Nov 24, 2014

Skating school exhibitions that don't make you want to poke your eyes out

Anyone ever been to a 3-hour skating school exhibition?

How about an 8-hour one, where your skater is at 10:30, her best friend is at 11:15, her synchro team is at 1:30, her tot class is at 3 and her best-friends-group is at 6:30. So you have to sit there all day, because heaven-forbid you should miss a single precious moment.

How about the ones that front-load the tots and beginners, and lump all the high level skaters who can actually skate in a single flight starting at 9 p.m., so that the only people left in the stands are the other skaters (even the parents have gone home, let alone the little kids).

It's time for a revolution.

First, if your exhibition goes 2 hours or under, suck it up and sit through the whole thing-- the kids deserve an audience, even the tot who just sits on the ice and cries (there's always one). Personally, I think that "free" exhibitions should have a refundable ticket fee-- but it only gets refunded if you stay through the whole thing. If you come late or leave early, you've just made a donation to the rink.

If your exhibition lasts more than 2 hours, it's time for some creative thinking, because even with a refundable fee, no one is going to sit through three hours of alpha level skaters performing to "Let It Go".

An exhibition can be made interesting, like anything else, by mixing it up. Make sure each flight (defined however you want-- by number of skaters, or by time), has a nice range of skating, and no repeated music. For instance, segments  of 15 (two warm ups), with at least 2 high level skaters and one or two group numbers in each flight to guarantee audience and give people something to watch. Then people can choose which hour to attend. 

Put in some tots, both solo and group, in each flight for the awwww factor.

Make sure there are boys. If you don't have any boys, invite a hockey team to demonstrate drills, or speed skaters to stage a race. (Do this even if you do have boys.) 

If you've got Special Skaters, give them a spot as well.

Finish each couple of flights with a local star, to entice people to come, and to stay. And by star, I mean someone that non-affiliated people would want to see-- the kid who made it to Senior Nationals; the coach who is a former international medalist (if s/he's still skating), the award-winning synchro team. The definition of "star" should be decided by the skating staff, or else every coach is going to want their own "star" to be the "star" even if they're not a "star" and no one cares to see them any more than they want to watch the tots cry.

If you've got a small unusual program-- theater on ice, special disciplines like pairs or ice dance, make sure you highlight them, as well. These kids don't get a lot of credit, and you might help build the program (which is the reason you do exhibitions in the first place).

Sell tickets. Seriously folks, stop with the free exhibitions. Make it $5 for a single flight (at least 45 minutes), and a discount for multiple flights. If you need to make it palatable, use the money to fund skating scholarships.

People will stay and your program will grow.

And no one will want to poke their eyes out.

Nov 22, 2014

Follow Xanboni!

Don't forget I'm on Facebook and Twitter!

You'll get a lot more content, more regularly. On Facebook I like memes, skating news, and skating friends, as well as posting great content from some of my favorite blogs (see the resources page). I'm perfectly happy with "blog whoring" on there too-- if you know, or write, a great skating blog or site, post it! (I won't lie, it's the only place where I sometimes go a little fangirl.)

On Twitter I'm more intermittent, but I "live tweet" most championship-level competitions like the Grand Prix series, Nationals, etc that are on Ice Network, plus other competitions that I'm able to find streams that haven't been blocked by the money-men.

So come on, hundreds of Twitter followers, and thousands read this blog each month-- join me there too!

See you online!

Xanboni on Facebook
@Xanboni on Twitter

Nov 11, 2014

When should your child start coaching-- a guide for parents

That's right. This is not a "how to teach" post. It's how to support your child's budding career, and it's a great one. Coaching has gotten many a former skating princess through medical school, because there are always jobs, and it pays more than minimum wage (as much as double minimum wage, in fact), even more if you pick up private students.

Kids can start teaching (as opposed to coaching) as young as 12, and depending on your state's laws, can be hired as regular staff at 14 or 15, and anywhere at 16 (labor laws). I hunted around on the PSA and ISI sites last night and could not find any guidelines for starting young coaches. The closest I found was PSA's Intern membership level. PSA also has the apprenticeship program which is a great option for learning how to teach. (See my posts about learning to teach here and here.) Here's the USFS guide for coaching.

