Dec 29, 2010

Mind wandering

I got recruited to be a skate guard today, when two of the scheduled kids didn't show up. And no wonder. This is a very boring job when there's no one to talk to.

So, in between telling the dads that no it's NOT okay to skate with the baby when you can barely stand up yourself, explaining to the hockey boys why six of them linking arms and then skating forward as fast as they can is not nearly the universal amusement it seems to them, and convincing the mothers of assorted 7 year olds that the reason their kids can't stand up is not "weak ankles" but rather "untied skates," I came up with some marketing ideas. The chance of these getting a hearing, let alone implemented, at my home rink is just about zero, so feel free to steal them.

Extended public skate
A few times a year, add a half hour or 40 minutes to public skate, so you can fit in an ice cut and an exhibition between the first and second hours. Invite local skating champions, the rink's own Nationals qualifiers, the synchro team (and the synchro team from the local college), skating "names" who are home for the holidays, groups/soloists from an upcoming rink ice show or competition, and even the top hockey team to do performances or demonstrations for 15 to 20 minutes.

Best time to do this would be before the ice show or before whichever session has historically poor enrollment. Everyone who watches the exhibition gets a 10% off coupon for whatever program you're trying to enhance. You could make this a regular thing--say the first Sunday of every month, so that people start anticipating it. If the coupon thing gets out of hand, make it first 50 people to come get a coupon, to limit your exposure.

But frankly, freebie coupons pay for themselves in the long run, through new customers, increased use by existing customers, and the goodwill they create.

What, more discount coupons?
Every year, so many rinks start their winter session the second or third week of December, hold one or two classes, and then immediately take a one or two week break for the holidays. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is stupid. People don't realize classes are starting; they're all waiting for January, or they know classes are starting but wait until January to sign up anyway. So why not make those two beginning weeks free drop in classes (or you only have to pay for skates if you don't have your own). Everyone who comes to those, gets a 10% off coupon (or whatever, basically one free class) for the upcoming session.

If you're afraid of regular customers abusing this, make it just for the tot and beginning classes, or just for people who have never taken classes at your facility before. Maybe for the freestyle levels, you do one-off clinics; figure out some sort of rink-enhancing freebie you could do for them too. (After all, they're your best customers. Or just make it free to any FS skater who's signed up for the last 2 sessions, to reward them for all the money they spend there the rest of the year.) You might need to do a couple of 8 or 9 week sessions to make the calendar work, instead of 10 week sessions, but classes would be bursting at the seams.

Still more freebies

I love giving away other people's stuff.

Everyone who comes to any public skating session during Christmas break and last two weeks of August gets a 10% off coupon (basically one free class) to the next session. You do this at Christmas because there are tons of new skaters using your public ice at that time of year, and you do it in August to encourage people to sign up for skating instead of soccer. We lose more kids to soccer every fall. I find it absolutely incredible that the only thing at the rink advertising classes this week was a densely covered schedule stuck away in an upright file in a dark corner. Nowhere is there a big bright sign saying SIGN UP FOR CLASS!

Folks, "if you build it they will come" only works in the movies.

Introductory private lessons on public skate
I don't know about other coaches, but it makes me completely insane to watch the skating guards and random kids "teaching" on public sessions (especially on those selected public sessions where the pros are not allowed to teach). Why not hire your pro staff to do private mini-lessons during public skating? You'd purchase a coupon for, say $10 for 15 minutes (with the specific time noted on the coupon), and hand it to one of the pros for a short lesson. The pro would turn in all the coupons and get paid one class fee for each half hour (i.e. two mini-lessons).

I'm not done giving stuff away yet
The week before the class test, everyone in class gets a free public skate pass. This will pay for itself, because the kids will bring their parents, their friends, their sibs, spend money at the concession stand and will start working public skating into their regular activities, so they'll come back and spend again.

Skate with a friend day
Last day of the session kids should be allowed to bring a buddy-- anyone from little sis to BFF to grandpa. You could put age restrictions on it, and make it one friend per skater. Then (wait for it) give every one of those friends a 10% off coupon for the next session.

What's your marketing idea for your rink?

Dec 27, 2010

Skating mothers I have known and loved

The Scottish Play
Just as actors must never utter word "MacBeth," you should never invoke the name of this mother, to dampen her power. This mother will move through the stands from mom to mom, like a bacterium infecting as many cells as she can reach, trashing the skater, the partner, the coach, the judge, the costume, or whatever she thinks she can get away with trashing. Every male skater should be skating with her daughter instead of that slut/import/no-talent/idiot.

She will keep this up even after her daughter is done with skating. No, not done with the session--Done. With skating. Gone. Like, to college.

The Skating Mom Who Will Haunt Your Dreams
This woman is the one who so traumatizes neophyte skaters and moms that they take up lacemaking instead. Every accomplishment your skater makes, her skater did "last year." She'll tell you, just before your daughter goes on the ice to secure her spot at Nationals that "you have no idea what you're getting into" but "don't worry, it's not like she's really a national-level skater because the field is so weak."

She will never leave the Club leadership. She will be there until she's old and gray. After her skater has grown, married, and moved to another state.

What she doesn't know is all the dirt everyone has on her from her daughter's former coach.

The Practice Ice Monitor from Hell
You know her. She screams incomprehensible instructions into the mike, or from the door, ignores music call protocols, and allows her daughter to break the rules with impunity, while immediately calling the police on everyone else for the mildest infraction. Do not try to get past her without turning in your coupon or signing the check-in sheet.

"I Built Costumes for La Scala"

So if the one I made for you doesn't fit, that is clearly a problem with your body.

My Daughter Can Do No Wrong
Getting drunk at dress rehearsal? Someone else's fault. (Zero tolerance? What's zero tolerance? That's for kids with no talent.) Spreading career-ending rumors about a coach? Youthful hi-jinx. Even the daughter landing in jail instead of college will not diminish this woman's conviction (haha) or her daughter's that another skater somehow set the whole ball rolling by friending her on Facebook, just to spy.

I'm Not One of THOSE Mothers
Yes. Yes you are. You are shouting instructions from the door, complaining to the monitor that no one is watching out for Princess, stealing soakers from competitors bags or ripping dresses, trashing the moms/skaters who missed the session to the ones who are there (and then trashing THEM in turn), signing your daughter up for the prestige club in Sugarland even though you live in Duluth, scotching the rink's shot at being featured in a national ad campaign because you're afraid "it will hurt Princess' eligibility" (mind you, Princess is 6 and has not competed yet, nor is she actually featured in the campaign) and letting the mayor know what solo you expect Princess to have in the ice show for the next 4 years, or you're pulling your campaign contribution.

Who haunts your dreams?

Attack of the two-year-old skaters

I've been teaching lessons all week on midday public skate and have been observing a lot of families skating with, really, babies-- two-year-olds whose parents figure "well, she can walk, so I guess she can skate!" Every now and then you will find a two-year-old who can stand up or even move, but mostly 2-year olds are NOT ready to skate. (And by "2" I mean anyone within their second year of life. "Almost 3" is still "two".)

The biggest impediment to skating before the age of 4 is social and emotional development. Most kids of this age are just not ready to try new things with a stranger. This is why 2 year olds cry when you drop them off at daycare and 5 year olds don't. It is extremely suspicious to very young children for a parent to insist the child do something without the parent. If it's such a cool thing to do, then why isn't the parent doing it? Two-year olds are also sometimes mistrustful of strangers, so putting a child that young in a class, even a parent-tot class, is quite fraught.

There are some things you can do to prepare your child for skating, however. First of all, figure out what's best- public skating with family, parent-tot class, or regular tot class. Your child is ready for regular tot class if she or he:
  1. can easily walk in skates on the floor
  2. understands how to follow 2-3 step instructions ("sit down, now roll to your hands and knees, stand up", for instance, or "find the yellow toy and put it in the yellow circle")
  3. willingly allows her/himself to be handed off to a stranger
  4. speaks the same language as the instructor (this is a bigger problem than you might imagine in urban areas. Older children with language difficulties understand that the instructor speaks a different language and have developed coping strategies. Very young children are just completely flummoxed by an adult who speaks only gibberish.)
Before you jump in and say "oh my child is very social/verbal/smart/athletic" I am here to tell you: No. He's not. You only get to count your child as one of the above if he's that way with everyone, and not just with people he knows.

If your child can do everything but 3 and 4, try a parent-tot class. If your child can only do #1, take her to public skating. If your child cannot even stand up in skates on the floor (and sometimes it isn't "cant'" but rather "won't") then for god's sake, wait 6 months, it won't ruin her Olympic dream.

Here are some ways to get your child ready for skating:
Let the baby watch
Coaches' kids are always great skaters. This is not because they have a "skating gene." It's because everyone they know skates, and they've been seeing people skating their entire lives. Just like preachers' kids are quiet in church, and musician's kids like singing, and actor's kids like being on stage (at least until they get old enough to understand the power of the contrary), it's not different to them. You can use this too--come skating yourself, and sit your child in the stands with a sitter, the other parent, grandparent or friend. If your child sees you skating a lot, they will feel more comfortable with it. You don't have to be a good skater, you just have to be on the ice.

