Dec 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I always joke "I don't want to run things, I just want everyone to do what I say." How did it take me so long to discover blogging? As we close 2009, I want to first say thank you to the small community that is taking root here, for your support and your wisdom and your promotion of this blog. After a disastrous autumn at my day job it was wonderful to have this refuge and conversation to come to.

So thank you, keep it going. I'd love to hear from more of you, more often. Use the comments, follow me on Twitter, make a recipe and tell me how you liked it. A friend told me yesterday that he took exception with a point in one of my posts: bring it on! I know a lot about this, and I have very decided opinions, but my mind is open and I view life as a journey. If I don't learn new things, go new places, or encounter new viewpoints every day, well, the day's not done.

I came late to skating and to teaching, and it changed my life, which is why I feel so strongly the transformative power of this sport. It transformed me. Here's to another year on the journey, and continued transformation.

Thank you everyone.

My 2010 figure skating and coaching resolutions:
  • To finally decide whether to go for the Master Group Rating, or to wait for PSA to come to their senses and create a Master level in Basic Skills/developmental coaching.
  • To start lobbying PSA to create a Master level in Basic Skills/developmental coaching.
  • Nag Hyland to get his ratings.
  • To be able to skate, credibly, the Second Test Figures (we'll save "to a testable level" for another time).
  • To give management the benefit of the doubt.
  • To improve my high-freestyle teaching chops
  • To get at least 50 followers for Xanboni! (You guys have to help me with that!)

Thanks, IcePact for the inspiration

Dec 29, 2009

And here's the common sense part

Don't do backward spirals on crowded practice ice.

If a coach tells you to do something-- your coach or another coach-- for pity's sake just do it. Don't stand there arguing. You can get into it later, when you're not interfering with the session. And if a coach who is not your own tells you to do something, you can be pretty sure that you are engaged in a huge error, because interfering with someone else's student is the biggest no-no in coaching and it's not going to happen for frivolous reasons.

Yield to inexperienced skaters whether they have the right of way or not. Would you rather be right or upright?

Don't play chicken. (I might also phrase that don't be an idiot, but that would be rude.)

Don't talk back to coaches, even adult skaters. Again, take it up later. No attitude on practice ice please, no one has time.

And, finally: Don't. Stand. In. The. Lutz. Corner.

Dec 28, 2009

Practice ice etiquette and common sense

This post from Ice Mom caused me to dig into my drafts list and resurrect an idea from a couple of months ago called "what is practice ice." I had let the idea fall off because it seemed rather prosaic, with no hook or narrative. But the dilemma of Ice Mom's reader got my juices flowing, and helped me remember what it was like being a new mom and a new skater dealing with practice ice.

So, what is practice ice anyway? Well, a healthy program will find as many ways to use the ice as they can-- classes, figure skating practice, hockey games and practice, speed skating, special events, private rental. This is to appeal to as many customers as possible. You'll generally find people practicing figure skating on dedicated practice ice, and on public sessions. The difference is that at most rinks practice ice has an upper limit of users-- usually between 20 and 30 (this is why you pay more for practice than for public), and you can teach on it (not all rinks allow lessons on public sessions). You can also impose more specific and more stringent rules on practice ice.

Practice ice protocols and rules will vary from rink to rink. And this means not just what the published rules are, but also how far you can bend those rules. At my main rink, we are inflexible on skating level. "High" ice means you have a solid axel, period. Doesn't matter if the ice is undersold. If you're not tested onto that ice we will kick you off. But we're notoriously lax about making sure skaters have turned in a coupon, and some monitors are more haphazard about rules enforcement than others. At another rink I teach at I have seen puck practice on figure skating ice, apparently because they're more concerned about money than safety (did I just say that?).

So the first thing to find out when you or your child starts working on practice ice, is "what are the rules". Don't run up against them out of ignorance and then get all bent out of shape. Don't assume that what you know at one rink applies at every rink. Don't complain because someone seems to be in violation-- they might be utilizing some dispensation you don't know about. Observe for a while and find out where the rules seem, um, flexible. You're probably going to have to live with that. You need to understand not only the rules, but also the rink's idiosyncratic culture.

Sports facilities always have rules. One sees rules posted at swimming pools or the basketball court at the Y. There are things that are forbidden ("no jumps or programs in the first 5 minutes of each session," for instance, or no triples on low ice), general flow patterns (moves in the outer corridor, spins in the middle, jumps at the ends, lutz corners and watch out for clockwise jumpers) and right-of-way (generally for lessons and program run throughs). Other rules you might encounter: number/order of program plays, jump set-ups must utilize at least half the rink (i.e. no skating round and round in circles doing waltz jumps in one spot), coaches must teach from the boards (i.e. no standing around in the middle of the ice giving tips), no splitting sessions (i.e. paying for only half a session, or sharing coupons), no standing in the middle of the ice, no hanging out at the boards, no colored drinks. I'd be interested in hearing other rules from other rinks as well.

You can find out the rules by checking to see if they are posted or published. We used to post practice ice rules at my rink, but I haven't seen the poster in years, which is too bad because I think it would save a lot of grief and confusion. If your skater has never been on a practice session before, for goodness sake ask your coach (or any coach, if you aren't doing privates) to skate you around and explain it the first time. Why this isn't a requirement to qualify for practice ice is an utter mystery to me.

Things that can sabotage a well-thought out set of practice ice rules:
  • coaches who refuse to comply because they know there are no consequences. You're going to get some of this anywhere, sometimes over all the rules, sometimes over just some of them. My guess is management lets some things go and digs on others; I don't want to speculate or complain about why some rules are enforced and others ignored. It is what it is.
  • monitors who don't understand their power, or who abuse it. Yes, the ice monitor has power. Yes, sometimes the monitor will favor her daughter, or the daughter's cronies, or the daughter's coach. Too bad. Complain to management later. I used to tell my daughter that the ice monitor was g*d. You do what she says, when she says it. If you have a problem, take it up with her later, don't gum up practice ice. That said, ice monitors need to know the rules, they need to have regular training sessions, and they need to have occasional thank you luncheons, as having the worst volunteer job in the rink because everyone dumps on them.
  • guest coaches who try to impose their home rink rules on your ice. The other coaches in the rink, or the monitor, need to set them straight, politely but firmly, at the time of the infraction. "I'm sorry, this is low ice, your student can't work on triples here. Could he do moves instead? There's a high session in an hour."
So, I hope that helps. Practice ice can be terrifying for first timers. As far as I'm concerned, no skater should be allowed onto practice ice without understanding the rules first. It's a dangerous place if you don't know what you're doing.

