Aug 30, 2015

Helmets

Reposted by reader request.

Figure skating is way behind other youth and recreational sports in not only developing, but even in tolerating safety gear.  I have had coaches contradict me in front of parents when I have suggested safety gear as rudimentary as gloves and hats. Adults who wear knee and wrist guards are ridiculed and often, as happened recently, feel compelled to apologize for using this basic protection. Padded boards are not even considered because of the expense, and yet padded boards would have prevented two career-ending injuries at the Ice Rink of the Damned. So I guess two crippled children is considered a reasonable trade off.  All national and international events now have padded boards. (Write your local and state elected officials demanding padded boards at ice rinks.)

Anyway, all polemics aside, here's a guide to helmets.

Hockey helmets
Many rinks require helmets for skaters in hockey skates. If you're going to be playing hockey, then go ahead and invest in this. If you're just in hockey skates for spit and giggles, any helmet is fine, but you really should be in a helmet if you're not experienced in hockey skates.

Bike helmet
Never wear this type of helmet for skating.
Pointy back bike helmets like the one pictured should never be worn on the ice. If you fall on the back of your head the pointed extension can force your neck forward, adding whiplash or worse to your woes.

You also need to wear it properly. Wearing a helmet too far forward or too far back is pretty much equivalent to not wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet that is too small or too big is also pointless. Never wear a hat under your helmet, even outdoors. I always wonder, when I see a helmet precariously perched on top of a hat, if parents are expecting heavy objects to drop directly onto the top of the skater's head, because that is the only scenario in which this makes any sense.

 Skateboarder's helmet
This is the best type of helmet for skating, largely because it was designed for, well, skating. Google image search gives you the idea.

Soccer helmet
I've seen some kids wearing these lately; I suppose they like them because 1. they're discreet and 2. they've already got one. They're for head shots (see? other youth sports have figured out that head injuries are a bad idea and should be mitigated.) But unless you get the full-head ones, they don't really do the job, because they have no padding on the back. These are getting the idea, though. Skating falls do not tend to be the 20-foot projectile falls you're getting with bikes and skate boards. They're head knocks--you've already fallen and need something for that last 4 inches of air between your head and the ice.

Ice Halo
This is currently the only commercial helmet created especially for the ice. I've been wearing one for several months and can attest that they are comfortable, reasonably cool, and attractive. I think they're great. I don't get any remuneration from Ice Halo, but you  can get 5% off if you mention Xanboni when you buy one.

"Oh, but Johnny won't wear a helmet," says helpless mom. Fine, then Johnny doesn't get to skate, just as he doesn't get to play hockey without gear, or baseball without a cup, or soccer without shin guards. Really, folks, grow a pair. You're bigger than them.

Originally posted January 2012. 

Aug 20, 2015

The Trophy Controversy: how figure skating gets it right

My friend Josette Crosby Plank set off a firestorm by defending "participation trophies." I wish you could see her Facebook page, because it's been dominated by this since it went up. I've pretty much taken a vacation all week to keep up with it.

All I can say is, don't read the comments.

The issue at hand: youth sports that hand out trophies, ribbons, and medals like candy, regardless of skill or outcome. Pro? Make sure all the players feel like part of the team, and keep kids in youth sports. Con-- Special Snowflake Syndrome, wherein children are led to believe they are the center of the universe and deserve, if I may use internet parlance, All The Things.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the only child on my hockey team who did not get a letter or trophy, because I had not "earned" it. I did not then and do not now know what it was I was supposed to have done-- scored a goal? (I did, I played wing and I was good.) Make every practice and/or game? (I didn't, but I'm pretty sure other kids also didn't.) Blow the coach? Seriously, I have no idea.

What I do know is that I never attempted to play another intramural sport and started cutting P.E. Clearly they didn't want me, so why even try.

Figure skating has long had two tracks-- USFS, with a performance metric (i.e. the goal is to win*), and ISI, with an experience metric (i.e. the goal is to be there).