Bring her on the ice, but don't make her skate
Some rinks have "family skates" or just lax public skating rules and will let you put a young child in a chair and push her around on the ice. If you really want your child to skate eventually, the absolute worst thing you can do with a very young child is insist that he skate when he doesn't want to. Don't even put skates on him, just push him around in a chair. (By the way, never carry a child on the ice, especially if you're not an extremely experienced skater, and I'm talking Senior-test experienced. This is incredibly dangerous.)

Sign up the older siblings for class
Two- and three-year olds who have been watching their older sibs and cousins skate are crazy to get on the ice. Sometimes in class we have to close the doors to keep the little ones from just racing on to the ice to be with big sis.

Do not lie to new skaters
Don't tell a very young child that they're going to skate "just like the girls on tv" (or Disney on Ice, or whatever). They will take you at your word, and when they can't glide the first day, or possibly even stand up, they're going to be mad.

Sign up for Mom and Me sing alongs, Music Together, or pre school
Toddlers do much better in skating class when the only new thing they are having to deal with is the slippery ice. Kids who have experience with the concept of "class" do much much better than kids for whom this is the first class of any sort they've every taken. I can't tell you how many parents have told me "I signed her up for skating to help her social skills before pre school." WRONG. So here's this poor little child, supposed to be learning "social skills" when you've put her in an environment where she can't even walk. It's completely backwards, plus I am a skating teacher, not your kid's psychologist. You socialize her. I'll teach her to skate.

Once the baby is on the ice, either with you or with a class, there are still some things you can do to help get them used to concept.

Let the teacher teach
Don't stand in the doorway shouting. In fact, best if you get out of sight. Don't leave the building, but don't stand where it's easy for your child to see you. If your child is not ready to let you out of her sight, she's not ready for class. Sign up for parent-tot. If the teacher seems to be spending a lot of time playing games, sitting on the ice, singing songs, playing with toys, et cetera, she's got a good reason (namely, because these are 2- and 3-year olds and are not developmentally ready for a structured lesson).

No crying on the ice.
I have a firm "no crying on the ice" rule. If a child starts crying I have them stop until they get off. Then they can cry as much as they want, but they are not allowed back on the ice until they're done crying. This works even with children as young as two and is amazingly effective in helping kids like the ice, while allowing them to need and receive comfort. If you're skating with a toddler and she starts to cry, just take her off the ice until she's done, then go back.

Don't skate with a reluctant skater
If she doesn't want to go back, don't go back. Let the child make the decision to skate or not. Really. This is the number one thing that will make your child trust the ice (and you). You don't have to skate if you don't want to (by the way, any freestyle skaters reading this, you have to skate whether you want to or not). Seriously, there are plenty of things in this life that poor child is going to have to do. Why make skating one of them, when they're only 2.

Right now I have a 4-year-old student working on waltz jumps. She stepped on the ice at about 21 months and just took off like a demon. THIS IS NOT NORMAL. Assume your child is normal, and then when she's one of the little geniuses, be pleasantly surprised. Here's what I tell parents: if your child starts skating once or twice a week at 3, by the time she's seven, she'll have really good crossovers and turns. If your child starts skating at 5, by the time she's seven, she'll have really good crossovers and turns.

Little children should skate for fun. If they're not having fun, why are you making them skate?

Dec 22, 2010

Understanding your skaters goals

A young coach at my rink is discovering the frustration of seeing potential in a child whose family just isn't that into it.

She had been working with a kid that I'd had the prior session-- this child takes lessons between sessions only. They take from a different coach every time. The parents are utterly clueless about skating and not interested in learning. The just want R to have a lesson a week, every week. When class is in session, they do classes. When it's between sessions, they do privates.

"I could totally have gotten him to PrePre or even PreJuv in like a year!" she lamented. "I don't understand why they stopped taking lessons!"

She's from another region and is trying to transport the skating culture she grew up in--competitive, test-oriented, and club-run--to our more ecumenical culture in Chicago, where lots of kids come in and out of skating, do fill-in lessons between sessions (and then disappear forever) or hop from coach to coach like bees.

So how do you make sure that your goals and knowledge, your child's goals and needs, and the coach's goals and expectations align?

Be clear on everyone's expectations right from the start
For parents, this means you need to tell the coach, right up front "we are taking 3 lessons so that he keeps skating between sessions," "we're looking for someone to get her to nationals," "she's planning to take lessons until [soccer season starts, school ends, she learns skill X]. " If you are not clear on this, there is going to be confusion and resentment when you reach the goal (or worse, don't seem to be aiming for it), which the coach may not share, or even know about. Then it's up to the coach to find a way to retain you if she wants when your goal is done, or changes. I get a lot of students this way-- a family decides to sign the skater up for a couple of lessons, discover they love the one-on-one, and stick around. Other students stick to their guns and drop off, but we part happy, because everyone understood going in what the expectation was.

For coaches, if the parents have not stated a goal, they need to ask. It's a simple question "what do you hope to get out of lessons," that saves lots of grief ahead, helps you structure lessons, and gives you an idea of where each individual family is coming from. This is not to say goals cannot change or be guided by the coach, but when a skater first starts lessons, the skater's goal should lead the process. You know you've gotten a thoughtful and engaged coach when you hear this question.

For skaters, really the parents again if it's a child, they need to know (or ask your child) why they want lessons. Some kids may understand exactly what they need. "All my friends take lessons," "I'm having trouble with Skill X," "It sounds like fun," "I want to compete," "I really like Coach Xan," et cetera. These are all valid reasons and indicate a child who has thought about the issue. See if you can get a conversation going to get the child to formulate a goal (consistent with their maturity, skating skills, and age) and outlook regarding private lessons. Try not to superimpose your own. (At least for now.)

Honor everyone's expectations
Once you've established everyone's reasons, let them percolate a little bit. Don't think "oh, I can get this individual to continue lessons/go for testing/stop taking group classes or whatever. First, the relationship may not "take"; if you start developing a trajectory for it before it gels, you're just going to be disappointed.

The hardest thing for a lot of coaches to understand is that it's not the coach's choice. It is nominally the parents' call, but really comes down to what the skater wants. It's really easy for a skater to commit sabotage when his goals or needs conflict with the parents' or the coach's. I hear so many coaches complaining about kids "not getting it" or parents undermining the skating, etc., when really the coach just didn't honor the skater's needs, goals, and expectations.

Understand, or at least acknowledge, the culture
As I said in the intro, you have to understand a rink's or region's skating culture. My friend came from a region where everyone who takes lessons belongs to a Club and does USFS testing and competition. But in this region, we have a very strong ISI presence (ISI was founded in Chicago), an over-saturation of municipal, as opposed to privately run rinks, and almost no Club influence. You can skate to a very high skill level (as opposed to competitive level) in Chicago without ever joining a USFS Club. They don't run the practice ice, the shows, or the competitions.

In regions like mine, parents and skaters have a lot of options. In all regions, they have a lot of information to absorb. Most coaches grew up skating, so it's like breathing to them, but as you and I know, it's an impenetrable and incomprehensible sorority to newcomers. Give everyone time to get used to each other, do your research, and talk to each other. Coaches shouldn't say "we're going to do X competition" without asking the follow up "do you know anything about competing in figure skating?" If Coach wants you to compete or test, ask what that means. If you hear a word or phrase that makes no sense, then ask for an explanation.

As I've said many times, your skating career will be much much happier and more productive if you set goals, keep communication open, and do your research.

Dec 21, 2010

Who's ready to compete?

If you're a "serious" competitor trying to get to Nationals, your season is done after January (or more accurately, your next season is starting). But for beginning and recreational skaters, there are competitions year-round--ISI, Basic Skills, non-qualifying USFS--as well as end-of-season exhibitions and ice shows. You should educate yourself about these, but your coach will have favorite competitions that they like to have their kids enter, as well as some sense of when your skater is ready to compete.

How do I tell when my child is ready?
Competition/performance readiness has less to do with skating skills than with the ability to understand and follow through on a goal. I don't think children should compete unless they understand on some level what this means. But I also don't think that competition necessarily means, or should mean, to a child what it means to a parent or a coach.

Clearly a four- or five-year old is not going to view competition as a chance to achieve a personal best, win a coveted trophy, or perform a difficult skill under pressure (all classic motivations for competing). However, it's perfectly fine for the 4-year old to understand they'll get the ice to themselves, or take home a medal or trophy (in ISI, everyone gets a medal or trophy, and all Tot levels get 1st place regardless of the number of competitors), or get a cool costume. That tiny child does however have to be able to understand and use some basic knowledge of competition, most importantly that you have to practice and that you have to learn and duplicate a program.

