The Art of Skating Around Competition

Physical and artistic endeavors always remind us of the essential features that make us human and the boundaries of humanity we try to test. As with all things human, skateboarding and other physical challenges also involve the mind and consequently interest me as a psychologist. Skateboarding in particular requires incredible levels of frustration tolerance, concentration, and perseverance to obtain the joy of finally landing a trick after hours, days, weeks, or years of failed attempts. These skills of concentration and an attitude towards reaching specific goals are similar to those used in sports. Ongoing discussions about skateboarding potentially being an Olympic sport bring up a question that has been asked a lot since skateboarding has been around(mostly by people outside of the skateboarding community): is skateboarding a sport or art?

Skateboarders and athletes use similar mental skills and are also similar in the way they use their craft as a learning tool and metaphor for their lives. They absorb life lessons, open their perspective to the world, and allow their craft to inform how they approach everyday obstacles. However, as soon as we step outside of the sphere of the individual, skating no longer compares to sport. What separates skating is the role of competition.

Two skater-owned skateboard companies helped me, an outsider, understand the role competition in a physical endeavor that wasn’t designed as a game with a winner and a loser. Skating culture values individuality and “skating for yourself” as Outbreak Skateboards owner, Matt Aloma shares. For the Outbreak team, Matt explained how important it is for him to have a diverse representation. Character Skateboards owner, Alan Butella agrees and said that it is important to have a well-rounded team of “Characters” with their own unique style. Character embodies a merge of punk/metal and agro edge with a smooth style and clean lines. The diversity in the company image strengthens the brand. Both company owners emphasized how important it is to maintain freedom for their riders as a mirror for the freedom in the art form of skating.

Competitions involve judging skaters and produce “winners” and “losers.” While large and international skating competitions like X-Games and Streetleague draw lots of crowds, fans, and revenue, they are only one part of skating culture, not the full picture. Competitions are a perfect way to understand the dilemma of a physical endeavor that audiences enjoy like a sport, but a culture that operates under the guidelines of artists. Matt and Alan both talked about the difficulties of maintaining a viable skateboard business, while also upholding what skating is really about: fun, self-expression, and growth. Alan explained that participating in competition is good for the company, so he encourages it in his skaters when they express a desire to compete. As opposed to sports, wanting to compete is not a requirement for being a dedicated skater, so Alan makes it clear that he would never ask a skater to enter a competition unless they wanted to. Most businesses operate with a strong competitive drive, but not Outbreak or Character. They want success, but not at the expense of maintaining the art and the fun of skating, a balancing act that Matt compares to “purgatory.” However, Matt and Alan both made it clear that they are not willing to compromise on their approach to competition. The perseverance that is necessary to land your next trick, is the same perseverance companies like Character and Outbreak take with them as they fight to uphold the integrity of skating. Even as a non-skater, I can’t help but support them in that mission.

Skateboarding and art have always been intimately intertwined, likely because both resist rules, and are a pure form of self-expression. Skateboarding and videography, photography, music, and graphic design, have always been integrated in to skateboard companies, no matter the size. Matt shared a new creative approach that Outbreak is working on as they are in the process of developing a graphic novel to tell the story of the Outbreak team. Art is infused into the mission of Outbreak as their goal is to introduce “a new strain of art into skateboarding.” The creative task involved in viewing the environment as an opportunity for expression through skating is essential to the skateboarding process. Creativity is involved in sports as well, but in skateboarding (and perhaps dance)there are “no rules,” unless you are in a competition. Matt illustrates this when he says, “If you’re at home painting or drawing by yourself and somebody comes out of nowhere into your house and tells you you’re doing it wrong. There’s no wrong in skateboarding. There’s no wrong in art.” While competitions have their place, they cannot accommodate artistic expression.

In essence, the individual psychology of skateboarding is very similar to athletes, but the psychology of skateboarding culture is purely artistic and needs to be respected as that. This might be difficult for outsiders of the community to understand. While competitions are an opportunity to celebrate skateboarding, make some money, and for the public to enjoy it, it is important that the message is out there that skateboarding has another side: an artistic, private side. At its core, skateboarding is less about performance and competition than it is about community, self-improvement, expression, and love.

Outbreak Skateboards was founded in 2008 in Northwest Connecticut (www.outbreakboards.com).

Character Skateboards was founded in 2002 in Chicago, Illinois (www.characterskateboards.com).

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