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.

Dec 10, 2014

How can you be a coach if you aren't coaching?

Last April I had to quit teaching classes because life threw me several curveballs and I'm a skater not a sportsballer. I don't know how to catch, or hit, a curveball.

Something had to give, and it needed to be as much a financial decision as anything else. I was teaching at a remote rink and it was costing me as much in gas as I was earning. The commute was an agonizing 2+ hours, reducing my "hourly" to less than minimum wage. The combined professional fees were further eroding the financials. (Skater professional fees are upwards of $600 per year, a burdensome level for people like me who don't do it full time.)

It was a very difficult decision-- I'd been struggling with it for months, but just couldn't give it up. I derive huge emotional satisfaction from teaching, especially from my kids with special needs. I'm very good at it. I miss those kids in particular.

There is fall out-- because I have only one regular and a couple of occasional students, I don't have the income to justify the professional fees. I stuck with the cheaper option–ISI–so that I could still get coaching insurance. But I dropped USFS (!) and PSA, which means I also put my hard-earned rating in abeyance.

So you will now see my rating listed as "I have earned a Senior rating in group instruction" rather than "I have a Senior rating in group instruction." Unlike other professional credentials, PSA says the rating doesn't count if you're not a member. I believe I'm not even supposed to couch it as I have. (This is bullsh*t. Imagine if you were told you don't get to say you have a law degree if you're not practicing law, or that your senior freestyle test doesn't count any more if you're no longer a member of USFS. But that's for another rant on another day.)

It is challenging to reinstate a rating-- it takes up to three years, because you have to re-earn continuing education credit, and they won't count credit earned while you're not a member (I asked).  Technically, you're supposed to be teaching an average of 5 hours per week even to qualify as a professional member, and you need a skating director to attest this.

Fortunately for me, coaching is not a very heavily regulated profession. I have my insurance, and the good will of local rinks. I may get back to it on a more regular basis-- I had always figured that coaching would be my retirement job, and it may yet be.

So how can I be a coach if I'm not coaching? Well, I'll be here, coaching parents on navigating the insanity that is skating culture and the reward and beauty that is the sport of figure skating.

Dec 2, 2014

Sink or swim warm ups: 5 ideas to keep your head above water

It's been seven months since I dropped all my group classes due to health and business pressures. (Oops, did I forget to mention that? Last April I had to drop all my staff positions due to health and business concerns. I guess I'll do a post about that!)

The result is that I haven't seen a freestyle warm up in seven months. And I haven't seen a warm up at a rink that doesn't train its beginning freestyle students in the challenging warm up skills in even longer than that.

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch my student H, who passed into Freestyle One this session. His mother was a little concerned, because both I and his class teacher had told her he'd be fine with the skills, it was the warm up that she should be worried about.

He, and the other baby freestylers actually do fine. They stumble through the skills, sometimes badly and fast, sometimes well, but slow, but pretty much clueless throughout.

The Ice Rink of the Damned actually got this one right-- they inserted a level between Delta and FS1 called "Pre Freestyle" with the express mandate of teaching the kids the warm up patterns.  At my last rink, you didn't get out of Delta (or out of Beta for that matter) without the flow, speed and skating knowledge to handle the warm up.  (Yes, all those kids skated better than me. It was a little intimidating. Fortunately I'm extremely arrogant.)

H's rink-- man, they just throw them in the deep end, or would have, if it wasn't frozen. Because those kids were drowning.

I don't think the kids knew this, and the coaches were handling it reasonably well, but I don't really understand the point of having kids try to figure out a complex skill like power 3-turns. They're just getting it wrong and are going to have to unlearn it, or they'll feel incompetent and will check out. (haha skating joke).

Here are some solutions:

As I noted, you can simply add a level. The Basic Skills and ISI curricula are not governed by force of law. You can mess around with them. The problem moving from Learn to Skate into Freestyle is that LTS teaches the skills in isolation; Freestyle requires flow, and the ability to move from one skill to another. (This is actually one of the areas where Basic Skills gets it better than ISI, because it does teach more flow than ISI.)

The skills that kids should learn are alternating 3-turns, waltz 3-turns, power 3-turns, alternating mohawks, stopping drills, cross rolls and cross steps, perimeter stroking (PrePre pattern), perimeter cross overs (forwards and backwards), 3-turn tap toes.  That'll do it. Once they have these in their muscle memory, other warm up patterns will become more intuitive.

Divide the ice
If your rink doesn't have enough available ice to add a level, and you've got mixed high/mid and low in a single class, put the new freestylers on one side of the blue line (about a quarter of the rink), with the rest of the class sharing the remainder. Yes, the high skaters will be somewhat restricted, but on the other hand they won't be tripping over the low skaters anymore.  You don't even need to do it for the whole session-- maybe the first month, until the newbies learn the moves.

Add it to Delta
Delta Is So Boring. Start teaching the kids to put the skills together. They'll be more engaged and they'll be more ready for freestyle.

Rearrange the classes
Instead of putting Gamma and Delta on the same ice, put Gamma with the Betas, and create a Delta-FS1-FS2 level. this is another place where Basic Skills gets it right, by putting beginning spins and jumps in their learn to skate curriculum.  FS1 and FS2 (and maybe FS3) shouldn't even be considered "Freestyle" but should still be counted in Learn to Skate, because they are still introducing basic concepts. But nobody asks me.

Divide the ice, part duo
To get around the full-ice problem created by dividing the ice along the short axis, put the high freestyle kids on the perimeter, and run the beginners up the center so they can both learn the skills and go at their own speed.  You won't be able to run any "five circle" warm ups using this traffic pattern, but on the other hand you won't have the highs tripping over the lows. You'll also teach the high freestyle kids to use the whole ice. It makes me insane when skaters avoid the end zone like there's a force field blocking it.

How does your rink integrate or prepare low freestyle into the freestyle curriculum?

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.