But this post is about you.

I would (and did) encourage, even push, my skater to try coaching. As I said, for the age group it's lucrative. Your skater may decide she or he hates coaching (mine did), but that's okay. It's important to keep this option open while they need it.

So how young?
The one rink I've ever encountered that does it right, Northbrook Ice Arena in Illinois, allows kids to junior coach as young as 12, and has "buddy" options in the ice show younger than that, based on skating level and audition. Most of the girls (it's all girls at Northbrook) start at 14.

So you just throw them on a class and hope for the best?
Sadly, at many rinks, yes. And they always seem, inexplicably, to put them with the tots, the absolute hardest level to teach. If your newly minted coach is teaching a class by her/himself, complain. This is not appropriate for so many reasons-- skill, trust (i.e. why should parents trust your 14 year old with 8 tots), and not least, liability.

Wait, liability?
Young coaches who are on staff, or junior coaches in a formal program, are covered by the rink's insurance. In a rink where junior coaches are just sort of "at discretion," it's less clear. Your skater cannot get their own liability insurance until they are 16, and they must be members of the PSA to get it.

What's the first step
If your skater is already 16 and skating at least FS4 (arbitrary level choice, but I wouldn't go any lower with a young skater), and has not expressed an interest in coaching, or been asked by the rink, bring it up. If you know that there are opportunities at the rink, push it. I really believe kids should do this.  Then have the skater (not you) talk to their coach, a coach on a class they'd like to teach, or to the skating director about how to become a junior coach.

If your skater is actually hired, they must receive the same pay as any other coach hired in their category (it will vary from rink to rink and municipality to municipality, but is a statutory limitation based on H.R. categories. This is a legal thing.) They MUST receive at least minimum wage; it is against the law to hire someone for a regular position and pay them less than minimum wage.

If it's part of a junior coaching program it might be for pay (again, if they are on payroll this must be at least minimum wage), it might be quid pro quo, it might be "point building" towards a regular hire. This will vary hugely; no two rinks are the same. This is a place where you as a parent can ask. If the answer is vague, or worse, "oh I don't know we'll think of something" or if you find out that your arrangement is different from the next junior coach over, complain. This is one area where I would say you don't have to let your skater take the lead.

Learning to teach
Teaching is not skating. Knowing how to skate does not mean you know how to teach. My daughter pointed out that she had no idea how to teach a swizzle, because she'd been 4 when she learned it. Encourage a high degree of humility. Let your skater know that a coach instructing them in teaching tips is no different than a coach instructing them in how to do a sit spin-- it's just another skill. Nothing sets my teeth on edge more than a 16 year old acting like she knows teaching better than I do.

Your child's coach
Lots of coaches will use their older or more advanced students to help with younger skaters working with the same coach, sometimes for pay, sometimes for quid pro quo (i.e. free lessons)

Instruction in instruction
Check your ISI District and the Basic Skills website for free seminars-- coaches can go to either, it doesn't matter what curriculum the rink uses. Don't go with your skater; you wouldn't want her at your professional continuing ed either.  This is the arrogance thing again-- even experienced coaches learn something at these; a young coach shouldn't assume that because she can skate, she can teach. Plus, there's a lot of bad technique being passed around out there-- it might be your skater who is getting it. Seminars are great places to learn about good technique. And they often have superstar cred-- I learned how to teach flips from Tom Zakrajsek, and have seen Jason Brown, Gracie Gold, and Evan Lysacek among others as demonstrators.

But the most important thing you can do for your young coach is the same for all aspects of their lives-- be vigilant, but stay out of the way. (After pushing them into this, that is.)  Don't stand in the rink door. Don't harass the pro on the class about giving your child more opportunities to teach; don't nag the skating director for "better" classes or more coaching time. Don't offer advice unless you are asked. (This is especially hard if you are also a skating coach.)