I view as ready to compete the kids who:
  • are capable of memorizing a program and doing it substantially the same every time
  • understand that skills in a program must be at the same level of technical excellence as skills demonstrated in isolation,
  • understand that competitions mean winners, almosts, and losers. Your child needs to be emotionally ready not to come in first (and so do you)
  • have or can be choreographed into some flair for showmanship,
  • don't try to "direct" the lesson ("can we do Favorite But Useless Skill now? How about now? Now?")
  • will let you use lessons to teach the program (some kids don't understand this),
What skills do you need to compete?
You can "compete" at a really really low level. We're taking toddle on the ice, no glide, fall-down-get-up level. In ISI, everyone entered in a "tot" competition gets a first place trophy. But seriously what's the point? Take the kid to Stars on Ice or Disney on Ice; it will cost about the same and be a lot more interesting (for everyone). Don't compete a child without a skill set worthy of the title, say, a long one-foot glide, swizzles that look like swizzles, etc. If you want grandma to see Precious skate, bring the whole family to public skate some Sunday; everyone with the guts to do it puts on skates and out they go. Or hire a teenager to skate around with the child while the family watches.

(Please note that there are genius children who can handle "real" competition at the age of 5 or 6 or 7, and who have axels and are fabulously marvelous individuals. I'm not talking about the outliers; I'm talking about your general run-of-the-mile looks like she's good enough to lay it on the line skater.)

With older children (6 or 7 and older) I'd let the child lead. You may have to do a little reading between the lines. For instance, Coach says "what about a competition?" Kid shrugs, but doesn't jump at the opportunity. This might be a kid who's afraid to say no, or a kid who's afraid to say yes. You have to lead them to the answer they're comfortable with. Once your child is in FS4 or 5, they should be doing one or two competitions, exhibitions or ice show solos every year. Figure skating is a performance sport. If you take it seriously enough to learn double jumps, you should be taking it seriously enough to perform.

Who decides?
If you're interested in competition, and the coach hasn't said anything, ask. The coach may be someone like me, who generally doesn't do competitions, or the coach may feel the child isn't ready. Or may be just about to bring it up. Point is, you don't have to wait for the coach to make this suggestion. As always, ask.

Whether to compete is first the child's choice (yes, you can push a reluctant child to try this, based on your knowledge of the child), then yours (can you afford the time and expense, and are you available for the full time span of the competition--you won't know the exact schedule until a few days before), and lastly the coach's. If you and your child REALLY want to compete and the coach says absolutely not, find out why. The coach may have very good reasons, or you may need a different coach (you can do competitions with one coach and still retain your lesson coach. It's weird, but workable).

How good should the skater be?
Skating skills have less to do with it than you might think. No matter what anyone says, ISI or Basic Skills competitions prior to axels are exactly the same. Basic Skills competitions have a little more flexibility on skills allowed, but both tracks are essentially meaningless in terms of a kid's career; they are there to give kids and their families a goal and a structure and to help them learn about competitions in a fairly non-stressful way. USFS and ISI diverge at the Beginner/PrePreliminary and FS 5 levels, where ISI stays recreational and USFS starts thinking about "bridging" kids into the qualifying competitions through what I call the "practice" competitions of the Club or non-qualifying circuit.

Should we compete?
Competitions are fine, even for tots, even for Pre Alpha. I like all competitions; I make no judgment on whether ISI is bullsh*t (a common refrain) or Basic Skills is for "real" skaters. It's all going to seem pretty real to the skater. Coaches like to have their students do one or the other because the required elements and program times are very different; it's hard to do both, you need too many different programs which can be confusing especially for very young skaters. I would consider a coach's statement of "I don't do ISI/Basic Skills competitions" acceptable, whereas a statement of "I don't do ISI/Basic Skills competitions because ISI/Basic Skills is stupid" to be a red flag for a coaching change.

If you've selected a coach who takes all her students to competitions, you should know this going in. Choose a coach like that and your skater will be competing. If you don't want to compete, make sure the coach understands that, or think about a different coach. Conversely, if you know you want to compete, don't choose a coach who doesn't do competitions unless you make it clear upfront that you expect this to happen. Coaches may make exceptions for individual needs.

Let the coach choose the competition, based on your schedule. Don't research this and then tell the coach "we're doing this competition and this one and this one." You don't really know enough about it. Let the coach make the call; she'll have her reasons. Then it's just a matter of scheduling. Above about a Delta/Basic 7 level if you want your skater to compete, you might consider adding a lesson per week just to work on the program, and adding a solo practice, since the coach won't be out there with the kid during the actual competition.

Competing is a fairly serious thing to do; take it seriously.

Watch for a separate posts on adults and competition.

Dec 17, 2010

Off ice training: just when you thought it was safe to leave the ice rink

No, not "office." Off. Ice. In other words, what you do outside the rink to support and enhance your skating. Who does it, who needs it (both actually and sarcastically), where do you find it, how do you know what kind to do?

Off ice training is for serious figure skaters, or unserious figure skaters who are looking for a second activity. The bad news is that it adds an activity to your schedule. The good news is it's fun, and the better news is you might already be engaging in an activity that counts.

The little guys
For very young children (age 6 and under) especially if they're in learn to skate levels, the best off-ice activity is running around in the playground. This gives them energy (grown-up word: cardio workout), and encourages both courage and coordination.

Not so little
If your five to seven year old child is in soccer, or one of those other marginally organized dash fests that little kids engage in, this is also a great off-ice activity for beginning skaters. The biggest problem with soccer is that the schedule makes figure skating hard-- they tend to conflict. Again, it supports endurance, coordination, and effort. Most very young children don't need much stretching- they're pretty flexible anyway, and strength training is both beside the point, since they don't have the hormones yet that build muscle, and dangerous, because their growing bones are susceptible to stress injuries.

Serious skaters
First, how do you know you're a serious skater?

Start with how much time you're putting in. If you are "practicing" (as opposed to skating around in circles) at least 3 hours a week, you're serious. You're also serious if you're doing USFS competitions or are gearing up for either the USFS or the ISI testing tracks. For these skaters, whatever the age or level, you need off-ice training that both helps with figure skating skills and technique, and reduces the risk of injury on the ice.

The most common injuries on the ice are soft-tissue: pulled muscles, strained ligaments and tendons, bursitis, stress fractures (which in young skaters is often in the growth plates rather than the bones themselves). You need off ice activities that keep these tissues limber, warm, and strong.

Serious competitive skaters above the Juvenile level MUST do proper off-ice training, including strength, flexibility, plyometrics (jumping), and cardio workouts. Your coach will guide you in this. Kids who are learning jumps, especially once they move into doubles, should do activities that build coordination, endurance and strength, to keep them safe on the ice.

Here are some options, the good, the bad, and the unnecessary, plus some you might not have thought of:

Ballet
This is the most common off-ice activity you'll hear suggested. It has the whole package-- strength, flexibility, grace, artistry, posture as well as understanding of music. You will be required to participate in the recital at most programs, but performance experience is also critical for skaters. I've seen "ballet for skaters" programs, but frankly, what's the point. Do ballet for ballet dancers and you'll know it's right. Find a reputable studio-one that's been around a while, or is managed by someone who came out of a reputable program. It should have a range of classes from beginner to dilettante to serious. The biggest advantage of ballet is that most communities have lots and lots of ballet studios so the scheduling tends to be easy. If you're taking a boy, call it "dance class" or "dance for skaters" to start and let him figure out that it's ballet once he's into it.

Ice Mom has an excellent article on ballet for skaters today, with some good links.

Strength Training
Do. Not. Take. Your. Pre-adolescent. To. Strength. Training. If you find a program for pre-ads, report them to the authorities. This type of work out, especially on machines, can be actively dangerous for young children, and besides, doesn't do them any good. Their bodies don't have the proper hormones yet. The best strength training for young children is having them use all the "equipment" on the local playlot, which is designed to work the whole body at an age-appropriate level for grade school kids.

"Off Ice Training"
Many programs offer a hodge-podge called "off ice training" ( which always looks to me like they're going to teach kids how to use the copy machine). These generally include some dance or ballet, some callisthenics, some running, some stretching, and some off-ice jumping (not necessarily in that order). They may be run by individual coaches or by the program. These are fine. If they are coach led, the instructor may or may not understand fitness, especially for kids at ranges of age, level and ability. Some facilities have fitness specialists running these, which is optimum, but my experience of these nevertheless is very positive. You want to watch for coaches who run the programs with only their own students in mind (make sure all the kids are getting instruction, in other words), and that the facilities are adequate. I've seen coaches having kids do pushups on bare lobby floors (yuk), and jumping drills with no mats (ouch). Big advantage is that they will be scheduled around the skating schedule, and in the same facility, making them easy to slot into your week.

Pilates and Yoga
These are both terrific for strength, discipline, agility, and flexibility, but are inappropriate for younger children (say under the age of 12). They are fantastic for adult skaters however, with their slow approach, low impact movement, mental discipline, and adaptability to, shall we say, alternate morphologies.

Gymnastics
Again, great for strength, courage, and especially flexibility. However, with flexibility a major focus of gymnastics, it can take it too far. I would not put a child who is not naturally flexible into gymnastics if their main focus is skating. You do not need unusual flexibility to skate well; it's nice if you've got it, but focusing on it is unnecessary. I also think that putting a child into two dangerous sports activities is just asking for trouble. Stick with one of the other options.

