Wiping out is part of learning. (Photo: RaptTV/Getty Images)

An Ode to Wiping Out

Endos, yard sales, slams, whippers, and face-plants are all an important part of learning. It’s time we embraced the wipeout.

RaptTV/Getty Images

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Before I ever surfed, I wiped out.

A lot.

Any shame I might have felt was tempered by the fact that surfing is what you might call a “failure intensive” pursuit. We were not born to stand astride thin wedges of composite material on a turbulently stochastic ocean. If you get it the first time, you’ve just cashed in a big tranche of your beginner’s luck. There’s a whole taxonomy of wipeouts. You can nosedive, or “pearl.” You can go “over the falls” or get “axed.”  You can get swept off your board by an unpredictable wave. You can sideswipe another surfer. You can even wipe out on land, as I learned during one humiliating occasion, by getting tangled up in your own leash.

As a species, we don’t really like wipeouts. Every sport has them, often graced with their own particular slang: endos, yard sales, slams, whippers, face plants. You pack, you biff, you crater, you peel. They seem to happen, more often than not, in the presence of other people, and in this day and age, your epic fail is two clicks away from someone’s viral content. They can be painful, career ending.

But I want to suggest that we think of wipeouts not as an aberration, but an inevitable part of the whole human project. Think of walking. As the singer Laurie Anderson posited in “Walking and Falling,” when we perambulate, we’re actually engaging in a series of near mishaps. “With each step, you fall forward slightly,” she intones. “And then catch yourself from falling.” Science tends to support this. Each step we take is riddled with balance-threatening “perturbations” to the upper body, which we subconsciously correct on the next step. If we so consistently cleave to the knife edge of error during a seemingly mundane activity like walking, what do you think is going to happen on a snowboard?

Wipeouts are something to be feared, perhaps, but also respected, and even celebrated. One thing that dawned on me early in my attempts at surfing was that wipeouts could be fun. Granted, I was surfing in “fun-size” waves at Rockaway Beach in Queens; going over the falls at Nazaré, in Portugal, is a vastly different proposition than my beginner-friendly beach break.

But it wasn’t just the physical sensation of getting tossed in the washing machine for a thrill ride of a few dozen feet that appealed to me. It was the way I was so firmly being taken out of my comfort zone, so stripped of my normal bearings. It was only at that moment that I understood the sheer folly of surfing, of trying to harness the ocean for personal acceleration and pleasure. It’s in those wipeouts, not during successful wave catching, that you ask yourself that most meaningful question: What am I doing here?

I don’t go looking for wipeouts, of course. In the film The Rescue, one of the British cave divers comments that while cave diving is a risky occupation, he doesn’t pursue it in a risky fashion. It’s an important distinction, and as someone interested in keeping my middle-age body alive for the next adventure, it’s a mantra I generally adhere to. But I would suggest we also don’t go not looking for wipeouts. Much of modern life, in the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries anyway, is about removing discomfort, ensuring predictability, hitting the easy button. As Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, harangued to the tourists who rolled up to Arches National Park in their air-conditioned cars: “Take off your shoes for awhile, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not?”

Every so often, no matter your level of risk, something will go awry. You go out for a simple lunchtime hike, not particularly well-equipped, and you find yourself lost. There’s that little primordial tickle at the base of your brain. You don’t panic, but suddenly the hike has taken on a heightened quality. You are newly awake, and chances are you’ll remember that hike more than you remember any number of uneventful, GPS-cocooned rambles, owing to the brain’s tendency to more strongly encode negative events to memory than positive ones. (A truism memorably captured by the title of one well-known study: “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.”)

The most probable reason these negative moments are so sharply remembered is so you won’t let them happen again. It’s called learning. And here is the real reason to expect wipeouts, if not exactly welcome them. “If you’re not making any errors, then you’re not engaging in any learning,” says Nicole Hodges, a professor at the School of Kinesiology at the University of Vancouver. “If you’re in a situation where it’s comfortable, or there’s no new information, there’s not going to be any learning taking place.”

