Jan 31, 2010

Mean girls

Ice rinks, populated as they are by pre- and adolescent girls, can be veritable petri dishes of social experience. Popular media depict this as poisonous, with films like Prancer (otherwise pretty good at showing what a rink is like), with its rich-girls/poor girls divide, or Ice Princess, with the unethical coach who recommends that the inexperienced skater wear brand new skates for the first time during a competition.

I polled my skating friends to find out what their experiences were with cliques, positive and negative, and what types of cliques they had encountered—parents, kids, coaches.

Some respondents seemed to pride themselves on being set apart, defined by some special characteristic: “we’re poor but still competing and it pisses people off;” “all of my skaters are really good friends, but they don’t seem to get along with other coaches’ skaters.”

A coach from out of state mentions that there are certain coaches who will only talk amongst themselves, not only about skating, but about anything, setting themselves apart as though even acknowledging someone else diminishes their own expertise somehow.

Every parent I asked this acknowledged that there are parent cliques, but they were universally reluctant to talk about it (which just really made me want to know why.)

T, who grew up at the rink where she now coaches feels that the cliquishness of the current atmosphere is new:
Cliques didn't really exist in my generation of skating. I can prove it with pictures (NB: She can, I’ve seen them, plus they are ALL still friends). Where you will now see several small sized groups of skaters together, my clique was larger and more inclusive of a broader range of skaters.

I grew up in a different era of skating – it didn’t matter who your coach was; we were all always there at the same time, and thus, got to know each other pretty well.

My story sounds like a fairytale in a sport considered bitchy and elite. Aside from the day-to-day drama that pre-teens/teenagers produce, it was really quite picturesque. The beauty of kids of multiple ages and different coaching backgrounds all pooled together as one group that dominated the rink made it fun for everyone. Sure, we had our scoffs and irritations with one another, but at the end of the day or at graduation time, we were still happy for each other and grateful for the memories we made together.
B, another skater who grew up a couple of skating generations after her had a very different experience at the same rink:
I hated how cliquish the rink was, with people basing their opinion of you on stupid sh*t like what coach you had. [Those girls] were always so mean to me even though I just wanted to be friends. And I absorbed this model in an attempt to fit in, being mean to other people for no reason.

In life there are going to be people you get along with and people you don't. Coaches and parents can really have an effect on this; I’ve known of coaches and parents hinting to kids that they shouldn't hang out with other coaches’ students; in fact I think coaches and parents have more to do with cliques forming than kids do. There are a lot of people who are my friends now who were really mean to me as a kid. Now we’re older we realize that it didn't matter who your coach was. Kids are just dumb; they’ll follow the lead of the adults.
R, from the same generation as B, didn’t even want to teach at their childhood rink, and never bothered to apply for a position there; “It’s too weird over there” she told me. B has this same attitude. “I can’t stand the idea of going back and just getting sucked into it again.”

What can you do about cliques?
First of all, do your research. If you’re new to a rink, or just starting to consider private lessons, observe the dynamics for a while. Learn which coaches discourage their skaters from getting involved in the culture of the rink—those kids will be on practice ice, but you’ll never see them in class. People don’t know who their parents are. The parents never volunteer at shows or competitions, and sometimes the skaters don’t even participate in shows or competitions.

Avoid parent gossip like plague, especially from parents you don’t know very well. (Really, what’s the agenda here?) Let your children choose their friendships themselves and then befriend those parents. You’ll find more in common than if you choose your social circle based on who the coach is.

You’ll naturally gravitate towards the families that share your coach, but they’re not the only ones in the rink, and judging a family’s suitability by coaching choice or competitive stature is simply absurd. Skaters have widely varying goals, all valid. The goals of a recreational skater are no less important than the goals of a competitive skater. While shared goals are a way for friendships to start, they are not the only way. Every time I hear a coach tell me that ice show solos aren’t important, or are “good enough for that skater, but my skater has more important goals” I see red. In the universe of a recreational skater, competing at Nationals is by definition unimportant. They aren’t going to do it; it’s not important to them. There is nothing in figure skating inherently more “important” than something else. Goals are personal, not universal.

(Whoa, off the topic there a little, sorry.)

Friendships are a personal choice
Any coach who tells you not to talk to other parents, coaches, skaters, or administrators is to be avoided, and in fact should be questioned. If a coach suggests in any way, “don’t let Susie talk to Jenny,” or if a parent says that her skater only socializes with Coach's other students (or worse, with no one at the rink) make them tell you why. The only way to stop this kind of poisonous behavior is to call them on it. If you’ve been at the rink a while and your skater only seems to know skaters who work with the same coach, see if you can figure out why this is. That’s how the poisonous cliques, and in fact all prejudices, start—with limited experience of the “other.”

Not all friendship groups are cliques, and not all cliques are exclusive or destructive. You don’t want to discourage close friendships, and while I think T’s idyllic experience is sadly a thing of the past, I still maintain that an ice rink is a great place to grow up.

Let me know your experience with cliques, good and bad, and how you handled it, in the comments.

Jan 28, 2010

Confessions of a recovering skating mom

Before I was a skating coach, I was a skating mom, and, yes, I was that skating mom.
  • I was the mom in the stands pulling her arms in to demonstrate to her child how to pull in for an axel.
  • I was the mom in the door coaching her child despite the fact that I did not have a clue what I was talking about (that came later).
  • I was the mom in the lobby trying to figure out which parent clique was “in” to see if I could be friends with them.
  • I was the mom at public skate insisting that her daughter be friends with the “top” coach’s students.
  • I was the mom who left her FS4 nine-year-old alone at the rink for hours every day all summer to run her own practice.
  • I was the mom screaming at her child, or another parent, or a coach, in the lobby because of, well god knows what.
I don’t know why my daughter let me live, but it’s one of the reasons that I have lots and lots of patience and sympathy with the monster mothers who’ve succeeded me.

In an odd way, I learned to be a better skating mom because of the poison dished out to me by moms who were even worse, like the ones who loudly promoted a special party for skaters, and then went around to all the skaters who weren’t invited and told them they couldn’t come, because it was for “Coach’s” skaters only. Or who would come sit with me in the stands and grill me about what my daughter was doing and why, and how their precious child had learned that months ago or their coach did that jump this way, or bragged about the cost of their skates or the celebrity designer who had made the costume. Or the “top” coach who tolerated their offspring soliciting on their behalf, and who once went around telling everyone what the coach had said about each of them. When my daughter asked what had been said about her, the offspring answered “why would Coach talk about you?”

My daughter started me on the road to redemption when she banned me from the rink at about the age of 11. She would simply fold her arms and refuse to skate if I so much as peeked through the window. The evil mothers did the rest, and I started going into the small Studio rink to practice skating myself. The final straw came when we went to what we later learned was an annual summer party that literally every child at the rink had always been invited to except us, for years. Several of the mothers took joy in telling us this; the rest of them sat around trashing another skater who wasn’t there. That was it for me.

