Feb 25, 2010

Impudent strumpet

Not me. One of my tweeps, who asked the best questions about figureskating during the Olympics. I was extremely proud of my 140 character twitter responses, but here are some answers in more depth:

Can figure skating dresses be machine washed with all that netting and sequins? If not, do they get smelly?
If a dress has jewels or beading, you can gently hand wash it, but you can't put it in the machine. A dry cleaner who specializes in beaded garments (for instance, one that does wedding dresses) can clean it.

Yes, they get smelly. IceMom has a post on caring for beaded and jeweled dresses here.

Do they enter jumps backwards because it's easier, or because it's harder?
The two hardest jumps are axel (forward take off) and lutz (backwards take off). Axel is hard because of the extra rotation (forward take off adds a half rotation, so a "double" axel, is actually about 2 1/2 rotations), Lutz is hard because it's one of the few true full-rotation jumps (more about that in a sec) and because it's a "counter" jump-- rotational direction is opposite of entry edge direction. Don't ask.

In fact, salchow, loop, and toe loop, mechanically, actually all jump off a forward edge. This makes them easier not because of the edge, but because in these cases it reduces rotation in the air.

Do they have to start at centre ice, or can they start anywhere on the rink?
The can start anywhere in the rink, starting in the middle is just a great big "look at me!" sign. Especially in show programs, you'll sometimes see skaters starting against the boards, just to be funny. Starting and finishing in the middle of the rink also gives you that fabulous publicity shot against the Olympic logo, cuz when is that ever going to happen again.

Why do they go with opaque instead of sheer flesh-coloured tights for their legs?

Sheer tights are too fragile for figure skating. You'd never get through more than one program. Years ago, skaters used to wear tights with a sheen, but that is now considered tacky. The tights don't match skin tone, because they are made in literally only one color. This is a real problem for black skaters. Surya Bonaly used to refuse to even wear tights. They tried to force her and she told them to go f*** themselves. I read somewhere that Debi Thomas dyed hers with tea. Show skaters will often wear standard microfiber in a tan color (a little heavier than sheer, not quite the blanket weight of skating tights) with brown fishnets over them, which gives the legs a nice definition. I don't know why competitive skaters have never picked up this trick.

Don't get me started on the over-the-boot thing they were all doing this year.

Why is her score so relatively low? She didn't seem to mess up, did she?
I don't know which skater this referred to, but it hits the crux of the disconnect between the scoring and the fans. The scoring marks 12 to 13 required elements, plus 6 "component" scores that grade technique, choreography, interim steps, and other artistic elements. Non-jump required elements further are divided into levels of difficulty from 1 to 4. The level is awarded on the spot by a technical specialist. Then each element is given a "grade of execution," i.e., how well you did it, from -3 to +3. The four major things that drag a score down are: under-rotating jumps (lower base score), low levels on required elements, negative grade of execution, and poor component scores. Judges seem to award component scores on a "stair step" basis, i.e. the less technically skilled skaters ALWAYS get lower component scores, no matter how brilliantly they skate within the technical confines. Conversely, the technically skilled skaters ALWAYS get high component scores, no matter how ugly they are on the ice (Comrade Plushenko comes to mind.)

Would a skater be allowed to compete in both singles and pairs, if she were wunderkind enough to do so?
Yes. This happens all the time at the National level. Caydee Denney was also a singles skater, looks like until last year. (someone correct me?)

Is there a functional reason why figureskating dresses are so often high neck low back instead of low neck regular back?

The "keyhole" style is traditional in figure skating dresses. Gonna refer this one to Ice Mom, too! Update: see the responses!) The bare back is just sexy. Tonya Harding tried this in reverse in 1992, with essentially a bare front. Judges weren't happy, but then Tonya generally pushed a lot of people's buttons, even before it occurred to her to try actual criminal activity.

Is it just me, or do the women spend more time obviously cueing up for their jumps than the men?
I think it's just you, but it could also have something to do with upper body strength. Multiple rotation jumps take a tremendous amount of upper body strength, which will favor the men.

Why doesn't it injure him when she puts her blades on his thighs like that?
This was in reference to the style in dance lifts this year, in which the lady actually stood on the gentleman's calf, thigh, stomach, or head for all I know. The answer is, yes it hurts. Charlie White tried skating with a pad under his pants on their amazing lift, but found it too cumbersome, and decided to just deal with the bruise.

On a similar topic, the women often cut their hands with all that blade grabbing. US Juvenile Dance champion Angel Giordano wraps her hands in gauze when practicing.

Is there like a standard choreography notation for explaining to ppl how exactly the compulsory dance goes?
There is no notation per se, but the patterns are drawn out (men's steps and ladies' steps) and there is standardized abbreviation so you know what to do at each step. All the patterns can be found at icedance.com.

