Nov 30, 2009

Something wrong with the math here

Fellow skaters, our intellects have been impugned. Grateful Mom wants to know, if an axel is one and a half rotations, and 1 1/2 x 2 = 3, how come a double axel isn't 3 rotations?

I did not have an answer for this.

The Skate Whisperer

My best friend's dog is excitable and overprotective, so she's working with a dog trainer to help both her and the dog learn how to function in an over-stimulating world. Last night she hosted a "training party" where we got to be props in the session, so the dog could learn how to interact and feel safe with a lot of different people. It was fascinating; I now understand the concept of the "animal whisperer"-- someone who just seems able to make an animal do what she wants it to do.

In any group figure skating class, there's a spectrum of "normal" behaviors, especially among beginning skaters, from the overly fearful to the overly adventurous. Rewarding sensible risk-taking while encouraging the fearful or reluctant, and calming down what I call the "exploding brains" is one of the huge challenges of group classes.

What I found most fascinating was that many of the things the dog behaviorist was doing with the dog, I also do with young students on the ice. The constant reinforcement of positive behavior. Modeling proper responses. Use of external signals (she used a little clicking sound maker) to "mark" correct behavior. Making the coach the focus of attention. Lots and lots of eye contact.

The only thing I don't have is the yummy smelly chicken liver "cookies" that she used as a reward. I'm going to have to come up with a skating version of doggy treats. (Suggestions welcome!)

Nov 27, 2009

Reinventing the wheel

When we first got into this sport in 1992, when my daughter was 3, it was very difficult to find information about how to be a competitive skater, and what you needed to know as a parent. There was no internet. If you hadn't grown up in the sport, you didn't know about things like ISI and (as it was called then) USFSA. Further, this was in the middle of the Tonya-Nancy drama, so figure skating seemed like a blood sport.

Other parents and coaches all seemed to have their own agenda. Far from what seems to have become a common problem--parents soliciting for the coaches--my experience was that the parents of the talented kids would put down my daughter, and discourage us from getting into it. (There were some nasty parents and kids at that rink when my daughter was growing up. When she was about 10, she told me that she didn't want to be a competitive skater, because the competitive kids were mean, and she didn't want to have to be mean. Out of the mouths of babes.)

As a neophyte parent, I thought that the "top" coaches had to come to you. Since no one ever approached us, I assumed my daughter wasn't as talented as I seemed to think. We finally started lessons with one of the young coaches who was more approachable. There was NO information available at the rink about how to sign up for private lessons. Years later one of those top coaches, whom I had found rather intimidating, told me that she would have loved to have taught my daughter. Well, for heaven's sake, I thought, why the hell didn't you say something at the time?

Skating parents seem condemned to reinvent the wheel, cycle after cycle. We get our information from unreliable sources (*cough* coaches *cough* skating parents *cough*). We're intimidated by the complexity (what the heck is "practice ice?" What's a "non-qualifying" competition? Why shouldn't I take classes with that coach?) As DD said, the competitive girls are mean, often with the blessings of their coach.

What's the solution? Be a gadfly-- if you don't understand something, ask. Don't be intimidated by jargon, or fear to seem ignorant. The web is an amazing resource, and one I wish I'd had. You might be lucky and start skating at a more forthcoming rink, but you might be like us and skate at a rink that is stingy with parent information. Don't talk to parents of just one coach, talk to many parents.

And remember that this sport is capable of supporting many goals and outcomes, not just high-level competitive singles skating. There's synchro, there's testing, there's rink ice shows and professional ice shows. Get tested through the Intermediate level, and now there's a college job that's a little more interesting than filing or slinging burgers (not to mention it pays better.) There's simple recreational skating, and even, gasp, hockey.

Look for information. Ask questions. Make your own choices. No need to reinvent the wheel (or blade as the case may be).

Nov 26, 2009

Still skating, thanks for asking

"Life on the Edge" writes about fellow travelers today, skaters that they encountered on their journey through competitive figure skating. It's a lovely, warm post, and I can relate, but from the other side.

So here's the perspective from the "where are they nows?"

My daughter had just one competitive season, as an ice dancer, during which she earned a spot at Junior Nationals. The competitive career fizzled, for overwhelming reasons-- personalities, time, cost, commitment, conflicting goals (all exponentially more complex when you're dealing with a team). But the love of skating continued and matured.

So what happens to the "also rans?" We don't run anywhere. We are still here, testing and teaching and passing our love of skating on at community programs. We are filling with wonder the eyes of tiny princesses at professional ice shows. Hundreds of us are skating anonymously on marvelous synchronized skating teams. Every now and then one of my rink's lost ones shows up, with friends in tow. A common refrain I hear from the friends in these situations is "Wow! You said you could skate, but I didn't know that meant you could skate!" We sit in front of the tv watching the latest competitive season, and remember when that girl was with this other boy, and now look at that, she's skating with that kid on your Facebook, at Cup of China. It's a wonderful feeling of connection and continuity.

It's hard to give up a competitive career, for everyone. Hard for the skater, who needs to find a new reason for staying in the sport, and who might feel like she's disappointing everyone. Hard for the parents, who want the world to know that their offspring is the most wonderful ever, and who have to sublimate their own desires to the maturing child's goals. In a team, hard for the other family, who have to start over with someone new. Hard for the coach, who has invested time and emotion in an outcome that isn't going to come out.

But climbing through to the other side also has its rewards, in renewed commitment to new goals, in personal growth and in sweet memories.

Nov 24, 2009

Coaches ethics

You knew this one would follow!