I stopped watching, stopped socializing and started skating. Around this time our rink hired a very forward-thinking director with a “hire the smile, teach the skill” attitude, who put me on tot classes, and helped me get my skating up to par.

The wonderful Jimmy Santee, now at PSA, and Tom Hickey, now at Shattuck St. Mary’s, finished the process with the many many terrific skating seminars they conducted, and the PSA completed my transformation.

I started this blog in part to help new skating moms not to be me. I’m still in recovery; the first step is recognizing you have a problem. I’m Xan, and I’m a skating mom.

Jan 27, 2010

Practice or lesson?

An anonymous reader asks a great question:
My mum's worried that if I [drop one class to practice on my own], it'll be bad because I'm not having a lesson then, but I'm more concerned that if I go to the two lessons, my skating time will be too minimal for me to progress anywhere.

Is it better to have one hour of group lesson and one hour of practice per week, or a half hour group lesson and 2.5 hours of practice?
I'll have some specific advice for anon at the end of the post, but in the meantime, with a couple of exceptions, it's always better to have at least some practice on your own, so you can start finding your own "language" of skating.

Stay with me, there's a point at the end of my rambles
I often tell my students that we're working on "positions not found in nature" by which I mean we ask our bodies to stand, not in impossible stances, but in counter-intuitive ones. For instance, when learning cross-overs everyone begins by "defaulting" to hips and shoulders square; what I call "airplane" position, one arm straight out to one side, and one arm straight out to the other side. Proper crossovers, however, need your upper body turned towards the circle. It looks weird and it feels weird and it's one of the hardest things for new skaters to learn.

I try lots of different ways of getting this across-- put your outside arm inside the circle. Hug the circle. Pretend the circle is a beach ball and you're holding it. Turn your belly button to the center of the circle. Pretend there's a rail inside the circle and you have to hold it. The most successful skaters will find a phrase that resonates with them, and the most successful of those will have come up with it on their own. In fact, a lot of the phrases I use were suggested to me by students.

If you can create your own image, you'll learn faster and the best place to find your own image is in your own solo practice session.

"I don't want her to just go out there and play"
As my daughter, a triple gold skater, once told a coach who was criticizing her for having fun, "hey, if it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing this."

Getting kids to practice on their own is one of the hardest things to do. Parents often think that kids won't work, and there's some truth in that, but especially for beginners, you don't need to "work," to practice specific skills all that much, you just need to get comfortable skating. And since it's boring just skating around and around, even the least self-directed kid is going to start trying other stuff.

Generally I would say that for children under the age of 8 at lower levels, an emphasis on classes is fine, but I like to see them come just to play once a week. Parents don't have to skate, too, but they should be in the stands. For high level kids under age 8 (a 10-year old just won US Nationals at the Novice level), the coach can guide you. Older children should always be encouraged to work on their own, not just in skating but in everything. Kids need to learn how to manage their own time and set their own goals, without some adult always telling them what to do. Children these days are scandalously helpless in self-management. It makes me worry.

But what should the commenter do?
The commenter lives far from the rink and can only get there twice. For her, since she's at the beginning levels, I would recommend just one class, and lots of practice; either option she proposes would work. However, I'd like to suggest that she see if her mom will pay for one 20 minute private or semi-private lesson on that practice ice. I like the idea of being able to practice on your own right after or right before each class or lesson. If you practice just before, you'll remember what you're having trouble with. If you practice just after, you'll be able to apply what you've learned.

For my general formula on how much to skate, check out this post.

Jan 24, 2010

Understanding competition placement

I was saving this post for the Olympics, but the controversial (for some reason) awarding of the US Ladies Singles title to Rachel Flatt, I dug this post idea out of my drafts list.

Competition placement ranks second only to changing coaches in anxiety production among figure skating parents and, if Twitter is anything to go by, figure skating fans. And just like bad calls in team sports generate weeks of recrimination, figure skating scores just never seem fair to the fanboys and -girls.

There are currently three judging systems being used in figure skating:

The big leagues: The International Judging System, or IJS (also referred to as NJS, new judging system and CoP, Code of Points) is used in all national and international "qualifying" competitions and in local, non-qualifying competitions for Juvenile through Senior that act as training competitions and feeders for the qualifying ones. This is the system that has those incomprehensible point totals (TES of 50.12, TCC of 21.87 and PCC of 29.02 for a total score of 101.01). The judges at these events must qualify through judges training and rigorous exams. As someone whose non-competitive (at singles) daughter once had to compete in the same flight with Alissa Ciszny I can tell you this system is nitpicky and brutal, but it really covers the bases and tells you how you skated. ( For more about qualifying and non-qualifying competitions, check out usfigureskating.org. )

Update: here's a great article at About.com explaining scoring in IJS.

The bush leagues: U.S. Figure Skating also sanctions competitions for beginning skaters, with such skill/level designations as "Beginner," "Limited Beginner," Basic 7, etc. These competitions still use the old 6.0 scoring system. Qualification to judge at Basic Skills competitions is, I believe, just membership in U.S. Figure Skating and age (you must be 16). In practice, judges at these competitions are local coaches or coaches from the sponsoring club.

The crosstown rival: The Ice Skating Institute, which is a strictly recreational skating association, also runs hundreds of local, national and even international competitions. Judges for these events again are local and participating coaches or interested amateurs that have taken the judging exams, available on line. These competitions are mostly run by skating schools rather than clubs.

Every single one of them will turn in results that seem incomprehensible, if not downright unfair. I have never been to a competition where some parent or coach did not insist that the judges "cheated," or that the rink "held up" its own skaters, or that some program "sandbags" its kids and on and on.

Salt Lake City notwithstanding, I believe in the basic integrity of all three judging systems, if for no other reason than that I have been through judges training and testing in all three systems and it is very very hard. The people doing this take it seriously, and they know that at the higher levels there is a lot at stake.

Dealing with disappointment
The gold and silver medal coaches from yesterday, Frank Carroll and Tom Zakrajsek, are madly spinning their skaters' scores and style today, and at that level it's expected. At non-qualifying competitions, at Basic Skills and ISI competitions, and even at Regional and Sectional competitions, that kind of talk should be kept within the skating family: skater, coach, parents. It is only destructive to complain about marks.

The best measure of how your skater did at a local competition is whether they achieved a personal best, or landed a new jump in competition. You cannot possibly ever demystify the individual decisions that went into the marks, especially in a system as on-the-fly and complex as the IJS. All three systems have mechanisms for protests, but they should be used sparingly and only in the face of overwhelming and obvious ill intent on the part of judges.

At the 2010 U.S. Nationals, Olympic berths and future careers are at stake. The controversy there is basically whether the system should reward technique or artistry, and in fact as it stands the system actually favors artistry--in the event of a tie, the higher component, or artistic, score (the so-called "second mark") wins. But judges can, and do, reduce component scores for poor technique, which is what happened at yesterday's Ladies Free Skate. It was a judgment call on the part of the panel, but that is why we call them "judges" and not "computers."