Is it hard for them to not crash into each other when they're all skating around and warming up?
Short answer-- not really. On-ice warm ups at competitions are about the least crowded ice that skaters ever get to practice on, especially at the lower levels. A typical free style session has an upper limit of 26 to 30 skaters, and half again that number of coaches. Most of the time when you see skaters having close calls at competition warm up they are psyching each other out. Tonya Harding and Katarina Witt used to be notorious for it. Actual crashes are accidents. There are actually protocols and rules for practice sessions, regarding right of way, pattern, and manners.

Impstrump's blog is Impudent Strumpet. Thanks for the great questions! See you at Worlds!

Feb 24, 2010

Having a bad day

The world held its breath and then broke into tears as one on Tuesday night when Canadian skater Joannie Rochette skated her heart out for her mother and then collapsed in emotional agony.

But you'd never have known to watch her skate.

This capacity to remove one from the exigencies of the moment is one of the incredible things about this sport, whether teaching it or engaging in it. On September 11, 2001, I debated not attending my figure skating class. After some thought I went, and we spent a glorious hour and a quarter removed from the world. Not one of us thought about the horrors of the day for that period. The second we walked off the ice, it hit us, and we all marveled at how good it had felt to remove it from our thoughts through the joy of ice.

There are days when I walk into class and think, "I can't do this today." I'm angry at something, or had a bad day at my other job, or am frustrated with management or family or just the general state of things.

But you cannot bring that into class with you. You think that you just cannot bear it if one more timid, spoiled 4 year whines because her gloves don't match her skirt; you just want to march up to that parent and scream that they don't pay you enough to deal with their bratty kid.

Of course, you can't do that. And most of the time I don't actually feel that way about that kid. But on a bad day, you take a deep breath and reach inside and find the joy that is intrinsic to skating and teaching. You pull it out, like the game of reaching into your pocket for a smile, and you make yourself work through it. It's neither the child's fault, nor the parents' that your day is rough, and in fact they do pay you to deal with all the kids, bratty, charming and in-between. And after a while, you remember how to charm, coerce, trick or ignore the child into getting back into the game.

And along the way find, that you've charmed yourself into it too.

Feb 21, 2010

Who gets to teach figure skating?

Short answer--anyone that can get hired by a rink.

One of the things that all US Coaches must have in order to get "credentialed" (i.e. have permission to be rinkside with their skaters) is a membership in the Professional Skaters Association, or PSA.

Because no university, as far as I know, awards a bachelors degree in figure skating coaching (and you really have to wonder why not), PSA is the only game in town for a coach that wants to demonstrate training credentials in coaching.

For a profession that discourages the kind of parent coaching common in just about every other youth sport, the requirements for coaching figure skating are a scandal. Basically, there are none. Rinks are "accredited" not by the qualifications of their coaches, but by which type of curriculum they choose--ISI, USFS or none at all. In other words, there is no accreditation. Just membership fees. And anyone, anyone at all, that the rink will hire can teach figure skating. I know, because when I started coaching I had no teaching experience, was a very low level skater, and had never taken any test or coaching education.

Fortunately, I'm an ethical person, and I set out to get the credentials I felt I needed, and now have a Senior Rating in Group Instruction from the PSA and am also credentialed by the Ice Skating Institute as a gold level judge. For the PSA rating, this means I have passed three of the four levels of coach's credentialing in my chosen discipline of Group Instruction. To keep it active, I must attend an average of at least 9 1/3 hours of continuing education classes every year for as long as I want to keep the rating. You can get rated in numerous ice skating disciplines, including Group, Free Style, Moves in the Field, Choreography, Program Director, Figures, etc. I earn my hours by going to an annual 3 day seminar, by attending every ISI, USFS, and PSA seminar offered in my district, and through annual accreditation in Red Cross First Aid and CPR. (More about the ratings exams here.)

But it's not required. I never heard of a rink where you need to be rated to teach. Incredibly, not all rinks require First Aid or CPR training. You don't even need to be a member of US Figure Skating or the PSA to teach (although now you must be a member of both those organizations to sign your students up for tests and competitions). No rink I have ever worked for requires that coaches attend continuing education. I know of coaches who have never taken a single figure skating or coaching test nor skated in any competition. Rinks with formal programs to help Junior coaches learn the profession are few and far between; it's all watch and learn. Coaches that I have spoken with about this almost universally tell me that kids who can skate can coach. So, I can read, I guess that means I'm qualified to teach second grade! I can't imagine another profession where you jump from student to pro with no training in between.