Dec 26, 2009

Figure skating: path to enlightenment

I have to say, it was an unbelievable thrill to see my old student Chris win the gold in Juvenile Dance at Junior Nationals with his partner Angel. But it was not the only, or even the biggest thrill I've gotten from seeing what my students accomplish.

Elite skating is only one possible goal when your tiny one first steps onto the ice. Because of the glamor, fame, and sometimes even wealth associated with skating at the highest level, this is the image that a lot of parents have when their children start skating. In fact I believe this image scares a lot of parents off. There are two most-common remarks made to me by parents: first, "I'm not one of those pushy parents, but..." (okay, if you're saying this you are one of those pushy parents and should go for the competitive career. I am not being sarcastic.), and second "Why should she take lessons, she's not going to the Olympics."

In a million years, no parent would ever make a remark like that regarding any other endeavor. Think about it:

"He's not going to be starting for Manchester United, why should he play soccer?"
"She's not going to Juilliard, why should she take music lessons?"
"She's not going to Harvard Law, why should she attend university?"
"He's not going to be CEO, why should he work at the bank?"

The materialism that our society is succumbing to sometimes causes us to think in commoditized terms first-- how can I "use" this? But humans are about more than monetary gain. Especially because of relative the wealth that characterizes Western culture you also work towards personal rewards in accomplishment, humanity, knowledge. And figure skating has so many more outcomes than a trip to the Olympics.

Skating is a resume-builder. I see lots of really smart girls, with more determination than talent, using skating to add to their accomplishments for college applications. This is especially important for kids whose schedules or abilities don't allow them to excel at team sports. You get to succeed at skating on your own timeline, at your own pace, and to your own highest level-- no team try outs, no "you have to make varsity by 15 years old or you're out" age limits, no coach passing you by in favor of the team's stars.

So many of the kids I've known through my years of skating met their best friends not at school or place of worship, but at the rink. Further, they'll meet kids both more like them (through the love of skating) and less like them (because rinks draw kids from all over a district and from all social, racial, and religious backgrounds). In other words they find out that kids who superficially seem too different to bother with, in fact, share a lot of traits.

Any difficult endeavor teaches life lessons as well. Focus, overcoming odds and adversity, how to get along with others, tolerance for difference, poise. I always think skaters are older than they are, because of the incredible poise and public ease they develop. So yes, skating is a path to enlightenment as well. This goes back to those thrilling moments I was talking about. Six-year-old "Patty" finally managing a one-foot glide after a year of trying. A student with cerebral palsy learning to do a waltz jump. A smile from my developmentally disabled student. A senior getting a coveted ice show part on her last try.

If you are into it for the glory rather than the life lessons (and I have to confess, I've yet to hear some 10 year old confess to loving figure skating for the life lessons she's gaining), well, glory comes in all shapes and sizes. Testing, local competitions through both USFS Basic Skills and ISI, ice show solos. All of these things give some kids the same kind of thrill that competing at Nationals gives others. Don't downplay or disdain the importance of these things in child's life. My daughter, who competed at Junior Nationals, and is a triple gold medalist (moves, freestyle, dance), considered her solo as Dream Clara in our local Nutcracker performance to be the emotional pinnacle of her skating. These things are important, and not because "she's not good enough for Nationals" or, something I hear all the time, "Nationals is more important." The parents' or coach's idea of what is important is not always the same as the skater's.

UPDATE: Can't believe I left out Synchronized skating! And no, like ice dance, synchro is not just "for skaters who can't jump" and no, it doesn't "ruin your technique." It uses different techniques, expands your view of skating, and appeals to skaters who thrive in team environments.

Don't be afraid to let your child skate because they're not heading for the Olympics. They're headed for life, and skating is a great way to get there.

Dec 24, 2009

What is my 4 or 5 year-old learning?

A series of posts on the actual curriculum you observe through the glass.

First of all, putting your child in a “tot” class (or whatever your rink calls it) is not a judgment on your child’s skating ability. It is an acknowledgment of their age, and an accommodation to their developmental level. Please remember that ice rinks are Lake Wobegonall the children are above average. Don’t tell me that your child is “very verbal,” “advanced for her age,” or “too good for tot class.” This doesn’t work at school, and it shouldn’t work here.

1. Marching/Push-and-Glide/Stroking: Very young children are first taught to march (rather than slide) down the ice, preferably in a “duck-foot” position (toes slightly turned out). Beginners will be asked to glide a distance of about three feet after 3 to 5 marching steps; Intermediate students should be gliding a short distance with each step. Advanced students are doing “push-and-glide” which is comparable to the stroking step learned in Pre Alpha 2 (starting with feet in a “T” or “V,” push with the side of one blade, bring feet to a two-footed glide, repeat with opposite foot, etc.)

2. Swizzles: Swizzles are an accelerating movement starting with feet in a forward “V” (heels together, toes apart) and ending in a backward “V” (toes together or “kissing” and heels apart). Beginners are asked to make the movement from heels together to toes together without forward motion. Intermediate skaters learn to do 3 swizzles in a row after marching to a slow glide. Advanced skaters must do five swizzles in a row from a standing position, gliding with feet together in between, with no additional pushes or steps.

3. Backward wiggles: Movement backwards down the ice using a wiggling motion with the hips and shoulders, and keeping feet together. Beginning skaters must be able to propel themselves backwards for any distance; Intermediate skaters should move their own height in 3 to 5 wiggling motions. Advanced skaters should be able to sustain a short backwards glide after 3 to 5 wiggles.

4. Dips and hops: A dip is a deep knee bend with the hips at or below the level of the knees and the arms extended straight in front. Beginners do it in place or after taking 3 marching steps (no glide required). Intermediate skaters should be able to sustain a short glide in the dip position; advanced skaters sustain a longer glide. Hops are two-foot jumps in place (for beginners and intermediate) and forward while moving (for advanced).

5. Snowplow Stops: Beginners learn to make snow with the inside edge of either blade. Intermediate and Advanced skaters learn to stop from a glide using this technique.