At local competitions, just don't worry about it. Ask your coach, or a judge, how scores are arrived at generally. Ask to have the relative placement of skaters in a flight explained, again, generally. Never berate a skater for their placement, as they have very little control over it. Ditto the coach, for the most part.

How can I learn more?
Both the Ice Skating Institute and U.S. Figure Skating have been running a series of articles on understanding their two judging systems. The latest one from ISI is in this quarter's Recreational Ice Skating magazine (available on line here) on page 27. A very clearly written series on IJS has been in the last several issues of Skating Magazine, U.S. Figure Skating's member's magazine. (I would be grateful if someone can find a link to Skating Magazine. U.S. Figure Skating has revamped their site and now I can't find anything. If you find the link, please post the URL in the comments.)

Monday morning quarterbacking is a blood sport to skating fans. I feel bad for Rachel Flatt, who gave a brilliant and flawless performance, won the gold, and had to wake up this morning to "Mirai wuz robbed" headlines.

How much worse for your little skater to feel like she did her best and an evil world conspiracy (in the person of those incompetent judges from that other rink) withheld the marks.

Jan 23, 2010

The children who won't go to the Olympics

I just got home from a lesson with a disabled student. "Miss E," as her mom calls her, has dyspraxia. Dyspraxic kids have trouble turning information into action which can affect movement, language, and perception. Including E, I have two developmentally disabled private students, and I am working with 7 disabled children in my classes, about 10% of the total number of children in my classes this session. (UPDATE: since writing this, I've become the Program Leader for SPICE, a regular class for children with special needs.)

E is the first child with dyspraxia I've worked with, so I'm learning about this disability. Children on the Aspergers/autism spectrum are quite common, and I've had kids with diagnosed OCD, Downs, and cerebral palsy. But every child that one works with has unique gifts and deficits, even so-called "normal" ones. One of the things that makes group teaching the most challenging kind of instruction is finding ways to meet every child's needs.

While Rachel Flatt is landing triples on tv right now, I'm still exhausted and exhilarated because Miss E figured out how to push today. I've been working on this for weeks, literally on my hands and knees, putting her feet in the proper position. Bent over to help her limbs skate the pattern. And today she did it. Pushed with power and knowledge. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it.

The best low freestyle student I've got in classes right now is L, who is a Downs child. L is smart and a gifted athlete; the sweetest girl and the hardest worker, but it has taken her years to get where normally-abled children get in a few months or less, and her technique will never be proper because she doesn't have the muscle tone she needs. But everyone on staff loves to get her in class because of her pride and her joy and her sweet nature.

R had severe OCD. Every step she took was agony, because it had to be perfect. H, now residing in a boarding school, has autism. After three sessions, he was no longer screaming at the other students and hitting me. He never learned the skills in the level, but he learned how to take a class. I give special credit, and blessing, to the other students and parents who tolerated this, and they share in his success. D is high-functioning Aspergers, diagnosed young; his mother is using the challenging environment of an ice rink to help him assimilate the sensory input that can be so overwhelming to Aspergers kids.

So while we are watching Rachel Flatt with her four AP classes, and Sasha Cohen with her determination not to let the quest for the gold go, I want everyone to remember that many children have their own olympic successes, and it might just be looking a teacher in the eye and smiling, because you finally understand.

Jan 22, 2010

Who does the choreography?

Watching U.S. Nationals this week, I had a new skater's mom ask me, "who does the choreography"? Not just for the elite skaters on tv, either. She was worried that she'd have to hire a choreographer for her Beta student at Basic Skills competition.

First of all, no your Learn-to-Skate/Basic Skills skater does not need a choreographer. The regular coach will be fine. So running down from top to bottom who should be doing the choreography?

Elite skaters
At the elite level (that's the skaters who have a shot at making it to nationals), you'll be hiring someone who specializes in choreography for elite skaters. By the time you get to that level, you'll have lots of help figuring out who this is. Many elite choreographers are former champions, like Alexander Zhulin and Christopher Dean. Just as there is a range of high level skaters-- from kids who are "test" skaters (i.e. never make it out of regionals or never compete at all) up to stars like Sasha Cohen, there are also a range of choreography specialists. Every rink with a strong freestyle program will have "go-to" coaches for choreography.

So then comes the question, should you hire them? If you have ambitions to compete at a high level, you need a great combination of main coach and choreographer. It's not just about waving your arms around. The rules for achieving high point totals are complex and constantly changing; choreographers need to be held to the rules. Plenty of time for art when you sign with Stars on Ice. I've seen programs ruined even at the little local ISI competitions by coaches who couldn't be bothered to learn the rules. What a stupid reason for your skater to score low.

But correct me if I'm wrong; I don't think a lot of elite skaters are reading this blog. When do you need a choreographer?

Can my coach choreograph a program?
If you've got a private coach, you've got a choreographer. Every coach knows how to put together a program (or should, see above). If your skater is doing only some combination of USFS non-qualifying competitions, only ISI competitions, or only USFS or ISI test programs you really don't need to hire another choreographer. You know that a coach can put together a test program if his or her kids are passing USFS tests. You'll know if the coach has screwed up by not including a required element because you'll get the judging sheets and it will be noted. A PSA rating is also a sign that the coach knows choreography, because basic choreography is part of every ratings area, even group.

A test program should be well balanced and engaging for the skater, but does not need to set new standards of artistry. Hiring an outside choreographer for a test program (especially below the Novice level) is kind of slap in the face to the coach. How to put together a test program is one of the things that coaches know.

Starting around Novice (lower if you've got a nationals skater), or if you've got a gifted skater with ambition and a future in skating, your coach will let you know if you should hire an outside choreographer, and will have both suggestions and contacts. Below the Novice level, you do not need an outside choreographer. The parents that hire famous choreographers to do their kids' Pre-Juvenile programs get eye rolls from the coaching staff (out of sight). Parents that hire other rink coaches to choreograph low level test programs just create resentment and risk their coach's commitment to their skater.

But that one coach does such cool programs...
If there's a coach at your rink who is known for their choreography and your skater wants to work with him or her, do this for some program that is less critical, like a show solo or an exhibition. Check with your regular coach and make sure she's on board with it. Have him or her make the contact; don't go to the choreographer on your own, if for no other reason than that the very first thing an ethical choreographer is going to do is go to the regular coach and make sure it's okay anyway.