The idea of ethics for coaches seems more intuitive than ethics for parents. But I think in both instances it can be summed up in the famous Google phrase:

Don't be evil

Members of the Professional Skaters Association, which right now is every coach who takes students to qualifying US Figure Skating events, or who has students going through testing, must adhere to both a set of professional guidelines, and a code of ethics. These have to do primarily with obvious things like
  • avoid criminal behavior
  • if you think it's wrong it probably is
  • leave the other guy's student alone
  • don't teach beyond your expertise
I also like the attitude espoused at the Positive Coaching Alliance, especially their common sense attitude about what a goal is, through the idea of the double-goal coach. A double-goal coach likes to win (who doesn't), but more importantly, wants the athlete to learn not only to exhibit good sportsmanship, but to live it. To congratulate the winner, and mean it. To accept not just defeat, but also victory gracefully. To honor the game and not the trophy.

Nov 22, 2009

Parent ethics

An odd concept, yes? Professional ethics for parents.

But in figure skating, it's tremendously important. While I believe that, as a youth sport, figure skating has tremendous potential for helping kids grow, as a "monetized" sport, it also has hideous potential for abuse.

I started thinking about this because of an incident this morning at an ice show rehearsal, for the tots and toddlers. One of the children, formerly quite enthusiastic, has been reluctant to the point of screaming tantrums to get on the ice for these sessions. This morning the mother, in front of me, threatened this 4 year-old with a spanking if he didn't skate. Please parents, don't make me your enabler.

So here's some ethics for figure skating parents.

Be positive. Whether at class, rehearsal, lesson or competition, put a smile on your face and praise the child's efforts and enjoyment. Skaters get enough criticism from their coaches.

Focus on your own area of expertise, not the coach's. The only thing it is acceptable to criticize your child about skating is their attitude. If they disrespect the ice (such as kicking it in frustration or taking up a spot on a practice session and then just hanging out by the boards), other skaters, or coaches, it's appropriate for a parent to put in their two cents. Do not ever criticize the child's skating, even if you are also a skater. That is not your job.

Never, ever, yell at a child in front of others, including in the types of situations above. Take it somewhere private. Who hasn't heard a child getting yelled at for placing low in a competition? It's painful to witness, and humiliating for the skater. (For one thing, placements at competition are never enitrely the skater's fault, even for a bad skate. You have very little control over competition outcomes. Also, not your job, see above.)

Follow rink and club rules, even when they are inconvenient for you. Know the rules! If you challenge a rule, and I by no means discourage this, accept the rink's or club's judgment. If you think a rule needs changing make an appointment with the rink manager or the club board and ask how you can help make the rule better for everyone, not just for you.

Do not solicit for your coach. This means don't sit in the stands telling parents of other skaters how much better your coach is, and keep private conversations on the subject circumspect as well. Believe it or not, this can get the coach in trouble, because it creates the appearance of soliciting, coaching's biggest no-no. Soliciting is seeking to acquire a student who already has a coach. Some unethical coaches try to get around this by encouraging, or not discouraging, parents trying to get skaters to switch.

Don't coach from the sidelines. Don't stand in the door during class or lesson. For heaven's sake, don't shout to your child during class or a lesson (I can't believe I have to say that). There's a wonderful photo that makes the rounds every now and then. It shows an old Soviet-era rink that had painted over its windows. Parents were required to drop the children at the door--they were not even allowed inside. The mothers had scratched little peep holes through the paint so they could peer in with one eye. We like to joke that that is the way to run an ice skating program!

Remember, especially at the learn-to-skate levels, that it is figure skating, not world peace. Even if you have realistic ambitions of high level competition, you have lots of time. A skater who gets through the basic levels (up to single jumps) by age 9 or 10 can reasonably expect to pass the Senior tests before getting out of high school.

The US Figure Skating site has some good guidelines for parents.

Nov 21, 2009

Zombie Apocalypse: Tales from the Nutcracker

Well, mouse zombies, anyway.

Subbed for the Battle Scene rehearsal last night because the regular coaches were out of town (including Chris Hyland, busy supervising Chris and Angel's silver medal in Juvenile Dance at Mids!). Because I'm not the regular coach, I didn't want to add or change any choreography, just wanted to clean it up, keep it fresh and punch up the details, one of which is the acting.

The Battle Scene is the first part of Clara's dream in Act 1, where the enchanted Nutcracker and the toy soldiers battle the evil Mouse King (or in our case, usually, since it's skaters, Mouse Queen) and his/her mice. The soldiers were easy enough-- got them to march in unison and showed them how to stand at both attention and parade rest, which they were pretty into. However, I couldn't get the other girls to be mice-y enough, until I got the brainstorm to tell them to be Zombie Mice. This worked brilliantly. Most Evil Mice Evar.

Nov 20, 2009


Lots of anxiety this week about axels and freestyle 5 at the rink and here online. One of the important things to remember is that everyone gets stuck somewhere. My own daughter, now a triple gold medalist (meaning Senior test in Moves, FS, and Dance) had a legendary stint in Freestyle 5: two and a half years. Nine. Sessions. She zoomed up to Freestyle 4, leaving all her age mates in the dust. And then they all starting passing her. And passing her. And passing her.