In local USFS competitions (called "non-qualifying"), each "flight" or group of competing skaters is competing for Gold-Silver-Bronze. Flights can be as small as 5 and as large as 15; some competitions put multiple flights at stake for a single podium. In the big competitions–Regionals, Sectionals, Nationals–the end game is those three medals at Nationals. Essentially, 50,000 kids competing for about 400 medals in the 4 skating disciplines at 6 skill levels.

In ISI, anyone who signs up "qualifies," even at the Worlds and national competitions. Everyone who skates walks away with a ribbon or trophy. Flights are limited to 8, but 5-6 skaters is more common, so you cannot possibly do worse than 6th, and Auntie Sue is going think that's pretty damn cool.

I think it's pretty damn cool, too, and apparently so does USFS because a few years ago they introduced something called "test track" for kids who aren't going to be competing for those 400 medals. Compete as a test track skater and you get that "participation" trophy.

But the really interesting thing is that, unlike other youth sports, kids can keep competing in ISI through a very high level-- the hardest test in figure skating isn't USFS Senior. It's ISI level 10. Kids with quads compete at ISI.

The kids absolutely understand the difference. Under 10, they like to win, but they like the hardware when they don't win. When they start getting good and/or ambitious, they universally switch to USFS, where the trophies have a different meaning.

And there's the rub: ISI trophies say "good for you"  in a meaningful way. They reward hard work and focus. They both reward and encourage motivation. USFS figure skating trophies say damn you're good!

It doesn't have to be either or: you can reward both winning and work. If figure skating can figure it out, the rest of youth sports can too.


*I actually don't believe that at the lower levels of USFS the goal is winning, however, top performance is the driving motivation. At the qualifying level, personal goals may vary, but the general idea is you want to win.

Aug 16, 2015

Will my coach blackball me?

This really happened

A lower-level skater just switched from ISI (where she was very successful) to USFS. She’s pretty young, and a bit of a social butterfly,  unfocused in practice, and prone to blow-ups. At her first USFS competition, she had a bad experience, complete with tantrum. The coach dumped them a week later via text, telling the mom she was a terrible parent in the process, and to forget about USFS, the kid should stick with recreational forever. The kid came through like a champ—acknowledged the inappropriateness of her reaction, and pledged to practice more effectively in the future. She wants to keep skating, but the mom is afraid the coach will “blackball” them and no one will want to take her on.
What happened. What to do.

This is what the kid is like. 
Deal with it. Literally.
You don’t get to coach the type of kid you want. You get to coach the kid in front of you. If a coach has a child who can’t focus, who won’t listen, who wants to chat either with the coach or with her friends, it is the coach’s job to give that kid a meaningful lesson that diminishes and does not reward these behaviors. If she keeps doing it, it’s not because she’s unteachable. It’s because the coach isn’t teaching her. And if the coach can’t teach her, he needs to tell the parents honestly that it might be a bad match, and help the parent find a different coach. (Hahahaha, I'm the only coach I know who has ever done this.)
But she’s kind of like this outside the rink, too. 
Kids have a personal style and some kids are not naturally focused. That said, if it's interfering with school and extracurricular stuff, you need to address it. I like using mindfulness exercises-  ask the child to tell me what he’s planning to do. Ask him to describe what he did after he’s done it (both positive and negative actions). Ask his permission to talk to him. You’ll be amazed at the response when you say “I have a suggestion, may I share it?”.
Parents with supposedly difficult kids should also try watching other kids to reassure themselves that theirs is not that different.

