Inside job: Pro skateboarder

Trying to become a professional skateboarder in Shanghai

Time Out tries every job in Shanghai. This month; kicking, pushing and coasting ahead of the KIA World Extreme Games.

‘Don’t scare yourself’ – this seems to be the core philosophy of professional skateboarder Xiaobin. Each time he teaches me a new trick and I invariably tense up while determining which bone I should try and land on when my attempt fails, he places his hands on my shoulders and calmly whispers, ‘Don’t scare yourself.’ Easier said than done.

He insists skateboarding is more about the body and less about the feet. ‘Control the body, not the board.’ The body can’t control the board if your shoulders and neck and back are tense; hence the importance of relaxing and not scaring oneself. To summarise, if you’re scared of getting hurt, your body will tense up and you’ll increase your chances of getting hurt.

He admonishes me to relax, relax, relax. ‘Skaters are typically more relaxed than lawyers and doctors.’ That sounds true but I’m not sure I want a doctor to absorb the relaxation levels of a skateboarder. You don’t want to be falling asleep under anesthesia and the last words you hear are the doctor whispering: ‘Don’t scare yourself. Don’t scare yourself. Don’t scare yourself.’

I scare myself most with a trick called the ollie, which Xiaobin describes as the most basic trick and a fundamental building block of other tricks such as the heelflip and kickflip. The trick is executed by crouching and jumping upwards.

At the beginning of the jump, the rider pops the tail of the board by striking it against the ground, which raises the nose. The ollie allows the rider to leap on or off or over obstacles without using their hands. After leaping and hopping and popping and tapping and slipping and sliding through an hour’s worth of unsuccessful attempts of the most basic trick, I ask if there’s an even more basic trick that’s easier than the most basic trick? ‘Don’t scare yourself,’ he replies. I should’ve seen that coming.

Xiaobin spent much of his twenties as a competitive skateboarder. Now in his thirties he no longer competes (‘Cos I’m an old guy,’ he grins), instead spending his days teaching lessons at Yuanshen Skatepark in Pudong, selling skate equipment and judging 10-15 competitions a year.

Although I’m a skateboard novice, I tell Xiaobin I also have experience as a skateboarding competition judge. One afternoon I sat on the steps in front of our home as my son and his friends performed skateboarding tricks and asked me to judge a competition of who could do the highest ollie. After proclaiming a winner, I grew jealous of his congratulatory high fives and challenged them all to a competition of the highest jump over the skateboard. I won. Easily. But no high fives were forthcoming.

Perhaps ollie mastery is unrealistic in just one hour, but perhaps my confidence levels had grown irrational after mastering other essential techniques in a matter of seconds, such as stepping on and off the board. Back foot goes on first and comes off second. I get it on the first try.

I enjoy more success using the skateboard for transportation than as a tool for trickery. The few times I’ve used a skateboard I always struggled to turn, never managing to pull it off successfully without scaring myself. Xiaobin watches me attempt a turn and reminds me to control the body, not the board. Controlling the body begins at the top: Turn the head and look directly where you want to go, then the shoulders, core, thighs, and the board follows. I adhere to his instructions and manage a fluid turn on the first try. Importantly, I do it without scaring myself.

He teaches me to ride up ramps at an angle, wait until the skateboard reaches its apex of momentum, and then use gravity to execute a fluid turn, reminding me to start at the top of the body. I manage a turn on the ramps after a few tries and only scare myself a little. I’m beginning to buy into the philosophy, enjoying myself more and more as I navigate ramps with increasing speed and confidence.

China may have over 50,000 skateboarders, but the sport has been slow to spread, especially in comparison to other Western-import sports like basketball. Here, the sport lacks a pre-existing street culture, an essential ingredient to its rapid rise in the United States. Xiaobin tells me some kids ask his company for sponsorship and hope skateboarding will lead to fame and riches, a statistically lofty ambition based on a random sample of the number of skateboarders who belong to my parents’ country club. He says other kids gravitate to the fashion and style and skateboarder crowd while the actual skateboarding is secondary.

He preaches a philosophy of skateboarding as a way of life rather than a sport or a fashion statement. His philosophical approach seems more credible when one encounters his calm, beatific demeanor, powerful grace on a skateboard, and propensity to speak English in a Mr Miyagi-esque minimalist staccato: ‘Early. Fast. Early. Fast. More power.’ I don’t know what that means but it sounds wise.

If your child wants to get into skateboarding with dreams of fame and riches, I’m not sure about the riches but fame is perhaps a possibility. The ollie is named for skateboard pioneer Alan ‘Ollie’ Gelfand. Gelfand is lucky he had a good nickname to help brand his trick because ‘doing a Gelfand’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Being born with a catchy last name is usually an essential ingredient in skateboard trick branding: Just ask Gelfand’s comtemporaries Jimmy Kickflip and Brian 360.

To see the pros in action, head to the KIA World Extreme Games on Tue 28-Wed 29 at the Pearl Tower and May 1-3 at Jiangwan Stadium. To arrange a class called Xiaobin, call 137 0169 6399