6. Gliding: Beginning skaters learn a two-footed glide forward for at least their height. Intermediate skaters learn to glide in a straight line one-footed on both right foot and left foot. Advanced skaters begin to hold one foot glides around a circle and with the free foot in different positions. A child who can hold a one-foot glide on a circle, on each foot, for a distance equal to her height is ready for cross overs.

7. Scooter pushes: Advanced students learn to push with one foot around a circle, keeping the other foot on the ice. Students are taught to move both clockwise, pushing with the left foot, and counter-clockwise, pushing with the right foot. This is another pre-crossover skill.

How do skaters learn these skills?
A major difference between Tot/Snowplow Sam classes and the Learn to Skate/Basic Skills classes (which start with PreAlpha/Basic 1-2) is the reliance on games and personalized instruction. Learn to Skate classes are more structured and rely on children to be self-motivated. In the Tot classes, coaches use age-appropriate techniques, including both example-based and game-based methods to teach. Don't assume you're just watching games. The games have an actual learning purpose that reach the kids on their level.

During the first several classes, you’ll see kids simply skating around or falling and getting up-- this helps get them moving and confident before moving on to more specific skills. Additional coaches will sometimes come on the ice to decrease the student-teacher ratio while the children learn to be comfortable on the ice. In later classes, fewer coaches may come each time.

Games like Blowing Bubbles, Fishing, Clothes Washer, obstacle courses, Mr. Fox, Red-Light Green Light, making airplanes and race cars, relay races, et cetera, help kids apply the skills they’ve learned in a fun and challenging atmosphere. Often familiar songs like Head-Shoulders-Knees-Toes, BINGO, Hokey-Pokey, or Ring Around the Rosie help the children learn skating skills while feeling confident and comfortable with a familiar tune.

If your 3- or 4- or 5- year old can do all of the above skills, they can learn the skills in the regular curriculum of Alpha through Delta (Basic 2 through Basic 6). However, there is no need to take them out of “tot” classes, where the teaching will respond to their developmental level.

Dec 21, 2009

Commitment in figure skating

Back to private lessons! A frustrated coaching friend on Facebook chat one day:
There are a lot of people who take privates who don't quite get what that means as an investment and commitment. A lot of people are under the impression that a private lesson is like a magic wand, so they don't stick with the schedule and they blow off lessons all the time, and then wonder why their kid isn't doing any better.
Especially those of us who focus on recreational skaters, that is, kids who are in it for the fun and the show solos, this is an on-going frustration. To progress at anything you have to commit. A coach can only give you information. The skater has to apply it, and they have to learn to apply it on their own.

Commitment is not only about honoring the coach's time and showing up for lessons, it's about committing to improvement by taking your own time and practicing as well. And by practicing effectively. One of the major things skating coaches try to overcome is bad habits and poor technique that gets in the way of successful skill acquisition. I'll often hear from skaters, "it's too hard to do it that way" "I like the other way better" "I'm used to the other way" etc. If a skater has a lesson where the coach changes the technique, but then doesn't apply the new technique on her own, for these or other reasons, or through sheer laziness or disdain, that's a failure of commitment to their own goals and desires.

Parents fail at this too, especially in the bill paying. There isn't a coach in America who doesn't have some parent who keeps promising to pay "next week." You don't want to punish the kid by refusing the lesson; after all it's not the kid's fault. But parents not committing to the expense, whatever they agree to, are passing on a bad lesson to their kids, and are risking losing face with the kids when the coach finally has to say "no." (This goes for paying for ice time, too. Please stop sneaking onto the ice without paying. We take attendance, and you will receive a bill.) What parents also forget about canceling lessons is the direct effect that has on the coach's well being, inasmuch as that's her income. If you are constantly canceling lessons, bills are not getting paid. This is not going to make the coach feel like she needs to commit to you either.

I don't exempt coach's behavior here either. Too many coaches blow off classes, especially at the lower levels, or don't give the weaker kids the same attention they give the gifted ones.. If you take a staff coaching job, and the skating director puts you on a class, you need to be there. If you don't want to commit to whatever class you're assigned to and to all of the students in the class, don't take the job.

Most coaches will accept the skater's (or the parent's) goal. So if what you are really willing to commit to is only maintenance, for instance, be honest about it. If you know you can't attend practice, or that you'll miss a lot of lessons, just say so. A lesson plan can be structured around a more erratic, irregular schedule. But if you tell the coach that your goal is to compete, or to get a top role in the ice show, or to achieve a certain skill, you have to commit to the work it will take to get there.

Starting Figures Class

When teaching edges to freestyle and adults, I always start with figures. For one thing, I think skaters should know just how hard it is. For another, the new USFS Moves tests have added figures at the Preliminary, Pre-Juvenile, Novice and Junior levels, including outside forward and backward eights, and loops. For another, there is no better way to help a skater understand body alignment.

Plus, I'm really good at figures, which is not something that can be said about most of my skating.

In the first few days, you should learn:
How to “lay out” your figure using the long and short axes.
The first 4 figures: Forward Outside, Forward Inside, Back Outside and 3s to the Center.

So here we go:
Imagine a long line down the ice. This is your Long Axis. All figures are laid out on a Long Axis (you know this from Delta and Pre Freestyle class, or from your Moves lessons). You always push perpendicular to (across) the Long Axis. We call this the Short Axis. It can also be used to mark your center (the middle of the figure). When you are just beginning figures, you can draw the long and short axes.

Now you’re ready to skate your circles! You’ll have a circle to your right and a circle to your left. You always start right in the middle where the two circles touch, facing the long axis.

The first four figures, plus a bonus.
Forward Outside 8: Two circles on forward outside edges. Each circle is completed from a single push. The “V” in the center is the two pushes- one to the right, one to the left. This figure has been added to the Preliminary Moves test (hooray!)

Forward Inside 8: Two circles on forward inside edges. Notice how the push changes.

Back Outside 8: Two circles on backward outside edges. Push changes again! Hey-how can you see where you’re going!? (hint-- you have to turn your head and look. Get those shoulders around, too!) This one is now in Pre-Juv Moves.

Threes to the Center: Forward Outside to Back inside edge. Place the 3-turn right on the long axis! Oh, and the push changes again-- now it's a "choctaw turn": change of edge, change of foot, change of direction. This is the easiest of the variations of the choctaw turn.