Don't be a "coaching parent" anymore than you should be a Skating Mom™. You know that Olympic dream your skater has? Coaching is another way to get there.

Nov 8, 2014

Where did Xanboni go?

Many of you know that I also have another profession-- I operate a consulting firm advising small and start-up nonprofits, which, miraculously and wonderfully, has gradually crept up to full time. A little over a year ago, combined with difficult life and health issues, something had to give, and as those of you who write blogs know, blogging is time consuming and hard.

Xanboni wasn't the only blog I write that suffered. Not Dabbling in Normal was also a casualty.

But the fans keep finding me.

On Facebook, on Twitter, by email, and yes, in the lobby of the ice rink.

So I'm planning some intermittent posts, aiming for about one per month. Because I'm only teaching about an hour a week now, my finger is not quite as much on the pulse as it was, but I'm just as opinionated as ever, so I welcome suggestions for posts.

In the meantime, watch for When Should Your Child Start Coaching- a Guide for Parents next week, and A New Approach to Exhibitions around Thanksgiving.

Feb 15, 2014

The kids who won't go to the Olympics

I've been working with atypical skaters for several years-- kids who have special needs, first as a designated aide, and now as a Program Leader with the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA), part of a national movement of "SRAs," essentially park districts for individuals with special needs.

On Saturday mornings, I teach in a fast growing program called SPICE (SPecial skaters ICE Experience) with 20 kids and 20+ "buddies"-- high level skaters who work one-on-one with class participants.  SPICE was NSSRA's very first program, a couple of decades ago. Here's a typical class:

Staff and buddies are gathered in the lobby waiting for the skaters to start arriving. N, 14 and a huge flirt, has the buddies fighting over him. His regular buddy is absent; we finally settle on him helping one of the older girls to teach a new student.

S walks in with his beautiful service dog, repeating Hi Xan! in his booming voice several times. S is also a popular skater, both because he's a really good skater, and because he tells amazing stories while skating around.

C won't look at me, but I happen to know he's into lions and have brought a hand puppet.

J also knows better than to look at me, because I am really mean and have been making him stand up on the ice (I know, right?). P is usually quite quiet, and needs two helpers to stand on the ice, although he physically strong. Even with typical skaters, it's often one of the biggest challenges to help them understand that "slippery" is not the same as "impossible to stand on this." In fact, T, who was doing great last week, has decided that Dad is a way better option than the skating teachers. Like the hero that these kids often are, however, a few minutes into the class, and with the help of two buddies, his gliding like a pro.

C is complaining, but the lion is proving to motivate him.

M missed the first four classes-- we wondered where she was; turned out her registration had gotten lost. She showed up today, with pink hair! (I knew I liked that kid!) Last session she absolutely insisted that she had to have a pusher, but today she just zipped right past them without a thought.

G missed two sessions as well, for his bar mitzvah. His buddy also missed those sessions, because the kids have bonded so beautifully-- His buddy JG went to the service and party. These are the kinds of really beautiful things that happen at SPICE. G does not stand on his own and has a special adaptive frame so he can skate, with JG pushing. There is nothing quite so joyous as his laughter as he moves faster than anyone else on the ice.

Each class we sort out all the pairings, have a 10-minute class (typically swizzles, backward wiggles, two-foot and one-foot glides and other basic skills) and about 15 minutes of free skating (so that I have time to fight with J about standing up instead of scooting around on his butt).

These are just a few of the 20 skaters that I work with every week. They and their families are literally what keep me skating-- I've thought often about quitting. But knowing the difference I make in these lives, the volunteer buddies that I am inspiring, and the joy that all of us feel from these special classes keep me coming back for more.

Feb 12, 2014

The Olympic Effect

The winter session (generally starting somewhere late December to early February) always has the highest enrollment at most skating schools.

In an Olympic year, it's even more heavily enrolled, and this year in the Chicago area it's on steroids because of all the press about Jason Brown and Gracie Gold.

