Mar 30, 2010


Birthday parties, school field trips, family reunions, girl scouts.

Most ice rinks can be rented for groups and they are surprisingly inexpensive. The smaller rink (about 40 x 70 feet) at my facility rents for about $75 per hour, plus additional charges for a party room and skates. There's often a discount for school groups.

But what should happen once you get there? What about kids who can't skate? Are there safety rules? Here's a brief guide to making your party or field trip fun, safe, and rewarding for everyone.

When you rent the space
Make sure you know how much time you actually have on the rink. If you the party is 2 hours long, and you only have the rink for an hour, you need to have something to do during the other time, be it birthday cake, or brownie meeting. Some kids want to be at the party but are really afraid to skate, ditto the adults. You need someplace for them to be (as well as a place to put everybody's stuff). Facilities almost always have a separate party room for that sort of thing. There will be an additional charge for the second room, but it's a really good idea.

Have a plan
"Skating party" is a little vague. For birthday events, it's obvious that the focus is the birthday, with all the bells and whistles, and skating is the activity, with the main event being the party. But I see too many brownie and girl scout troups and school groups coming in with the vague idea of "skating." Is this part of the PE curriculum? Is it just for a fun play day? Is there a badge to be earned? How much time will you need before and after to get skates on and off? What sizes do the kids wear? Do the adults in charge know how to tie ice skates, and how to make sure that skates are tied properly? Is there someone to supervise the non-skaters or to teach the beginners?

Once you know why you're going, then make a plan so that you achieve this goal. Even a simple fun day needs a goal, which at the very basis should be "no one gets hurt." I have done disastrous school groups where the teachers consider the safety lecture a waste of time, refused to let the pros check skates "because he needs to be on the ice with everyone right now" and ended up with 6 injuries in an hour. Crowded public skating sessions work largely injury free because everyone has to abide by certain rules to ensure safety, such as everyone skates in the same direction, no jumps, no more than 3 people holding hands, get up right away if you fall, no hotdogging, etc.

Tell all participants what to expect
Again, even fun day school groups need to know the plan, and this includes the kids, the accompanying teachers, and any parents who are along. Schedule might run something like this:

• Everyone meet in party room (or lobby, for a school group)
• Pick up your skates and wait on the benches
• Skates on instruction, then everyone put on skates
• Adults check skates to make sure they're tied properly
• Falling demo and rules review in lobby
(This whole thing shouldn't take more than 15-20 minutes, or less)
• Everyone on the ice, experienced skaters first, brand-new beginners at the end.
• If you have skating pros, they line up everyone but the beginners for a brief (10-15 minute) class on rules, skills, and safety
• Beginners wall-crawl to the nearest corner for instruction (again, 10-15 minutes).
• End with free time, but rules will be enforced

Once you're there
A well run school group will start with everyone being handed skates, and then waiting for a rink pro to instruct them in trying the skates (all the way up, using all pegs, nice and tight, no trailing laces). I've never seen it happen, but I live for the day when the teachers or parents come ahead of time to get a safety lecture. Teachers, if you come into my rink, don't start playing "who's in charge" games with the pros. They wouldn't tell you how to run your classroom, don't tell them how to run a rink.

One adult needs to stay in the lobby at all times. Kids are consummate escape artists. Rinks are often warming/cooling centers, and at any rate are usually public facilities, with lots of strangers kicking around. Children should not be in the lobby unsupervised.

Know where the first aid kit is at the facility, and who is authorized to apply first aid.

Once everyone's skates are on and checked (a group of 60 can do this in about 15 minutes), everyone, and I mean everyone should be required to practice falling down and getting up in the lobby, even the ones who already know how to skate. This works best in groups of 20 or fewer, so either the teachers and parents need to know how to teach this, or you need enough pros to cover the group.

Skaters should then get on the ice with the pro or supervising adult, for a brief class and safety lecture. Most of the time will still be free time, but no one will get hurt, the scared ones will feel taken care of, and everyone will know what to expect.

Fellow travelers
All adults on the ice must know how to skate. They don't need to be former Olympians, but they should at the very least not be a liability. If a parent who can't skate wants to come, then they can be in charge of the lobby or the party room, checking skates, accompanying kids to the bathroom, etc. A children's outing is not the place for you to learn how to skate. Parents, be honest about your ability, because we're going to notice the second you step on the ice if you were lying.