Switching from ISI to USFS 
It’s a very different culture, no question about it. But in neither is the emphasis on winning. The emphasis in USFS is performance, the emphasis in ISI is experience. Coaches need to prepare kids for the difference.
Why did she come in last?
Who knows.
Who cares.
The better question is, did she meet her personal goal for the skate, why or why not, and what can she do to correct this. If she didn’t have a goal (other than “win” which is not a good goal), then why not? (I’ll tell you why not–bad coaching).
Other good questions: did he skate as well as he usually does; did he have as much content as other kids in the flight; did he have any missed or illegal moves? And really, the coach should have talked to the skater about all the possibilities. The parent and the coach should encourage the skater to talk about expectations and goals-- the goal can NEVER be to win, the goal is "land every jump," "have a personal best," "watch 25 programs" etc. You reach for the things in your control at this level. Jason Brown can have a goal of “win the world championships.” Your kid just needs to land the double salchow in competition.
Parental nightmare: the public meltdown, or, kill me now. 
Don't engage, don't criticize. Just tell her "you're really upset" (i.e. acknowledge the validity of her feelings without approving of them) and then remove her from the location. I used to tell my kids "you're not allowed to have a tantrum here, it's against the rules, let's find some place without that rule." I would wait until later to talk about the correlation between practice and accomplishment. Kids aren't rational when they're melting down.

Fired via text, with an extra helping of I’m a terrible parent 
So much wrong with this. First, for a coach drop a kid via text, or worse, by simply not coming to lessons (this happens) is beyond unprofessional. For a coach to blame your parenting (or even bring it up) also beyond the pale.  Complain to the skating director.

Should she stick with USFS. 
She should stick with the goal she has set. If it’s compete in USFS then yes. But a bad experience with a coach can really damage a child, especially if she’s been told or it’s been implied that it’s her fault. But if you don’t have a coach you can’t do competitions.  After a bad experience, I’d leave it be while looking for a new coach. You might have someone in mind, or you might try doing only classes, no privates, for one session of classes at your rink-- still have her practice, but switch her lessons to class-only. And take whatever classes are offered in your area, as many as 3-4 a week with different coaches. What you're looking for is a coach that your child really connects with. That's your new private coach. Don't worry about the coach's "credentials" for now. Young kids need a coach with a heart, not one with a resume.

Can I be the coach? 
No.
But you can help her learn how to work effectively on her own and in class.
Practice on her own should be set up with goals that she decides on herself. Every practice has a goal, even small silly ones "only talk to friends once while I'm on the ice" (make sure she has a funny thing to say to her friends so that they don't get mad at her, or make them a part of the pact); "only get off the ice twice," “Do every skill I know at least once”, “make up a sequence that uses every jump I know”; “try something new”. You get the idea. With my kids who have trouble focusing, I tell them one thing-- you have to stay on the ice and keep moving for 20 minutes. I don't care what they do with that time. They can skate in circles for all I care, the problem is not the skills, it's the attitude, so the thing to fix is the attitude.

One of the mindfulness exercises that I like is to announce your intentions or ask for help, i.e. at the beginning of class, have the skater tell the instructor "I'm hoping to pay really close attention today, can you help me with that" or make a skill-based request, “I want to land my loop today”. You get the idea. Again, she needs to lead this--if you set the goal or announce it for her, it's not going to be as effective.

And by the way don't talk about the practice or the competition on the way home in the car, unless the kid brings it up. Ask any former skater: this will be #1 on their list of things they hated the most.

The coach is going to blackball us. 
If he tries, again, it’s very unprofessional. And anyway, coaches need income, they're not going to care what this guy says. Blackballing is a myth at the lower levels. Further, coaches also have reputations. It's extremely likely that he's done it to others, too, and believe me every coach in the district knows it. Finally, gossiping, much less vilifying, students is in direct violation of PSA ethics so if something like this gets back to you, complain to your skating director and/or the PSA. 

At any rate, I'm not saying coaches don't talk about their students, but it's very rare to hear coaches really dumping on a kid.

It’s not about the Olympics 
At least, not yet. Right now it’s about using skating to give kids good experiences. Any coach who uses a bad experience, or a bad reaction to it, as an excuse to place blame is not a coach you want. Good riddance.

Do you have a horror story about a coach dumping you? What did you do?

