Mentorship and Action Sports

by Eric Torres

There was a time, not that long ago, when skateboarding was reported to have been more popular than baseball among kids in the US.  While those of us watching action sports industries know that the fervor of the early to mid 2000s (call it the Tony Hawk era) has passed, action sports are still a force, and one that people who think about athletics and its potential as a medium for good tend to overlook.   

There’s reason for that overlooking.  Action sports – rollerblading, skateboarding, bmx, scootering (scooting?), and the like – tend to be counter-cultural: while there are teams and sponsors and contest circuits with varying levels of organization, rule-making, branding, etc, the heart of these sports exists outside of leagues, schools, and the social structures that support team sports like football and soccer.  The action sports have long been closely identified with rebellion, exploration, and loose networks of peers (stereotypically, teenagers) making their own rules, spending aimless time, and pushing themselves and each other to perform the feats that are the coin of the realm.  It would be wrong to suggest that the action sports are wholly individualistic- I’ve found skate culture to be incredibly sensitive to trends and norms- but outsider-adult-mediated events and organizations have never held any substantial sway over how the sports are practiced. As such, the tacit belief among coaches, parents, and commentators is that action sports are devoid of the opportunities that exist in team sports for structured character development.  This is wrong.

It would be wrong to suggest that the action sports are wholly individualistic

I grew up rollerblading.  I dabbled in skateboarding early on, too, but decided at some point that the kind of movement and aesthetics of rollerblading (“aggressive skating” “extreme skating” “rolling”, all of which sound kind of dumb to me) was more appealing and so chose to spend my time there.  My parents supported my decision (drove me to skateparks before I could drive, bought me skates, consented to the time I spent off with friends) but I was essentially without adult supervision or coaching when my friends and I went out to skate, which was often.

But though I didn’t have any supervisors, per se, skating was also a multi-generational affair. Even when its status as a fad meant that skateparks were mostly full of teenagers, there were always older crews and individuals we’d skate with, many of whom I looked up to.  

The dynamics of who skates with whom are either complicated or intuitive, depending on your perspective, and either way not something I’ll take up here, but crews and skate sessions with people of different ages (as well as races, backgrounds, etc) continue to be common.  This is a rare opportunity for the many American teenagers who don’t often spend time with people in their 20s and 30s in a semi-structured way, as peers.  Though many of my closest friends were my own age (and were also integral to my development) there were also a number of skaters 5-10 years older than I was who were regular parts of our lives.  Intentionally or not, older skaters helped to set norms and plant ideas.  We debated (often obliquely, through jokes and indirect talk) the ethics of skating at certain spots, how to react to people who were aggressive with us, judged us, or called the cops. We talked about sex and romantic relationships. The most talented people tended to hold the most influence (which, of course, can be a problem if those people don’t happen to be super ethical or thoughtful), but older members of the skate scene- regardless of how talented- were a window into what adulthood and its concerns might look like.  As a teenager trying on new identities and probing notions of independence, getting to hang out with older people who aren’t there to supervise you is inherently fascinating, and anyone who manages to model an appealing version of young adulthood stands to do a lot of imprinting.

the relationships and ideas being transmitted through skate communities have potential

This post isn’t a how-to guide for helping your children find opportunities for positive development in the action sports, but if you are a parent, teacher, or some other kind of mentor figure for a child or young adult in the action sports, I encourage you to register that the relationships and ideas being transmitted through skate communities have potential. Getting granular detail about these relationships as an outsider might be difficult; the whole premise of participation for many people is that this is a space for rebellion and independence, apart from parents and schools (which can be healthy and good), but two guidelines nevertheless emerge from this understanding:

1. For anyone in a parenting/coaching/mentorship relationship with kids involved in action sports, it’s important to recognize that development via social transmission and modeling is common.  Engaging kids about their relationships without impinging on the authentic impulses for autonomy that bring them to these networks in the first place may help you understand the kind of experiences they’re having and help you calibrate your own and other relationships accordingly. 

2. For people with standing in the action sports community, recognizing our status as potential models and mentors is important.  This needn’t be hokey or involve asserting our moral authority and shouldn’t subvert the authenticity of our relationships or participation in the sports, (whatever we do should stand in proportion to the amount of influence and natural proximity we actually have to other members of the scene) but firmly and confidently modeling virtues of conscientiousness, dealing positively with pain and the other harmful emotions that can result from or lead to joining these kinds of outsider communities, and discouraging mistreatment of bystanders, security guards, etc.

Showing what it’s like to be decent people can go a long way in keeping our communities healthy and supporting the positive development of the next generation.