Skating as therapy

This month marks two years since I started my journey as an adult skater. While I am still staunchly mediocre (which is fine: SO MANY of the adult skaters I admire took about four years to consider themselves skaters instead of beginners, and I WILL eventually make peace with that apparently also being my reality), I HAVE made progress both on and off the ice.

I was 32 when I finally decided to take a new year’s resolution seriously, and I am so grateful that skating was the perfect storm to launch me toward a victory of completion and a triumph over my knack for vacillating between half-hearted commitment and half-assed follow-through. I don’t really talk much about the context of what got me back into skating beyond the trifecta of a coworker suggesting that I get a hobby with a conviction most likely fueled by their proximity to my impending professional meltdown, a college friend’s then-recent foray into skating inspiring me to give the sport another shot, and my determination to approach my 30s as a decade of reclamation. 

The other half of that story is that it wasn’t too long after I turned 30 that I changed jobs and suddenly found myself working within minutes of a speech therapist’s office. I’ve stuttered since first grade and, while it’s certainly gotten to the point where people don’t seem to notice it unless I draw attention to it first, I still trip over certain words or sound combinations and have days where I just want to pretend I've come down with laryngitis because every sentence is a new struggle. Speech therapy was never an option as a kid; as an adult freshly hell-bent on overwriting all the things that have acquired needlessly negative associations during my first two decades, it was a no-brainer to finally seek out speech therapy when it was all but literally dropped right into my lap.

What began as speech exercises and methods to mitigate the stutter that I can now say was professionally assessed as a mild one soon turned into something much more like traditional therapy, with me talking more about and us exploring the long-term emotional impact that my stutter—and defining myself as a stutterer—has had on me. When our adjacent office buildings were condemned about six months later and the speech therapist’s office moved, I never bothered to follow up; I honestly felt like I had enjoyed enough breakthroughs and was finally on my way to making peace with a part of me I had railed against and hated for almost two and a half decades. I consider my speech-therapy stint a success because, yes, I did learn some tricks to reclaim my voice and my fluency, but most of all, I learned that I am so much more than the stutter I let control my life for entirely too long.

That was the beginning of wresting back the confidence I’d ceded for so much of my life. It was how I learned to start looking at what I like about myself, advocating for my own happiness, and taking a more active role in the direction I’m going. It taught me that while the one-two punch of being a stuttering introvert makes social situations especially tricky and unappealing, they can more often than not yield some pretty nifty rewards—like random but heartfelt conversations with total strangers, beating at the perimeters of my comfort zone to push them (and me!) a little farther, and simply opening myself up to learning something new. People became less scarier and I stopped feeling like a prisoner to the voice that so unpredictably betrays me.

But what it also taught me is that opportunities for self-discovery are EVERYWHERE if you start looking for them—and can admit that being a work in progress just means that you’re always striving to become a masterpiece.

On January 7, it'll be two years since I returned to the ice. I have a dicey relationship with time as it is, but I honestly don’t know if this odyssey feels that long OR that short. But what I do know is that I have packed more passion, more frustration, more bruises, more growth, more humility, and more dedication into my time as an adult skater than any other period of my life. It has been one emotional, heartbreaking, and satisfying-beyond-compare journey that I could not be happier to call my own. I have experienced so much but I have learned even more because I took a chance on a thing I dreaded the first time around. And because this past year was when I let myself be open to the friendships that skating has so generously presented to me, I have found a sisterhood at my rinks, beyond my rinks, and all over various internet communities that is supportive beyond measure, which has absolutely played a critical role in making me fall in love with this sport in a whole new way because it has given me a whole new perspective on what family AND home can be. 

2018 was packed with lessons, a few of which eked in at the 11th hour with all the procrastinatory aplomb I'm used to cultivating. Below are a few that I feel especially merit a mention, as they're mental breakthroughs that have paired nicely with the technical breakthroughs that have bolstered my progress in the past year. 

You get what you put in
I CONSTANTLY compare myself to better skaters—I try so hard to find inspiration in them rather than let myself be intimidated by them, but sometimes the lesser demons win out. Most of the time, it’s a totally unfair comparison because they’ve either got scads of experience they’re excavating from their younger days or they discovered the world of adult skating YEARS before I did. But sometimes, I’ll stumble upon folks who somehow make a year of skating look like five, and I’ll wonder why I can’t be like that.

And the truth is that I don’t practice for hours every day. Hell, the weeks I get more than four days of skating in are rare treats, as I too-often meet my 5:30 a.m. skating alarms with grumbles and rolling back over for two more hours. I’m also not hitting the gym, eating like an adult, or doing anything off-ice to supplement my on-ice training: I get in maybe an hour of yoga a week, have the dietary intake of a garbage disposal and drinking habits of a stereotypical professional writer, and maaaaaybe spend a few minutes each day on my spinner or practicing jumps in my yard while waiting for the dog to do his business. These are not the habits of someone committed to skating. 

