Why learn to balance on skates?

Balance on skates may seem obvious, but many people spend far too little time working on this essential and basic skill.  It’s the key skill to nearly everything you do on skates.

Think of speed – exceptional balance is the key to being able to set down effectively, to control your push and to limit energy wasting re-balancing.  The key to skating fast is to only ever skate with one foot on the ground at a time, which isn’t limited to skating forwards, but also to the double push and crossovers.  What about freestyle – so many moves rely on balance.  This includes many where you have both skates touching the ground – these rely on precise and crisp weight transfer for best style.

In summary, excellent balance is one skill that every good skater in every skating discipline will have developed to an exceptional degree.

There seems to be lots of misunderstanding or misinformation about balance.  I get a lot of students, particularly new students, who tell me they have terrible balance on skates.  This is almost never true once I see them on skates.  On the other hand, I see plenty of experienced skaters who can only do a T-stop on one side, which shows a huge hole in their ability.

Set yourself goals to work on, such as:

Off skates:

  • Take up yoga.  It’s an exceptional way to improve one foot balance.  This approach is highlighted by Eddy Matzger who makes yoga a part of his skating workshops.
  • Brush your teeth whilst standing on one leg, barefoot and obviously no skates!  I tend to balance on my left leg in the morning for the whole two minutes of brushing, and then my right leg in the evening. My goal is not to have to hold on or put my other foot down for balance. I also vary the amount of knee bend at which I balance, some days standing at a recreational knee bend, and some at a speed skater bend, and some in-between.  Doing this every day and every time you brush your teeth will soon make a big difference to your ability to balance.
  • Wobble boards.  These are usually in the form of a wooden disc, with a hemisphere on the lower surface.  There are numerous models available, and all sorts of different exercises to go with it.  Two foot balancing is relatively easy, it starts to get hard with one foot, and/or with your eyes closed.
  • Roll a short piece of broomstick or a hard ball underneath your foot with plenty of pressure for 5 minutes before a competition, for example.  Make sure you cover the entire sole of each foot with the pressure from the object you’re using.  Sensitizing your feet like this will do much to improve your balance.  (Credit this idea to Martin Jefferies of Suppleworx)

I’m a fan of doing these off skate exercises in bare feet to maximise the feedback you’re getting from your feet.  Your sense of proprioception is extremely important to skating, and the more effort you put into being able to feel your ankle, muscles in your feet, and how that all relates as you move and match that feeling to your balance, the better you’ll get.

On skates:

  • Scooters.  This is a combo drill that works both one-foot skating balance, and pushing properly to the side.

    Practicing a toe roll for better balance on skates

    Practicing a toe roll for better balance on skates

  • Toe rolls.  The next step up – a slightly more difficult drill that tests your one foot balance with the other skate rolling behind you on a toe wheel to assist with balance.  I do both straight line toe rolls, and ones in a turn on either edge.
  • T-stopping.  Take the time to learn to t-stop equally well on either side.  I don’t really rate the t-stop as much of a stop, but it’s an excellent way to learn to balance properly because the destabilising action of the dragging foot is much harder to control than just a simple toe-roll.
  • Poop trench drill.  One of Sebastian Baumgartner’s favourites, this involves two parallel lines.  You balance on the left line on your left skate, then hop across and balance on the right one on your right skate.
  • Over-carving drill.  Simply skating whilst carving much more than usual to the extent that each stride causes a turn on one foot, this is an excellent drill to work your balance, keep your weight back in your heels, and to perfect your heel carve control.

These drills mostly concentrate on left-right balance through skate steering, and there’s also fore-aft balance to focus on, which can be worked by the following:

  • Grass stops
  • Learn to skate backwards, again to either side
  • Awoogas.  If you’ve been on an Eddy Matzger workshop, you’ll know what these are.
  • Two foot slalom
  • One foot slalom

Lastly, don’t forget that you will almost certainly have a strong side and a weak side.  Try to practice twice as much on the weaker side to bring this up to the ability on your good side.  Working on your weaknesses is what will improve your skating most of all.

Anyone who’s taken a lesson with me will recognise many of the above drills.  Don’t worry if you’re not sure what I’m referring to, as your local coach or instructor will have plenty of balance related drills in his/her teaching toolkit.  I would also suggest only trying these drills if you’re already familiar with them, or if with professional instruction.  Make sure that whatever you do, stay within your own limits and aim for a slow and steady progression.

Is it easier to balance on roller skates?

Surprisingly to many, the answer for beginners is no. This is because left-right balance on inline skates is not so difficult when you can put both skates on the ground to save yourself.

The main problem when first learning to skate is falling forwards or backwards. That’s much easier to do on roller skates, aka old school quad skates, and it’s the reason new quad skaters tend to fall more often than inline skaters (aka rollerbladers).

Of course intermediate level left right balance is easier on quad skates. By this I mean when you progress to doing one foot balance exercises.

Conclusion

The main point is that each time you pull your skates on, spend 10 minutes working on some balance drills, and mix it up regularly so that you cycle through the different drills, as well as concentrating more on your weaker side.  Each time you do a drill, aim for perfection, and don’t allow your body to get away with even a single sloppy execution.  Only perfect practice makes for perfect muscle memory.

Over time you’ll likely see tremendous improvements in all of your skating through working on your balance in this manner.  You’ll be a faster and more capable skater who can take rough surfaces with the smooth, and throughout it all look graceful and effortless.