Skateboarding is a lot harder than it looks: in the past two months, I've acquired four new scars to prove it. Experienced skaters make gliding up a concrete ramp, inexplicably flipping the board in various directions at the top and then landing back onto it unscathed look frustratingly natural. But the truth is, we humans were not designed to stand atop a moving piece of wood with four wheels attached. For the most part, learning to skateboard does not come naturally; it comes with a lot of practice and, crucially, perseverance.
Long cautionary lectures about how skateboarding is difficult (surprise!) aren't really in the spirit of the sport, though, are they? To succeed at skateboarding you kind of just need to get up and try it. Still, knowing where to start as a complete beginner is a minefield. Even deciding what kind of board to get can be confusing.
But anyone can do it, insists Oliver from London-based skateboarding school Skates And Ladders. "You will surprise yourself. You should believe that you’re going to outdo yourself, outdo your own expectations," he tells me, "because it happens with everyone I’ve ever seen." He's not wrong. When I first started skating two months ago as a gym-phobic klutz whose previous experiences of the sport were limited to playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, I set myself a challenge to ensure that I would actually stick at it. Within three months, I decided, I needed to be able to go to the skatepark and "drop in", the move that requires you to stand at the top of a halfpipe with your foot on the tail of the board and then thrust your bodyweight forward so that you, well, drop into the ramp... without falling over. Guess what? I outdid my expectations and I can already do it. Significantly more impressive, Oliver also tells me of a 75-year-old woman he once taught who "was really, really scared of doing it and ended up being amazing". If she can do it, what's stopping you?
Choosing your board
Before you get started, it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different components of a skateboard. First, you have the deck, the wooden board that you're going to be standing on. Attached to that, you'll find grip tape on the top, an adhesive sandpaper that stops your feet from sliding off the board, and a pair of trucks on the bottom, which attach the wheels and the bearings while helping you steer. The front of the deck is called the nose and is usually a little larger than the back, which is called the tail.
Krooked 8 Shmoo skateboard. £89.99 At slamcity.com
You can buy all of these parts separately to assemble your board, which will allow you to customise it to your personal tastes, but Oliver recommends that beginners start by buying a "complete": a ready-made entry-level board specifically designed for those just starting out. "It’s a lot less expensive and you get everything included and set up for you," he explains.
Rocket 7.5 invert series complete skateboard. £44.99 At slamcity.com
While shopping for boards, you'll probably also notice that decks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Unlike other board-based sports such as snowboarding, what size you choose has nothing to do with your weight or height and is mainly down to personal preference. Anything between 7.5 and 8 inches should suit the needs of beginners. "People seem to think it makes a huge difference, but you’re actually only talking about half an inch in width. You start looking at bigger sizes when you skate bowl and do transitional skating, because you just have more space on the board."
Santa Cruz complete skateboard. £149.99 At slamcity.com
Getting comfortable with the board
The first thing you need to establish when you get your board is whether you should be riding it regular or goofy, which translates to standing with your left foot at the front of the board or your right. To determine this, stand on the ground with your feet slightly apart and ask someone (who likes you, preferably) to give you a gentle push from behind. Whichever foot you put forward to steady yourself is your dominant foot and should be placed at the back of the board and used for pushing.
Once you've figured that out, you need to practise standing on your board while stationary – it helps to do this on carpet or a patch of grass to make sure you don't unexpectedly roll off into the distance. Your feet should be parallel to the board's width, placed directly above the trucks, and your knees should be slightly bent. Rock forwards and backwards a bit to help find your balance and get used to the way the board reacts to your movements.
From here, it's helpful to practise switching from this position to where your feet should be placed while you push. Turn your front foot to face the front of the board and simply take your back foot off and place it on the ground facing forward. Do this in reverse to get back on the board and repeat the movement a few times to get comfortable. It may seem tedious, but focusing on getting techniques like this nailed down when you first start will make it easier to learn more advance skills in the future. When you feel ready, move to a solid surface and, when your back foot is on the ground, give yourself a small push and place your feet back on the board.
Key skills to practise
You can't really go anywhere on your board if you can't push. It's fairly self-explanatory: simply push off the ground with your back foot and then step back onto the board. The more pushes you do, the faster you'll go; make your pushes bigger and you'll go faster. Try to bend your knees and push with your full foot rather than just the ball for maximum momentum. It's helpful to find a flat surface and practise pushing without getting on the board for as long as you can, as this will help you get used to controlling the board without your full body weight. If the board begins to swerve off in the wrong direction, bend your knee inwards or outwards, depending on which way you want to travel, and this should put you back on the right track.
The easiest way to turn your board, you carve by leaning in the direction that you want to go. To turn inwards (frontside), push forward with your toes and your upper body; to turn outwards (backside), lean back on your heels and tilt backwards slightly. If you're struggling, stick your front arm out and point in the direction that you want to go, as this will automatically put your weight in the right position.
A step up from carving, kickturns will allow you to change the direction of the board much faster. It is a key skill to learn if you want to be able to avoid unexpected obstacles and advance to the skate park quickly. To practise the basic motion of this, find yourself another patch of grass, place your back foot on the tail of the board and shift your weight onto it so that the nose pops upwards. Next, lean forwards onto your front foot so that the board slams back down on the ground. Once you've got the hang of this, try turning the board while its popped up and your weight is on your back foot, by once again shifting your weight either forwards or backwards, depending on which way you want to go. Pointing in the direction you want to go also helps when learning this skill and, if you're struggling to get the hang of moving backwards, try looking under your arm to get the right placement.
After you've mastered kickturns, have a go at tic-tacs, which are just several kick turns going back and forth. Once you're able to do them quickly, tic-tacs will help you move forward without pushing and are a great way to build speed.
Getting over the fear of falling
If you're going to start skateboarding, you're going to have to come to terms with the fact you probably will end up falling over. A lot. Your first big fall might shake you up a little bit, but it's important to not let it put you off trying again. Get back on the board again as soon it feels comfortable: the longer you wait, the more you'll psyche yourself out.
"It’s about understanding why you fell over, which is hard to do if you’re doing it by yourself," says Oliver when quizzed about how to pick yourself back up again. "You need to figure out what you did that made you fall over, correct yourself and try to do it again. A lot of skateboarding is falling over and getting back up again, so if you really focus on what it was that caused you to fall over and correcting that, that's a huge thing for progression.
"Just take it slow, because you don’t want to hurt yourself and then create a mental block for yourself when you’re trying to do things in the future," he continues. "That’s what happened to me. I tried to drop into a ramp when I was really young and I dislocated my knee. Even this to this day, I do not want to go near a ramp. I can skate ramps now, but it’s still there, all because I was a bit silly before."
Mistakes to avoid
Starting off with good technique will set you up to progress quicker in the future, so it's important to take the time to master the basics before launching into learning ollies and kickflips. The main mistakes Oliver sees his students make are to do with foot placement and posture. "A lot of beginners who come to us have their own board and they’ve done a few things already, but they've been practising with their feet in the wrong places and standing in really awkward ways that affect their balance," he explains. "These are things that once they’re corrected will really impact the rate of progression. People just tend to excel after that."