I have no one else to blame but myself (and maybe adulting) for constantly moving my finish line without considering the self-sabotage it perpetuates. And I need to stop doing that. Like, remember how I meant to take my Bronze MITF and PB FS tests before the year was over? Yeah, that clearly never happened. It is partly because I don’t want to take another test until I know I’m ready—demoralization factor notwithstanding, those tests cost money and you don’t get a refund if you don’t pass—but also partly because, if my last test was any indication, I don’t buckle down and focus without a deadline breathing down my neck like a crazed stalker. 

I’ve been entirely too leisurely and passive about training harder, and that needs to stop if I have any designs on getting at least two more tests under my belt in 2019. And it starts with putting in more than skating for half an hour before work every other day when I know damn well I don’t start finding my groove ‘til at least 45 minutes in and am finally rocking whatever I’m practicing at the 90-minute mark (and that practicing an element for five minutes and then moving onto something else I like better is not how I get over the trickier hurdles). I need to start adapting my mornings to maximize my skating opportunities, not stealing time from skating to be a slow-moving lump in the morning, because those weeks when I am getting four or five skating days in a row? Everything. Feels. Amaaaaazing. Like, in every way possible. 

Ultimately, regarding skating as a hobby means I’ll just keep skating like it’s a hobby. And the more I think about it, the more often my gut reaction tells me that I am done hovering in the hobbyist stage. I've got goals that really need to come to fruition. 

#ProgressNotPerfection
The official hashtag of adult skaters in general and my 2018 specifically, this is also a mighty helpful mantra that I have desperately clung to on those days when my body just does not do what I want it to. I have a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver to myself, and focusing less on perfection and more on progress takes the sting out of not accomplishing what I badly wanted, either because I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough or being reasonable in my aspirations. I wanted to get to double jumps this year and I’m still working my way through the half ones. I wanted to pass four tests and I passed only two. I wanted to skate more, worry less, advance faster, and focus better. 

I mean... I know I'm making progress, albeit at evolutionary speeds. I just severely underestimated the time it takes to progress after factoring in all the interruptions that take priority and self-fulfilling prophecies of undermining my own efforts. I KNOW I'm a better skater than I was this time a year ago—I can actually spin! My loop jump gets better every day! My footwork has improved by miles! My backspins actually, routinely manage a few rotations!—but I don't think I'll ever be totally happy with whatever progress I make, even if I do buckle down and dedicate myself to this sport more. 

And that's fine, because unmet goals are some mighty effective motivators. Aiming for progress while striving for perfection is how you refine everything inch by inch because this sport just cannot be half-assed by stubbornly repeating the same mistakes while hoping for real results (being the kind of person who knowingly bungles my phone's unlock code but hopes it'll work anyway, this is an especially difficult fact to face). Getting a little closer to the goal every time is a more realistic tactic AND it comes with checking off lots of little goals along the way, and a lot of baby steps eventually looks the same as one giant leap if you keep chipping away at it. And keeping at it and showing up and pushing forward tend to be as rewarding as they are monotonous, and I need to do a better job of relishing small but certain wins instead of setting myself up to fail at something that just isn't within reach just yet. There's a difference between settling and going at your own pace, and it's all in the constant progression of goals. 

Know your limits
Like, yeah, OF COURSE I'd love to be all "Power through the plateaus!" and "Just ignore the pain!" but come ON: The adult human body is a machine on the decline, and beating the crap out of it through acquiring a skill best taken up before puberty is already disrupting the natural order of things. Don't pit fate against your stubborn, secret faith in unbreakable immortality. Listen to your screaming back. Be kind to your throbbing knees. Take a day off now so it doesn't implode into something more long-term later.

But the same goes for the emotional impact of the sport, too. I had an absolutely awful lesson a few weeks ago—it was so mortifying that I absolutely let it hurt and keep me off the ice for days while I moped about how hard I'd regressed (thanks, new-skate adjustment period!). It seems counter-intuitive but I know myself, and I know that missing something is the most effective way to find the love I have for it again. Giving myself permission to know when to step away and when to grind through is definitely an organic approach that might take a little longer than if I would just keep my eyes on the prize and forge ahead, feelings be damned; however, to me, it's more important to work through the why and the how of my emotions and examine what they're trying to say, since that's the best way to keep my heart and my head aligned. 