My skater never wins. I think I'll blame the coach.
First, the brutal truth. A. Your skater might get unlucky draws that place her against more gifted skaters. B. Your skater is not gifted. (ouch)

However, if you suspect your skater is failing tests or placing poorly at competitions because of inadequate choreography, first express your concern to the coach. Some aspects of choreography that can affect test and competition scores are: programming all required elements, NOT programming illegal elements, use of the ice surface (ice coverage and multiple changes of direction), correct duration, well-balanced program (i.e. don't put all the jumps together, or just skate from jump to jump or spin to spin), program not too hard or too easy for skater. At ISI competitions, you don't get to see the judges' sheets and the judges are discouraged from sharing reasons for placement. But if your skater is consistently placing 2nd or 3rd "against the book" (i.e. only skater in the flight), see if you can get the skating director at the competition to review the judges sheets to see if there is a problem. (She won't show them to you, but she might look at the them for you and tell you if the skater missed an element or had a penalty.) At non-qualifying USFS competitions you will get the "protocols" that show all the elements and the judges' placements and will clearly see if elements were missing or the component scores are consistently low.

Please note that the most common reason for poor placement or failing tests is that the skater has not completed the elements properly, or as they were choreographed, NOT that the choreography was inadequate. I recently had a skater just completely leave her spiral sequence out of a performance. Best thing in the program, required element, and she just completely forgot to do it.

Choreography, like ice time, expensive skates and fancy costumes, is something to grow into. Err on the side of caution. If you're not sure whether you should hire a choreographer, then don't. If your coach is uncomfortable with it or discourages you, listen to her.

Lighten up

Just to lighten the mood a little. If you're not offended by at least one of these, I'm not doing my job.

Q-How do you get two show skaters to skate in perfect unison?
A-Shoot one.

Q-What's the difference between patch skates and an onion?
A-No one cries when you chop up patch skates.

Q-What's the difference between a skating judge and a trampoline?
A-You take off your shoes when you jump on a trampoline.

Q-What do you call a show skater with half a brain?

Q-How many skating coaches does it take to change a light bulb?
A-Five: one to handle the bulb, and the other four to tell him how much better their technique is.

Q-How do you improve the aerodynamics of a skating instructor’s car?
A-Take the Domino's Pizza sign off the roof.

Q-What's the difference between a dead snake in the road and a dead competitive skater in the road?
A-Skid marks in front of the snake.

Q-What do ice dance instructors use for birth control?
A-Their personalities.

Q-What's the difference between skating judges and terrorists?
A-Terrorists have sympathizers.

Q-How do you put a twinkle in a skater’s eye?
A-Shine a flashlight in her ear.

Q-How does a skater change a light bulb?
A-She just holds on and the world revolves around her.

Q-What do you call ten skating judges at the bottom of the ocean?
A-A good start.

Q-If you drop a figure skating judge and a watermelon off a tall building, which will hit the ground first?
A-Who cares?

Q-What's the definition of an optimist?
A-A skating instructor with a mortgage.

Q-What's the difference between a skating judge and the PLO?
A-You can negotiate with the PLO.

Jan 19, 2010

Buying skates

I had a new student on Sunday-- a 4 1/2 year old girl, described by her parents as "actually kind of good, and really into it." But when I skated with her, she was slipping and sliding all over the place. She could barely stand up, and forward motion was agony-- 5 running steps and then splat.

This is what we call a clue. You should be able to stand up in skates. You might feel a little rocky, and even scared. You might not be able to glide (or not want to allow yourself to glide). But you should be able to stand up. It's just standing. A stationary skate is not slippery. A slippery skate has a bad blade.

This turned out to be the case with M's skates. Dad had gone to SportMart and gotten a perfectly decent little pair of skates-- nice boot, correct size. And then some idiot had sharpened the grinding edge completely away. Ruined the skates. I told him to return them and go to Rainbo Sports, a specialty figure skating store that we are fortunate to have here in the Chicago area.

And this is the thing to do.

Learn about skates first
If you've never bought skates, don't go to a resale shop or Sportmart first time out. Go to a reliable pro shop that specializes in the type of skates you want-- figure, hockey, or speed. The shop at your rink, if you don't have a place like Rainbo (and they're rare), is a good bet, especially if you can talk a pro into going with you, or if the shop employs a figure skating pro. Have them show you what makes a good skate, what skate is most appropriate for your level, and how to determine the correct size. Get a lacing lesson.

This does not obligate you to buy the skates from them. Of course they want your business, but if you're buying skates, they've got you. Maybe you won't get the $70-$120 beginner skates from them; maybe you'll take their expertise and go to Sportmart or Play it Again Sports, but you'll be back. You may not buy your first pair of skates from them, but you'll buy the second pair and the third, and the guards, and the tights, and the warm up jacket from them and they know it. They won't begrudge you the time.

Arm yourself with reliable expertise before you buy skates.

Don't begrudge the cost
Beginner skates, what I call "comfort skates" cost $70 to $110. Beginning figure skates like a Jackson Mystique are around $100. Pricey, but comparable to other children's specialty sport equipment, like a bicycle from Target. And unless you're unlucky enough to hit a growth spurt, your child will wear them for somewhere between 12 and 18 months. Don't worry about the fact that high test skates require a second mortgage. You're not there yet; don't freak yourself out. Skating has the potential for hazard; get proper equipment and you will reduce the hazard immeasurably. Watching little M take headers on the crowded Sunday afternoon ice was terrifying. I was afraid someone would trip over her, all because she had bad blades. Not because she couldn't skate. We switched her to rentals and she was fine.

Buy the right size
You can't buy grow room in skates. A too-large boot also has a too-large blade, which makes balance harder. Go up one size (like buy a 1 1/2 for a child whose street shoe is a 1). With a reliable person fitting the boot, you might be able to go up 2 sizes, but no more. This is like buying a 27" bike for a someone who needs a 20" one. Their feet, so to speak, can't reach the pedals.

A skate is too large if you need extra socks to make it fit. Standard figure skates are too large if it forms a large dimple or crease when the skater bends his or her ankle. Skates are probably too large if the skater has difficulty walking around in them. Wobbly ankles are not a sign of "weak ankles." They are a sign of too-large skates.

Please, I'm begging you on my knees, buy skates that look like skates
Do not under any circumstances, buy those abominations that look like ski boots, or where the boots slip out so you can change sizes, or with adjustable blades, or the hard-cast plastic where you can't bend your ankles. You need to be able to bend your ankles. These are not only hard to skate in, they are dangerous. Your ankle wants to bend. If it can't bend at the joint, it's going to attempt to bend farther up the bone. Ankle bend is a good thing in skating.

Get the correct type of blade
A figure skating blade extends beyond the heel and has spiky things on the front (the toe pick). A hockey blade is approximately the same length as the boot and is curved front and back. There are these weird things that are the length and shape of a hockey blade, but have a modest toe pick, I don't even know what to say about these. A completely pointless affectation, but whatever.

If you want a hockey skate, get a hockey blade, even in a beginner skate rather than a hockey skate. Hockey skates can be hard to skate in-- they have a wider boot, less ankle support and a challenging blade, so I wouldn't recommend them as a beginning skate for a very young child as a general rule. But kids can and do learn to skate in hockey skates. If that's what you want, get that, don't get some weird hybrid.