I have a few problems with the PSA--I think that at the Master level the Group rating should be divided into developmental and freestyle; PSA seems to think that the higher your students are tested, the better you are. Which may be true for competitive skaters, but completely misses the point about group classes, where the vast vast majority of skaters are in the lower levels. For me, the Master rating in PSA, where they focus on questions about teaching the higher levels, is like asking someone who wants to teach grade school to pass a PhD level exam in particle physics. My specialty is beginners, and PSA should recognize the value of the skills needed for teaching beginning skaters by giving people like me our own rating exam.

It's a problem that PSA has no competing program; like I said, kids should be able to get a PE or Recreation degree with a focus on teaching figure skating or managing figure skating programs.

But PSA is the only game in town, and a PSA rating is a good indicator that your coach takes coaching seriously, understands that there are ethical guidelines, regards it as his or her profession, and does continuing education to stay on top of the sport.

I have asked Jimmie Santee, president of the PSA, to offer a comment for this post, but have not heard from him yet.

Feb 17, 2010

A tutorial

As always, every four years, everyone's talking about figure skating. I won't even dignify the "it can't be a sport because sequins" haterz. Icemom said it pretty well already anyway.

This is the first games I've watched with the world, so to speak, via social media on Twitter, Facebook, Skype and the SM links on the Olympic site. And it was quite a revelation. I spend my days around figure skaters, former figure skaters, parents of figure skaters and people who work at skating rinks.

We all know a LOT about figure skating.

What I didn't know is that other figure skating fans don't know a lot about figure skating. I always figured that if you're a fan you know the difference between a lutz, a loop, a toe loop and a flip. I figured you could tell when a spin is slow, or when a skater has superior edge quality.

But if Twitter is any guide, this is not the case. People are utterly mystified by the scoring because they really don't think of it as sport-- they think of it as art, and everyone knows, as the old joke says that with art, you don't have to understand it, you just have to know what you like. And people LIKE Patrick Chan. They liked some of the also-rans who scored low.

So here's a quick tutorial on the FAQs from last night. You can really train yourself to spot these subtleties, and it will help you understand that, yes, it's a sport.

There are 8 basic jumps, in order of difficulty- Salchow, Toe Walley, Toe Loop, Loop, Walley, Flip, Axel, Lutz. No one does walleys anymore, and I haven't seen a toe walley in decades, so don't worry about them. Skaters love it when performers do walleys, and the announcers will go crazy if someone does one.

Edge jumps lift off the gliding edge. Toe jumps use the toe of the free leg as a vault. On an inside edge the skater's upper body will be facing into the circle he or she is on. On an outside edge the skaters body will be facing out of the circle he's on.

All jumps described for clockwise skaters (only 1 in 15 or so skaters are ccw, Johnny Weir being one). For CCW, same edge, other foot.

Salchow is an edge jump off a left back inside edge. Toe Loop: toe assisted jump off right back outside edge (RBO). Loop, edge jump RBO. Flip, toe assisted LBInside. A footwork sequence into a flip is a required element in singles skating. Actual back flips ala Michael Weiss, Surya Bonaly and Scott Hamilton are illegal (and I once saw someone faceplant out of a back flip, so I'm with them on this one). Axel, edge jump with forward take off, LFO edge (everyone recognizes this one because of the dramatic forward launch). Lutz, toe assist, LBO. Lutz is a "counter jump," that is it changes rotational direction at the launch. The edge traces a clockwise circle, but the jump rotates CCW. Lutz is the jump with the long entry edge.

It matters if the skater takes off on the correct edge, because it changes the difficulty of the jump. It matters if the jump is underrotated. It's not a triple if it doesn't go around 3 times, just like a touchdown doesn't count if it doesn't cross the goal line, no matter how long the run or the pass was, or how elegant the player.

If you get good at watching, you can tell what jump is coming up by the skater's body language and positions. One of the wonderful things about YuNa Kim is that you cannot tell what jump she is going to do, in fact sometimes you can't even tell that she is setting up for a jump. Kwan had this ability as well; it's one of the things that makes their skating look so "easy."

A jump combination is two or more jumps in a row with no connecting steps. A jump sequence is any number of jumps with connecting steps between any of them. The little half and whole rotation hops that skaters do don't get points for jumping, but are counted as footwork and transition.

Edge quality
Edge quality refers to the skater's control of their blade. Someone with good edge quality skates with minimal snowy curves, no ankle wobble, and steady-as-a-rock upper body. You can really see this on the ladies' spiral sequences. Good edge quality also gives you clean turns and steps (no scraping sound). Edge quality is the defining skill of a high level skater. You don't get the big jumps without the edge quality. As I like to tell my little skaters, my 90-year-old granny can jump, but she can't hold a back outside edge all the way around a face-off circle on a single push.