What’s happening when we wipe out, Rogers suggests, is that our brains have made a prediction about how a particular movement is going to happen, what’s often called “feedforward control.” When something violates those predictions, our brains receive a strong signal—feedback—a sort of wake-up call that something was wrong with the prediction. This means we either need to get new information—to make a better prediction—or change something that we’re doing. As a beginner, this can be difficult because, Rogers notes, it’s difficult to make correct predictions when we know so little about what we’re trying to predict. Wipeouts are, in essence, failed hypotheses that allow you to gradually hone your predictions.

A sport like skateboarding is rife with failed hypotheses. Skateboarders face not merely the challenge of predicting what their bodies will do in motion, but also what their board will do—how it will travel through the air, rotate on a 3D axis, or connect with some piece of infrastructure. In a memorable video, the skateboarder Christian Flores documented his two-year quest to learn—or “land”—a difficult trick: a “laser flip down a triple set” (of stairs). He crashed several thousand times, went to the hospital on several occasions, broke boards. Until, finally, he nailed it. Wipeouts, or “slams” in skateboard parlance, are endemic at all levels. Mimi Knoop, a former professional skateboarder and coach of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, notes that when she was in Tokyo, non-skateboarding media and other observers watching the skate events would ask a simple question: Why are they falling so much? “I mean, it’s like the 20 best skateboarders in the world and it’s just part of what we do.”

When I ask retired pro Tony Hawk for a rough failure-to-success ratio in his skating, his answer was quick. “I’d say half of what I do is error.” He says he has “learned to embrace it, to adjust and grow from it,” not to “rage quit.” “If you let it consume you,” Hawk says, “you’ll get endlessly frustrated.” The complexity of skateboarding means the feedback cycle is often long, punishing, and sometimes deeply mystifying. Hawk will make endless minor adjustments after wiping out, but often, he notes, “It’s hard to quantify the adjustments you made—it happens and it’s like, why did that one work?” There are tricks so difficult that they succeed only once in many tries. “That is probably the most frustrating thing, because what is the lesson learned there?”

Sometimes an error isn’t simply an error but a pathway to another solution. Not long ago, Hawk posted on Instagram a new trick he had learned—at age 53—called the “Catherine,” after his wife. He labeled it “an alley-oop frontside 360 to 5-0 to fakie or switch alley-oop (kinda) nosegrind.” The trick came to life from the failure to do a different trick. “It was not what I intended to do,” Hawk says, “but I couldn’t stop my body spinning.” He adapted to the fact on the fly, did something a bit unusual—something you might not set out to do—and added the move to his quiver. Innovation is often just a way of recovering from error.

This is why, in the world of motor-skills research, errors, which were once actually frowned upon as a kind of hindrance to learning, are now embraced. Don’t just perfect one movement in one place, do many movements in many places. The more types of errors you make, the better you’ll be able to avoid them, or at least deal with them. It’s called “variable practice,” Hodges says, the theory being “you’re better able to generalize.”

Wipeouts are essential to learning, but to get the most out of this requires taking an almost paradoxical step: learning how to correctly fail. Skateboarders, Knoop notes, “always have an exit plan in their mind” when it becomes apparent a trick is not going to work. It’s called “bailing.” But that’s just part of learning to fail. When something goes awry while skating ramps, Hawk, like others, relies on the “knee slide” to more safely take the fall. But the knee slide doesn’t come naturally, you have to get yourself into the right position, which involves an almost counterintuitive move.

“I’ve made the mistake in the past that if my takeoff or spin is wrong, I try to stop spinning,” Hawk says. This, however, puts his body into a “danger zone,” where “I’m not only too far out from the ramp, I’m facing upward.”

Hawk had to gradually train himself, after some crashes with pretty “devastating consequences,” to continue with his body spin, no matter what else was going on, no matter how far his board had been chucked from beneath him. This would land him in the proper position for a typically graceful knee slide. Here’s a lesson for us: It’s not that pros don’t wipe out, it’s just that they gain an increased mastery of how to fall. But you can’t learn to properly wipe out without wiping out.

Lead Photo: RaptTV/Getty Images

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