Yesterday I asked her, on behalf of a former student and her concerned mother, how she got past her fear of the axel. Her response made me understand how figure skating helped her to grow up. In the past I've attributed her increased maturity around this time to a coaching change which happened a few months after she finally nailed that jump, but reading this I think she probably did it on her own, and the axel helped.
I think getting over the falling thing is more of a maturity thing. There's just a point when you stop worrying about it. And that was even after I started working on my doubles. You just have to get over the fact that yes, you are going to fall and yes it is going to hurt sometimes. Just accept it.
The point is, everyone gets stuck somewhere. My former student "Patti" got stuck, incredibly, at Pre Alpha. This was an extraordinary child who found the maturity to reach inside and get over her fear, on her own, at the unheard of age of 6. Watch for her to be president someday. There are places where we expect kids to get stuck-- Gamma (mohawk turns), Freestyle 4 (sit spin), Freestyle 7 (flying camel, wally), and of course, FS 5.

In my opinion, the lower you get stuck, the better off you are. A kid that is pushed through the basic levels almost always has technical deficiencies relating to upper body control, basic understanding of edges and turns, and weak crossovers and stroking.

What you're working on here, as a skater or a parent or a coach, is enabling the skater to find that place inside where understanding clicks into place. You can't give it to her. But you can take it away, by rewarding the wrong thing, or punishing the effort.

Nov 18, 2009

How to change coaches

An anonymous commenter despairs that they left what they felt was an ineffective coach, "now she's mad at us. How do we let her know there are no hard feelings?"

This is, hands down, the toughest thing in skating. Unlike other sorts of lessons and teachers, where when you leave, you leave-- you physically go somewhere else, and you don't have to see that person again, in skating, it's rare to actually leave the rink when you change coaches, so you have to keep dealing with that person.

So, first, be kind. Coaches invest a huge amount of ego (the good kind), time, and emotion in their kids. We get extremely attached, very quickly; most coaches I know feel actual affection if not love for their skaters approaching a parental feeling. Unless there is actual abuse or criminality going on, or the coach isn't showing up for lessons, try not to make it about the coach. Make it about you, or the progress, or life changes, whatever. Don't shut the door on a coach if you don't have to. Your skater is still going to have that coach for class, will have to interact with his or her other students, etc. Some good reasons to switch-- Schedule doesn't work. You want a coach with kids that are more/less competition-oriented. You want to work with a Pairs or Dance coach. You can't afford it (be prepared for some coaches to offer you a deal; this does happen). In other words, there are lots of ego- and relationship-saving ways to change coaches.

Usually people change coaches because they feel the current one isn't helping the skater progress. But never make this the reason, because unless you are the skater, you just don't know what it is about the coaching relationship that isn't working. Sometimes a new coach will say the exact identical thing to a kid that the old coach was saying, and for some reason, the kid does it for the new coach. So sometimes it's not something the coach has done or not done. And at any rate, you probably don't know enough about skating technique to make that judgment. Don't even bring it up.

Do it slowly. Tell the coach if you have a problem. "Mary's not progressing as quickly as other skaters," "Mary doesn't seem to be responding to you." (Even if this is what you mean, do not say "as quickly as I think she should." Unless you are a skating coach, the first thing that coach will think, is how do you know how fast she "should" be progressing?) Let him or her explain. Then tell them that you are considering a coaching change. Give them a chance to redeem themselves.

If you have already decided who you want to move to, talk to that coach privately, and tell them that you will talk to your current coach. An ethical coach will also speak to the current coach before taking on a new student. There are no secrets at an ice rink, and competitive and PSA rated coaches are bound by ethical rules that require us to disclose when a skater talks to us about switching coaches. Make sure both coaches know what is going on every step of the way. Don't be seen talking to the new coach if you haven't told the old coach yet.

Pay any outstanding bills. Do not skip this part. Please do not skip this part. Not paying the final billing is the single most effective way to ensure that your child will never again be given the time of day by any coach at the rink, because believe me, word will get around.

If the coach stops talking to you or your child, explain to the child that she's sad about the change, then tell the coach you understand if she doesn't want to talk to you, the parent, but please don't take it out on Mary, because she feels very hurt. This happened to my daughter, and it took a couple of years for us to make the old coach understand that we did not harbor any ill will. (She basically decided that lessons were for fighting with him, and I was paying $60 an hour to watch them argue.)

Don't let a coach drive you out of a rink, or worse, out of skating. I have seen this happen and it breaks my heart. Sometimes coaches don't know they're doing it, sometimes they do it with malicious intent. Don't give in. At worst, it builds character. You are the customer, you have a right to skate where you want to skate, and your child has a right to a safe and friendly environment. But the best way to avoid this is to listen to the coach. I recently was subjected to first, an overheard argument between a parent and a coach, and then both parties came to me separately to complain. Basically, the coach had been telling the parent for a year that the child needed to skate and practice at a certain level, which she was not doing, or this coach was not the right match. But she was a "prestige" coach and the parent didn't want to hear it. Eventually the child got so discouraged that she quit skating entirely. She was a recreational skater with a competitive coach. That girl would still be skating if the parent had heard what the coach was saying, namely "I'm not the right coach for your child."

Here is an overview of the PSA Guidelines for coaches when approached by a skater/parent about a coaching change, and an excellent pdf of Proper Procedures for Changing Coaches. More on coaches' and parents' ethics in a future post.

From the keyword search

Here's what people want to know (the following phrases turned up on my keyword search list)

How long before my daughter tests out of alpha figure skating?
I've had students step onto the ice able to do cross overs and proper stroking, and I've had kids take 1 year to get there. A better question is "what should my daughter be able to do when she passes alpha?" She should be able to skate across a full sized rink with proper full blade pushes and leg extension. She should be able to do what I call a "true cross," that is place the crossing foot truly inside the circle so that her feet are side-by-side in the crossed position. She should be able to hold a two-foot glide in the position, and she should be able to uncross without pushing her toe pick into the ice. A strong alpha skater will have an undercut push, but I don't insist on this myself at the Alpha level as long as there is no toe push.

