"If You're not Falling, You're not Learning."
How to use falls and failures to improve your skills, and avoid plateauing or regressing in the activities you love:
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I have an exciting announcement about an upcoming event at the end.
Doing it Properly
I’ve been snowboarding for 18 years now, and there are still a few skills I’m awful at. One of them is riding switch — or, with your non-dominant foot forward. It’s somewhat like riding backward for skiers. Switch doesn’t look nearly as impressive, but it opens the door to a lot of other fun little tricks.
During my last trip to the mountain, I forced myself to learn.
I rode the lift right to the top of one of my favorite cruiser runs. Plenty of space to practice. After buckling down my bindings and standing up, I let my right foot drift ahead.
The motions didn’t flow. But I knew enough about the sport to force myself through the boring fundamentals. I wobbled on my first few turns, thinking through each step.
Keep pressing down with your back toe
Start pressing down with your front heel
Transition your back foot from toe to heel
I cut big “s” shapes across the trail, occasionally turning my head uphill to ensure I still had the run to myself.
Each time the run got a little steeper, I fought the urge to let my left foot take command again. After a few laps, the urge diminished.
I didn’t have to think about each tiny movement; my brain figured out how to mirror the motions I’d already grown so comfortable with.
I made my turns a little tighter. I wasn’t just steering with my feet anymore, I was putting my whole body into satisfying, deep carves that kicked up clouds of powder.
Time to go faster.
I jumped right off a little cornice, exiting the intermediate trail I’d been practicing on. Instead, I tore down one of my favorite black diamond runs.
“Yahoo!” I hollered, shifting my weight over my back foot to transition into a low heel-side carve. I was flying.
I brought the board around, cutting a line across the trail on my toe side edge, throwing myself even deeper into the turn.
“Wait a minute,” said a voice deep in my brain. “We’re doing this backwards. I’ll fix it.”
With all the grace of a driver shifting into reverse while doing 60 on the highway: my body’s strange, reflexive decision sent me head over heels, slamming my butt onto a nasty patch of ice.
As I dusted myself off — fortunately with more severe bruising on my pride than my backside — I thought about what I’d done wrong.
My body hadn’t betrayed me randomly. Each time my reflexes tried to force me back into my normal riding stance, it was because I felt off-balance. Without meaning to, I’d picked up a valuable piece of information: exactly how far I could lean without keeling over.
I bobbed in the water with a towrope carefully positioned between my knees, draped over my wakeboard, and trailing back to the boat. The engine sputtered in the distance; the smell of exhaust mixing with salt spray.
I watched the slack leave the rope as the boat drifted away. It pulled tight, and pressure began to build against my wakeboard.
“Ready, Go!” I hollered to the driver.
The engine roared until it was all I could hear. A fraction of a second later, the rope yanked me into a crouched position, with my board perpendicular to the path of the boat. Water rushed into my face.
I whipped my left foot around to position myself parallel to the wake, popping up on top of the water.
This 30 second clip shows me demonstrating the move I go on to describe below:
I meandered across the wake a little to warm up, before beginning practice on the skill I was trying to learn: boarding switch. (Sound familiar?)
Swapping from one side to the other out on the water — without jumping — required leaning back over my heels, putting the board perpendicular to the boat’s path once again, and swinging my opposite foot around. I swapped back and forth several times, dropping into a deep sitting position to keep the front edge of the board out of the water.
Then I got lazy.
I didn’t lean as far back as I should’ve. The front of my board dipped just beneath the surface of the water. I let go of the rope as fast as I could, but physics had already sealed my fate.
Every muscle in my body tensed up in anticipation. The drag from my board catapulted me face first into the water, going about 20-25 miles per hour.
I rolled into a back float position while I waited for the boat to circle back and pick me up. I tasted blood and could already feel a fat lip forming. I splashed salt water into my mouth, spat, and tugged off my wakeboard.
Back on land, my mother — I was a teenager at the time — gave me the same speech my grandfather had given her when she was learning to water ski:
“If you’re not falling, you’re not learning anything.”
Falling Freaking Hurts
I think my body has some kind of cellular-level memory of that wakeboarding faceplant, because I feel it all over again if I think about it for too long.
The confidence-shaking psychological impact of a fall seems to hang around a lot longer than the physical one.
In an older essay, “Driving to the Danger,” I explore our fear of risk assessment and management; how that fear is robbing us of meaningful life experiences and fulfillment.
In a more recent piece called, “How to Fall Without Screaming,” I talk about how our fear of falling is based in an aversion to surrendering control.
When my grandfather said, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning anything,” he meant more than that. To him, a fall was a benchmark of risk-taking, experimentation, and determination to learn a new skill.
The older we get, the less likely we are to take risks in the name of that experimentation. For many people, this is what leads to skill plateau: you feel good and comfy where you are, why go further and risk a degree of discomfort?
Unfortunately, this line of thinking eventually degrades into skill regression. Eventually, you will have an off day. You will take a tumble. And if you view falling — or failing — as an unacceptable outcome, it will forever change your relationship to that activity.
It’s easy for your brain to wall off certain skills completely, in an attempt to stop future falls.
For this exact reason, I see a lot of talented snowboarders recovering from injuries saying, “I’ve got to get back on the mountain ASAP, so I don’t get a weird mental block.”
If you don’t believe me, or my grandfather, this is a phenomenon entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk has outlined:
“Failure must be an option. If failure is not an option, it’s going to result in extremely conservative choices. You may get something even worse than lack of innovation; things may actually go backwards.”
Falling is a powerful — if a little painful — learning experience, because knowing the wrong way to do something can be an important lesson too.
Thinking about this negative outcome the way my grandfather did, is a great way to ensure even your worst days can have a helpful take-away.
THIS WEEKEND — Live, Exclusive Coverage
I’m thrilled to announce I have been credentialed to cover this weekend’s Ski Joring event in Leadville, CO. If you’re not familiar: the sport involves being towed on skis, behind a horse, while launching off jumps and collecting rings.
Frankly, it looks absolutely bonkers, and a damn good time.
I’ll be speaking with some organizers and competitors and have a full story to bring you in the near future. But I also want to bring you onto the course with me for event updates!
Sometime Saturday morning, I will open a live blog of the event on this site’s home page. You’ll be able to check back in throughout the day for updates.
You can also keep up with things through a new feature now available on Cole’s Climb:
Base Camp Alerts is an SMS news service bringing you breaking news, updates, and stories impacting outdoor recreation. If you click the button, you’ll get a contact card to add to your phone, and I’ll keep you in the loop.
Big thanks to my Summit Squad Members who have been helping me test out this service. Last week we had a lot of Avalanche Alerts, and I was able to reach followers directly about the changing weather conditions.
If that sounds useful to you, smack that “Activate Alerts” button to try it out.
Thanks for reading; looking forward to bringing you the next big story!
Lol! Some of us actually learn better from repeated falls. Not falling is always the better option but lumps and bumps can be educational.
Great piece, and I definitely agree if you're not falling you're not learning. Love the little illustrations in your posts!