In addition to the traditional off-ice options like those above, there are other activities that can support and enhance ice skating that your child might find less boring or onerous. These can be especially useful for boys (or girls) who balk at dance, or for people having trouble making schedules work.

Theater training
Theater programs will often include some dance, lots of body and spatial awareness exercises, as well as creativity.

Karate or other martial arts
Martial Arts have many things in common with ballet-- set patterns, discipline, respect for authority and heirarchy, strength, agility and flexibility training-- and boys like it. I prefer to find programs that are stingy with the rewards (as in 8 year olds with black belts) because skating can be somewhat stingy with the rewards, so it mirrors the culture.

Specialty Dance
Speciality dance disciplines like jazz, tango, tap, ballroom, or hip hop are great options for older skaters who are looking for help with different types of expression, and are a must for ice dancers. However, it is not a substitute for ballet. Specialty dance classes without a solid classical background will just be play time for younger, untrained kids. By all means take jazz dance or hip hop. There will be other benefits, including creativity, agility, et cetera. But it's not ballet.

Let you coach guide you, but as always, ask respectful questions. If your coach tells you "you must take the off-ice class" tell her or him what other activities the child is already engaged in and see if these meet the need. You can then decide whether to continue the existing activites, add new ones, or change your schedule. Be sure to consider your budget-- don't let the coach keep piling on the costs; if you need, for financial reasons, to drop a lesson or a skating class to pay for this, tell the coach. (If the coach then says, "No. If you want to be a serious skater, you must do this", you might want to consider a different coach. A coach who doesn't care about a family's financial needs might also not be responding to your child's emotional or physical needs.)

(Thanks to Stitch's mom for inspiring the post!)

Dec 15, 2010

My coach is great, your coach is an idiot, if not a criminal

Everyone loves their coach. (Well, until they don't) You invest a lot in a coach-financially, emotionally, temporally. And mostly, your coach probably is great. But how do you really know? Sometimes coaches do treat clients like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them shit). Sometimes the coach has specific goals that he or she wants you to follow, with or without your consent or knowledge. Sometimes the coach discourages interaction with any other parents or coaches, so that you don't get conflicting information, or find out how other skaters operate.

So how do you know what is true, what is self-serving, and what is pure crap?

Don't get all your information from one place
Any blanket statement should be taken with a grain of salt. "Synchro is for kids who can't skate." "ISI is for skaters who aren't serious." "That competition has bad judges." Find sources other than your coach for skating information-- the blogs, the federation websites (ISI, USFS, PSA, all linked in my sidebar), the skate shop, the skating director, other parents (especially ones who work with a different coach, or whose skater has different goals than your own). There is no excuse for accepting anyone's word (including mine) without ascertaining the facts.

Don't isolate yourself at the rink
Talk to other parents. Have your child take class with different coaches. Do the ice show. Twice. (Many parents have the experience of an ice show that does not meet their expectations, so they bail after the first one. They don't consider that perhaps their expectations were not in line with reality, or that one seldom gets anything "right" the first time.) Check out the Synchro team, or hockey, for that matter.

Don't be afraid to ask questions
This is hard-- figure skating coaches and skating directors HATE to be asked questions. We take it as a challenge to our god-given authority. But remember to frame your questions neutrally- "how long does it take to learn mohawks" not "why aren't you teaching Suzy mohawks!" And save your questions for an appropriate moment. Inappropriate moments can include: during class, in the middle of the ice show, on the coach's private home number at 11 p.m., or when you encounter the coach at the grocery store. Send the coach an email (go to the library and find the PSA membership directory. Nearly every coach in America is listed in this book, and their email addresses are in it. See if they have a Facebook fan page, or if they publish their email on their Facebook public profile. ) Grab a coach before or after class, or call the skating director and ask when you can come in and chat. (Caveat- Do NOT go to the press or your alderman. Seriously.)

Challenge the answers
If an answer or instruction sounds fishy, ask for a justification. Find out other families who have been faced with the question, answer, or situation and find out what they did. Make sure you talk to people with different coaches. Again, skating coaches hate this. As a coach, I now understand why (it's hard to compress my decades of experience into a short enough answer to make sense to neophyte parents), but as a former skating mom, I really wish I had asked more questions and challenged more answers and assumptions. Other coaches may refuse to answer, or may (should) mention to your coach that you were asking questions. They are constrained from interfering with a coaching relationship, so that discussing someone else's student is a bit fraught. You, however, are under no such constraint and can talk to anyone you want to about your child.

Be a generalist
Try out the ice show. Go to a couple of different coaches about privates. Even TRY a couple of different coaches before you commit to one. (Make sure both/all coaches know you're "auditioning" them.) Put your kid in hockey skates, or speed skates, just to try it out. Go to public ice, at a couple of different rinks. Try out an ISI session, and then try out a Basic Skills session. (And just for the record, I have taught in both curricula, and I favor ISI, which forces the teacher to be creative, and also doesn't drop kids off the map after the axel. There is no class curriculum in USFS for recreational skaters over the FS 5 level. Each rink has to come up with their own. Plus, you can be in an ISI skating school and still do USFS tests and competitions. It's much more complicated to do it the other way around.)

Have fun
"Fun" is not the same thing as "dilettante," "untalented," or "loser." Fun can include serious practice, competitions, morning ice, private lessons as well as sometimes just skating for the sheer joy of it. If your coach starts telling you that your child is not serious enough, or that you are required to commit now to a competitive career, for your 6 year old Freestyle 2 skater, go back up to the first item on my list and start again.

Because if it's not fun, then asking all the questions in the world is not going to make your child want to skate.

What question do you wish you had asked?

Dec 12, 2010

How To Survive the Ice Show

After a night like last night, you'd be amazed to hear me say that the winter ice show (Nutcracker at my rink) is still one of the best, most fun jobs I've ever done. But it was one for the record books. After a stuttery start, we had two text book performances. Then came Saturday night. I may never have another normal bowel movement, I had so many new ones drilled for me.

By day three of an ice-show marathon, the pros start getting a little glassy-eyed, the volunteers are sneaking liquor into the stands, the kids reach waaay too much of a comfort level, and the parents are feeling their oats, meaning they've seen the show 3 whole times now and are ready to share their feelings on "fixing it" with every pro they encounter, or seek out.

Tempers flare, tears are abundant.

So here's how to cope:

Know and accept who's in charge
Just like in school, the teacher is in charge. If the rules are posted and you need special dispensation, you must tell the person in charge before the show. Children who receive conflicting instructions will insist on following the parent's instructions, which can run the range from confusing to wrong to dangerous (like telling a 6-year-old "find daddy at intermission, I'll be in the stands"). Better yet, don't give the child any instructions at all, because they will garble it, which is confusing, and time-wasting, and distracting for the volunteer or pro.

The best thing you can do to ensure your child's safety and enjoyment is to drop the child off with a volunteer or staff person, and then leave. The chaos and confusion is created by too many conflicting authority figures.

Conflicts with pros or volunteers
If you think there's something wrong with the set up, you may be right, or you may be out of your head. Once the show is running, you have exactly two options. One, if you really feel your child is in danger, then pull them from the show. We will understand. Two, call the skating director the week after the show and ask for an appointment to voice your concerns. If it's about observed behavior, be sure to have documented it, with names, times and the day it occurred.

Do not confront the first random pro that you see and start yelling. If you're really upset and you find yourself in this situation, stop and let the pro explain or apologize. Stun and run complaints don't help anyone. Here's what's happening while you are screaming at the pro-- they are unable to do their job. You are worried about one child. They need to worry about a hundred or more. Let them do their job, you protect your child, and document the incident.

Lost children
If your child is lost, here's what to do: make sure someone the child knows well is at the child's locker or chair or wherever their temporary "home base" is. Send another person to watch the main exterior door to the facility. A third person should find the pro and ask for help locating the child. Save the screaming for after we find her. I promise I will stand there and take it. While you're screaming, I am not looking for the child.

Here's a harsh, home truth: children wander off, especially after a couple of shows are under their belts. An ice rink is a sieve, it is nearly impossible to block all escape routes. The kids often don't know they're lost. They think they're fine. We've had a lot of children wander off at ice shows; it's terrifying. We've never had one actually go missing (we're talking 30 years of ice shows at my rink).

The biggest problem with wandering children is parents who bring them in and out of the dressing room, who have large groups of extended family coming and going into restricted areas where they are not supposed to be, and basically teaching the kids that it's okay to wander around. The kids really don't get the distinction between going off on their own, and going off with mom or dad or uncle or whomever. If they are regular students at the rink, they know a lot of people, they know the facility, so they feel perfectly safe. We understand this, which is why every rink I've ever worked at has a policy that the children are not supposed to leave the dressing rooms for non-emergency reasons.

The only instruction you should give your child is-- ask the coach.