If you're feeling the Olympic Effect (that is, if you've caught the bug and signed yourself or your child up for skating), here's some basic information for skaters and parents:

What to wear to lessons
Dress for “sweater weather”: gloves, t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt and sweater (but no bulky parka-like jackets), tights and pants or leggings. Dress to respect the sport—you wouldn’t send your child to music lessons in muddy and torn blue jeans; don’t send them skating like this either. I don’t recommend skating dresses for children under Freestyle Two, as they don’t move very fast and may get cold.  Don’t wear large bulky coats, as it gets too hot, and the coach can’t see what the skater’s body positions are. Highly recommended for beginners to wear a helmet; flat-backed skateboard helmets are the best, followed by the “Ice Halo.”

Skates and blades
Fitting skates is not like fitting shoes.  A correctly fitted skate will feel snug, which children may characterize as “too tight.”  You need to know if it is merely uncomfortable when compared, for instance, to sneakers.  Skates may feel uncomfortable; if they actually hurt, try a different pair.  To put the skates on, unlace the boot as low as it will go, and pull up on the tongue to create the widest possible opening (Do the same when removing the skates).  When the skate is open like this, the foot should slide in with just a little pressure.  If it slides in extremely easily or must be forced, it may be the wrong size. You will almost never need a skate larger than your street shoe (although a knowledgeable dealer can help you buy a skate with some grow room).

Rental skates are usually perfectly fine for skaters through the Alpha or even Beta level.  Rentals are always the best choice for children in the Tot classes, due to cost and foot growth. Ask a pro (not the office personnel) to check the boot and blade condition.  At Robert Crown Center, if you find a rental skate that you particularly like, note the shelf number (as opposed to the size) and always ask for that pair of skates by number.

Used skates can be purchased at many pro shops and used goods stores.  Get a good fit—never buy a skate that is too big; some growth room is fine, but seldom more than a half size.  The ankle should not be too creased and the interior padding not too compressed. Don’t buy more skate than you need.  Beginning skaters need to learn to bend their ankles, which they cannot do in a skate that is too heavily constructed.  Buy a leather boot—molded plastic boots are not flexible enough and may lead to injury. Watch out for rusty or heavily nicked blades.  It is a good idea to get fitted at a reputable figure skate dealer; fitting does not obligate you to buy from him.

New skates are often the last choice for beginning skaters.  Children’s feet grow so fast that they often don’t get to the broken-in stage before they need a new size.  Some brands are so stiff that it interferes with learning.  The new “comfort skates” (Sof-Tec or other brands) that look like sneakers are a wonderful first skate for a beginner. Always go to a knowledgeable dealer to get fitted for new skates, even if you end up buying them at Sportmart.  The dealer can help you learn what to look for and will be happy to do so, as he’ll figure you’ll be back for accessories and future pairs of skates!  Be honest about your child’s skating level—don’t say you have a freestyle skater if you have a Gamma skater—it will make a huge difference in what the dealer recommends you buy.

Are you new to skating (and to Xanboni?) Tell us why you decided to start. All my fans-- tell your friends who've jumped in the deep end about the community here and on Facebook!

Feb 10, 2014

I'm supposed to watch the edge. Um, what's an edge?

Forget the edges. Forget the toe picks. Forget flutzing.

If you're watching the Olympics and can't tell what jump they're doing, here's some advice:

Don't worry about it.

Seriously, unless you're planning to become a fan, and watch all the time, and look at the protocols (never mind), it literally doesn't matter what jump they're going to do. They all look alike in the air. This is because they all ARE alike in the air. Once the skater has achieved orbit, the position and rotation and landing are identical for every jump.

Okay, incipient geeks, yes I hear you-- some skaters rotate to the left, some skaters rotate to the right. This changes the dominant side, but not the basic position. 'K? Can I get back to my post now?

Ditto the footwork-- 3-turns, choctaws, counters, rockers, brackets, walleys, twizzles, I could start making up words at this point and you'd have no clue.

But it doesn't matter. Just enjoy.