After that thoroughly humbling lesson, just stroking around the ice was a welcome return enough when I finally ventured back onto freestyle nearly a week later, but then I ran into so many of the adult skaters I love. Two of them are not only my favorite inspirations but also two of the kindest people I've ever met, and just having that much warmth greet me first thing after letting the fear win was such an auspicious, cinematic moment that I leaned into embracing the cliche. And it rewarded me so well. It felt so good to skate again, and I let myself just be happy to be there. 

And then, the next day, my notoriously hard-to-please Wednesday coach was filled with compliments. And my Saturday coach was, too—she might be naturally effortless when it comes to encouraging and supporting adult skaters, but she is so demanding that hearing genuine pride in her voice is honestly the closest I'll ever need to get to Olympic gold. 

New skates are confidence-killers
They are. They so are. Everything anyone ever said about breaking in a new pair of skates is not only true but also the literal worst in ways that defy all reason. 

I upgraded my skates from Jackson Mystiques to these beauties right after Thanksgiving, and... I do love them but hooooooly bejeezus, they sure took some time to return the affection. I regressed HARD, everything hurt, and I couldn't even get them tied properly in less than 20 minutes OR without a lace puller. It was honestly like I was learning how to skate all over again as I struggled to re-find my balance and center of gravity and way around a whole new pair of skates. 

But I love them so much. And they are so impossibly pretty. And they make me feel like a real skater! I'm finally getting used to the higher heel, longer blade, and stiffer boots: Truth be told, the bigger rocker has made me fall in love with spinning and just makes me want to practice that more. Meanwhile, things like my waltz jumps and forward eights (two things I've felt good about for eons!) regressed hard and absolutely tormented me in the process, which certainly compounded the frustration I've been feeling.  

This is where my skating sisters really shone, though: Being surrounded by more accomplished and experienced skaters as I limped along some unexpectedly daunting obstacles came with lots of love and empathy and assurance that this, too, will pass. Because the worst of it has. And the especially ardent voice who tirelessly promised me that getting used to a serious upgrade would be tough but rewarding was absolutely right. At least if my faith in myself is shaky at best, the ladies who love me are constantly proving that I should listen to them.

Focus, focus, focus
This is one of those things that I always kind of wondered about but never had the gumption to work on. I definitely am the right combination of stubborn, easily distracted, and panicky that my focus is constantly being tested—and it never had much resolve to begin with. A lifetime of only half-listening to instructions because I'd rather forge my own path has left me struggling to pay attention to my coaches as my mind wanders to everywhere but the here and now. And you can't do that for something as technically exact as skating, where every mistake is amplified because it interferes with the host of elements with which it's inherently intertwined. 

Being 100-percent mentally present is exhausting. But it's beyond worth it. The two awesome lessons I just had? They happened because I fought hard to focus without obsessing, I tweaked mistakes instead of over-correcting my way into a whole new problem, and I took my coaches' advice to heart. Just knowing that what I lack in natural talent can be overcome by simply listening better and being more mindfully precise was one of my most noteworthy accomplishments this year, even if these are things I should've figured out ages ago.

Skating as therapy 
I have learned more about the way I'm wired by looking at myself through the lens of this sport; the bigger truth, though, is that novel perspectives are powerful agents of change. And I need to recast my way of thinking if I'm going to find the ordinary things about me that are waiting to be turned into something better. 

Skating has highlighted how much trouble I have getting out of my own head. It's taught me that I tend to fixate on the goal and its potential rather than the journey and its reality. It's shown me how ugly and damaging jealousy can be while rewarding me for gravitating to the kind of people who make mutual support and celebration come as naturally as breathing. I'm learning from and taking the bad days in stride, as well as holding onto the revelations and victories and energy of the better days. 

But self-acceptance is just as importance as self-awareness. I think of all the lessons I've learned this year, being able to laugh at myself and take my limitations in stride has buoyed my attitude better than anything else, which is how I've been able to come back to the ice day after day when I have been my own worst enemy and my own biggest obstacle. 

Despite skating being my most successful new year's resolution ever, I'm still not big on front-loading a new year with expectations. This year, I do want to do things like take better care of the body that is no longer just a vessel for my brain but has become my vehicle for participating in a sport that becomes more of a passion every time I lose myself in it and find a new thing to love about it. And I do want to put The Fear behind me as best I can, because I'm finding out that giving myself up to gravity and centripetal force and balance invites some pretty cool breakthroughs once I let myself trust the process. And that thinking too much just jams the brain-body feed to disappointing—or disastrous—results.

My goals for this year are to work on my focus, my patience, and my diligence, mostly as they pertain to skating but as I've found out they relate to life in general. Skating might be the most immediate testing ground for bettering myself, but it's not even close to the only place where I need to start paying more attention, administering a little more emotional restraint, and showing up ready to kick some ass. 

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