Mistakes in the show
If the choreography is bad (folks, it's a kiddie show, who the hell cares if the choreography is bad), the children fall, miss a cue, forget the steps, run into the soloist, sit on the ice, refuse to perform, have I missed anything?- I have one thing to say, very loudly. DOESN'T MATTER. It's not the Olympics. There is quite literally nothing at stake, and furthermore at this point, complaining about it is beyond pointless, because if something can be done, the staff is doing it, and if nothing can be done, incredibly, the kids will cope.

We had a group of learn-to-skate level students who improvised their own choreography last night when they finished way ahead of their music. I'm just betting that no one watching the show last night could tell. Kids are amazing. You are out of control.

Don't compare this show to the other rink's show
They aren't the same. Rink cultures vary; some are very permissive with kids in the stands and parents in the restricted areas; some are little police states. Some rinks are set up in such a way that security is easy, and some have so many possible egresses that you just want to cry. Some provide extra security staff, others require the pros to provide the security and run the show. Some have long rehearsal periods, some throw the show together in a couple of weeks.

Enjoy yourself
I love doing the ice show. Don't ruin it for me, yourself, your child, and everyone around you.

I got the test session horror stories a few weeks ago. What are your ice show horror stories?

Dec 10, 2010

Did I say bad chi? No such thing

The companion post:

Did I say something about the photographer? The new photography schedule eliminated tears and chaos. The parents were ecstatic.

Maybe those spotlight channels were need for the four new spotlight volunteers that got trained. (One of whom has outed herself as a trained professional theater tech specialist. This is how you get sucked into my web, you know. Never reveal an actual skill that you don't want me to exploit, that is to say, ask you to share.)

Did I mention the group that had the wrong music? Freestyle 1 girls, average age 8, learned an additional 30 seconds of choreography in 5 minutes.

Despite their harried helpers, tots were awesome, inasmuch as they made it off before their music ended. This may be a first for a dress rehearsal.

All those 12 groups doing re-skates at the dress apparently paid off, because today's show went without a glitch.

Volunteers didn't show? Several awesome moms and dads stepped in and handled the backstage organizing.

This is the amazing thing about performing: I've worked in performing arts for 30 years-- classical music, theater and figure skating--and I am continually amazed at how everyone, literally EVERYONE performs "up"-- they do better when the spotlight's on-- no matter how disastrous the rehearsal period is, or how unprepared they seem to be.

Rock on, Nutcrackers! Two down, four to go!

If someone says there's bad "chi", then there's bad "chi"

It all started with one of the pros going all skating mom on the poor photographer's assistant. (Um, if they say that was me, don't listen to them, they have no idea what they are taking about.)

The lighting guys used too many headset channels, leaving one station with no way to communicate. (Maybe semaphore?)

Freestyle 1 girls had been practicing to the wrong music. So had the Polchinelles. For 6 weeks.

Turned out the tot helpers couldn't help, because then they didn't have time to set up for their own number. (Tots however, were awesome, inasmuch as they made it off before their music ended. This may be a first for a dress rehearsal.)

A record 12 groups had to do reskates.

Not one of the scheduled dressing room volunteers actually showed up on time.

Oh, the bad chi? The flower service had hung stars over the office entrance so that the points were aimed straight down at anyone standing at the window, or entering the door. In feng shui they call these "poison arrows" and they concentrate bad chi energy. When I saw it on Wednesday I told him he was going to have to change them.

Always listen to your Xanboni.

Dec 6, 2010

Running a volunteer effort

In my other life I'm a development consultant (that's fundraising) for nonprofit organizations. I do fund appeal letters, grant writing, and organizing events and volunteer efforts.

The two worlds intersect at volunteer management, as I organize the ice show volunteers at my rink.

All rinks, in fact youth sports in general, rely on volunteers-- everyone has moms who help with the ice show, as well as practice ice monitors, club officials, etc.

The trick to getting a volunteer effort to work is to seek involvement at a level that people are comfortable with. You want to have a wide range of jobs so people can choose what they like to do. It also includes accepting that some people do not want to participate. If the first rule of fundraising is "you don't get donations you don't ask for" then the second rule is that you cannot compel giving. Some people simply to do not give (or at any rate don't give to you or your cause). Once you're comfortable with those two things-- asking for help, and taking no for an answer-- it's simply a matter of keeping the balls in the air.

And volunteering is giving. A gift of time is actually a deeper level of commitment than a gift of money, and should be honored as such. When cultivating donors for a cause, the first thing you seek is a small cash gift; recruiting for volunteers is way down the line.

Therefore, when recruiting volunteers for an effort like an ice show, the first thing to remember is that these people are already big donors in a way-- their commitment, via the checks they write for classes and lessons-- is considerable. The more they are already involved in your program, the more receptive they are to the "ask."

An ice show needs a lot of volunteers. I start 10 weeks out to make sure I have time (in fact I start several years out, to make sure that I have experienced parents in 5 years, when this year's high school Freshman parents are gone).

The mechanics

Start with a "passive" ask-- simply a form in the show packet, at least 10 weeks out. It's going to take you right up to the day of the dress rehearsal to get everyone you need; if you don't start early you're going to have to be a nuisance at the end, which will turn people off. It's also another one of those little fundraising rules that very few people give the first time they are aware of a need. You have to advertise over and over.

Up until a few years ago, I would attend the second rehearsal of every skating group and just talk it up in the stands. You want to recruit the parents of children old enough to be on their own-- parents of children 7 or younger generally need to be with their own kids (and this may include younger sibs who don't skate). You also want to get parents committed while their kids are young, because these are going to be your long term volunteers, who will use the gossip machine to help you recruit. Don't forget the nannies and the dads.

Nowadays I do some on-site recruiting, but mostly I do it through email. Once rehearsals start I send out a blast to every family in the show, with a fairly strong pitch. I follow this every 10 days or so with progressively less strident messages, and making sure to remove the people who have already signed up. The final week before the show I amp it up again, both at the rink and in email, that "we really really need your help"!

The message
Any good fundraising pitch emphasizes that the giver benefits from giving. Use the word "you" a lot, make sure they understand how vital the effort is, and how easy it is-- you give as much or as little time as you can. I always include in at least one pitch that it's also okay not to do this, much as we'd like everyone to participate.

The goal
To reach your goal, you first have to know what it is. I generally aim for 60 to 80 volunteers for show week (about 12 to 15 per show); since my target population is only 200 households, that's a very high participation rate. And I hate to say it, but I aim that high because there is always attrition in volunteer efforts-- 10 people will sign up, but only 6 (or fewer) will actually show. Accept this. The only consequence for not showing up is that person doesn't get a thank you letter. It is OKAY not to volunteer. (Well, it's not, but I understand it.)

Since the major need for volunteers at an ice show is "baby wrangling" (i.e. supervising the kids), a good guideline for the number you'll need is whatever the local school teacher-ratio mandate is. Generally, one adult for every 20 to 30 kids will work, especially since you've also got actual staff, and each child's parent is going probably going to tie their skates. So for my approximately 100 younger skaters, who all gather in the gym, I like to have 3 to 5 volunteers per night. If possible, arrange for separate dressing areas so that fathers can also participate in supervision.

If you get to show week and you don't have enough people, recruit on the spot.

The response mechanism
The "response mechanism" in fundraising is the form you fill out. A good form will increase your participation rate, because people like to fill out forms. This year I pioneered using the two-click calendar at Volunteer Spot, which has the additional advantage of being widely used by grade schools, so a lot of parents are already familiar with it. However, I also had paper forms, both emailed and available at the rink, and allowed people to leave me notes, or send their preferences straight to my email. It's a little more work for me, but allowed the donor to use a response mechanism that they were comfortable with.

Make sign up as easy as possible-- use a form with check boxes, but keep the options few and clear-- a list of dates, and a list of jobs. The form should be simple, with minimal graphics. Jobs should have obvious titles so people don't have to guess, e.g. "supervise Boy's Dressing Room." Leave training/actual enumeration of duties for the event itself. If you have the staff for it, sometimes the easiest thing to do is have a knowledgeable staff person at a desk called "Volunteer Sign Up." Since a lot of people now carry their calendars around with them in the form of smart phones, this can be extremely effective.

The schedule

Put the schedule up well ahead of the event, so that people can complain that they NEVER said they would do that (you have the form, but fine, let them change it). I make a simple grid using the table option in Word-- one row for each date, one column for each volunteer location. People then check to see if their name is on the correct date and assigned to the correct location.

For experienced volunteers, I always alert them that they may not get their first choice of job, depending on volunteer turn out. New volunteers get the job they ask for. (So you can suck them into your evil web...)

The Reward
I take the concept of altruism with a giant grain of road salt. People want quid pro quo. The trick is understanding what value they are assigning this. For most donors, the altruistic reward is actually fairly far down the list. Donors like being part of an effort; this is why web-based fundraising is so successful-- even a minimal donation makes you part of the herd, a powerful incentive. People who give to galas and other public events like access and recognition, which is why you see donor lists divided by level, and why organizations give freebies to famous people. (hmmm, I wonder if I can get Michelle Kwan to volunteer....)