How fast can I move up in figure skating?
This is the skating variation of "how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The answer of course, is "practice." A reasonable rule of thumb, however, is that with application and more than one time on the ice per week, most people (kids and adults) can progress two to three levels per year at the learn-to-skate/Basic Skills level, and one level maybe every 6 to 15 months (2 to 5 sessions) at the free style levels, with a long stop over at FS5 to learn the axel. (Take your time at 5.) For children, if you start skating by age 10 you will be landing doubles by the time you graduate highschool, provided you work at it. You can pretty much take that to the bank.

10 year olds at figure skating nationals
I'd love to know what this person was looking for! Yes there are 10-year olds at nationals, but mostly at Junior Nationals (Juvenile and Intermediate). There are minimum age limitations for the Senior Level at international (you must be 16), and national (you must be 15) competitions. As far as I've been able to find, there are no minimum age requirements at other qualifying levels. (Anyone have better info on this?) So yes, there might be 10 year-olds at Nationals, especially at the novice level. But I don't see the point-- what's the hurry? Coaches or parents in this situation-- why have kids skate so high so young? Let us know in the comments.

Nov 17, 2009

Coaching philosophy, part 2

Picking up where I left off:
  • Talent is not the most important thing.
  • There's always something new to learn.
  • It's about the journey, not the destination.
  • Kids are great.
When I first started coaching, I took on a little girl who had the most heartrending difficulty doing ANYthing on the ice. One of the games I play with young beginners is "lose the swizzle." We count how many swizzles it takes to get across the ice, and then see how many we can lose on the way back. Eventually, I tell them, we want to lose all except 10 of them.

The first time we did this it took 5 year-old Patti* more than 100 swizzles, and more than 10 minutes, to make it across the studio rink (about 50 feet). Just getting through to her the concept that you can balance on one foot on the ice was agonizing. But that amazing child stuck with it and today she's landing axels, skating on a Juvenile synchro team, and I make her competition dresses. One of my precious teaching memories is the moment that the light literally went on in her eyes when she finally did a one-foot glide. I will never forget the expression of joy and understanding in her face.

It took her a year. For a one-foot glide. Talent is not the most important thing.

There's always something new to learn.
No such thing in skating (or in anything else) as "I already know how to do that." One of the ways I motivate post-Alpha/Basic 4 skaters to continue to work on forward crossovers is to tell them we're going to work on "freestyle" cross overs. Everybody loves this! Or learn "double" cross overs (with 2 undercut pumps for every crossover.) Every single skill in skating, from falling to triple jumps, can be elaborated. We saw it happen in this new competitive season-- everyone does lutzes, and then Brian Boitano invented the "Tano Flair"-- one arm over his head. This year American skater Adam Ripon learned something new-- the Ripon flair, with both hands over the head.

It's about the journey, not the destination.
Unless you've bought a train ticket, you don't know where you're going. I first got on the ice at age 37 with the single idea that I wanted to be able to do cross rolls. These turn out to be fairly easy, but by the time I achieved this goal I was hooked. Figured I'd learn all the jumps. In my wildest dreams I never guessed I'd end up teaching, or that I'd be so good at it. Let the road take you where it goes.

Which brings us back, of course, to kids are great. I have learned more from my kids than I have in the cumulation of the coaching seminars I've attended. I learn games, and I learn when I'm talking too much, or paying attention too little. I learn that I'm important in these children's lives, like when my student Chris, all grown up and skating this week at Midwestern Sectionals, mentioned how he remembered when I taught him how to do "freestyle crossovers", and how cool that was.

Anyone can learn to skate. Kids are great. The rest is just the icing on the cake.

* name changed

Nov 15, 2009

My coaching philosophy, part 1

  • Anyone can learn to skate.
  • I want my students to love skating.
  • I believe in group lessons.
  • But everyone is an individual.
  • Talent is not the most important thing.
  • There's always something new to learn.
  • It's about the journey, not the destination.
  • Kids are great.

This is turning out to be a difficult post to write. I know that I have a coaching philosophy, but what is it? Such a dramatic word-- philosophy-- it sounds like I should be describing it in words of 9 letters or more, with footnotes.

But when you come right down to it, my philosophy is bracketed by the first and last statements-- anyone can learn, and kids are great. That I believe these two things leads to everything else about this journey of mine into teaching this sport. So let's break it down:

Anyone can learn to skate
I am exhibit A for this one. It was my bad experiences with coaches who just dismissed me because I wasn't naturally talented that made me want to teach. I remember asking a coach why I couldn't do a waltz jump. She looked at it and shrugged, saying "I dunno." I just looked at her and thought, I could not possibly teach any WORSE than that. That is the moment that my ambition to teach, and my coaching philosophy, was born. There's a pervasive mythology in this culture, propagated by the media, that you only take skating lessons if you want to skate in the Olympics, and that only pushy parents "make" their children skate. Imagine this attitude applied to soccer, or music lessons. It's absurd.

I want my students to love skating
Every single person in a class deserves to be taken seriously, to have their time and effort honored, and to be given the best chance to succeed that they can. This means finding ways for each skater in a class to succeed in that class, especially challenging with younger and/or beginning skaters, who travel at vastly different speeds and levels of fear. It can be as simple as knowing everyone's name. I find it appalling when coaches, in the 8th or 9th week of class, don't know children's names. (see below, "Everyone's an individual"). Even if you decide that skating is not for you, you shouldn't leave because you hate it. People who quit should leave the ice liking, or loving, the sport, and not in defeat. But I have to say-- most of the kids who take my classes come back.