Quickie on spins
There are three basic spin positions: upright, camel, sit. Upright inludes those leg stretchers, and Biellmans (the upright backbend). That hideous spin where the skater bends at the waist FORWARDS and grabs a foot (butt is now sticking up in the air) is actually an upright spin, as is a layback. The camel is the one in the arabesque position. Skaters wave their arms around and keep changing the g*ddam position because the scoring system gives them points for multiple "features" i.e. waving their arms around and changing positions.

The other disciplines
Pairs skating is mostly singles skills with the addition of lifts, which makes you wonder why so many failed singles skaters switch to pairs. Man, if you can't do the singles, you're not going suddenly be a genius at pairs.

Ice dance focuses on partnering and edge quality, and believe it or not is the most demanding from a training standpoint, because dancers have to master four programs a year-- 2 compulsories, a short program (the Original Dance) and a long program (the Free Dance). The ISU chooses which compulsories will be skated; everyone trains the same ones. Don't get me started on how Code of Points has ruined ice dancing, we'll be here all night.

Twitters' a blast-- come follow me and all my "tweeps" during all the skating. If you're really into it, you can watch the skaters that NBC doesn't care about, or that they're apparently blocking on the west coast, on Bulgarian National TV, here, in real time.

Feb 12, 2010

Signs of improvement

There's an adult skater at our rink-- she's droll, adventurous, skeptical and doesn't take herself too seriously, all rare and wonderful traits for adult skaters. (As a breed, we tend to be wound a little tight.) She and her coach were talking about how to improve her standings in competition. "We're learning to play the game," she told me. "I've been thinking too much about improving the skating and the choreography."

Huh? Last year, skating at ISI Adult Nationals in the Light Entertainment category, she put together a skill-packed routine and lost to skaters with, so to speak, no chops but clever props. She had the wrong goal (improve her skating skills) for the outcome she was trying to achieve (win at Light Entertainment). She fixed the wrong thing. So she and her coach restrategized and came up with a new plan to reach the goal.

I'm a big believer Robert Brownings' axiom (a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?), in other words, don't set your goals too low, or if you set a minimal goal, have a new one ready when you achieve it. When I started skating, all I wanted to be able to do was cross rolls. I just thought they were so cool, and so difficult I couldn't conceive ever being able to do them. I got there pretty fast; they weren't so hard after all. But it really energized me; I thought, wow if I can do that, what else can I achieve? Four USFS tests and a PSA Senior rating later, well, a lot. I can achieve a lot.

You need to be realistic. But not too realistic. A 7 or 9 year old beginner can reasonably say "I want to skate at the Olympics!" A 16-year old beginner cannot. But she can learn an axel, or get good enough for an ice show.

There are probably self-help sites and books to teach you about goal setting, but here's a stab at it.

Make sure there's a defined outcome.
This can be short term-- get a solo in the ice show, test PreJuv moves by December, learn xx skill (more on that below); or long term-- get your moves Gold Medal by the end of Senior year, skate at Nationals, master all the double jumps-- but it needs to have an endpoint. There needs to be some place where you can say "I did that." A vague goal of "improve" or "skate 2 hours a week" is a formula for discouragement.

Have multiple steps along the way
In other words, mini-goals, or short-term goals. You need to have moments of success. When I saw the coach of this year's Junior Men's champ at our rink before Nationals this year, I told her how excited I was. "Oh, let's get to the arena first," she told me. "One step at a time."

Make sure you have the resources to achieve it
If your family cannot afford for you to be a national skater, that's a drag, but you either need to find a way to help financially, or find a new goal. This is one of the hardest things especially for talented skaters to deal with. With adult skaters, it's often time, or health issues. Your reach should exceed your grasp, but it shouldn't put you in debt, or the hospital.

The skater sets the goal
This is another tough one for children. It's also one of the reasons that figure skating is such a great thing for kids to do. The child needs to set the goal. You can guide him or her, but if the child doesn't really want what you or the coach has set out for her, it is not going to happen. You'll just be wasting your money. This is why short term goals are important. They help the skater to feel success. There's too much in figure skating of "what have you done lately." This used to drive my daughter crazy. "No one cares what I can do," she told me once. "It's always about the stuff I can't do."

Make sure everyone owns it
Singles skating is a team effort. There's the skater, but there's also parents, friends, coach, the coach's support team, maybe a dress designer, a dance class. Everyone needs to understand both their roll, and needs to share the goal. Again, my daughter once signed up for a dance program where we told the teacher she was a skater, and was in the class to support her skating. Teacher said "great!" A few months later, she told us that my daughter had to choose-- dance or skating. No problem, we said. And quit that dance program.

