In skateboarding, as in life, no kid wants to be seen as uncool — even if being “cool” means a broken arm and 3 hours in the emergency room. And in a sport where wearing safety gear is shunned, few pieces of equipment are considered as uncool as the helmet.
Which is why when renowned skateboard legend and all-around badass Mike Vallely showed up at a pro street competition last year wearing one, people thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Valley, who has broken 17 bones over 30 years of professional skateboarding, has built a reputation on being a fearless and aggressive rider who never shied away from a trick, let alone a fight, if it came at him. And he was the last person in the skateboard world anybody would have expected to see wearing a helmet.
“In the end I had 3 good reasons: My wife and my 2 daughters,” says Vallely, “I wanted to be around [for them]. When I step on my skateboard today, I wear a helmet.” And while he calls his decision a “personal” one (and doesn’t want to be seen as hoping on — and probably grinding off — a soapbox), that hasn’t stopped him from joining forces with safety gear company Triple Eight to launch the Get Used to It campaign, aimed at raising awareness for helmet use and head safety. In the end, he hopes helmets are treated like seat belts (“It should be intuitive. Just click it and go.”) and has strong feelings about getting kids to wear one, as well as why not having brain damage is better than being cool.
“In the end I had 3 good reasons: My wife and my 2 daughters”
Start By Being A Roll Model
As you’re no doubt are aware from countless “Say No To Drugs” PSAs in late ‘80s, kids are sponges – they learn a lot from watching their parents. And if you don’t wear a helmet, they’re going to notice. Admittedly, Vallely was a “Do as I say, not as I do” dad who required his two daughters (now 23 and 15) to wear helmets when biking (they weren’t skateboarders), even as he was casually letting the wind blow through his hair.
He’s since changed his thinking. “I have a lot of dads thank me for wearing a helmet so they can use me as an example, but they may not wear one themselves,” says Vallely. “That’s a confusing message. Dad’s got to put his helmet on. Dad’s got to lead by example.” Adding: “If you love your kids, you should love yourself enough to put the helmet on as well.”
Get Them While They’re Young
Convincing teen skaters – especially serious ones – today about the virtues of wearing a helmet is pretty much a lost cause, says Vallely. “They’re just entrenched against it.” That’s why it’s critical to slap a lid on your youngest before he or she even knows what cool means. Inevitably, they’re going to face pressure to ditch the helmet, be it from friends (or corporate sponsors). You want the idea of not getting brain damage to be so deeply ingrained in their undamaged brain that they don’t give it a second thought. “Families need to be steadfast in their commitment to protecting their heads,” says Vallely. “Kids need to be encouraged to keep the helmets on [as they get older].”
Vallely also has your counterargument ready. “Wearing a helmet is uncomfortable; it’s distracting,” he says, imitating some of the common excuses he regularly hears. “And that may be true for 5 to 10 minutes. But then you get used to it. It’s a simple acclimation process. I skate now, and I have my helmet on, and I don’t even think twice about it. It’s just there.”
“You’re gonna be on the wrong side of history if you come at me.”
Your Ideas Of Safe Are Outdated
The image of skateboarding that your Thrasher magazines present has helped foster the dangerous “no helmet” culture. “Generations of skaters that have come up reading Thrasher, which presents this idea of punk rock, hardcore, us against them, skateboarders are a gang,” says Vallely — who, as a singer for Black Flag, is all of those things. “It’s totally disconnected from today’s reality. The mid-80s were a long time ago. These images that people hold fast to — they’re so old and played out. They are really projecting and holding on to a dead idea.”
Today, families skateboard together, and thankfully, there are enough former skateboarders-turned-dads-turned-skateboarders again who see things his way. “There’s an older generation that’s gotten back into skating and they’re putting the helmet on,” says Valley. And to the minority of detractors, he’s still us against them. “You’re gonna be on the wrong side of history if you come at me.”
Give Up On Being “Cool Dad”
Valley didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to wear a helmet. He wrestled with the decision for years. Not even the births of his 2 kids changed his mind (his youngest was 14 when he finally decided to put one on). The argument against was always straightforward: Wearing a helmet would change his entire image. “I’ve had this longstanding reputation for being a real aggressive, tough skater. And that’s how I made a living,” says Vallely. “Put the helmet on and that changes the story. Employers couldn’t be sponsoring, supporting ,and paying a skater they think is one thing and who suddenly does something else.”
By age 45 — no longer considering himself a professional but knowing that tons of eyes were still focused on his riding – he finally pulled the trigger. “I arrived at this place, I’m gonna do what I gonna do,” he says of his decision. “It just clicked in my head that I should be wearing a helmet.” But he’s also quick to note, “Nothing has changed in my idea of what skateboarding is. I still skate as aggressively as I always did. Now I just cover my head.” His gold medal from last year’s X-Games proves the point.