I believe in group lessons
I have actually had colleagues tell me that "classes are bullshit" and ask me "why do we have all these students who can't skate." Group lessons, and recreational skating in general, is where the sport starts. Read the biography of any world class skater from the US or Canada, and every single one of them started in classes or even on public skating, just for fun. There's also a fairly common attitude that if you're a high level coach you're too good for beginners (at any coaching seminar, you'll find most coaches at the session on double jumps, and very few learning how to make learn-to-skate classes productive). If basic skills classes are boring, that's the coach's fault.

Everyone is an individual
Again, you should really know everyone's name. But more, you should work to reach each skater in a way they understand. A coach should understand the concept of learning styles-- visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic. And he or she should have strategies using every learning style for every single skill from marching at the tot level, up to and including multiple rotation jumps. You should *see* your skaters, too. If you consistently notice that a child has her skates poorly tied, or the wrong size; if she's wearing inappropriate clothing (too much or too little), go and talk to the parent. If the parent knows that you see and understand their child, and care about him, that's going to go a long way toward engendering that love of the sport.

I'll start up in a later post with talent and learning.

If you're a coach do you have a coaching philosophy? Do you think you need one? How would you describe it? If you're a parent or a skater-- ditto, but for your coach. Do you know your coach's coaching philosophy, or do you even know if he has one? Has this ever come up?

Part 2

Nutcracker memories

Watching the "big girls" get on the ice yesterday after rehearsal, I was reminded of a nutcracker maybe 5 years ago. We had just finished a performance with the tots-- got them through their number and across the ice without incident, despite one little girl's fears and tears at the start. She got to the end, came off stage, stopped, and looked at me. "That was so much fun!" she exclaimed, really excited.

And turned around and skated right back out onto the ice to do it again, straight into the high freestyle group that was barreling full-speed onto the set. I will never forget the look of horror on the lead skater's face as I raced out to scoop the tot up and get her out of the way.

Good times.

Nov 14, 2009

Here's how much we love the Nutcracker

We do it for minimum wage.

This year however, I'm not really complaining about it, because number one, as the headline says, I really love doing it. But also, full time Evanston staff-- that's everyone who works in the office and on the maintenance staff--were given the choice of a voluntary pay cut, reduced hours (threatening their benefit package) or furlough days.

And they really had no choice but to comply, without even the dignity of the noise that has been made on the airways about the same situation in the City of Chicago.

Now don't get me wrong, although we agree to the lowered pay for the ice shows as a condition of employment, it is an outrageous exploitation of highly skilled professionals, and there's no opt-out. But at least we know this going in. Evanston's full time staff was simply told, hey, folks, you're not going to be making as much money as you used to, and by the way, just in time for Christmas!

Nov 13, 2009

Don't expect miracles

A friend of mine tweets "Okay, really sick of parent who expects miracles from me."

I'm guessing this has to do either with a student who is not passing tests, or who is not placing well at competitions, or who is not mastering a difficult skill.

I'm not saying that it's never the coach's fault. There are coaches that couldn't teach a frog to jump, and there are coaches that don't care or pay attention. But if you're disappointed in the coach, if you think your or your skater's problems are due to the coaching, here's what you need to ask first:

• Are you skating enough to achieve the outcome you're looking for? If you're trying to test Moves, you need a dedicated lesson and at least half of every practice devoted to the test. Is the coach telling you that the student is not ready to test? Listen to her, and ask her what you need to do to get ready. (quick answer-- practice more, and practice effectively). Is it a jump? Read my formula for achieving mastery at freestyle. If your skater is working on the axel and is not on the ice 3 hours a week (including practice, lesson, and class), it's going to be a looooong slog.

• Is the skater practicing effectively? Does the coach give the skater practice guidelines? How much are you practicing that jump? Are you breaking down the skill (i.e. practicing segments of the skill in isolation). How many times are you willing to fall? Skaters who aren't falling when learning multiple rotation jumps are not trying to learn the jump; they are trying not to fall.

• Am I basing my expectations on what other skaters are achieving? This is a huge error that parents make, and one I regret that coaches encourage. (Overhead from a coach-- "Oh, all my skaters are in Freestyle 5 by the time they're 7!) Maybe the skater who seems to keep moving ahead of your child skates 2 or 3 times as much. I hate to say it, but she might be more talented. Or, she might be getting "cuted" up. If you're concerned that little Mabel is all the way to Freestyle 5 while your Suzie is "stuck" at 3, take a look at Mabel. Does she really look like a freestyle 5 skater? I worked on a Nutcracker number last night in a lower freestyle level, and there were an awful lot of cuties in there who did not have a clue how to do the basic jumps at that level.

• Understand that what it really takes to place well at competitions is not just skill, talent, and levels, but also a great big walloping dollop of sheer dumb luck. You have absolutely no control over what happens on competition ice. Forget the program. Here are the things you cannot control:
-Incompetent or spiteful judging. I hate to say it, but this happens.
-Your skater had a bad day
-Another skater in the group had the skate of their life. Our own local hero, Evan Lysacek, US Champ, World Champ, was on his way to Olympic Gold. And then former World Champion Yevgeny Plushenko decided to come out of retirement and give it one more shot. And now everyone is saying, hey Evan, enjoy that Silver!
Miracles happen in the movies. Skaters happen through perseverence, work, and an awful lot of bumps and bruises.