If you want a figure skate, or the child wants to be a figure skater, not a hockey skater, get a figure skating blade, toe picks and all. Get a beginner blade for a beginnger. Look at the bottom of the boot-- if the blade is riveted on (i.e. you couldn't remove it without a specialty tool)-- it's a beginner skate. If the blade is screwed on (usually with phillips-type screws), it's probably a free style skate. Don't put a beginner in a free style blade. The toe pick is too big and they'll trip.

What about used skates?

Especially for kids in the middle levels- say Delta/Basic 7-8 through FS 4 or so- used skates are a godsend. At the lower levels the boots aren't usually worn long enough to get really broken down and they can be very economical. Make sure you get your pro's assessment if you are considering used skates from a non-specialty dealer, or from your neighbor or a skate exchange. I hate to say not to buy used skates from Goodwill, or from a place like Play It Again Sports, but you really have to know what you're doing. You can luck into a decent pair, but you can also get really burned, like the mom who came to me so excited because she'd found this gorgeous pair of "figure skates" for $25. Turns out they were "patch" skates, for school figures, next to impossible to use for any other purpose, and actually dangerous to jump in.

Never wear the skates that you found in the old toy bin in grandma's garage. Just. Don't.

Jan 16, 2010

Young coach or old coach

At my main rink, we allow Junior coaches to teach privates. A lot of the staff feels this is inappropriate, as it directly hurts our bottom line, and also means that students working privately with junior coaches are not getting the best instruction available at the facility. But I generally don't begrudge the junior coaches their chance to learn on the job.

Be that as it may, today I found myself feeling rather hurt, when I saw that the parents of a skater who has been struggling in my classes was taking private lessons with the junior coach. It really felt a little personal.

So how do you decide, young coach or old coach? It's a topic that comes up a lot. There are very gifted young coaches. With a younger coach, you're betting on a coach with more energy, who may be more fun, and who may relate better to a skater. What you're losing is experience, depth of knowledge, and a certain hard-heartedness that coaches develop, and need. With a younger coach, you might be their first competitive student, or one of the first which that coach takes through testing, or learning a difficult skill. You have to be willing to grow with the coach. This can be very rewarding, but it's something to be aware of.

An older coach may be more set in his or her ways, and less willing to adapt personality or pedagogical technique to the child. Sometimes more experienced coaches will teach the way they teach and the child adapts or fails. Conversely, some younger coaches may only know one or two ways to teach a skill, or be inexperienced in identifying problem areas and focusing on them.

You can take it a step further down, forget young or old. What about Junior coach or staff coach? For me, there's no contest. Don't hire the junior coach if there is a staff coach available. In a million years, I don't care how good a skater the junior coach is, or much fun she is. The junior coach should never be the first choice. They do not have the experience or knowledge of the staff coach.

If you're not sure whether or not the coach is on the staff, if it's a younger coach, ask. If the coach looks like a teenager, you should know whether they are junior or staff coaches, especially if the junior coach is charging the same as the pro. (At some rinks the junior coaches are on staff, so you need to ascertain whether they are high school students. If it's a high school student, that's a junior coach.)

If you've chosen the junior coach because she seems knowledgeable, and has connected with your child, that's great. If you've chosen the junior coach because her mother has solicited you in the stands, not so much. Coaches should do their own promotion. They should not be sending skaters, offspring, or parents into the stands to do their promotion for them. (Promotion not the same as soliciting, by the way. Topic for another time.) A lot of junior coaches will tell you "I've been teaching since I was 12." Well, maybe. But I'd still rather hire a 24 year old who's been teaching since he was 20, than a 16 year old who's been teaching since she was 12, and better still a 30 year old who's been teaching for 10 years, or a 50 year old who's been teaching for 30. (Plus, that junior coach has NOT been "teaching" since she was 12. She's been helping in tot class, picking up the slippery ones.)

Don't hire a junior coach who has not worked with your child in class. Aside from being a slap in the face to the professional already working with your skater, you have no idea what you're getting. (I would actually make this recommendation for any learn-to-skate/basic skills to low freestyle student. Don't hire a coach that your child doesn't know.)

So that's a little insight into what coaches feel about who you've hired. I'm sure people have thought that about me-- why are they hiring Xan, who's only been teaching for 12 years, rather than M----, who's been teaching for 30? Well, I hope it's because I've proven myself and because I'm the best fit for your child. Not because I seem cute and young and my mother has been in the stands puffing me up.

Jan 13, 2010

What about rental skates

Yesterday's tutorial on types of skates got my friend Kristen editorializing (on FB chat!) about whether one should ever recommend rental skates. I had stated that I feel rentals are fine through back crossovers; she was concerned about the quality of rentals and how it affects the skating experience.

I still believe that rentals are the best bet for beginners, due to the cost of skates, but she makes a good point. Especially in this era of budget cuts, for good and bad reasons rental skates can be terrible. The good reason is that we're getting a lot more people coming to public skating, because it's a cheap thing to do. The bad reason is that rinks are trying to cut expenses and reducing skate maintenance and replacement is one of the places this is happening. It's short-sighted of course-- if people can't skate because your inventory is so bad, they won't be back to spend more money-- but one can understand why it's happening.

But you can have a good experience, and learn to skate, in rentals. Here's what you need to know:
  • Don't wear extra socks. Thick socks do not make skates that are too big fit you, and you don't need them to keep your feet warm in an indoor rink. An indoor rink just isn't that cold. This impulse is cultural memory left over from frozen ponds two centuries back. And you have to remember that with skates, it's not just the boot that has to be the correct size. The blade does too. A blade that is too long (because it's on a too-big boot) will have an incorrectly balanced rocker for your foot length and will be very hard to control.
  • Rental skates are like restaurant wine-- you can send them back if they aren't any good. Look for a straight shaft-- look down into the boot through the ankle shaft from above. If it's bent over or twisted (a consequence of idiots, um, neophytes not tying the laces tight enough) don't wear it. Get a boot that's straight. Doesn't have to be new, or stiff, but it should be straight.
  • Blades are called that for a reason. They should be sharp. Run your finger over the bottom of the blade. You should feel two distinct edges and no nicks. Look at the blade. You should be able to see shiny metal on the sides, and then a duller, matte edge near the bottom. This is the "grinding edge" and if it's gone, you can't sharpen them properly. The back of the blade should not come to a point, but should have a boxy appearance. If it comes to a point it's probably been sharpened by someone used to sharpening hockey blades, or just by someone ignorant.
  • There should be no rust or discoloration.
  • If your child complains they are uncomfortable, find out what that means. First check that you've put them on properly (including on the correct feet-- you'd be amazed at how many people mix up right and left skates). When putting on a skate loosen the laces ALL THE WAY (yes, that is me shouting). A skate that fits will slide right onto your foot-- you don't need to force it. If you've got a skate that's the same size as the street shoe and you have to force it on, it's not the wrong size; you probably haven't loosened it enough (look at the picture of my skates in the sidebar. That's how loose the laces should be). Ask the child if her/his toes are curled or flat when standing in the skates. If they are curled, skate might be to small. Ask the child if it hurts like an owie like it needs a bandaid, or if it's just tight. A child will be honest. Explain that a skate needs to hug your foot and won't feel soft like shoes. Kids totally get this.
  • Lace them properly-- tight through the foot, comfortably tight in the shaft. You should not be able to get more, or less, than two finger joints to slip in between your ankle and the shaft when the skates are tied. If you can't get your finger in at all they're too tight. If you can slip your whole finger, or more than one finger in, they're too loose.
  • Trust the pro. Especially a pro rated through the Professional Skaters Association has been required to learn about skates and blades; it's part of the rating exam. If the pro thinks the skates are all right, give them a try. One of the tricky things about bad rental skates is that rink staff are not technically allowed to complain public about the skates, or to say that they are bad. This is for both public relations and liability reasons. If the pro thinks the skates are no good they will probably dance around the issue a little bit, rather than coming out and saying "oh rental skates are crap" (at least they shouldn't). So you may need to read between the lines a little.
Even though it's cheap to rent skates, you shouldn't feel obligated to skate in ones that are no good. If you can't at least stand up on ice, you probably have a bad blade. It isn't you. It isn't "weak ankles." It's the skates. Nearly everyone can at least stand in ice skates; it just isn't that hard.