Let the goal change
Goals change for all sorts of reasons-- you reach the goal, or exceed it! Your life changes, or your interest in the sport changes. Changing a goal is not the same thing as failure. That said, it can't be a moving target. Set a goal with a reasonable timeline and work towards it. This gives you an endpoint, and an arc. It helps if an outside agency controls the date, like a test, competition or show. But once the goal is achieved, or abandoned, it can and should be replaced with a new goal.

Set goals for which you control the outcome
You cannot have as a goal something like "win the competition" or "be the best skater at the rink," because you don't really control that outcome. You don't know who you'll be skating against, or what the judges are looking for that day, or a million other things that you cannot control. Better goal-setting for things like competitions can be "set a personal best" (easy with the Code of Points judging system), "skate a clean program," "land the jump in competition", or even the more amorphous "place" at competition-- where you give yourself a broader range of success. A black-or-white goal like "win" means that 2nd place becomes "lose." (Especially important to remember at qualifying competitions, where you don't have to win to move on. Third place also goes to Nationals.)

Skills-based goals
I'm fine with setting a specific skill as a goal, like "master the axel." However, I think it is better to put such a goal within a set-- pass FS 5, or PreJuv Free Skate-- so that the single skill does not take on epic importance. Putting your entire definition of success into that single skill can blind you to your other achievements. Focusing on a single skill also gives that skill undue importance. A proper camel spin is every bit as hard as an axel, and just as much of a marker and milestone, but you don't see everyone getting their knickers in a twist over camels!

I've worked most of my life in fundraising. When you write a grant proposal, you follow a very specific formula to demonstrate worth. Mission-Goal-Objective-Action-Outcome-Evaluation-Next Step. The mission is vague "to be a figure skater." The Goal is specific and long term "to earn a Master Rating from the PSA." The Objectives are measurable "to take the 4 qualifying exams." Actions are the steps along the way-- "to earn the Registered, Certified, and Senior ratings". The Objectives and Actions can also serve as your interim goals, and give you markers for success. Outcome is clear-- did you do it? Evaluation is about whether the outcome matched the expectation; Next Steps, of course, is the new goal.

Finally, it's okay to fail. It's okay to not achieve the goal. That doesn't diminish the effort, or negate what you achieved in the attempt. If we always grasped what you reach for, then we wouldn't need heaven.

Feb 11, 2010

As far as you can go

The Olympics is bringing up issues that face all athletes at every level, and I don't mean being stuck at the airport, unable to make the opening ceremony.

You'll hear a lot of sports reports talking about the athletes needing to "peak" at the Games. What this means is that their training needs to lead to the best performance at the optimum time. This kind of peaking is a short term goal, with a one-year arc, and there is an entire sports training discipline, called periodization training, devoted to it.

But it's not just world-class athletes that deal with peaking, and it doesn't mean just season-to-season. For the recreational and amateur athlete, peaking can mean reaching your highest potential, and it's one of the most challenging places to be, especially for younger people.

Because what if your highest potential is "just" an axel, or a couple of double jumps? Or, what if your highest potential is triples, but suddenly your life is hard, your hormones are rebelling and your dad just got a new job in a different state? Or your coach quits teaching? Or that really cute boy wants to go the movies, or there's a late night party, and you have to traiiinnn.

I talked to several coaches about this over the last couple of days-- what do you do if your skater seems to be peaking?

B shared the difficulties with a young woman who has gotten into a negative cycle. "The lessons have been about the negativity, and it starts to feed off itself. Her bad attitude infects me, and I start to wonder how much I should be dealing with this. I'm here to teach figure skating, not to provide therapy." S concedes "it's the most difficult place for a skater to be. If you don't really have a clear goal, or your skating goal is getting muddied or superseded by the rest of your life, you have to think hard about whether to stay or quit. Skating requires a lot of commitment, if for no other reason than that distracted skaters get injured. Plus, you'll drive your coach crazy." (S is basically the mom of the rink. We have all agreed that it is her role to be driven crazy.)

What do you do with a kid that's stuck?
Once you get to the higher levels, you will get stuck if you don't devote the time and emotional commitment to skating. An axel is hard. Doubles are scary, especially in the learning stages. The ice is crowded, and the cliques will drive you mad. If a couple of kids at the rink have achieved competitive success, you're going to be dealing, sometimes, with their egos and their coach's egos and their parents' egos. Who needs it? Can't land the damn jump, just quit.

And you can. You can quit, and you can come back. When you're 13 or 16, if you're a freestyle skater, it's actually fairly easy to come back to high level skating. Your muscles will remember. So taking a break is not the end of the world. It might be the end of a competitive career, if you had one, but competitive careers are just the tiniest part of the sport.