Nov 12, 2009

Good luck Angel and Chris!

A dance team from our rink is on its way in a few days to "Mids," US Figure Skating Midwest Sectional competition, which is the qualifying competition for Nationals (or in Chris & Angel's case, Junior Nationals).

Chris was one of my very first students; I'd have to ask his mother how old he was when I took him on-- maybe 8, and in a learn to skate level, Alpha or Beta. I took him through Freestyle 1 or 2. Unlike most coaches, I will only take students from the Learn to Skate levels--I never start a freestyle student--and I only take them through the lower freestyle levels. This is because I don't do testing or competitions as both a personal preference and because I also have a second full-time job, so I don't have the hours I would need to devote to more competitive or ambitious students. (I also taught Angel in classes through Delta, and their coach is my very good friend and mentor Chris Hyland.)

In the decade or so that I've taught privates I've had nearly 100 students. They come they go, they move to other coaches or other rinks or other activities. But there are some students that I've just never really let go of, and Chris is one of them. So, guys, I'm really proud of you, and I know you will rock. Have a great time.

Nov 11, 2009

If I ran the ice rink

It's a favorite pastime of skating coaches-- griping about the clueless management. Of course, the management isn't clueless, but some decisions, or non-decisions seem puzzling if lines of communication aren't open.

So here's what I would do if I ran the circus skating rink:

Listen to my staff. Better still, ask them for input, on a regular basis. At the end of every class session (generally 6 to 10 weeks depending on the rink and time of year) sit down with staff and ask questions. What worked, what didn't. What did you hear from parents? What are your ideas for keeping our students engaged and in class (or better yet in multiple classes). If you can't get them to come to a meeting, meet with them individually.

Know what your coaches are doing on the ice. Watch a few classes. Sit in the stands with the parents. A certain type of coach left on her/her own will default to What's Best For Number One. The most notorious example of this is the coach who only teaches his or her own students, even in class, ignoring everyone else. Before long, only his or her students will bother to sign up for that class, because kids and their parents figure this out and will stop wasting their money and their time. Wondering why no one signs up for Freestyle 6? That's why.

Listen to my customers. Find out who didn't sign up for a subsequent session and send them an "exit survey." Find out what kept them out. Look for trends and address them in the program. Get out of the office and talk to parents during class. Just go up and introduce yourself and ask them how it's going. You'll get an earful, and most of it will be good. You'll find out which coaches are the beloved ones, and it just might surprise you. The paperwork needs to get done, but well done paperwork won't grow your program.

Reward skaters and coaches publicly. Whenever a skater passes a USFS test, or competes in any competition (let alone wins a medal), put up a sign, congratulating not only the skater, but the coach as well. If a coach passes a ratings exam, or competes or performs, put up a sign. This gives that student extra incentive to keep skating, gives the coach validation for continuing education, and it also starts the education of new parents and skaters, who are likely to ask someone what that means. At my rink there are huge signs lauding the hockey program and speedskating. The hockey program painted a giant sign on the ice surface. Hockey and speedskating TOGETHER account for maybe 20% of the ice time. The speedskating program is a private club. Eighty percent of the hockey program is rentals and travelling teams. Where is this kind of promotion for in-house figure skating, at one of the largest figure skating programs in the area? When I asked the rink manager this, I was told "it's not always about the money." Well, with all due respect, yes. It is.

Know what my coaches are doing. Whether taking PSA ratings exams, or attending a lot of continuing education seminars, or taking your rink's students to lots of competitions, coaches who immerse themselves and their students in the sport, and who are out in the skating world promoting your program through their presence, should be rewarded. Despite my recent Senior Rating in Group Classes from the PSA, I am in a lower salary range than 22 year olds with high USFS tests. Those kids skate better than me, but no way do they teach better than me. I, and others like me, should be rewarded. Don't confuse ability to skate with the thing that is really important to your program-- a coach that inspires skaters to continue.

Mix it up. Within the limitations of the schedule, don't always put the same coaches on the same classes. Some kids (or parents) don't like a certain coach and you will lose them forever in that class unless they know that they might draw a different coach. Currently most rinks assign classes on a seniority system-- the longer you've been at a rink, the more likely you are to get the "desirable" classes. We have a joke, that you can always tell when the freestyle coaches are feeling nervous about how many private students they have, because they suddenly turn up teaching the Alpha class, where they skim off the best students before disappearing back into the freestyle black hole. The seniority system means not only that gifted new coaches have difficulty getting assigned to high freestyle, but also that your most experienced coaches never teach in the lower levels.

Have after school practice or public ice for all levels of skaters. Some rinks have only public skating after school, so they lose all the freestylers and high level skaters. Some rinks only have free style practice sessions after school, so your beginners never come to practice. Again, mix it up. Make sure your rink has something for everyone. (And, after school means 3:45, not 6.)

Stay tuned for "If I ran the rink, Nutcracker edition"!

Edit: here's a discussion sparked by this post, at Skating Forums.

*full disclosure: I do NOT want to run the rink. I just want to complain about it.

Herding cats

Back with the little boys yesterday: a 5-year old with ants in his pants, 4 sixers, a 7, and a nice, calm 9 year old. They told me they were having a BLAST, XAN! not a good thing with kindergarten boys.