Next post-- when to buy skates.

Regular skates

Regular skates is what I've taken to calling figure skates, especially to fathers of young boys. (And thanks to my friend Jan Tremer from the PSA for the tip.)

A couple of years ago I had 3 or 4 year old boy in a tot class, whose father had put him in hockey skates, and the poor kid couldn't stand up. So we told the dad, let's try figure skates. "Oh no," he told us. "Figure skates will make him gay."

I am not making this up.

There are three basic types of ice skates, and variations within those types. These are figure skates ("regular" skates), hockey skates, and speed skates. Each is engineered for the skills each discipline calls for.

For first time skaters your best option is, ahem, regular skates. Okay figure skates. These are characterized by a long wide (in relative terms) blade with points on the front end (the toe pick and toe rack), and a length that generally extends beyond your heel in the back. ("Patch" blades and dance blades are shorter to give greater edge control.) Figure skates are easier for most people because of their length and width (I know they look skinny, but hockey blades are skinnier, and speed skating blades skinnier still). You just have to learn to avoid the toe pick, but unless you routinely walk tippy-toe, this isn't that challenging for most people. Specialty skates include "patch" blades for compulsory figures, and dance blades.

Beginner figure skates have a smaller toe rack without a distinguishing large top pick. It is very hard for beginners to skate in a free style blade because of the large toe pick. Don't let a skate salesman talk you into it. I recently had a Beta-level student show up in a Phantom blade (a $300 high-end freestyle blade). Poor kid was tripping all over the place. I told her that she was in too much blade for her level and that she'd need to be careful, but apparently her uncle was an "expert" and he said this was the skate she needed. The following week she showed me how her uncle "the expert" had ground off the top pick. So he basically ruined a pair of $300 blades.

Don't do this. Get the skate your child needs, not the one that satisfies your ego. In fact, rental skates are fine through Beta, or even Gamma (Basic 5-6). Ask a coach to help you learn to choose rental skates with a decent blade.

Hockey blades, in addition to being narrower, have more of a rocker (the slight curve back to front along the length of the blade). They are also shorter, which, in combination with the deeper rocker, is what makes them hard to stand up in. It's always entertaining to watch the little first-time hockey kids lean forward and just keep tipping over because of the slippery curvy blades (this would also be me in hockey blades). Goalies wear a specialty blade. If your child can stand up in hockey blades right off the bat, hooray. If he can't, let the coach put him (or her) in figure skating blades, um I mean "regular" blades, just until he learns to balance. I promise, that if he turns out gay, this is not the reason.

Speed skates, of course, are much longer, and I believe have a negligible rocker. I've tried to skate in speed skates, but that long blade makes me feel like I'm glued to the ice. I've never had a student come to a beginning class in speed skates, but I don't know why you wouldn't. Don't take anything higher than Alpha/Basic 4 in speedskates. Don't try to go backwards. You cannot even do a three-turn in speed skates.

You can learn everything up to three turns in hockey skates; at that point the skills diverge (hockey players don't generally do three-turns, at least not on purpose, although it's possible). Most people who reach a free style (figure skating) or varsity (hockey skating) level can easily switch from one type to the other because they've learned what a rocker feels like and can compensate for the differences in the blades.

Finally-- skating is skating. As a beginner/developmental coach I have no opinion on what type of skating any given student ends up doing. I just want them to learn to have fun on the ice.

Jan 11, 2010

Reverse sandbagging

We've all heard of sandbagging; i.e. holding a skater back from testing so that s/he can compete at a lower level and mop up the competition. It's a reprehensible thing to do. Rinks and coaches get away with it through a variety of rationalisations: "We just have very stringent standards." "She usually competes USFS, so we haven't taken the ISI tests" "We didn't have time to get a test session in before the competition deadline."

A more puzzling phenomenon is what I call "reverse sandbagging," or passing a child ahead because you think she's got potential, because she managed to squeak through the skills at the current level (without having a review to make sure she's got the skills from the prior level) or some vague philosophy of where a child "should" be based on age.

I'm not sure what drives this phenomenon. The age thing has been presented to me more than once, with an assurance that "we've added extra lessons to help her catch up." (Alarm bells going off here-- how about leave her in the $9 class instead of the $40 lesson? Then she'll actually learn the skill and not have to catch up.)

There's the coach who wants to look like a good guy and not hold a kid back, or who wants to seem like s/he knows more than that other coach that didn't pass you. I myself have had kids who rocked a test and then come back the next week unable to put their own mittens on, let along show me a decent crossover.

Disagreements between class coach and private coach can happen too, in both directions. At some rinks you only have to pass one of any test you take to move up. At others, if you take 2 classes of the same level, both instructors have to pass you. I've worked at a rink that never allowed free style testing in class. You had to test before a panel--skating director, class coach, private coach--and all three had to pass you. Another system uses indepedent tester who don't know the skater. None of these systems keeps the disagreements from happening.

But these are all just observations. Every single coach you talk to will tell you that they NEVER do this. They NEVER pass a skater who isn't ready.

So here's my solution:

• If you're the parent, educate yourself about what skaters can do at each level, by watching the class and judging who seems competent and who seems lost. Remember that in skating, all passes are a "D." We rarely do what is called "passing over" (i.e. over the passing standard). You don't need an A to pass. If you're not sure, ask a coach what the elements are (or go to the ISI or USFS websites-- the skills descriptions are there.) If your skater seems to be consistently way better or way worse (not slower or faster mind you) than other skaters in the class, ask the teacher or your private coach about it. Ask the coach what "5 cross overs in a row" really means, or what a good 3-turn or salchow looks like.