Bonus: Forward Right Outside-Inside Serpentine: You'll now have added a second circle to your right, touching the original circles (so, three in a row). Forward outside push off the original center. Without pushing again, change edge to inside at the new circle, and stay on the inside edge all the way around that third circle. When you get all the way around, back to the long axis (you've now traveled 1 1/2 circles on a single push), new push to the left inside edge, change edges at the original center, holding new left outside edge all the way around that circle until you reach your starting point.

Did I mention that in a test you do these on completely clean ice with no markers or guides, and you have to trace each figure perfectly twice (so, lay it out, trace it, trace it again). Oh, and the judge stands right there on the ice, watching every inch.

School Figures

Here's a study guide I wrote for beginning figures.

What is a school figure?
A figure is a set pattern of edges and turns based on full circles, and using every type of turn except, I believe, the mohawk. There are around 43 standard patterns and many variations. Figures are skated on 2 or 3 contiguous circles.

I’ve heard it called “Patch.” Why is that?
Because you skate it on a single patch of ice, approximately 6-9 times your height in length, by two to three times your height in width. (Beginners use a smaller circle.)

Who does figures?
Up to 20 years ago, all competitive skaters were required to pass up to 8 Figures tests (all 43 patterns mentioned above). Your free style level was determined not by which jumps you had mastered, but by which Figures tests you had passed. Most coaches born before 1985 or so have had at least some Figures background. US Figure Skating dropped the requirement in 1990. Now only a handful of rinks still teach this skill. If you watch Sarah Hughes' Gold Medal Olympic exhibition program, you'll see her start the program with a figure-- specifically, loops.

So why do it?
Figures help you with proper pushing, body alignment (posture and balance), edge control and clean, controlled turns. This will help you with your jumps, spins and footwork. A properly skated figure is two perfect circles, each one skated 3 times, one exactly on top of the others. Someone really good at it can trace it perfectly! It’s harder than it looks!

Dec 20, 2009

If the rules aren't convenient, do I have to follow them?

There's a debate going on at the rink right now about whether it's okay to lose a customer to the rules.

The specific rules in question this week were the ones that say "you must be 6 to take the regular track classes" (as opposed to the classes for 3-5 year olds) and "you cannot sign up for a level until you have passed the last one."

Here are the excuses I heard from parents this week for children placed in the wrong level:

"That other class had no children in it, so they canceled it." (Lie. They don't cancel an empty class until three weeks into the session.)
"I can't make any other time." (Possible lie, possible insane person. We have 3 to 6 class choices at every level at our rink. Maybe if you can't make any other time you might want to think about whether your child is doing too many things?)
"It's so important to him to keep up with his brother so I thought they should take class together." (Officially delusional. Child is 4, brother is 8. He is not going to "keep up" and the older one is tired of having him tag around at everything he does, trust me on this.)
"She was the fastest one in the class, so I moved her up." (Yes, but can she do the skills at that level? This is like saying "well, my kindergartener can already write her name, so I put her in second grade.)
"She will only skate with [name of coach]" (This is a problem if [coach] is teaching Beta/Basic5 and child is only in PreAlpha 2/Basic 2)
"She already passed [level]. (In 2006. And hasn't skated since.)

Anyway, if you were one of the 12 people following me on Twitter (lol), you may have seen my first day tweet. In nine out of ten of these the parent gets their way and the coach just has to find a way to make it work.

So when is it okay to stick with the rules? I did shift a couple of kids into different levels, and lost a couple of battles (or rather, kicked one upstairs-- told the mom to make an appointment to have the child evaluated by the skating director). My guess is that child is going to end up in the higher class, unhappy, and won't be skating in the next session.

The mother of the two boys wore me down. The four-year-old will be skating in the class that is too fast and structured for him. Even money says the mother is back in 3 weeks complaining that he's not getting enough attention. We'll lose him as well.

And this is my point. The rules are there for a reason. A child placed in the wrong level will not have a good experience. We're going to lose that business anyway. In any endeavor, you want to structure it so the participant feels successful on the first day. If you are going to break the rules, we really can't stop you; at the base of it, the rink needs your business. But understand what you are doing, and don't blame us when it all goes south.

Dec 17, 2009

Group classes are not private lessons

I am a big believer in group classes, as regular readers know. And although a lot of parents like it when the classes are tiny, I like it when the classes are big. (Although this week's PreAlpha 1 with 22 was pushing that envelope a bit.)

A big class allows kids to see the range of people who get engaged by the sport, and to see that everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses. I like the energy I get from a lot of kids with different styles and needs.

It can be hard to understand how to watch group lessons. Parents are understandably focused on their own child, and will sometimes complain that their skater is not getting attention, or not getting "as much attention" as another skater. So when is this true, and when is it tunnel vision? When should you confront a coach about what you see, and when should you sit back? How much personal attention should each/your child get?

Here's a few things to look for:

Are the children all moving? A group class, at any level, needs to engage every student in the class. If your child is just standing there (if anyone's child is just standing there), while everyone else is moving, this warrants a question. The answer might be that the child was refusing to move. There are limits to how much a coach can coax a reluctant or recalcitrant skater. I have seen it get to the point where I have to just turn away from a child. However, I would hope that I got to the parent first before they had to come to me. If your child won't move, you can bet I'm going to ask you what's going on and how I can help make it a better experience for him or her. At any rate, the coach should know what you're talking about, and should have an answer. The answer might be, "I'm so sorry I didn't notice." Accept this. In a very large class especially (coach-student ratio of greater than 10 or 12-1) coaches do lose track of kids.

Has your child done something new, or something better, during the course of the class? You might think the coach isn't paying attention to your kid (more on that in a moment), but if she's suddenly doing a one-foot glide three times farther, or lands a jump she never landed before, then something was communicated, whether you observed it or not. Today, teaching stroking in an Alpha 1 (Basic 3) class, I was able to give the "best improved" fist bump (hey-- I don' do stickers), to the absolute worst skater in the class. She listened, and applied, and was doing real live quality stroking by the end of class. In the very first class she went from unready for the level, to on track.

Does the teacher address each child as well as the class as a whole? In a half hour, with 15 skaters, I have time for two "lectures" to the whole group and one personal conversation with each child. I might get in a little more one-on-one with a child who is having more trouble, but that's it. A group lesson should address the whole group. Even the one-on-one time should focus on information that everyone can take advantage of. It is not a private lesson. Do the math. 30 minutes, 15 kids, 2 full group explanations. Each student gets 1-2 minutes of one-on-one before I run out of time.