Rinks need to support this, by having classes for teens, "catch up" clinics, "intro to privates" classes (where you get 20 minutes one-on-one with a rink-assigned coach), et cetera, as well as specialty classes like Synchro, ice dance, hockey for teens, or junior coaching. How about starting a hockey cheerleading squad? Coaches need to support it as well. Keep the lines of communication open, and honor a family's decision to take a break.

Goals can change
I've talked a lot about the importance of goals in figure skating. Goals should be clear, they should be stated. They need to come from the skater, and everyone needs to agree on them-- skater, coach, parent. Adjusting your goals is the best way to get unstuck, to change the "peak." Never going to make it to Nationals? Look into coaching, or joining an ice show, or doing an independent study through your school, and arrange an exhibition with all your skating friends (you get to be the star). Is the axel an unattainable Everest? Ice Dance. Synchro. Speed skating. Hockey. Curling, for heaven's sake. Date night! Take a boy ice skating. Trust me he doesn't care about the stupid axel, because you sure look cute in those leggings.

The point is, you need to do what you want to do. If you love ice skating, like B's difficult student, yet you're miserable every time you step onto the ice, find a new goal. If you discover that you can't find a new goal, come once a week for a while, or drop the lessons and just skate for fun. That ice rink has been there a long time. It's not going anywhere. It'll be there when you come back, with a fresh goal, and a new summit to climb.

Feb 8, 2010

Best in the class

What makes a skater the "best?"

We're about to see the best skaters in the world going after it in Vancouver, and the field is deep this year, especially the men, with probably upwards of 15 of them in real contention for 3 medals. It's easy to see that they are the "best"-- they do they hardest stuff, consistently and well.

But what about your local skating program? Who's best there? There's that girl with the bad attitude who can kinda land a double axel. How about the coach who had skaters at Nationals? Fifteen years ago. Or the one who won Outer Podunkia's singles title when she was 17 (and is still bragging about it, at 40). Is it the kid with the most tests, or who does the most competitions? Is it the kid whose mother is always complaining about her daughter's ice show costumes, because "she's the best skater in this rink, how come they always give her such an ugly costume."

Or is it the kid who never quits, the one determined to get that axel 3 years on, or who took an after school job because her parents can't afford lessons. How about the kid in old hockey skates who always helps the little ones when they get scared on public ice, or the coach who quit her day job out of love for this sport.

In class, best is the skater who is working to achieve success at those skills. Especially in the really beginner classes, I always tell my kids I'm not looking for speed, I'm looking for perfection. I'll be happier with the kid who takes 1 full minute to get across the ice doing perfectly formed swizzles than the one who rushes off at full speed and forgets to do swizzles at all. But if we're having a race, then the best one is the fast one; your perfect swizzles don't apply here.

So "best" is a relative term. One of the great things about the controversial "Code of Points" scoring system is that skaters now get the phenomenon of the "personal best:" a score higher than any they have had before. It's been wonderful to watch the middle of the pack skaters take their 7th or 12th place with joy in the eyes, because they know they just bested themselves.

Best is reaching or exceeding your own goals. A skating parent who tells you their coach or their child is best should be asked, "relative to what?" If it's not your skater's goal to win a competition, then being "best" at competitions is meaningless. If you have a coach that's helping you to progress and achieve your goals, then their past glories don't matter.

Never tell a coach that your child is "best" in class (usually followed by a demand that they be moved up a level). The coach, and the child for that matter, might have a completely different idea about what "best" means.

Feb 4, 2010

I WAS TOO paying attention, so THERE!

We had mid-session evaluations and freestyle solo testing at my rink last week, which always brings out the crazy in parents (sorry parents, you know I love you). Some choice bits, both said to me directly, and quoted to me by other coaches:
"She better not come in last again like last year" (from a parent whose child who skips three lessons/practices in every five)
"She passed the elements, that means she should pass the program"
(not if she didn't do the elements at the test standard in the program. Sorry, 2 rotations on a spin that requires 6 isn't passing just because it's in the program.)
"I've watched you. You never pay any attention to my child."
(Not even going to dignify it with a response, but more later on how to handle this.)
"Those other girls need too much help" and "why did you give that boy all that extra attention?"
(essentially suggesting that because some of the skaters were more needy, they should be neglected in favor of the "better" skaters.)
"Coach X promised my daughter would pass"
(based on? This wasn't her private coach, nor her class coach, just some random coach who told you your kid would pass?)
"I'm a lawyer, and she better move up one level" (or what, you'll sue?)
"They're best friends, they have to be in the same level." (Does that work at their school, too?)
Well, I sound pretty callous and cynical, and when confronted with these statements it's difficult not to get defensive. Especially during testing week, when you get this multiple times after every class, you sometimes wish there was a side exit so you could just sneak out without any parents seeing you.