Apr 9, 2015

Bunny hops are not just for fun

Why Learn To Skate?

By which I don't mean why learn to skate-- that's obvious. Because it's fun.

Learn To Skate (also known as weSkate, and similar to CanSkate, and Basic Skills) is where you get the fundamentals, including the part where skating is both fun and mental. If you don't get it here, you're not going to get it in Freestyle.

There's a skill in every level of every beginner curriculum that coaches blow off. "I'm not going to hold a kid back just because she can't do [XX].

Here's the skills, and here's what happens if you let it go.

PreAlpha or Basic 1
Skill that teachers let slide (so to speak): One foot glide on the weak foot.
Consequence: Really really hard and frustrating to learn crossovers
Outcome: they switch to hockey, or quit skating because it isn't fun and everyone is better than them

Alpha/Basic 2-3
Skill: Proper underpush (i.e. no toe push)
Consequence: since weSkate and Basic Skills are set up to teach a skill and then basically drop it until the kid decides to do USFS testing, toe pushes become embedded in a skater's muscle memory, and they will never unlearn it. Watch for a post about the curriculum model that drops a skill once you move to the next level.
Outcome: competitive decision made for you. I'm not saying every kid wants to or should be a competitive skater. But why make that decision for them by teaching poor skills at the outset.

Beta/Basic 5
Skill: t-stops, especially on the "hard" foot.
Consequence: snow plow stopping in the higher levels, which just looks stupid. The close-foot T position is also the basic position for a mohawk turn. Think about it.
Outcome: the embarrassment of the utter disbelief on the FS5 teacher's face when she finds out you can't do a T-stop.

Gamma/ Basic 6-7
Skill: hockey stop
Consequence: the hockey stop teaches opposition much more effectively even than drilling turns. You can make a turn without really understanding opposition. But you can't do a hockey top without getting it right.
Outcome: Poorly executed turns. Also faceplanting on 60-second drills (also never completing it in under 60 seconds)

Delta/Basic 7-8
Skill: bunny hop
Consequence: the  bunny hop teaches the basic lift and landing for every jump. Shoulders square, rock to the toe, lift the free knee through. Land on your toe pick. It also requires an absolutely solid understanding of right and left (this is harder than you think, for kids as old as 10).
Outcome: let this skill go, and that kid will struggle with every single jump.

I could go on: waltz jumps that are taught with the free leg already behind on the landing (this is a consequence of the stupid commonly used term "landing position" to mean "check out position"). Pivots that quickly just turn into spins. Never teaching mazurkas (I'm looking at you, ISI.) Back spins on the wrong edge.  Toe loops that take off forwards.

Skaters: take the time and learn the techniques properly.  Coaches: keep kids in each level until they've mastered every skill.  Skating directors support your staff by letting them keep kids in levels, and your skaters by having other classes that they can do while they're mastering the boring stuff.

In the end, it will catch up with you. If you get to testing, the judges are not going to let this stuff slide, and if a skater has been getting away with it, they're not going to understand what those judges are talking about.

What skill do you wish you or your skater had really mastered before moving on?

Mar 26, 2015

Basic skills aren't all that basic

I've had parents in higher level classes yell at me for teaching cross overs.

Because as everyone knows, once you learn a basic component of your discipline, you never have to learn it at a higher level, ever. So once you've learned addition, it's just foolish to teach multiplication (which is really just fancy addition when you think about it.) Did you learn how to read in first grade? Hooray! You never have to read again.

Or maybe not.

Every basic skill: glides, crossovers, turns, have both basic and advanced applications. What's a spiral if not just a really really advanced one-foot glide?

You can simply do skills better as well-- you don't really need to teach power for Alpha and Beta skaters learning forwards and backwards crossovers (you can, but you don't need to). But higher level skaters need to understand how to use basic crossovers to achieve more power. And this has to be taught. If you're in an ISI curriculum, you have to learn "cut backs," i.e. back crossovers with no lift. And yet, strangely, it's not in the curriculum and parents get all bent out of shape when they see you teaching them. So much  better to let the kids figure them out on their own and do it wrong (which they all do because it's not very intuitive).