Some volunteers like to know what's going on, so be sure to give them lots of information-- take them aside and do a brief orientation and pep talk, let them know where everything is, and who they can come to with problems. Watch for the petty dictators; find them a job where they can be in charge without stepping on people's toes.

Make sure people know who the volunteers are. They are often motivated by a desire to be in the inner circle, but not so inner that the outsiders can't identify them. Give them a badge in a bright color; if it can be nicely designed or presented in a badge holder, even better. (These are expensive, so a lot of rinks won't foot the bill. But a label on a bright piece of card stock works just as well.) Have extras, have blanks, so that people who lose them or last minute sign ups still get a badge.

After the event
Say thank you. Put up a sign. Send a card or an email. Do both. Let people know you appreciated their help. Let them know how important they were to the success of the show. (They are.) Tell them that you're counting on them to help next time, too.

A really good volunteer effort will hold an annual recognition luncheon, with public thanks and if possible actual awards. All volunteers- costume shop, show, ice monitors, hockey score keepers, whatever- should be included. Even if you "pay" your volunteers with ice time or comped classes this is very important to a strong program. Unfortunately it's also expensive, so not every program can do it.

Dec 4, 2010

This is what Preliminary Run Through is FOR

Nutcracker on Ice--a really magical and unique show that my rink is known for. It's also 6 weeks of getting yelled at by parents, cried on by children, and bitched at by other coaches. All for minimum wage. It is my favorite part of our calendar. Perhaps thirteen years of doing it has numbed the area of my brain that should have made me hate it.

Today was the first run-through; no tech, just run the show through from start to end. One hundred eighty-six families, more than 200 children. There are probably close to 500 people in the building at the height of the madness.

Right off the bat, I commit the cardinal sin of assuming someone else is doing a specific job, which turns out to have been MY job, and miss getting two groups onto the ice. This is the only mistake I am present for all day for which I do not get blamed. It is the only one that is actually my fault.

The costumes, which usually arrive a month ahead of time, all get here today. Approximately 200 families descend on the costume room, more or less all at once. There are nearly 400 costumes, and they all need to be fitted by Thursday.

The parents, who all know me because I run the volunteer program, all seek me out to ask questions which a) they don't really need to know, b) don't have an answer, or c) they don't like the answer. The ones in category "c" will continue to ask me the same question all day, on the assumption that eventually they will get an answer they like.

One of the key soloists has decided that he has plenty of time to wander down the street to get a sandwich, as there are two whole 2-minute solos before he has to skate. He does not share this decision with anyone. We finally find him by getting one of the other kids to text him and let him know he needs to be on the ice.

The tots are getting restless. I tell them the story of the Nutcracker, into which they immediately manage to insert scatalogical references.

Speaking of which, the 6 to 10 year old boys are playing "who can fart the loudest."

The littlest girls' coach is gossiping in the stands, so I line them up, except I'm not their coach, so I don't know where they go. Coach comes and reads me the riot act for not knowing where her group belongs. Um...

One of the 6 year old girls decides she can't wait to skate, so she doesn't! We look up and she's improvising a lovely and spontaneous solo in the middle of the Spanish Dancer solo.

Step out trio runs into the group that they share the ice with. Their choreographer seems to want to know why I let them do this. That would be because that's how you choreographed it? Is this a trick question?

Concessionaire has run out of ingredients for her wonderful fresh sandwiches. I have a hot dog for lunch. (I do not eat processed food, as a matter of health and philosophy. This helps me remember why.)

Everyone has to hang around for a staff meeting at the end. I'm sitting around in the office, waiting for it to happen. Except it's happening in the sound booth at rinkside, so I miss it.

The magic starts again on Thursday with the dress rehearsal. Somehow it will turn into a spectacular and professional show; it does every year, despite my griping, the parents' panic, the mistakes and tears and costume snafus.

The Robert Crown Nutcracker on Ice is as magical as today's lovely snow storm, with these hundreds of skaters ages 3 to 50 in beautiful costumes, participating in this wonderful tradition. It is what inspired me, nearly 20 years ago, to encourage my daughter to skate.

If you're in the Chicago area, come and watch. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday December 10 through 12 at Robert Crown Center in Evanston.

Disclaimer-- couple a people were a little put off by this post. Rest assured, details of some incidents have been altered; if you recognize yourself, that's on you! Also, as I said, this is fun--Nutcracker is one of those "I can't believe they pay us to do this" sorts of jobs (and since they don't pay us much, it sorta works out). Really, come and see it!

Dec 2, 2010

How your comments can hurt a coach's business

You might think it's an innocent remark, made at random in the stands: "why does my skater's coach let the kids just stand around and talk?" "I'm so mad at my skater's coach, she was late for the lesson again!" "My skater didn't do well at competition because I think coach pushed him too hard." "That coach only pays attention to her own skaters in class."

In reality, you actually love the coach, you think the skater's doing well, and you're not really unhappy. You're just sitting in the stands, bored, or frustrated, or listening to the other parents talk, and you feel like you have to say something. The conversation veers into the negative and you don't want to sound like Polyanna, so you pick something negative almost at random.

But this is how bad reputations get made.

We know, intellectually, that gossip is bad. But the definition is very vague, and everyone claims that they don't indulge in it. Saying "coach is late" when in fact the coach is late, isn't gossip, right? It's a simple statement of fact. But your statement that the coach is late will turn into "I heard that she was late again" which will turn into "that coach is never on time."

You might know perfectly well that the reason your coach was late is because her car is in the shop and she's relying on public transportation, which she isn't used to. Or she has a sick child or spouse. But the remark just slips out, and next thing you know, that coach has a reputation for being late, even if it was just once or twice.

Everyone gets frustrated with their coach. But there are exactly two people to talk to about it-- the coach, or if the situation is out of hand, the skating director. And there is one place you should NEVER talk about it and that's in the lobby or the stands. Serious conversations with the coach belong on the phone, in a remote coffee shop, or even Google chat. (Don't do it by email; email has a way of getting out of hand. If you start an email discussion and it goes more than 3 times back and forth without resolution, or starts getting negative, pick up the phone.)

Fighting with the coach in the lobby, indulging in off-hand (or worse, calculated) criticism, or passing on overheard remarks are reputation-wreckers, for both you and the coach, with your child as the collateral damage.

Nov 28, 2010

So you want to join the ice show!

by guest blogger Nora Chin

Joining a show is a great way to travel the world, meet lots of cool people, and develop your skating in a whole new way!

Choosing a show
The first thing you need to decide is what you want out of your show experience. If you want to travel the world, your best bet is to join either Disney on Ice or Holiday on Ice. Both are great shows! On the downside, you move around a lot and are often far away from home for 9 or 10 months at a time. Sometimes it can be kind of a bummer not having the same room for longer than a week. If you want to be closer to home and have your own room, working on a Cruise ship is a nice alternative, plus you can get in lots of beach time! (I was with Disney, so that is what this is all based on.)
(Here's all the princesses. When they do these meet-and-greets, they're required to stay in character no matter what. That's our guest blogger as Mulan.-- Xan.)

Who's who?
I don't really remember what I was expecting when I joined the show, but there are some things I wish I did know before joining. An ice show is a traveling circus, really-- there's the skaters, the Production Manager, Line Captains, often a rep from the home company, the technicians and stage crew, costume mistress, and all of our concessionaires as well. I even worked on the stage crew for part of one tour to earn extra money.

The Production Director (PD)
is basically your boss and is someone you can talk to for advice on how to achieve your goals. They make sure the show is running the way it is supposed to (lights, sounds, costume everything!). They have a very extensive knowledge of the show and also are in charge of progress reports for every skater. Your PD can suggest understudies that you would do well in. If you are interested in trying something like adagio pairs, your PD might be able to partner you with someone you would skate well with. Figuring out what your goals are for your time on the show and talking with your PD about achieving them is a good thing to do.

Your line captain is another person you can talk to. Line captains are kind of like assistants to the PD. They give notes to skaters for the PD and run rehearsals. They can help you if you are having trouble with any steps. If you get any notes, or corrections, from the PD, your line captain can help you fix them.

Make sure to always try your hardest. Sometimes it can seem like your hard work is not being recognized, but remember, no notes are good notes!

Where do you sign up?
It's good to know what production companies are looking for as well, when deciding where to go. With Disney, having a few doubles is a good idea but not strictly necessary.
A strong skating resume (gold tests, national experience, etc.) can help but again is not a prerequisite. You don't see that many people with international credentials on Disney, more on the cruise ships which tend to have a more discerning audience (i.e. fewer 3 year olds in princess costumes). Many people do character work (like Snow White's dwarves) and don't need to do any jumps or spins, so it really depends on what you want to do. For a cruise and Holiday on Ice the expectations are higher. They usually want to see at least a double axel from a singles woman and more from the men (a backflip is a bonus for a guy!).