Is the coach having extended conversations with other coaches? Especially in a class with more than one coach, some conversation is necessary. But this should not be going on and on and on. It should not involve coaches from other classes. And I don't care if the coaches are talking about the kids, or about the lesson. It looks to you like they're gossiping, so it should be kept to a minimum.

Does the child know the coach's name? Is the coach trying to learn the child's name? (Big red flag: coach never picks up the attendance book.) Does the coach only know the names of the really good skaters, give the bulk of his or her attention to his or her own students? Unacceptable.

Finally--ask your skater what they worked on in class, or if they enjoyed class. If they can tell you something they did, they felt engaged and successful.

But in the end, don't expect private lesson progress or attention in group classes.

Could I have the day off, please?

Well, yesterday morning I was regretting that I didn't have time to write the post about how glad I was to be back in group classes, and to start talking again about why group lessons are valuable, useful and important.

Then Wednesday happened. 6:30 a.m. private didn't show, so I laid out some figures "for fun" (lol) and then taught the early morning high school P.E. to make up the income. Tots at 9, 9:30 and 10. Parent-child at 1, and then regular classes from 5 to 8:30, except I stayed and did the 8:30 adult freestyle too.

That's right folks, 8 1/2 hours in skates yesterday.

According to my body this morning, this is not a good idea when you're almost 54. I'll be back later, after I find the ibuprofen.

Dec 14, 2009

Tightrope walking over the Grand Canyon

Tot number, first practice, 5 weeks out: Everyone is there, everyone is happy, everyone skates. However, the designated choreographer for the group doesn't come. By default, I am now the head coach on this number.

Second practice, 4 weeks out: 3-year-old V falls and bumps his head. He gets off the ice, but now sister is also upset and doesn't want to skate without him. 3-yr-old G won't move. One of the dads manages to antagonze every coach in the rink.

Third practice, 3 weeks out. S has her own skates, but mom bought them 2 sizes too big, "so she can grow into them." This is a common phrase that strikes fear into a skating coach's heart. V is refusing to skate. L decides he's done. Forever! V finally gets on the ice, but only if he can sit in my lap and push the Play button on the CD player. G still can't move, but she doesn't want to hold anyone's hand. M is 5 times faster than everyone else, but can't stop and can't stay on her feet, although she doesn't seem to mind crashing periodically, so that's good.

Fourth practice, 2 weeks out. L has the mother of all temper tantrums, but does eventually get on the ice. V is at grandma's, so I only have to juggle one super-reluctant skater. Y is wearing a jacket at least 4 sizes too big for her and can't move.

Fifth practice, 1 week out. First time on the main rink. Only 3 kids show up. This does not bode well.

Preliminary run-through. L screams all the way across the ice.

Dress rehearsal. Soloist has managed to arrange being exactly where the kids are throughout the entire number, including a camel spin right at their entrance. Parents are freaking out. I have to yell at them, and then apologize while making it clear that they are in the wrong. It's like tightrope walking over the Grand Canyon. Tape has to be stopped, because there is no way this group is going to make it all the way across in the time allotted. Stopping the tape is the cardinal sin.

First performance, school matinee. V, who has barely tolerated rehearsal, takes off and does a happy little solo in the middle of the rink. Unfortunately, nobody else makes it past the first hockey circle, except M, who has skated straight into the soloist. Everyone still on the ice with the high freestyle group bearing down at warp speed. I race back out to pick up M, who turns out to be packed with lead, and is furthermore apparently glued to the ice.

Remaining performances. I have figured out to have the top freestyle girls come out onto the ice and literally scoop them up, so they get off in time. V, miraculously, is still doing his happy dance. L is carrying a stuffed dinosaur. Three girls make it all the way to the middle on their own and with the music, and get to do the actual choreography, which we had by this time forgotten we had. S gives me a flower. Group hugs all around.

For the spring show, I'm choreographing the adults.


Email. I am sold on email.

I manage the backstage volunteer effort at my rink for the ice shows. We do two ice shows a year, including an all-out Nutcracker on Ice with a couple of hundred skaters in 15 groups, and 85 soloists/duets/trios (sharing parts). The coaches manage and direct the show, but all the off-ice traffic, kid wrangling, security and costumes are handled by parent volunteers.

We had 70 people working these areas over the four days of the run, and they were the best volunteer crew I ever had. And I owe it all to email.

I've written before about the importance of communication; the more pertinent information you share, the better your experience will be. Better information means less drama because people get uncomfortable when they don't know what's going on. Because all the coaches now have park district email accounts, I was able to send emails first to every parent in the show asking for volunteers, and then to communicate easily with those who signed up. Everyone got pre-show emails to make sure they knew where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there, and what they were supposed to do once there.

First, every parent knew that there were volunteers in charge, because they had all gotten an email asking for help. Even though most chose not to volunteer, everyone had gotten a direct communication dedicated to the subject, rather than just a passive "sign up" request with the show packet. The most critical question that every ice show parent has when they see the chaos that is 220 children backstage, is "who is watching my child." Because of the good communication effort this time, everyone knew that there was someone watching.

Second, the volunteers knew what they would find, and what they should do before they ever walked through the door. To the uninitiated, an ice rink can tend to seem like a mysterious society with arcane rules and impenetrable power structures (it certainly seems that way to me, and I've been living in one since 1992). Open communication bares the mystery: what does a volunteer do? I was able to let them know upfront that they really didn't need to know anything about skating-- that's our job. They were there to watch the kids, something they all know how to do.

Any public enterprise--be it a business, a school, a place of worship, or an ice rink--has proprietary information. There are things management knows that staff does not need to know, and there are things that staff needs to know that customers don't need to know. But it's important to make that distinction, and to let people know what they need to know. It's also important not to assume that people know more than they do, and to identify information that will increase both their buy-in and their comfort level. If you want to have any sort of control over your program, don't control the information by withholding it-- people will just make up shit if you do that (pardon me, it was really the best way to put it). Control the information by sharing it.

And just in case I haven't said it enough: thank you volunteers. You made my job easy.

Another great article on volunteers over at IceMom!