You can use basic positions learned early to remind skaters what you're looking for-- how do you push for outside back edges? Think about the first push of a backward crossover. Where should your free foot end up for a basic one-foot spin? It's the same as a nice Pre-Alpha one foot glide.

CanSkate, the Canadian Figure Skating beginner program, has incorporated this into their curriculum.
" Instead of just introducing a skill at one level and then leaving it, the skater will work on the same skill at many different stages. The coaches have a chance to introduce the skill, develop it and then perfect it over a longer period of time. One of the early skills is a push-glide sequence. In the old system, it was introduced only in stage two, and then skaters moved on to other skills in different stages. But now the push-glide sequence is part of every stage."
(CanSkate also gets it right by not differentiating hockey skills and figure skating skills in the early stages-- it's all just skating skills).

Basic skills are called that for a reason-- they are the basis for everything that comes after. You can't learn a proper jump if you don't understand how to check out of a turn. You can't get power if you never understand how to use your blade properly.

What are some examples of advanced applications of basic skills that have helped you or your skater?

Jan 22, 2015

The no-ice training regimen


How much ice is not enough ice?

If you're a long time reader, you know the formula- a minimum of one half-hour of ice for every half rotation you're working on, plus an hour plus a lesson or class per week.

So- FS1 (waltz jump and half flip)- 2 hours plus lesson; Novice (test track) axel and 4 doubles means 9½ rotations or 3½ hours plus lesson. This keeps you current (but doesn't allow that much room for new or upgraded skills).  If you're a competitive skater, just do what your coach says, mkay?

I know of skaters, though, who want to skate more, but can't. Maybe they don't have the time, or the money, or the transportation. Or the parental cooperation. They might be in a market with very limited ice (we don't have that problem in Chicago).

There are some logistical fixes: consolidate your lesson or class with your practice sessions. This of course needs the cooperation of the rink, to schedule these things back to back. Car pool. Arrange "skate and homework" buddies so your folks know you're not sacrificing school for skating (haha who am I kidding, of course you're sacrificing school for skating-- don't tell mom).

But you don't actually need ice to train for ice training. Or rather, there are things you can do at home that will make you a better skater. All the best skaters do it. Seriously. All the best skaters do it, because in fact, your skating will be better if you take it off the ice sometimes.

Plus, it's free.

Everyone's heard of off-ice training. This means workouts that help you with the strength, flexibility, and stamina that any athlete needs, but also skill-specific training for balance, jumping and artistry.

The best way to make sure you're getting the off-ice training you need is to have your coach give you some skill-specific workouts like jump drills, specific stretches (back and shoulder, arabesque, etc.) There are balance aids that help with landings, spirals and even turns. I learned patch-quality turns using these.

Jump drills are one of the best things you can work on off ice, and in fact, you should be working on them off-ice. Teaching your body what a jump–even a single–feels like in sneakers takes away some of the fear of your first try on the ice.  For single-axis jumps like the flip, which requires a lot of strength, this can mean the difference between a fall and a gliding check out. Especially when you're starting the axel, learn it off-ice first.

Jump drills are not only actually doing a specific jump. Plyometric exercises teach you spring and balance while also working on strengthening the muscles that skaters need.

For cardio, running or an aerobics video (youtube is your friend) is worth one of those half hours on the ice. Not only will it improve endurance, it will help you with focus. One of the things that kids especially struggle with is the sheer boredom of practice. Regularly running for 30 minutes will make skating practice feel like Disneyland, because there's pretty much nothing more boring than running.

If your main problem is lack of or distance from ice, as opposed to finances, you can also take classes that support the same skills. Jazz dance or hip hop (I like these better than ballet for figure skaters unless you can find an actual ballet-for-figure skaters class, but ballet is great as well), yoga, and karate are all great companion disciplines for figure skaters.