Look up how to audition on the company's website, and check the ads in Skating Magazine and the PSA Magazine. For Disney, you can audition after a show when they are in your home town, or you can send in a video (I think it is the same for Holiday). For the cruise, you can send in a video. Sometimes you can post it on YouTube and send a link to whoever casts the shows, but once again you'll need to look up who to send it to on their website. The website can also tell you what they want to see on a tape. It's good to have a few takes of each element on your tape to show consistency.

Disney on Ice is run by Feld Entertainment, and the ships are Willy Bietak Productions. Holiday is its own company.

Life on the road
Sometimes the schedule is so light, it's pretty relaxing! When the show schedule is light (meaning there are only a few shows that week), you have a lot of time off to explore whatever city you are in. (There are also weeks where you work three shows a day 5 days in a row, but they're rare.) Food on the road tours isn't provided for you so you need to buy your own groceries, which can be difficult since there isn't always a fridge in your hotel room. Sometimes people buy little portable ones and travel them. It's a great idea to have a hot pot (like this one) so you can boil water and make pasta. Some people have hot plates and pots and pans so they can make an array of dishes, but it takes up a lot of space in your luggage. I suggest being on the road for a few weeks before making any final decision on cookware. Be careful as well, because not all hotels allow you to cook in your room.

One of the hardest things for me was saving money. It can get pretty boring sometimes, especially when touring the states, and it is very tempting to go shopping A LOT. Be super careful with your money! Other skaters might spend more
so you might think nothing of it but you need to remember that they might make more than you, and in some cases their parents give them money too.

There can be a lot of drama on a show (putting all those figure skaters in one place!) and my advice would be to try and stay out of it. Just do your best and don't apologize for it! I barely skated my first year and only auditioned for one thing, and was resentful of other skaters who seemed to get all the stuff I wanted, but didn't get that you had to ask for. Once I started taking my career on the show more seriously by skating more and talking to my PD, I got all those things I wanted before. It can be hard but try and see everything from the point of view of your PD. Even if your PD knows you are a good skater and would be good in a role, they aren't going to give it to you if you don't show them you want it and are willing to work for it.

But really, just wing it! I loved being on the show! I made great friends and saw more of the world than most people even dream of. Even though I made mistakes and could definitely have done things differently, I wouldn't trade my time on the show for anything! If you are on the fence about joining, this is me SHOVING you over to the yes side!!!

Love,
A former Disney Princess

This former Disney Princess (that's her in the pictures as Mulan, as an Evil Stepsister, and practicing adagio lifts) is my personal princess, now home and putting herself through college as a skating coach and sales clerk. She has her gold tests in Moves, Free Style, and Ice Dance, and once managed to get herself to Junior Nationals (in dance). She skated with the show for three years, straight out of high school. She has traveled to, I think, 17 countries on 4 continents, and 9 American states and likes to brag that she's been to every Disney World in the world, except the one in Florida.

Nov 25, 2010

How to get used to new skates

It's gift giving time-- are there new skates in your future?

If you're an experienced skater, you already know the bad news-- new skates are awful, especially if you also have new blades; they just feel completely different. If you've been in rentals, you might even have the experience of suddenly not being able to stand up.

High level free style skaters have the fewest problems, for multiple reasons. First, their skill level is solid, so they have a more instinctive understanding of the balance and motion. Second, the new high-level boots are made of some space age material that allows you to skip the old, agonizing "break in" period, where the leather got soft and molded to your foot. (Unfortunately, it also means that these skates, which are essentially plastic, smell terrible after a while.)

For children and beginners, you're going to have an adjustment period. Here's some things to do:

Start slow

Don't expect to go out and immediately skate exactly the way you did in your old boots, or the rentals. Some people feel an immediate comfort, or even improvement, but most people find it very disconcerting to wear new boots and blades. So the first couple of times, just skate around until you feel solid. Younger children especially, even if they are very good skaters, will be extremely sensitive to the change. Kids like things to be the Way They Are; they're the most hide-bound conservatives you'll ever meet.

Skate a lot
As you skate more in the new boots, your body will start to forget what the old skates felt like. You don't have to skate for a long time each outing, but come every day that you can for a couple of weeks.

Don't give in

Let yourself adjust. For beginners, trust me your blade isn't "mounted wrong" and it's sharp enough. The problem is with you, because you're still inexperienced enough to be very sensitive to changes in your skating environment. For parents, try to figure out the difference between actual pain and just that it feels different. Some kids fall a lot the first few times out. This can be for multiple reasons-- the blade might be a different length, which changes your balance; if you've switched from rentals, new boots will hold your ankles straight, which again affects the balance you've learned. Out-of-the-box blades from places like SportMart sometimes have a coating on the surface of the blade to protect it during shipping (we call this "factory edging". If you hear someone say, oh it's still got the factory edge, this is what they're talking about.) This needs to be ground off by a professional skate shop (do NOT use steel wool, although you can rub aluminum foil over it a few times.)

Listen to your child, but not too much
Ask "does it hurt enough for a bandaid?" or "do we need to stop skating now?" Most kids will answer very honestly to these specific questions. Sometimes even the ones who actually get off the ice, if you tell them okay let's go home, will decide that it's fine and get back on. Especially for a kid who loves to skate, telling them that "if the skates hurt that much, we'll just stop skating" will make them evaluate the discomfort honestly. I confess I have let kids get to actual tears before giving in on new skates, especially the ones that have established themselves as complainers. Seems cruel, but I haven't lost one yet. (You don't have to let your child cry, that's just me, meanest tot teacher on the planet.)

Make sure it's the correct size
The number one reason that kids can't skate in new skates is that people get skates that are too big. Do NOT, I beg you, get skates with grow room. One 1/2 size up is the biggest you can go. Extra socks or extra insoles are not the answer. Boots that are too big force a skater to tense up their feet to keep from slipping around inside (and doubled socks makes this worse). This is what causes foot cramps, which is extremely painful. Along with a boot that's too big, will be a blade that is too big. Blades are designed to have specific points of contact with the ice. If the blade is too long, that contact point will be in the wrong place relative to your foot, and it will be harder to stand up.

If you don't know much about skates, go to a professional skate shop
Even if it means a long drive, like several counties. Buy a known brand, like Reidel, Jackson, Graf, or SPTeri. Be honest with the clerk about your skating level (i.e. don't buy a freestyle boot for a beginner-- it'll be too stiff, and will have too big a toe pick).

Here are some prior posts on skates.

Nov 24, 2010

Figure skaters don't need to dream of flying

It's a trope-- the "I'm thankful for" essay on Thanksgiving, but I'm not above a useful trope. So here are my figure skating thanks.
I'm thankful for coaches like Chris Hyland, Sheila Lonergan, Kristen Tanakatsubo, Henk Green, and Jim Draheim, among others, who have never disparaged, discouraged, or belittled my desire to be a skating coach, even when my skills or attitude were not really up to the task.

I'm thankful for my apprenticeship mentors Nick Belovol and Craig Bodoh, and my more informal mentors Angie Riviello and Jan Tremer, who have been generous to a fault with their time and knowledge.

I'm thankful for all the skating directors I have worked with, who put up with my moods, skill building (on their dime) and occasional unwarranted (as well as occasional warranted) arrogance.

I'm thankful for skating parents, both the sane ones and the crazy ones, because I understand what they're going through, and for sharing their fantastic children with me.

I'm thankful for my students Ella, Sophie, Schuyler, Gia, Rachel, Alexa, Mariette, Molly, Sonia, Elizabeth, Alina, Spencer (and his mom), and Evan (and his mom), and for the nearly 100 private students and thousands of class participants before them, who remind me every day of the joy of childhood, skating, teaching and just being.

I'm thankful for my coach friends, who took me into the fold on very little motivation, and my non-coaching friends who still can't quite believe I did this.

I'm thankful for my daughter's coaches Christian, Chris, Sharon, Jola, and Jim, who helped make her the beautiful skater and wonderful person she is today.

I'm thankful for the networks, both "real" like PSA and "virtual" like Twitter that have helped me find lifelong friends who share my passions for gardening and skating.

I'm thankful for my daughter, who has never evinced embarrassment at my teaching where she was a student, even when she was a teen, and for my uber-cool son, who apparently thinks that doing this is also cool.

I'm thankful for my husband, who supported me when I quit a very high paying executive job to work as a $12 an hour skating instructor.

I'm thankful for the skating bloggers who helped Xanboni find a voice, and an audience.
And finally, I'm thankful for the sport of figure skating, which lets me fly.

What are you thankful for?

Nov 21, 2010

Conversations with coaches

A couple of years ago, I sat down with Highland Park Ice Arena show director Sheila Lonergan and Robert Crown Ice Arena coach Jola Wesolawska, who coaches many of my rink’s most competitive skaters, about what parents and skaters should expect when they start to get serious about figure skating, with its costs, competitions, and interesting culture. The following is a compilation of several conversations.

Jola—What parents need to realize is that this is a sport that requires a lot of commitment, and there is no team that creates the structure for you. You have to do it all yourself.

Sheila—Changing in the back of the car on the way to the rink.

Jola—Fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up!

Sheila—Freezing feet!