Dec 12, 2009

Tears in the dressing room

Put thirty-nine teenage girls in two small dressing rooms and I will bet you even money that at least one of them will be in tears before the night is out. And that she will end up in mom's arms sobbing that someone is just a b*tch, or that the girls are so mean. I know this because I've been that mom.

But here's the hard truth, mom. You cannot do anything about this, and neither can anyone else. I know this because I've also been the coach that the mom comes to, asking me to intervene. To make the girls include everyone, to find her daughter friends.

A rink or a club or a school can make all the inclusivity rules they want (my kid's grade school had the rule "if you invite half the class, you have to invite the whole class" for instance, although the high school kids were on their own), but they cannot actually make the other kids talk to your child, and they cannot control what the kids arrange on their own time outside the purview of the program.

But there is something you can do. You can encourage your daughter (I don't know if this happens with boys-- anyone?) to stand up for herself. Shy children are sometimes perceived as stuck up or even mean. They need to reach inside themselves and find a way to be included that doesn't violate their own sense of self. If your daughter has been left out of Secret Santa, she needs to go to the most popular girl in the room and for heaven's sake just tell her "I feel so bad I didn't know you were doing this, and I did not get a present for anyone. Is there someone who got left out?"

Because contrary to the popular culture trope of "mean girls," the thing about the popular girls is they want everyone to love them, including the geeks, the unattractive, the shy and the stuck up ones. Popular girls are equality opportunity goddesses. Appear to worship her, acknowledge her primacy, and she's yours. If they think they've left someone out of their magic circle, they'll do what they can to include them, for the adoration alone.

But mom, you cannot do this. Your daughter has to do it. You can tell her what to do, but she has to take that step. You can't fix this. I can't fix this. Your daughter isn't 6 anymore.

The good news is, she won't be 14 forever either.

*(If your daughter has actually been mean and has been left out for that reason, or because you have antagonized everyone yourself, the two of you need to face up to that and change your behavior. Just saying.)

Dec 11, 2009

Dress Rehearsal

Three things about a community ice show dress rehearsal-- photos, costumes, parents.

Photos: at our rink, 15 groups and as many as 60 individual pix in a 2 hour span WHILE the show is running. Trying to find a schedule that makes this work within the run of the show, so that everyone gets a picture and the show does not get delayed, I truly believe, is impossible. While the staff seems to run with the idea that dress rehearsal is to iron out the show, the parents believe it is for the purpose of getting photos. Unfortunately, the way it is set up, they are both right. Both things have to happen, but the goals are incompatible.

Fortunately it's only one night, and it makes the staff seem like geniuses at the subsequent performances, because without all the photo calls the chaos disappears.

Costumes. Never done. Break. Not where they're supposed to be. Don't fit. I just mouth my mantra: "This is what dress rehearsals are for"

Parents. Okay. I know it's parents reading this, and mostly I am squarely in the parents' court; I don't think skating parents get enough good consistent information on most things. But I'm going on the side of my adopted tribe on this one. Parents. Have. To. Let. Us. Do. Our. Jobs.

Always remember when dealing with service personnel like teachers and waiters that we don't want to yell at you. In fact, we can't. You're our customer and our livelihood and at the basest level of motivation we don't want to piss you off. At the highest level of motivation, we like you. Remember the mom whose coach only told her things that made the coach look good? This is kind of where we are all coming from. We want you to feel comfortable with our authority over your child.

This means that during the juggernaut that is an ice show, when parents confront a staff member they are more likely to get a platitude: "thanks, I'll make a note, but don't worry we have done this before." Most of the things that parents are concerned about we are already aware of, or it's an annual issue that we deal with. Or, we are dealing with it, or would be, if we didn't have to stop and explain it to you. You need to let us deal with it, rather than demanding on the spot explanations. Don't exacerbate the problem.

The best way I can put it is-- parents don't need to know what's going on, because the coaches do know what's going on. You don't need to know which widget the car mechanic turns, and you know better to demand an explanation while he's doing it. Well, in a funny way, your kids are our widgets, and we know how to turn them.

This goes for competitions, too. If we say something you don't understand, now is not the time to challenge it. Call me tomorrow. The show doesn't stop because you think we're doing it wrong. The wandering child doesn't get found because you are yelling at me. No Parents Allowed at the rink door means, parents allowed at the rink door.

There are reasons for this. Reasons which I will be happy to explain.


Dec 10, 2009

Don't forget, skating is fun

There are 48 skaters in each discipline in the entire country that are considered by US Figure Skating to be "elite" This means (with pairs and dance comprising 2 skaters, and elite defined as Novice, Junior, and Senior) that of the 50,000 serious recreational and competitive skaters in the US, something less than 1,000 of them will skate at the top level. It might be your child. You should aim for it if that's what the child wants. But until they are skating Novice in the final round at nationals, you have to keep this in perspective, and do what is right for the child and not for the skating career.

For 49,000 skaters it's just skating. So the goal needs to be fun, and happiness. Take this with you into your next conversation with a coach.

The coach won't tell us anything

A commenter asks how to know if you are getting a comprehensive analysis of your skater's progress. She felt the coach had put them on a "need to know" basis (great analogy!) and then decided they didn't really need to know much. (Read the full comment here.)

This is a long one folks. Apologies in advance.

So tricky. As I've said before, it is impossible for a parent to really know what is going on during a lesson, even if you watch every single one of them. It is imprudent, if irresistible, to try to become part of the skater/coach relationship, but on the other hand it is your precious child (and not insignificantly, your money). But there is also a parent/coach relationship and obligations on both sides, the chief of which are trust and communication. The commenter's description of the situation (I'd love to hear the coach's side, or if she even understood that this parent felt there was an issue), suggests that the coach's selective communication weakened the parents' trust, which is the first step toward losing a student.

The commenter is right about one thing-- a coaching relationship is first and foremost a commercial one. This is a business. The nature of the business means that it also becomes an emotional relationship, but more things go wrong in coaching when either party forgets the essential fiduciary framework.

Set the tone: professional, but accessible (within the constraints of all personalities). You are the expert, but in a funny way, you are not the boss. Coaches need to learn this and live with it. But some coaches are extremely authoritarian, which could jump us to the first "Do" on the parent list, below.