So the made-up Nutcracker number is "Royal Soldiers," just an invented number specifically to keep the boys all in one place, and it uses the Toy Soldiers music. So we're an army unit; hate to do that to children but they seem to be responding-- tennnnnnnn HUT! makes them stop and stand at attention (well, all but the 5 year old. A 2 by 4 upside the head would not get that child's attention). Saluting also seems to make them stand still, who knows why.

I asked them what the main thing was that a soldier does, to universal confusion.

They have no idea what a soldier does. huh.

I think this is a good thing. In my generation, you ask any 6 year old boy what a soldier does, and he would know: Shoots guns! Kills the bad guys! Wears a uniform! Marches! Nope. These kids had absolutely no idea. So, this generation of parents-- good on ya. A vague idea of heroes and uniforms, and saluting, but that was all they could think of.

Well, on the other hand, I sez to myself sez I, here's an opportunity. So I told them, "well, a soldier follows orders! Whatever the general says, he has to do. And I'm the general."

This worked brilliantly. Suddenly it was a game--follow orders.

They ran through the entire number several more times, and each time it tightened up a little more, until the final run-through was smooth, relatively mistake-free, and on the music.

Nov 9, 2009

Surprise guest coach

Well, another coach wasn't able to attend her rehearsal as well, so a colleague and I stepped in and choreographed the Mama G number on the fly, too. The parents were apparently thrilled with what we did, and had no idea we were making it up as we went along. Got a lot of love and praise from a lot of smiling faces after the rehearsal.

Thanks, parents, for reminding me how much fun this job is.

Nov 8, 2009

Skating with the little guys

First rehearsal today for the tots in the Nutcracker on Ice. We call them the "Dream Fairies and Wizards" and theirs is the music just before the Kingdom of Snow at the end of Act 1, if you're familiar with the ballet.

Of course, the main thing with 3 to 5 year olds is just getting them across the ice. The music is a little bit more than two minutes, and you have to make sure the fast ones have something to do, and the slow ones make it all the way. Sometimes 2 minutes is barely enough time!

So there were some good things and just one bad thing today, pretty good for a tot class! Number one-- everyone was there! I think this is unique in the 30-year history of the Nutcracker on Ice, especially at a first rehearsal, especially for tots. I've had rehearsals where fewer than half the kids showed up. I've had kids skip every single rehearsal and then show up for the performance (and parents, if you do this, don't try to tell me the kid was there, because I take attendance). Second great thing-- I had had all of them except one in class so they all knew me. This is critical with tots. They're often afraid of new people, so stepping onto the ice and already knowing everyone's name was great. Plus, a lot of them knew each other.

Now, the bad thing. The coach who was supposed to choreograph this didn't show up, didn't call, didn't leave any instructions. Luckily the music was in the pro's room. So I had to choreograph on the fly; however a few weeks ago I was at a coach's seminar and the instructor had taught us a game for tot class. So I used the game as the choreography. Plus, since the kids were all from my classes, they already knew the game.

It made me feel really good that pretty much every child in my tot classes signed up, and pretty smug that apparently the kids in other people's tot classes did not. Of course I'm equating correlation and causation here, but whatever. I'll just twist my arm here, patting myself on my own back.

Nov 7, 2009


I'm cooking today! Come visit me over on Mahlzeit. Come back tomorrow night and hear about the tot rehearsal for Nutcracker on Ice!

Nov 5, 2009

How to choose a figure skating coach, part 3

Last one, I promise!

Here's what you should ask the coach before you hire them:

What do you charge?
Coaching fees range from $15 to $50 or more per half-hour lesson. If the coach is at the top of this scale, there needs to be a reason. At the top, I'd want to know that the coach either has a lot of students and therefore puts a premium on his/her time (reasonable), or has a really strong competitive/test record with his/her students. A young coach who is charging a high fee and yet cannot demonstrate a strong record over many years should be approached with a giant grain of salt. At the bottom of that scale, you might be seeing a junior coach (generally teens from the rink) who is being restricted. Make sure they know what they're doing and that they connect with your kid. It's great to hire a young coach, but don't mistake a fun coach for a skilled coach.

Is the coach PSA rated? Do they attend coaching seminars and continuing education?
This indicates someone with a commitment to teaching, who attends continuing education (it's a requirement of the rating) and who has a support system. This coach has also invested both time and money in coaching, indicating a commitment on a professional level, and not just as moonlighting or, as I often hear from young coaches "I just wasn't ready to give up skating" or, worse, "I can make so much more money doing this than working a cash register." A PSA rating, or attendance at local club and federation educational events indicates a coach who believes in the profession, and isn't just there for a stop gap.

What's the policy for missed lessons?
Most coaches have incredibly liberal policies for missing a lesson, usually a call-by time (generally 24 hours to cancel without being charged, but sometimes even more liberal). Remember that the coach relies on lesson fees for income. Very few coaches work 40 full hours per week, so a missed lesson is a huge hit on their income. Know the cancellation policy and then honor it. I've never heard of a coach who charges you if they miss a lesson, but there will be varying approaches to make up lessons (for instance, I never do make up lessons.)

Are there other policies you should know about?
Some coaches require a certain amount of practice or they drop the students. They might request cash only, or will want to bill you, or require advance payment for sets of lessons. Start and stop time is sometimes covered by coaches-- the lesson begins after warm up, but always ends at the appointed time, for instance (so, if the lesson is 8 to 8:30, and the coach requires a 5 minute warm up, if the student gets on the ice at 8, that lesson is now only 25 minutes long. You need to know this going in.)

Also ask them about their experience and coaching philosophy. (Caveat-- I love to skate is NOT a coaching philosophy). It doesn't necessarily matter how long a coach has been in the profession, but you should know this. Appearances can be deceptive. I'm old, but have only been coaching 11 years.

