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.


  1. This reverse sandbagging effect is pretty bizarre, isn't it? I know a mom of a very bright 8-year-old who is excelling at school. She takes classes with her classmates as well as with kids in upper classes. So. Mom approached the figure skating coach with this: "My skater is so smart, you should push her more in lessons. I want her to skate at the next level in two months."

    Um. Mom? Brain smarts and ice smarts aren't the same.

    Xan, I think these parents are part of the reason for the reverse sandbagging effect. Stay strong, coaches! :)

    Ice Mom

  2. Well I must say we are going thru this right now. We told our skater could skip a level
    because of her skills. Then coach changed her mind after getting through the 2Lz.
    We had a goals meeting and we all agreed on it.
    But coach changing her mind after 4 months was suspicious.

    4 months later to be told no,that is a waste of precious money invested and hurtful to the skaters self esteem.

  3. Pushing a skater forward too fast at a high level is especially harmful, because the skater hasn't developed really critical muscle memory. So who knows what was going through that coach's head. Maybe thought she could motivate the skater? But 4 months is not a lot of time for success at that level.

  4. well i see your point and there is more to this story and will not bother to divulge.

    I remember our skater moving up levels in the groups classes quite fast.. why??? cause she has huge talent.

    The more i questioned the coach the more false explanations i got. (I already knew the answer before even asking the question.)

    Ethics is placed in PSA guidelines but must say that it is not adhered to at the rink level. I would like to say i find the coaches behavior an anomaly.