The parent has a right to information regarding the student's progress or lack of it. Never brush off a question. Use active listening: "You sound like you're concerned about [use their exact language]." (I recommend active listening for everyone. It's a great tool)

These two things go together: there is no such thing as a stupid question, and parents are not your enemy. I think this is at the heart of Denise's question. One interpretation is that the coach is reluctant to share information because she's afraid that this family will switch coaches if everything isn't hunky dorey all the time. But withholding information doesn't make the question go away. It just drives into the maw of the parent gossip machine, where no coach ever looks good.

Remember that the parent is a client, *not* a friend. Don't overshare. Don't undershare. Don't gossip. This is an error that I still make, because I get to like various parents so much on a personal basis. It is one of the reasons I stepped back from private coaching for the past two years, so that I could give myself the chance to reinvent this coaching persona.

Don't betray your student's trust-- specific solutions to specific skills are more information than a parent needs. For instance, saying something like, "She's having trouble with the flip because she overrotates her shoulders at the entry" (it's never that simple, but the parent just really doesn't need more info). "I've given her some drills to help with this. It would help me if you would remind her to work on the drills as well as the full jump before each practice" would be an appropriate way of sharing the lesson. (But parents, don't then try to critique the skill itself *even if you are also a skating coach*. Just guide the practice disciplines.)

Do the legwork before you sign on. The most important factor in hiring a coach is NOT how many students he's gotten to Nationals. It's whether he can inspire *your* skater. Talk to other parents. You should know what this coach is like going in-- if someone tells you he never talks to them, he's not going to talk to you either. Figure out what other factors are prevalent. For instance, we recently figured out that a particularly reticent coach just isn't very comfortable communicating in English!

Try to benchmark your child. Find skaters similar to your child (which means, similar age, similar amount of practice time, skating since the same age) and see what they are doing. Adjust for talent, discipline, and motivation. Does your child seem to be ahead, behind, or about similar to similar skaters? Take this information to the coach and ask for an interpretation. This needs to be non-confrontational "I have observed that skaters who started when Suzie started are now at XX level. Do you feel that Suzie is about where she should be?"

Judge your child's attitude. I had a really really talented daughter, who just never progressed. As I had been banned, by her, from the rink for interfering in her lessons (she would just stop skating, cross her arms and refuse to move until I went away. Smart kid.), I finally got the coach to admit that she would just argue with him about everything he asked her to do. So of course she wasn't skating, she was just arguing. At sixty bucks an hour. Does she spend all her time on the boards with friends? Is she reluctant to come to lessons or practice? You need to know why.

Don't insert yourself into the coaching relationship. The coach and the skater have a right to the sovereignty of the lesson. What happens on the ice stays on the ice. Do not grill the skater about what the coach said. Do not grill the coach about what the skater said. Do not make the skater rehash the lesson or competition in the car on the way home (As someone who's stumbled over this particular no-no often, I can tell you, this is so hard.)

Parent, Skater, and Coaches together
Don't talk about each other in front of each other. If you need to ask the coach about Suzie, make it in a phone call or away from the child. Don't criticize the coach in front of the child. Don't criticize the child in front of the coach. How many additional permutations can I come up with? Avoid them all.

Have a plan. "Test through two levels of moves by summer". "Master a specific skill". "Skate in two local competitions this year". "Work towards Junior Nationals". However. This has to be the skater's goal. It can be short term or long term. It can change. But everyone needs to know what it is and what their role is in achieving it.

This is such a complex relationship. But I really believe that most people are good. I have observed that people don't last in this profession if they are as evil as disgruntled parties (on all sides) make out. A coach that's been around for a while, with all the caveats above, is a good bet. It's up to you to make the relationship work.

Dec 9, 2009

When is it not gossip?

We all do it—talk about people behind their backs. Gossip is the grease on which ice rinks run. And we all know when we are gossiping. But can private discussion of third parties ever not be gossip?

According to Jewish teaching, gossiping is a sin that harms three- the subject, the teller and the listener. It is actually proscribed in Scripture, in fact in the Old Testament, so Christians take warning as well. And for the secular, well, any tradition written down for thousands of years is probably something to abide.

But we all talk about each other, it’s human nature (otherwise, why have a tradition against it?). The gossiping woman is a literary trope. I love to gossip, although I tell myself that I’m gathering information. (UPDATE: Or as one friend texted me, "it isn't gossip, it's truth.) As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of people come to me with questions and stories, often with the same central subject, from opposing points of view.

So when is it gossip? When is it harmful and when is it harmless?

The best description I found referenced a Jewish sage, who felt :”it doesn’t have to be a false or slanderous story; as long as the subject of the report would prefer not to have information known, it is gossip and not fit for further dissemination.” (cite)

So next time you’re passing on a story (next time I am passing on a story) ask yourself. Could I say this to the person I’m referring to? Could I say it to her mother? Would it be harmful or embarrassing to him personally or professionally? Could it harm or embarrass me if my words got around? Then it probably qualifies as gossip under the definition in Leviticus (19:16).

I’m not going to stamp out gossip. I don’t want to—it’s a useful source of information. But remember that the only private opinion is one that is not shared.

Dec 7, 2009

Gadflies are useful beasts

Two things about me. I'm a little crazy. I don't suffer fools (or anyone else) gladly.

This combination means if you're an idiot at my place of business, I don't care whose parent you are, or how much money you make, or your place in the heirarchy, or who you are married to. If you're an idiot and make my job harder I'm going to call you on it.

Personally I think the world would work better if everyone would, well, not necessarily call the idiots for what they are, but question what looks wrong. And not just by snarking with your mates, but by going to the source and saying-- why is it like this, this seems wrong.

For parents, if you don't understand the coach's apparent approach to your child's training, ASK. "Why are you doing this?" Tell the coach what you've observed from other coaches and skaters and make your coach justify his or her approach. This is not the same thing as telling a coach to teach in a certain way. It's not the same thing as criticizing. Just asking for explanation in clear English. Then it's your job as a parent to make a judgment on whether you accept that explanation or not.

Case in point-- a talented child "cuted" up. I've learned of one particular child whose mother starting noticing that there were great huge gaps in her ability. She did the right thing and asked the coach about it. Coach's response was "she'll pick it up." Okay insofar as it goes, maybe she will, but will this coach demonstrate that? Will the coach let the parent know where the gaps are and what is being done about them? Or will the coach just say, let's add another lesson or two to catch up. Hmmmm. Methinks me detects a wee conflict of interest there.