Don't be afraid to show your ignorance about the sport. Ask for explanations of anything you don't understand. Make your financial and time limits clear. A lot of bad coaching experiences can be nipped in the bud through simple honesty.

Finally, bad coaching experiences are far and away the exception. While you should do your homework and ask your questions, your instincts are probably good. Hire your coach and watch your child thrive.

Here are a few more articles on the topic:

How to choose a figure skating coach, part 2

Some things to remember:
Ice time is limited, especially at the Learn To Skate/Basic Skills levels. Many rinks have restrictions on lessons during public skate, plus public skate in the winter is so crowded that lessons can be problematic. Be willing to work with the coach to find an acceptable time, which might include early morning, or skating at a different rink. Be open to it.

Know the cost. Private lessons include the coach's fee and the ice fee. The ice fee is the price of admission, essentially; what it costs to step on the ice. For public skating this will be anywhere from $3 to $7 depending on the rink. For "practice ice" (non-recreational ice set aside for lessons and practice), the fee will be higher, $6 to $20 depending on various factors. If you've got a Learn to Skate student, you'll be looking for cheaper ice and cheaper lessons. A high competitive coach will charge upwards of $40 or $50 for a half-hour lesson. Nothing wrong with hiring this coach if the match feels right, but you might want to think about other coaches who charge less (seldom lower than $25 per half hour). You can also ask about sharing lessons. I'll take group lessons as long as the students are no more than 4 years apart in age and/or span 3 or fewer skill levels.

High test and impressive competitive credentials are not the best indicator of good teaching. Conversely, a coach's record with students is a good indication. A coach who gets kids through high tests and whose kids do well in competition (relative to how much they practice) is someone to consider. If you're not looking for a so-called competitive coach, take this metric to the class level-- is this coach getting kids through class tests? Are her or his classes well organized and fun?

Look for coaches with students at your child's skill level (not ability, but skill level). If all of a coach's students seem to be at a much higher level, either that coach is pushing his/her kids through the levels too fast, or doesn't really work well with lower level students. Some coaches will tell you that they only take freestyle students. Good for them. (Works the other way 'round, as well. For instance, I only take students from beginner through Freestyle 2-3.)

You wouldn't obsess or worry about a violin or piano teacher, and it's really not that much different.

How to choose a figure skating coach, part 1

In my apparent role as the go-to coach for "things I'm reluctant to ask someone else about" at my rink, one of the discussions I get is about how to choose a coach for the first time. ("Hey, Xan, we think you're great and Susie really loves you and we're thinking about getting private lessons. Who would be a good coach for her?" I'm not kidding.

Well, not really. I'm glad to be here to field these questions, and I don't take many private students, focusing on the purely recreational group.

So how do you choose a coach?

The first thing to know is what short term and long term outcomes you want. Short term-- learn a specific skill, move up a level, perform in the rink's exhibition or show. Long term-- keep skating through high school, get a solo in the ice show, take the USFS tests, compete. Find a coach who supports these goals.

There's lots of advice about this on the internet, starting at the US Figure Skating site, in their section for parents. But they, and many others, really zero in on choosing a coach for a competitive career. (Some of the questions USFS suggest you ask: "What are your greatest coaching accomplishments? What is your skating background? Do you specialize in coaching certain disciplines (singles, pairs, dance, synchronized skating)? What levels have you passed? Did you skate competitively?"

If you've got a 9-year old Beta or Gamma student who thinks they might want to get better faster, is it really important that her first coach competed at a high level or not? How about a coach who specializes in beginners? It's not even on US Figure Skating's list.

A better place to start is by watching a particular coach's interaction on and off the ice with the kids, with the parents, and with the other coaches. That last thing is a huge indicator of a well-rounded person, let alone coach. Does the coach isolate him or herself from everyone but his/her cronies, students and parents? Does the coach come off the ice after class and talk to a lot of different families, or only some families? Does he or she interact with each student in the class, with none, or with only some?

And of course, most important, does your child respond to this coach. Especially if you are starting lessons before freestyle levels, the single most important skill the coach needs is the ability to respond to your child.

As the old Human Resources trope goes-- Hire the Smile.

Nov 2, 2009

The most fun

My home rink puts on the Nutcracker on Ice every year-- upwards of 200 kids in roles from tot "Dream Fairies" (invented for our production) to the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy. Rehearsals started this week, and as always they are a blast.

The last three years I've been choreographing the Battle Scene between the Toy Soldiers and the Mice, but decided to try something different this year and took on the little boys, who have another invented part, "Royal Soldiers." There's just 6 of them, but it should be pretty cute-- you have to balance the boys' need to be a little crazy, and the fact that it's a show with a lot of people on the ice at once so they pretty much have to do the same thing every night (6 full dress performances, including the dress rehearsal).

Different coaches approach rehearsals differently. I like to choreograph ahead of time and teach the kids as much of the program as possible the first day and then work at cleaning it up. Some coaches like to make it up as they go along, to the extent that some groups are still getting choreography in far along rehearsals. But it all seems to work and come together in the end.

I love doing the Nutcracker. To the kids it's as important as a major competition and I get really mad at the coaches who downplay this importance, especially to the competitive kids. It sets up a heirarachy, a false comparison "this is only important if you're not good enough for nationals." Not true. As the mother of a skater who went to nationals, I can tell you that Nutcracker was way more important to her-- her emotional investment in it was enormous, and you can't dismiss that.