So are the parents right, or are they out of line?
Your interest in your child is never out of line, but if you talk to the coach honestly and without blame, he or she will have a clearer head to examine the issue. If you start with "you're a bad coach" we're only human and will get defensive; the coach might end up denying something he needs to hear. Personally, I try to do active listening (saying to a parent, for instance, "you're concerned that I'm not paying enough attention to Suzie") but it's hard to do when your first instinct is to say "am too!!"

If you're concerned about something, ask the coach about the problem, not the cause. Ask "Why didn't she pass" not, essentially, "Why don't you like my child." (You might not like the answer to that.) You'll get a more honest response, and maybe some good ways to help.

Get off my lawn!
Some of the over-the-top statements come out of the culture. Middle class parents these days are involved in their children's activities and successes to a fault. Having grown up in an era when we were left much more to our own devices, and allowed to define our own successes and failures, to me this is ineffective parenting. But I know that there's a bit of a "get off my lawn" element here-- (imagine curmudgeonly voice): "you young parents don't know what you're doing!" So I try to keep the judgment at bay when responding. (Plus I'm just the skating teacher. My opinion of your parenting falls into the "not my job" category. When you're a busy-body like me it's easy to forget!)

Some of the misplaced concern comes from simply not being part of figure skating culture. Parents of recreational skaters, or parents who didn't skate themselves, often don't mean "you, the coach, are doing it wrong," even if that's what they're saying. They mean "I don't understand what's going on out there. Please explain it and reassure me."

So here's what's going on:
My general goal is to give every child individual attention in every class. In a 30 minute class with 10 children, when you take out group time, your child is getting 1 or 2 minutes with me, because that's literally all the time I've got. If you happened to get distracted during that one minute, you think I didn't pay attention to your child. Even the most eagle-eyed parent is going to lose focus for a few minutes during class. Sometimes I'll look up to catch a parent's attention when their kid does something well, and they're not looking, so they miss the moment. I would like to emphasize that this is fine, but don't then accuse me of ignoring your child. I can't force you to watch, and I can't wait until you're watching to focus on your skater.

Sometimes a child is doing especially well, and I'll let them work on their own for a class or two. They're still participating, but I may have made the judgment to leave them be, to work out any kinks themselves. Another week, I'll "neglect" someone else. I am, in fact, aware when I am doing this, but it's not because I'm ignoring someone. Skaters also need to be able to work on their own.

Sometimes a child is doing especially poorly. I've got a struggling Beta student in a very strong Beta class. He's getting further and further behind. Rather than let him simply fall off and just repeat the class, I've been pulling him out and working with him for about 3 to 5 minutes by himself each class. The rest of the group gets set a task; I've got the eyes in the back of my head on them, and they're learning to manage their own time and tasks. Meanwhile, little T is catching up, and furthermore is less of a distraction and hazard because of it.

Sometimes a child is working ahead of the class. I don't believe in passing kids up mid-session. They can always use the time to work on the current skills to greater proficiency, or at a higher level. So I may take the time to give them specialized instruction that keeps them engaged in the class.

Sometimes a child is unreachable in the limited time, maybe a half hour a week, that I've got. A classroom teacher has both the time and the obligation to get each child past his or her barriers to success. In an after school program group class instructors don't have that luxury. I'm not your kid's therapist and I'm only part of the village that it takes to raise him to a certain extent. There is a limit to the amount of indulgence one can offer a child who constantly gets on and off the ice without permission, who complains of aches and pains, who wanders off, or doesn't listen. The child who won't participate cannot be permitted to create a drain on everyone else's time. If this is your child, you need to take a deep breath and be honest about it. The coach will do what she or he can, but you can't make the whole class suffer to constantly discipline or indulge one child.

So how can you know when it's the teacher and not your kid?
Look at your child. Is he or she steadily improving? If he's not, look at the class as a whole-- in general are the children improving as a group? If the whole group is improving and your child is not, that is what should be brought up to the teacher, not blame and recrimination. Like as not, the coach is aware of the problem and has a good idea of the cause (poor attention span, promoted to too high a level, bad equipment are all causes of poor performance).

We want to talk to you about your child, and we want to be the best coach for each child that we can be. Blaming the coach is a game that can't be won. Don't play it.

A skating career starts in Alpha class

As a firm believer in building figure skating skills from the ground up, I've pulled out the description of what skaters learn, class by class. I already did tots (where you'll find the answer to "teaching kids to glide on ice"). Here's an Alpha/Basic 3-4 outcome.