• If you're a skater, especially a child, don't be afraid to let the teacher know when you're scared of a skill, or confused, or uncomfortable, or if you feel like you're getting left behind. If you're unwilling to talk to the coach, tell your mom or dad that you need help. Skating coaches expect a high degree of maturity from kids; we will be impressed by a child who shares his or her concerns.

• If you're the class coach with a skater who has been held back or held up, find a way to make the skills work for the skater within the context of the class. I feel that you cannot send a child back; once the child has been told they pass, you have to honor it, it's not worth making the kid feel bad. I also don't agree with skipping levels without compelling evidence that the child not only can do everything at the level they're skipping, but also know what everything is called. I can't be explaining what a mohawk even is in a Freestyle 1 class. I don't care if the kid can do it-- they need to know what it's called. At any rate, even in a large class, you can give a floundering or bored kid special things to do that help them.

• If you are the private lesson coach, you need to know who is testing your students and when. Especially if you don't want a skater to pass, don't leave it to chance. Go to the class coach before the test and ask how the skater is doing. If you feel they should repeat the level, ask the class coach not to pass them. Most class coaches will honor this unless there is a compelling reason to pass the kid. It would be nice if class coaches would check with the private lesson coach first, but this is impractical in most programs.

Every skating curriculum I've seen has clear, precise descriptions of what passing a skill entails. Every skating coach I've ever known has their own interpretation of what they think that means, and which skills can be finessed and which must be mastered.

5 a.m.

I was going to call this post "The Downsides of Privates" but I think "5 a.m." says it all in a nutshell.

I would have to say that the early morning start is my number 1 least favorite thing about private lessons, and I'm a morning person. But getting up in the wee hours, sitting around in your pjs with a cuppa is a very different thing from getting dressed, going out in the freezing cold air to the freezing cold ice rink.

Flippancy aside, private lessons do have their problems. Scheduling. Cost. Go back and read "how to choose a figure skating coach" (parts 1 and 2). Follow that advice and many problems will never manifest.

Some of the less tangible downsides to privates involve interpersonal relationships. Coaches and parents can get jealous of the skater's relationship to the other, as can siblings. If one of a coach's students is more successful than another, resentment can flair, and I'm not talking about the skaters, I'm talking about the parents. Remember to leave competitiveness at the competition. Training is about personal best, and furthermore has little or nothing to do with the parent. Being jealous of the coach, the other skaters, the other parents, and/or the other coaches is pointless.

Going into this, I thought the downsides post was going to be easier to write than the upsides one, but it's not. A lot of the problems in coaching relationships are terribly specific to circumstance. It's an "everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten" sort of thing. If you follow good general practices about paying on time, knowing what you're paying for, showing up at lessons and working hard (both coach and student), avoiding gossip where possible, you will nip the downsides in the bud.

Jan 9, 2010

The Upsides of Private Lessons

There’s a huge amount of anxiety-inducing myth associated with private figure skating lessons, engendered, I suppose, by the tales of intrigue and abuse promoted in figure skating media. Like other childhood activities that have adult counterparts (modeling, other high-performance sports, etc.) we tend to focus on the rare elites, and not on the huge number of recreational and casual patrons.

So once you’ve made that decision for your child to take private figure skating lessons (or to take them yourself, for any adult skaters reading this), what should you expect?

For me and my daughter, the biggest benefit of private lessons was not the skills improvement or success, but the close friendships both she and I developed with the various coaches.

The close relationship that coach and skater develop is one of the key features of a good coaching match. Each gets emotionally invested in the other; these are not just friendships, they are nearly familial in their intensity. In fact the closeness of this relationship can also create the downsides—discomfort or abuse of the financial aspect, and jealously, the parent of the coach and vice versa. A good coach develops a deep understanding of his or her student; this understanding extends off the ice. This is true not just of multi-lesson competitors, but even of recreational skaters taking lessons once a week.

I think this may have something to do with the isolation of a coaching session—it’s a rare place where a child has a non-parental adult all to themselves.

Parents and coaches also develop a bond. The worst thing a parent can do is fight this, or try to assert themselves too much as being in charge. It is given that the parent is in charge; it’s their kid, it’s their money. But if you accept the coach’s authority over the skating, the other relationship can grow into true friendship with a common goal. It’s a beautiful thing.

But enough with the mushy stuff. Private lessons are great because you get to be a better skater. Even kids who don’t take it very seriously are going to improve more and faster through private lessons.

Privates also open a door to peer friendships—with the other kids hanging out at the rink and with that coach’s other students. I often laugh at the scary “girl gangs” who own the hallways at the rink. Sometimes this goes off the rails as one gang tries to be the “cool” kids, but somehow this dynamic isn’t as effective at the rink as it is in school or at the mall.

Private lessons also give you ownership to place. There’s a common marketing concept of the “third place.” Everyone supposedly has three “places”—some combination of home, workplace, place of worship are usually two of these. Marketers want their place to be your “third” place, and a skating rink, where you might spend hours and hours every week, often falls into this category. I’ll often see the younger siblings of skaters running around rinks, completely at home. It can be a little scary, because they feel so utterly safe that they tend to wander off without telling anyone. “Oh, we were playing dark tag in the dressing room.” Yeah, kid, nice heart attack you gave us when we couldn’t find you.

I'm a terribly negative person. I tend to dwell on the downsides, and I've had some major dips in my relationship with this sport. But overall, I've gotten so many more benefits than faults. I'll have to give the win to the upsides.

Jan 7, 2010

A coach's life

Long dry spell-- sorry folks! Got swamped between my day job and my teaching schedule this week. Watch for "upsides and downsides of private lessons" coming soon, but in the meantime, just a walk (glide?) through my skating week.

Monday 7 a.m., second lesson with new student "S" who is trying to finally move past Beta. Unfortunately we end up sharing the ice with puck practice. Space and safety not really a problem, since the student's just skating in circles anyway, but oh, the noise. My ears are still ringing 4 days later. At 9, I lay out the First Figures test and the Adult Bronze moves, because I am a big baby on the ice and only ever skate what I already know.

Tuesday, back on the ice with the local high school. This is a once-a-year class for kids who are trying to free up an academic hour later in the day so they take P.E. at 7 in the morning. That's right. High school students taking P.E. at 7 in the morning. I used to think this was a punishment meted out to all the j.d.'s and was somewhat intimidated. Turns out it's the smart kids doing it on purpose, which made me even more intimidated. This morning I had them learn dance holds, which they seemed to enjoy. After school comes the PreAlpha free for all (22 kids, 2 teachers), then completely empty Alpha class, then Alpha free for all. Who can figure out why these things happen.

Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. my excellent teen low freestyler. Took her on moves ice and made her skate with the high freestyle moves. This fired her up-- she was keeping up with them. Great thing to do if your kid can handle it. Only one other teacher on the ice, so she said okay to run full ice jump patterns. Tot horde from 9 to 10:30 (three classes); Parent tot at 1, then Beta-FS 1-Adult beginner-Adult intermediate from 5 to 8:30. That's right. Wednesday's special feature is 7 hours in skates.

Thursday. High school at 7, then ran the figures and moves again, did some stretching while waiting for Parent-tot. New student in P-T screamed through most of the class; Dad was great about it, apparently there have been separation issues. We did get a smile out of her at the end, but you know you're dedicated to your job when it involves singing "Wheels on the Bus" solo to a screaming 3 year old. Gamma with A at 4; we don't have as good a rhythm teaching together at Gamma as we do at the lower levels. Not sure why that is. He's definitely my favorite person to teach with. Alpha 2, empty.

Friday, my feet have finally stopped hurting from Wednesday. I know this will get better as the session wears on, but right now I'm in agony half the week. Subbed for V in massive tot class; yikes. Everyone comes on Friday. Giant PreAlpha, too; gave up Delta to help M with them (so sad, except oh yeah I HATE teaching Delta). One of those classes with 3 boys who just want to skate as fast as they can and don't quite get the whole "a class is for learning" thing. PreAlpha classes continually amaze me because of the number of young kids these days with really poor muscle tone and absolutely NO body awareness. Parents-- please send your children out to play on the playground equipment. Kids today need more falls off the monkey bars, and a few stubbed toes and split lips. I don't get 8 year olds who can't seem to stand up, even in shoes.

Week finishes with darling tiny Vika, pint sized and super sweet, and statuesque Laura, coming back into skating at 16 with lots of enthusiasm and a great attitude.

What a great job. I can't believe I get paid to do this.

Jan 3, 2010

I have a great coach! You should talk to her!

I'd love to hear suggestions for titling this post, because I was afraid of the traffic I'd get for "what is s0liciting!" Reader MER asks
If I say good things about my coach or suggest he might be a good fit for someone, could that get him in trouble? Otherwise, how can referrals happen? I'm new to this, so I'm still getting a handle on the rules of engagement.

Do I run the risk of getting my coach in trouble by saying (and writing) good things about him?
This is where you should set rules aside and let your judgment kick in. Ask yourself why you're talking about the coach:

• Has the coach asked you to talk him up or tell other parents about him? This coach is violating ethical guidelines, especially if he has not told you to talk only to skaters who have no current coaching relationship. Stop doing it. If you're really brave, tell the coach you think he might be violating PSA ethics.

• Are you trying to convince this parent or skater to switch coaches? This is inappropriate, especially if the parent or skater has not asked for your advice. Ethical guidelines for coaches don't cover parents*, however, it can appear that a coach is encouraging or even training parents to solicit students, especially if there is a pattern of a given coach's parents engaging in these sorts of discussions. This is a very difficult reputation to overcome. There is club ice in town where I will not teach, because I got so sick of parents soliciting my kids away from me.

• Are you just proud of your kid? Then brag about the child and not the coach. This may not endear you to your fellow skating parents, but it's better than appearing to solicit on behalf of the coach.

• Are you just proud of your coach? Watch how you report this. Is it more "it's so great what Coach Xan has done for Katy" or is it more "everyone should work with Coach Xan because she's the only one who gets results." First one okay, second one is skirting the line.

Getting back to MER's question, there is no way you can possibly know that a given coach is a good fit for another skater. The most you can report is that the coach has been great for your child. If a parent asks for your advice, there are some steps you can take:
  • Give her an honest answer about why you like your coach. Don't say "you should switch."
  • Direct her to the US Figure Skating guidelines for parents, especially if the skater is competing in the qualified competitions, where parents can also start to get in trouble for appearing to solicit.*
  • Ask your coach, club president, or skating director for the general policies on soliciting at your rink or club, without naming names.
Circumspection is most important among competitive skaters due to the financial, ethical, and professional constraints under which coaches operate. (Losing a competitive skater is a serious financial blow to a coach, especially in developmental programs rather than big training centers where there just aren't that many highly competitive skaters.)

For recreational and lower level skaters, I wouldn't really get my knickers in a twist over this stuff. Don't say anything you don't want repeated. Don't say anything negative about anyone. Ever. Don't say anything you'll regret.

*For national competitors, parents actually do have to adhere to ethical guidelines, violations of which can impact the skater's standing. But it's better to practice good habits from the get-go.

Jan 2, 2010

I just want to know what's going on

Generally, the session starting in February is the busiest-- more new skaters start in February than during any other session. And everyone is anticipating (hoping) that 2010, an Olympic year, is going to be a bigger boost than we've had in a while.

With new skaters come new parents, "immigrants" (that's what I call the skaters who switch into your program from other programs), or, as we skating coaches like to call them, fresh meat.

No no! I mean, we call them exciting new students of the wonderful world of figure skating!

Seriously, though, fresh meat is what you'll be if you get all your information sitting in the stands listening to parents with an agenda. Because it's often the ones with an agenda who seek out the fresh meat and start talking about the program, the other parents, and how they feel about everyone else's coach in comparison to theirs. Especially the "immigrants" with higher-level skaters are likely to hear some of the following comments and statements:

"Um, where did she learn her jump technique?"
"Oh, is that how her coach likes her to finish her spins?"
"She only skates twice a week!!!!???"
"My daughter's coach doesn't do it like that."
"All of our coaches' kids have been landing that jump since they were [gives age younger than your child appears to be.]"
"Isn't she kind of fast/slow/advanced/behind for that level?"

You get the drift.

So how do you keep the gossip at bay? Well, first of all, don't engage in it. Respond to all of the above comments with a vague "really?". If you feel like parents are steering you to a coach, nip it in the bud. That can get a coach in trouble, and can also blind you to the virtues of the full range of coaches at a new rink. Sit back and watch for a few weeks and find out what coaches have styles and skaters that you like. Don't choose a coach based on gossip.

But how do you sort the gossip from the useful information?

First of all, gossip can actually be full of useful information, you just have to filter out the snarks, the self-interested, and the show-offs. Second, be an equal-opportunity gossip collector. If you can't get away from the gossip (or don't want to--we're only human!) make sure you hear as much as you can. You'll start detecting patterns, you'll start hearing contradictions, and then you can start making your own judgments.

Get involved-- if it's close to ice show, exhibition, or competition time, ask to volunteer. You'll meet the people who really do know what's going on. (Some of them will also be gossips, of both the benign and the malignant types, but I tend to give volunteers a little more of a pass, because they are contributing extra to the program.)

Seek different types of sources-- talk to and listen to managers, coaches, kids, parents. See what you can find on line about both your program, and about skating schools and curricula in general. Check out my "figure skating links" in the side bar for sites. Read IceMom from start to finish. Go to discussion forums like the ones at Figure Skating Universe, Yahoo, and US Figure Skating.

You just want to know what's going on, after all. Just make sure what you're hearing is, in fact, what is going on.