Jola—Wake up every day at 5 a.m.! One mother told me her daughter is not a morning person, but you know, I am not a morning person either and I have been getting up at 5 a.m. more than 30 years! And I am the coach!

Xan— My daughter would get up if I would.

Jola—Yes, that is it. Parents make a big difference and the skaters learn that this is what you must do if you want to be really good.

Sheila—That’s right. And these kids really learn how to set goals and how to make a commitment, and how rewarding it is to do something this hard and succeed at it.

Xan—But, really, how many kids are going to make it to Nationals? What do the rest of them get out of all this time and money?

Jola: Success in skating does not always mean to place first at competitions or go to the Olympics. Success can be not quitting too early—don’t get discouraged! You can set a goal to pass all the ISI or USFSA tests or even set smaller goals along the way like land an axel. It is a wonderful success if you fall three times at the beginning of your program, but then you are able to skate and finish it strong. It is a success if you skate a clean program at competition, whether at your local rink or a big competition.

This is a sport that really builds character, because the skater knows she or he must rely on themselves, and must finish what he or she starts. If you fall in the middle of a soccer game, your teammate grabs the ball and the game goes on, while you take your time getting up. But if a skater falls in a show or competition, it’s all up to the skater, to just get up and keep skating. And they all do it.

Sheila: It can be a very moving thing for a parent to watch—when that skater just gets up and keeps going because skating has helped him or her to develop the character to do this.

Jola: Skating teaches you to be disciplined, organized, to manage your time, to be determined and patient, have a strong work ethic and to be consistent. It teaches you to learn from mistakes, to be humble—you land the jump but it doesn’t mean you keep it forever.

Sheila: There is no quick fix or instant reward in skating.

Jola: Right. It is a long-term sport and you won’t see the results immediately. You have to work hard, consistently and over a period of time, but you will see the improvement.

Sheila—And there is no getting around that the skills are hard, but these kids really push themselves to get to the next level. There is a lot of respect given to the higher-level skaters—the younger kids look up to them, because they know how hard those girls worked to achieve that high level.

Do you like the idea of conversations with coaches?

Nov 14, 2010

Trust

In a skating relationship, it's not always clear who is in charge of what. For one thing, it's a very intimate menage- parent/skater/coach. For another, the skill sets overlap. Third, the goals are fraught- with fear of injury, failure, keeping up with the Joneses, cost, time.

Parents, therefore, often want to know everything about what you're doing. Take it from me-- I wanted to know so much about it that I ended as a coach. They want to know what techniques you're teaching. They want you to justify every minute spent on and off the ice. They want to be able to call you at 10 at night. They want you to have a certain demeanor, except when that interferes with their expectations which may vary from week to week. It's not necessary. Coaches complain a lot about how parents just don't get it, or don't listen, or don't follow what seems like perfectly logical, reasonable advice from the coaches' point of view.

I have a lot of conversations with other coaches that begin "If I'd known as a skating parent what I know now..." But how much should we really rely on what parents know, or even more, understand, about skating culture?

I'm not talking about technique. As far as I'm concerned if a parent knows that an axel is an edge jump they're already in too deep. You really don't need to know anything about technique-- if your skater is passing their tests, they're doing fine. Think about it-- when was the last time you asked the piano teacher what technique they were teaching, or why your child was still doing sarabandes, when the other children are doing concertos. How often do you mime proper bowing technique while your young violinist is practicing? Yet I see parents miming jumps from the stands every day.

Coaches say a lot of things to parents that sound completely insane, forget logical. Unfortunately, some of these things are insane-- there are self-serving, venal, and plain old incompetent people in coaching just like there are in any other profession. So how do you separate the just plain nuts from the nuts but true?

The most important thing for you to know is not either skating culture or technical knowledge, but your own skater's and family's goals, desires, and capabilities. There are benchmarks you can watch for-- when are the jumps solid, is the skater competitive at their level and type of competition (ISI, qualifying, non-qual, test track or whatever), are they "aging out" of the test levels, how are they doing compared to their competitive peers, can you afford the costs. (Their peers are the kids with the same training schedule and goals, NOT just everyone their age. Don't compare your once a week skater to the rink's national champ.)

It starts with trust. You have to trust your coach and the coach has to trust you. If you're part of a team-- synchro, pairs or ice dance-- you have to trust the other families. If you don't trust these people, you are going to spend all your time arguing with them, and demanding explanations and rationalizations instead of getting the job done. If you and the coach are constantly fighting, the skaters are going to start checking out.

The coach needs to be able to trust the parents, too: will she be paid at the negotiated rate, on time? Will the skater be there, ready to work? Will the parent be able to listen to hard truths, or soft ones?

If your coach tells you "this is what needs to happen to meet those goals" you have to take a deep breath, start from the premise that your coach is not one of the venal or incompetent ones, and ask yourself "can we do that." If the coach tells you your goals are unreachable or longer term based on your level of commitment, he's not just trying to get more money out of you. He's trying to make you understand what it will take. If you don't trust that your coach is telling you the truth, the relationship is doomed anyway.

If the parent tells the coach "we can't afford that" (be it time or money), or that a skater doesn't really share the goal, the coach has to accept that.

You can't make excuses for your kids either. I can't tell you how many times I hear a parent tell me "oh, she's only 6," or "oh she's a hormonal teen," or any number of other excuses for poor training, bad attitude, and lack of commitment. You know one kid. Coaches know hundreds. They are likely to have a better idea of what a kid of a given age, skill, and level is capable of than you do. Sure, you know your kid. But you have to trust (there's that word again) that your coach has expertise in the discipline and will help your immature, hormonal, tired, overcommited child be the best skater they can be, in line with the goals you have all set together.

Don't sabotage a relationship with a lack of trust. Because we all have just one goal in mind-- the best interest of the child.


This is why he's head of the PSA

An excellent post on practice etiquette from Jimmie Santee, Executive Director of the Professional Skaters Association. Complete with traffic diagrams! Everyone who uses practice ice should read this!

http://skatepsa.blogspot.com/2010/11/forgotten-art-of-skating-ettiquette.html

Nov 12, 2010

Observing a test session

I've been to a LOT of test sessions. Somewhere around 60 just between me and my daughter (between us nine moves plus retries, ten USFS Free Skate plus retries, six ISI FS, two Figures, and twenty-eight dances plus retries). But I've always been the skater, or the mom.

Today I went to a test session as part of my prep for the PSA ratings I'm currently working on- Registered Moves, Registered Free Skate, Master Group, to watch with an objective eye (okay, I tried to be objective.) (Okay, not really), to help me learn the elements and to call the skills like a technical specialist, if just to myself.

There was only one skater there that I knew, so the objectivity part was easy. I recognized all of the coaches, but I fly a little under the radar here, so I'm pretty sure none of them recognized me. Even though Nora tested with this club, I don't think the moms register all that much so they don't really know me. So I was able to be fairly anonymous.

First observation: when you walk into a test session everyone in the lobby snaps around to glare WHO THIS? Then faces fall and they all lose interest because it's no one interesting. I mean it. It was so bizarre, and something I'd never noticed before, (since I was probably one of the ones doing this), that I tested it a couple of times. Weird.

Second observation: watching a test session that you're not involved in is a little strange. The people in the stands, and the coaches outside the boards kept looking over at me WHO THIS? so I finally found a less conspicuous place to sit. (Maybe they did recognize me and were wondering what I was doing there-- stealing students?)

Third observation: if you come with the toddler sister for god's sake shut her up. Several poor girls had to skate through their entire moves test with a toddler louding demanding attention, candy, potty, access to forbidden areas, ice skates and you name it at the top of her voice for the entire time they were skating. The judges glaring at you is a really good clue that you should maybe, um, leave? Okay, maybe if the toddler shouts once or twice, but she kept it up for nearly 15 minutes before mom got a freaking clue and took her away. It's nerve-wracking out there folks, please remove unnecessary distractions.

Fourth observation: it's really cold sitting there for two hours. Judges are saints.

Fifth observation: they passed kids who looked terrible and failed kids who looked fine to me. They passed a kid on a reskate who made the identical error on the reskate that she made on the test. Or else I have no idea what I'm seeing, a distinct possibility.

Sixth observation
: if your skating sucks, it helps to have a famous coach stand with you at your test. Just as a general observation. I didn't actually witness this. Or anything.

Seventh observation: "Calling" the elements is fun, and hard. I tried to use the IJS abbreviations, ending up with several lines of code that look like this: (tr) SpUL, 1A, (tr) 1T, (tr)1Lz1TCo, SpCoCSU, StSeqSS, 1L, (tr) ChSp CoSpCSChCUL (that's verbatim from my notes, so if there are errors in coding forgive me). This was a Juvenile Free Skate, and it was damned hard, plus I can't figure out how/if they code all the transitions that were present even in these very low-level programs. I invented the little (tr) code to indicate where transitional steps were inserted. Even Juvenile programs have a lot of content these days.

Eighth and final observation: Skater gurlz have a lot of poise and self-possession. I'd choose them to take on any little hockey princess in full-body armor any day.

What's the craziest thing that has happened to you at a test?