Dec 10, 2009

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.


  1. At what age do you feel a skater is usually capable of formulating specific, realistic goals?

    To clarify my question, let me share with you what goals my almost 5 years old, Basic 5 skater came up with, after a brief explanation of what a goal is:

    Learn everything
    Win all competitions

    Goals for this spring:
    Do a 1-foot spin for 12 revolutions
    Go around the whole rink in the spiral position
    Pass all levels in skating school
    Win the in-house competition, and be the best there (even better than all big girls)

    Then I explained about how the goals have to be realistic... She modified her goals for this spring, but her long-term goal is still, basically, "learn everything and win at competitions". She is my oldest child, so I don't have much experience with older kids. I am just curious at what age do they have more realistic expectations of themselves?

  2. Basically the goal for a 5-year old is to understand what a goal is, which she seems to be working out. The biggest impediment for that age is the concept of "long term." For them long term is tomorrow. So her goal for this evening- 1 foot spin for 12 revolutions- is excellent. I wouldn't discourage her long term goals-- those will change, or she'll forget them, but make sure she has short-term ones, so you can say "yay! You met your goal!"

    I would, however, discourage goals focused on winning, because she does not have control of that. A better competition goal is "skate a clean program" or "skate the best I ever have" or "make a new friend" or "have a fun time."

    What I tell young children is that winning is fun, but you don't always win, so what ELSE are you trying to do besides win?

    The age at which a child is able to formulate and understand goals will vary from child to child.