Skating directors (if any of you are reading this)-- the coach you hear complaining is your best friend. Because believe me, we are ALL talking about the issue. The one with the courage to bring it to you should not be punished, but should be rewarded. Look into the issue, don't just shut down the complainer.

And my biggest pet peeve for last-- the skating director, coach, or rink manager who finds out a parent is complaining and says "there are lots of other rinks, they can just go somewhere else."


I have no words.

Dec 5, 2009

Light at the end of the tunnel

Nutcracker Prelim Run Through today. The preliminary run through is a sort of subdued tech-- no sets or lights, but all 203 kids on the ice together for the first time, running all groups and solos. I should have carried a little tape recorder or notepad around with me to just make little notes about some of the more amusing moments.

Rounded up my little boys for the toy soldiers number. All there except one, they go on the ice, and the missing one's Grandma comes up to ask what's going on. We said, get him on the ice right now, but he never shows up, although everyone says they've seen him. An hour later he's there for the finale practice and says to me, quite aggreived (you have to imagine a perfectly adorable ants-in-his-pants 5-year old in a too-big skating helmet here) "what a waste of time, we didn't even get to practice the number." Hey, kid, WE practiced it, where were you?

I brought my camera to get a shot of the beautifully executed end-pose of the Delta-Pre Freestyle girls. Except for the part where I completely forgot to watch them skating.

Lined up for finale. Beta-Gamma girls standing in front of Alpha group. Tiniest Beta, maybe 3 feet tall about as big as a flea, turns to the tiniest Alphas, all of whom are taller than she, and says, "are you the tots?"

Tot girl takes off straight into the soloist, who is doing a camel spin. Iron Lotus, tot version.

I'll update as I remember stuff.

Dec 4, 2009

We're all in this together

Although my heart belongs to figure skating, most of my paycheck actually belongs to fundraising. I've been a development officer in not-for-profit arts for nearly 30 years, creating robust, sustainable giving programs for several different music organizations.

One of the most basic tenets of fundraising is that you need a diverse program, with something for every type of giver. I have a sign on my wall that states "the right question to the right person in the right words at the right time for the right amount." If you don't get every one of those ducks in a row, you don't get the gift. So-- some people like getting letters. Some people like phone calls. Some people give when they purchase your product (like tickets) and some want to give while they are right there in front of you. Some people like a quid pro quo, and some like parties. You need to have all these options available, or you will miss potential gifts.

A figure skating program is very similar. You need to reach the recreational, the competitors, the social butterflies, the pushy parents, the indifferent parents, all of them. Coaches and parents who disparage parts of the sport or aspects of your program are slicing off their noses with their own blades, because they are losing potential customers to satisfy their egos and hide their own shortcomings.

You think synchro is "bullshit?" (Believe it or not, a common attitude) How about all the moves and dance tests those kids are going to need. Is that bullshit? Is that Nationals-bound ice dance or pairs team "getting in the way" on practice ice? How about all the skaters that team is bringing into the rink, because of parents who want their kids to skate where the program is most successful competitively.

What about that adult skater who thinks she can teach (*cough*me*cough*). She's just scooping up all of "our" students. Except for the part where she passes them on at Freestyle, to the coaches who didn't put her down in public, but just bided their time knowing that she doesn't teach freestyle, but she sure does make kids love skating.

Don't care that the high freestyle classes are empty because "those kids are all buying practice ice anyway." Well, a lot of those kids aren't paying for practice ice, because their moms are monitors, or their coach is sneaking them on when there is no monitor, or it's club ice and you're getting a fixed rate no matter how many kids are skating.

Point is, there is room for everyone. Coaches, don't tell your students not to participate in some aspect of the sport. The more they participate, the better for you. Parents, don't engage in mean spirited gossip; if you see something that bothers you ask the rink or skating school manager to explain it. Managers, don't withhold information that parents, coaches and students need to support you and your program.

Most people learn about skating watching high level competition on TV. And then we just reinforce the idea that there isn't room for you if you aren't destined for that level. A parochial attitude is anathema in fundraising, and will cost you students faster then you can blink.

There's room for everyone here, and everyone benefits when you scootch over and let them in.

Dec 3, 2009

Measuring progress

A commenter thinks you can see progress more easily through the level of jumps a skater learns than through the more subtle measure of a clean edge and the control and power required by moves.

I see what she's saying-- the jumps are a clear marker of accomplishment, a big shiny reward. But the thing about the jumps, is if you don't do the subtle work that leads to body awareness and control, the jumps will be inconsistent and even dangerous. How much "progress" is it if the landings are out of control, or the skater keeps falling, or can't get the required rotation.

The most common correction you will hear a skating coach make is "get over your skating side." (Second only to "don't break at the waist.") The "skating side" is the side with the foot in contact with the ice. (The other side is the "free side," so you'll hear coaches tell skaters things like "move your free arm, bend your skating knee, etc.") Without your weight over the skating side you cannot get properly over the correct part of the blade. In jumps it is absolutely critical that you understand, in midair, where your skating side is. Even though nothing is in contact with the ice now, you still have a skating side. The axel is difficult because it is what we call a "change of axis" jump--your skating side or axis changes in midair.

In spins, it's also quite subtle. A lot of spins go wrong because skaters center their weight down their midline, rather than over the spinning blade. Feet are very close together, so it's tricky, but that tiny 2" distance between the blades is what centers a spin instead of it corkscrewing down the ice.

The only way to learn this is to drill it, and the best way to drill it is by practicing edges, turns, and stroking. When I see a skater with smooth, powerful stroking that accelerates down the ice, I know I'm seeing someone who understands jumping. When I see someone whose stroking is full of toe picks, stiff knees, and missed extensions I don't even want to watch them jump-- I already know it's going to be scary.

I like the big jumps too. But I also like effortless footwork. Skaters with big jumps are impressive. Skaters with outstanding footwork are magical.

Dec 2, 2009

The light goes on

I made my teen (who just wants to jump) run through PrePre moves today, focusing on upper body control. She put up with it, but with a little whining, "why can't we jump" "can I show you this thing my friend showed me how to do" blah blah whine whine okay okay okay.

So at the end of the lesson, she wanted to do spirals, which fit into the theme of the day-- edges, control, flow. And discovered the she couldn't hold the position. Just kept falling out of it. I asked her if she knew why, and she said "I could feel my shoulders twisting."

Ding ding ding ding ding ding!

I love it when the path opens up in the grey matter.