In other words, you don't have to skate to train.

What non-skating do you do to help your skating?

Dec 20, 2014

Goodbye to the gag rule

In 2011, I stated that the Professional Skaters Association rules governing so-called "solicitation" were restraint of trade.  This did not make me popular at PSA seminars, where people in this insular industry could not be made to understand the singularity and bizarreness of the anti-soliciting rules.

Turns out the FTC agrees with me.

To review, the PSA had an anti-solicitation rule stating roughly that no PSA member coach can knowingly directly solicit another coach's student, or tamper with a coaching relationship either directly or indirectly. What this meant was that you could not approach a student who was already working with someone else. You had to be careful about talking to the parents and friends of someone else's student. If a student came to you privately about switching coaches, you were supposed to report this to the other coach if the student had not already done so.

Until a few years ago, when USFS and PSA colluded to impose membership on all coaches doing testing or competing, it wasn't even particularly enforceable, because if you weren't a member of PSA it didn't even apply to you. You could be as big a jerk as you wanted, and if you weren't a member, there was no one to report you to.

If you were a PSA member, it still didn't matter, because the unethical coaches ignored it, and the ethical coaches didn't need it.

There are all sorts of nuanced minefields to this. Kid's parent bragging in the stands? Better be prepared that you have told the parents that you do not encourage this. Got a talented kid in class? Don't praise them too much, either to the kid or the parent if someone else is their coach. Parents in arrears with fees? An "ethical" coach is supposed to refuse to take you until you pay up the prior coach. (Even if the other coach has actively encouraged parents to stay in arrears to keep them from leaving.) Kid in your class been taught incorrect technique on a skill? Careful how you tell the kid their technique is wrong-- that's tampering.

Coming from a business and music background, this sounded absolutely insane to me. Imagine if you had a contractor for your house that wasn't doing the job-- by the standards of this rule, if you went to someone else, they would be ethically required to report you to the guy who was messing up.

Further, it didn't stop unethical coaches, it was used to intimidate students and parents (I knew people who quit skating rather than have to tell a coach they wanted to switch) as well as less experienced coaches and made the whole coach switching thing a nightmarish balancing act.

At the urging of the FTC in another industry, the rules have been changed. It is now only considered statutorily (by PSA statute) unethical to solicit a student actively engaged in competition or a test session. I would call this the "don't be an asshole" rule. The new language is here.

Now, what this means is not that there are no more ethics in coaching. It means that the foolishness of expecting parents to know the esoteric ethical constraints of coaching is over.

In other words, now, if you actively solicit another coach's kid in secret, or start telling parents that you would do better, or bragging to them about how great your kids did at regionals, or telling the kids they would get farther faster with you, you're not strictly unethical according to the rewritten PSA definitions.

You're just an asshole.

The good news: coaches no longer have to report a parent (seriously wtf) to the old coach if they come to you about switching (not that anyone ever did this). The whole team-- parent, skater, coach-- no longer has to tiptoe around hoping that the other coach doesn't file an ethics complaint while you navigate the switch.

It means that skaters and coaches no longer have to fear PSA or USFS sanctioned retaliation if a coach decides to be a jerk about it.

Switching coaches will still be an emotional minefield and you still have to do it with a lot of thought and care, keeping the best interest of the skater at the forefront. There are still ethical issues regarding actively approaching someone else's student (seriously-- don't do this).

Try to work out the issues with the original coach.  Talk to the new coach off the premises. Make sure you're paid up. Don't flaunt the change-- no bragging, trashing, or airing of dirty laundry. If you're a coach, always ask someone who comes to you about lessons if they already have a coach, and if so why they want to switch. Give it a week between the final lesson with the old coach and the first lesson with the new one. Keep it friendly with the old coach.

And goodbye to the gag rule. Now we all get to be civilized because it's the right thing to do.