we had "mastered" the technique used to stop, we considered how to turn. The logical prediction was that, like skiing or running, applying pressure to the inside foot and leaning into the curve would provide enough change while retaining balance. In practice, this was not the case and led to a loss of momentum and stability. However, importantly it is not yet clear whether this is a failing of the logic, or the practical experience. While further practice and development may provide clarification, calling on an expert to analyse and suggest improvement would be far more effective.

The Jump

Some challenges were overcome simply because of spontaneity and the inability to consider the implications rationally; the camera-woman requesting a jump (AVI movie, 3.4Mb) invoked a confidence which would not be - and was not - present in pre-planned and carefully considered manoeuvres such as turning (see above). While the result is far from elegant, the basic requirements of both feet leaving the ground, both feet returning to the ground, and the previous movement being continued, are satisfied.

Subsequent attempts failed at the outset, because there was too much consideration of the consequences (i.e. falling) and the technique which might be preferable, meaning that no other jumps were attempted.

Sharing and Teaching

As both participants were beginners, there was no scope for a direct expert-to-beginner mentorship. Both had to learn with little prior knowledge, and it was interesting to note the difficulty in vocally trying to explain concepts which cannot be adequately expressed in words. Trying to explain how to retain balance when travelling over a speed bump, for instance, is near impossible unless you are an expert. However, we both managed it:

While use of the camera was initially a gimick, it proved to be a useful learning tool in seeing and assessing one's own style and comparing it to how the other behaves in the same situations. While we could not critically evaluate technique, it was helpful to be able to look at after the event, identifying areas which needed improvement, and act on them next time. If we had managed to engage an expert, then assessing the videos may have been a quick way to get feedback.

Final Thoughts

Throughout the challenge, analysis of person-to-task fit kept cropping up. In my mind, I could visualise theoretically how to behave in different situations and what dynamics would be involved. But in practice, this could rarely be applied, or when it was, the theory did not match reality. My partner did not pursue any such visualisation, she just went out and did it, and had greater success in terms of style and technique. Background reading on the web looks at both: it provides case examples and just enough theory. My inclination however is that just getting out and trying different approaches - "extreme learning" - is likely to reap more initial rewards and movitation, allowing theoretical tweaks to be added later. That will be my approach from now on - fear will just have to wait.