Extreme sports: yo-yoing?

I remember having a yellow yo-yo as a child. It was a decent quality yo-yo, probably a Duncan, but not as expensive or flashy as some of the more expensive Duncan models. I practiced a long time to be able to get the yo-yo to go up and down the way it was supposed to.

It was one of those important childhood skills, along with whistling and blowing bubbles in Bazooka bubble gum. I also tried to learn to do a cartwheel but never succeeded. I admit I didn’t try quite as hard at that one, because I hated being upside down.

I never tried to learn any yo-yo tricks, though. I had heard of terms like “walk the dog” but I had no idea what it would look like (I still don’t). Like cat’s cradle, it seemed a skill that required a level of concentration and practice that I had no inclination to give it.

Today’s yo-yo tricks require a lot more than just concentration and practice. My old yellow yo-yo, even if I still had it, would be totally inadequate today. New materials and new designs have produced high tech yo-yos that do tricks never imagined a generation ago, or even a decade ago.

They also require a higher level of physical involvement, including a tolerance for physical pain. I may have occasionally gotten a bruise from hitting myself with my yo-yo – I get bruises from hitting myself on furniture, doorways, cars, etc. – why not yo-yos? But no scars from string marks, no cuts on my face, certainly no ruined veins or chipped teeth.

If your last experience with a yo-yo was as long ago as mine, you may be wondering how playing with a yo-yo could produce those kinds of injuries. Take a look at this article from the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, and find out how this old-time hobby has turned into an extreme sport in the new century.

An article from the New York Times last August tells more, both about the kind of routines that are standard in today’s yo-yo competitions, and about the subculture of competitive yo-yo enthusiasts. Much like the skateboard subculture, they are mostly teenage boys.

Many admitted to not quite fitting in back home, where no one seems to take the yo-yo as seriously as they do. Most dressed in black T-shirts and wore their hair long. They had callused middle fingers and forearms scarred by string marks, and often carried backpacks or hard cases filled with yo-yos, some costing hundreds of dollars.

References to the new possibilities provided by new materials and designs got me wondering about the basic physics of yo-yos. Here is a good article explaining both the physics of yo-yoing and its history. The basic yo-yo – like my old yellow one – I can understand. I’m not sure I follow as well the physics of the newer models, with a ball bearing assembly or a centrifugal clutch.

I do understand, though, that yo-yos with metal rings on the outer rims can go very fast. And that hitting yourself in the head with one would really hurt. I might get a new yo-yo just to try it out – and to pass along to my younger son this essential childhood skill, on a model that makes it easier. But I’ll leave the extreme yo-yoing for younger, more foolhardy yo-yoists.

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