Now, that said, if you really want to know what's going on, forget about edges and toe picks. You have to watch a lot of skating to be able to pick up on this in the fraction of a second in which it occurs. You want to watch the entrance.

We'll start with the easy one. Everyone recognizes the axel because it takes off forwards. (Skating geeks shut up-- I know that all jumps take off more or less forwards. You're just confusing the issue.) The axel has no backwards set up. In fact, doing a challenging backwards pattern before entering the forward take-off edge will earn you points. (Listen for comments about "difficult entry to that axel.")

And this is the secret of recognizing jumps. You'll often notice that the commentators know what the athlete is going to do before they do it. This is partly because they have a cheat sheet, but also because they know the set ups-- they are primed to watch for a certain jump because the set up is part of the skill. Skaters who don't "telegraph" their jumps (Yuna Kim, Jason Brown, Patrick Chan, and Michelle Kwan come to mind) are a lot of fun to watch because of this; it is also one of the things that makes their programs flow so beautifully.

Technically a toe-assisted counter jump off a back outside edge. Forget it. Watch for a long shallow edge, usually the longest entry edge of all the jumps, and skaters tend not to precede it with footwork. This is because it is a "counter" jump-- the rotation is in the opposite curve of the entry edge (for people who jump to the left, it will be a clockwise entry edge and a ccw rotation). This is changing, because any difficult entry gets you points. Again, listen for the comment about difficult entry.

Skaters often put the lutz in a corner, to give them the maximum entry distance. One of the things that used to make Yuna Kim's lutzes difficult to spot were short entry edges, and she would place them in the middle of the ice, where no one ever does lutzes.

The lutz is the jump where skaters put one or both arms over their heads, the "Tano" or "Rippon" positions. I've also seen this done with the axel.

This is the jump with the most "edge calls"-- taking off from the wrong edge-- because the counter rotation can force the foot onto the wrong edge at the last minute if you don't time it just right.

The flip is a toe assisted jump from a back inside edge, but watch for a long forward edge and/or a short (two-three moves) footwork sequence before the skater does a quick turn for the back take off.  Ironically, after judges starting really hammering skaters for "flutzing" their lutzes (flipping to an inside edge at the last moment, which makes it a flip), skaters fixed that and started "flupping" their flips-- turning to an outside edge, making it a lutz. The only reason you care, is because a take off from the wrong edge is one of the things that mysteriously lowers the scores.

Outside edge jump with no toe assist. However, you want to watch for another longish entry, on a much tighter curve than either the Lutz or the Flip. Skaters will often cross their feet and appear to be lifting off a crossed two-foot glide. This is also a common second or third jump in a combination.

Toe loop
Same entry as the loop, but with a toe assist. This is one of the hardest jumps to spot, as most skaters find it easy, so they throw it in willy nilly, especially if they've missed an earlier jump and need to add points. It's a common first quad jump, and also common in the "bonus"-- the second half of the program where you get extra points for every jump. Another common jump in combination.

A common "warm up" jump (the other is the double axel), that is, a jump in the first few seconds of the program to get the feel of the ice. This is another "edge" jump, with no toe assist, often telegraphed by a very curvy entry edge and an upper body wind up. This and the toe loop are generally the only quads you'll see (this has to do with the actual number of rotations in the air, which is fewer than four, trust me.) Matthew Savoie used to do a triple (quad?) salchow out of a back hydroblade position. Amazing.

Footwork sequence: jumps
Walleys, bunny hops, albrights (also called scissor and mazurka), splits, falling leafs (falling leaves?), Russian splits (Jason Brown anyone?), and this year one of the women has a one-foot axel in her footwork. (Can't remember who it was, but I almost dropped my coffee.) These generally don't count as jumps; they're calculated in the necessary turns and changes of direction for the footwork.

Footwork sequence: turns
WHO CARES. This is the part of the program where the skaters generally have the chance to create some art, to connect with the audience, to sell the program, to tell a story. If they aren't doing this, if they're just "technical" skaters with the requisite number of turns, edges, changes, etc. then they are doing it wrong.

Any questions?