To be successful at Alpha/Basic 3-4, you must have a comfortable, steady one-foot glide right and left before starting class; I always make my students learn how to hold a one-foot glide on a circle as well, both inside and outside edges. (I teach in an ISI program. The Basic Skills program makes forward edges around a circle a testable skill.)

A strong one-foot glide is the key to successful beginner cross overs. Don't be fooled by speed at beginning levels. If your skater wants to be more than what I call a "pond skater," make sure they can glide on one foot before they start to work on cross overs. If your child is in an Alpha class where the teacher seems to be spending "too much time on one foot glides, why aren't they learning cross overs," it's because the beginning level teacher passed the kids without the skills necessary to even start the next level. See the post called "Cute" about the phenomenon of passing children based on their bright smiles.

Alpha/Basic 3&4 is all about strong forward skating-- stroking, crossovers, stops.

Forward Crossovers
Crossovers are a power move, useful for getting around corners and covering a lot of ice with minimal effort. They travel in either direction (Right over Left (counter-clockwise) and Left over right (clockwise) and are, by definition, continuous forward stroking around a circle, pushing with the “outside” foot, then crossing it over the “inside” foot, and returning to the starting position. You'll also hear these referred to as "progressives," especially in a hockey program. Not quite the same thing, but close enough for our purposes today. There is also something called a cross-behind, which is a dance step and does not generate any power. (In skating you can never do anything actually wrong. We just give it another name.)

To pass beginning crossovers (for skating schools that divide the ISI "weSkate" classes into level 1 and level 2) you must be able to hold the first stroke, cross easily over the skating foot, glide briefly with feet crossed, and return to starting position. You must do five in a row with no extra pumps or pushes. A two-footed glide between crossovers is acceptable in Alpha 1. Toe pushes on the first stroke are not. I take the toe push on the undercut under advisement with Alpha 1, depending on the quality of the rest of the skating. (Don’t tell.)

In Alpha 2, Advanced Forward Cross-Overs, the crossed foot pushes (in a move called the “undercut”) to the outside of the circle, and then returns to the starting position. To pass, you must demonstrate proper arm position, a strong first push with no toe pick, understanding of the undercut, and be able to lift and return the crossed foot to the starting position without catching the toe pick. Five consecutive cross-overs are required to pass, with no additional pumps, pushes, or two-footed glides. In my classes, I don’t insist on an actual undercut push at Alpha 2, just that the student is not toe pushing on the undercut and has a correct weight shift. At any Alpha 2 skill I'm not looking for power, but for proper understanding of the technique.

My neglect, if you will, of the true power undercut is controversial. Technically, students should be required to do this. However, I have found that especially younger and more recreational skaters will translate power into a mongo-toe push, rather than just learning to be comfortable with the set up for the undercut. It takes a lot of patience and nerves of steel with parents who don't understand why their kid didn't pass alpha "when she's the fastest one in the class."

Necessary to proper crossovers—understanding that you’re skating on a circle, and the distinction between inside and outside edges. ISI leaves the teaching of this to the discretion of the coach; USFS Basic Skills makes it a testable skill. In the USFS Basic Skills curriculum crossovers are taught without lifting on the first stroke. Personally I don’t like introducing this here because I think it makes it harder for kids to understand the necessary weight shift, but either method of teaching is fine.

Forward Stroking
Continuous alternating pushes side to side to move straight down the ice. To pass a level 1 class you must be able to stroke from foot to foot, with free leg straight and extended behind. Toe pushes not allowed, but we usually let the kids do a brief two-foot glide between strokes (see more about toe pushes below). To pass Alpha 2, and the ISI registered test, you must be able to stroke from foot to foot, with good posture, free leg straight and extended behind, no toe pushes, no two-footed glides, and some evidence of ability to accelerate. You must sustain good flow for six pushes. A pointed toe is nice!

Forward Snowplow Stop:
A one-foot stop pushing forward with the inside edge of either foot, creating snow and gliding to a full stop. To pass, you must demonstrate the ability to stop from a slow glide. You get to choose the foot. I always tell my students that they can tell that their stopping technique is correct if they actually stop.

A word about toe pushes:
I consider an unacceptable toe push to be of what I call the “slip and grip” variety. This is when the skater slides the blade straight back until the toe pick catches, then bends his knee and blasts off. I tell the kids “slip and grip leads to trip.” They all groan, then someone trips on a toe pick and I get to say I told you so.

There is however an “acceptable” toe push. This is when the skater catches the toe after pushing with the side of the blade, and is a very common error at the Learn-to-Skate/Basic Skills level. It can almost always be attributed to not enough knee bend or not staying down in the ice as you push, and leading with the wrong part of the blade, and is an easy error for an observant coach to fix. But if the student is pushing with the whole blade, this should not be an error that holds them back. You may tell your coach I said so.