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.


  1. Newbie point of view here - when I called the office to inquire about private coaching, I was told of the price difference between the experienced "old" coach and the greener "young" coach. Could just be a financial consideration. Also, not realizing I had to actually think about a good fit for the skater or think about skater's goals, I went with the first person that called. It could just be a reflection of a newbie parent ...I wish I had paid attention during my skater's first classes and learned the names of the coaches. Skating seemed like just another thing we'd try like basketball, gymnastics, cheernastics, yoga, taekwondo and swimming....it was "temporary" until some other new idea popped into skater's head. Boy, was I wrong.

  2. Financial considerations are a big factor, and are one of the reasons to go with a less experienced coach. But it's not always an indicator. Because I only take beginners, I charge much less than other coaches with my credentials and experience. Conversely, there are a couple of young coaches at our rink charging more than far more credentialed vets.

    The experience of going with the first person to call is a common one as well. Especially if the rink has a lesson request form, someone will nab it and call. You can ask for a trial lesson, or sit down with the coach first, or ask if you can come and observe him or her.

    By the way, I think this should be the model for any private lessons-- sports, tutoring, music, etc. You'll have a better experience if kid and coach hit it off. In most cases, it's not going to be an issue. But you don't want to be the exception where the kid and the coach don't match, and end up hating skating altogether.

  3. My first coach I got by the "first one to call" method, and it was a great match! I think that was mostly luck though. When she left, I knew immediately who I wanted to coach me instead, and I'm still having lessons with that coach a year later.

    Group lessons are a great way to audition coaches! I knew who I wanted to coach me after my first coach left because I'd experienced most of the rink's coaches in groups in learn to skate or club. I picked the one probably with the most similar teaching style to my first coach, which works well for me.

    Young coaches (qualified, but young) are often desperate to take on those little beginners and maybe get one or two of them who'll stay and work their way up. They can be more passionate about improving their own coaching than an older, more experienced coach, which can make them open to trying new techniques to connect with a skater.

  4. While there is a lot to be said for experience, I think there is also quite a bit to be said from the coach's own skating skills and history. In the lower levels (Basic Skills levels), most of the progress the skater makes is based on how well the coach actually teaches and motivates the kids, not how well they can actually perform the elements. But in the higher levels, I think it is very necessary for the coach to have some type of skating qualifications--whether it be a senior-level test, an Olympic medal, or PSA ratings--even more so than years of experience. I have seen plenty of coaches who have 10-30 years of experience coaching yet, due to lack of understanding of skills, ethics, or some other type of problem, their skaters somehow don't do as well as some of the younger coaches with less coaching experience and more skating experience.

    Overall, I would have to say that nobody can say that "all staff coaches are better than junior coaches" because that is completely untrue. Additionally, I don't think anyone can say that "an Olympic medal is worth more than coaching experience, teaching skills, and personality." I think you have to have the right combination of all of those things to make a good coach, and it has to be determined on a coach-to-coach basis.

  5. Anon, I actually think that the connection of coach and skater is the single most important factor; it doesn't matter how good a teacher or how good a technician a coach is if they can't get through to the student.

    Knowledge and understanding of a skill is not the same thing as "able (or once able) to do the skill." It certainly helps in the understanding, but it's not the most important factor.

    I still maintain that all other things being equal, hire the experienced coach, not the junior coach. With all due respect to junior coaches, I have no problem with them having trouble getting students. We've all been there.

  6. I completely agree that "knowledge and understanding of a skill is not the same thing as 'able (or once able) to do the skill." At the same time, however, I think there is something to the whole "knowing what it feels like" part of of an element. I don't think that all coaches with less skating experience give poor instruction. I just think that sometimes, having actually tried an element yourself has a lot to do with the words you will choose to describe certain things and it will increase how specific you can be when you teach it to someone else. If you've never felt the way a loop rotates, you would not know (unless you were really on top of things and studied it) exactly when each part of the body should begin to work. The hardest part, of course, would then be how to convey to the student when you want each body part to move. If you have done it before, it would be easy to tell he skater to "wait until it feels as though..." or to create visual images to help guide them through the process. But if you've only studied it, it is less likely that your descriptions of feeling will be quite as good as someone who has done it before.

    And, yes, if all other things being equal (meaning the only difference between the credentials of the junior and staff coaches is the level of experience) then of course you should take the one with more experience.

    Additionally, nobody should ever worry about how many students other coaches have. There's no point to it. Coaches have to do what is best for themselves and their students and not worry about outside influences--which I would guess is pretty difficult to do.

  7. Ha, another scenario is the coach competed at very high level, has some talented high level skaters (so obviously knows coaching reasonably well), but comes across as a totally different coach to lower level or recreational students. Coaching mindset is crucial too! Or is it part of coach-skater relationship?