Hiring rink pros to help
I cannot stress enough how important I feel this is. School groups always seem to hire pros, but they never seem to know what to do with them. Why pay $20 an hour for the rink pro, when you don't even use them as skate guards (i.e. enforcing the rules). I was recently yelled at for "interfering with the kid's fun" after telling a boy he had to stand up because people kept tripping on him when he laid flat on his back on the ice. (He thought it was hilarious.) Or the boy that went out with his skates completely untied, and the teacher explained to me that "he didn't have time to tie them, because he needs to stay with the class."

At a birthday party, the rink pro can do a small class with the beginners, to get them moving, and will also know games that everyone can play. Again, this needn't be the whole time, but it helps involve everyone. If it's a brownie or girl scout troupe, ask a pro to help you come up with goals that need to be accomplished to earn the badge.

What the rink should do
Rinks need to provide all rentals with a rule list regarding behavior on the ice and in the lobby, the role of any adults in charge, liability (both injury and personal property). I'm always amazed at rinks that don't give at the very least a brochure, and better yet one complimentary family skating pass to every single person who comes to a party or school outing. If your rink doesn't do this, write a letter to the head of the facility or the park district suggesting this as a good PR and marketing move.

I believe that there should be a skating professional in the building for children's parties. This might be an actual pro on the ice with you, or the skating director in her office, or the head guard. Someone who knows skating and skating injuries should be there. If they don't guarantee this, hire a pro to help with the party.

You don't need to be able to skate to have a great time at a skating party. I've had kids whose first experience on the ice was at a skating party; without it they would never have thought to skate. My own daughter first skated at a preschool outing. (Yes, 3 to 5 year olds. It works fine.) In fact, I didn't even know there was a rink 5 minutes from my house until she did this.

Skating parties are a blast. But do it right.

Starting private lessons

I'm a big advocate for group classes for figure skaters at every level, and I truly believe that you can achieve solid technique and a full repertoire of skating skills, through doubles, in a strong group program, backed up by practicing on your own. I've taught double lutzes in group class. And pairs skills, and dance.

But private lessons are a big part of figure skating culture, and if you can afford the time, emotion and monetary commitment it's also a great thing to do.

Parents usually want to know the appropriate timing, or if their skater is someone who "should" take privates. There's a perception that it's an elite, even snobbish or arrogant thing to do, and that taking private lessons commits you to crack-of-dawn lessons, mean girls, and second mortgages.

A better way to approach it is to ask yourself a series of "why" and "how" questions, which will help you get to the answer you really need, which is, are private lessons the right choice for you or your child.

First off, get rid of your preconceptions about private lessons. No one ever withheld private music lessons from their child because the kid would never go to Juilliard. First and foremost private lessons are for achieving goals that you and your skater have identified. So here's the family conference:

Most important: Can you afford it.
At a lot of rinks, you'll take your private lessons on "practice ice" which is ice set aside for lessons and free style practice, with admission limited by skating level and with a maximum number of skaters. It is therefore more expensive, anywhere from $7-8 to $18 or more depending on your region and how available it is. If you take a private lesson, you really should also sign up for at least one practice, so you're adding 2 hours of ice, at a minimum weekly cost of $16.

The coach's fee will be another $25 for a younger coach to $40 for a very experienced coach with a strong competitive record for his/her skaters. (Helicoptor Mom shares that in her region, the range is higher $35 to $55 for a half hour, and that people adapt to this higher cost through, for instance, 20-minute lessons.)

It seems venal to make this the number one question, but discomfort with the cost is the most common area for conflict--with the skater, the coach, and your spouse. Understand and accept the cost as affordable and you will save yourself a lot of heartache later on. If you can't afford it, see if you can find one or two other skaters with whom you can share lessons. You'll still have to pay full freight for the ice, but you'll cut the coaching fee. Most coaches will do semi-private lessons. All the skaters need to be a similar levels and ages.

Second question: are both parents and the skater willing to commit the time
If your heart is set on a specific coach, you're going to have to come when that coach can take you. Most common email I get from parents? "I can't make our regular lesson next Monday at 3, so we'll be there Sunday at 10:30 mkay?" Well, no, there's a hockey game on the ice on Sunday at 10:30. Or there's a different student. Or I don't work on Sunday morning. The lesson time is the lesson time. Most coaches will charge you for a missed lesson that you don't attempt to make up, no matter what the excuse is, even illness. If you decide to take private lessons, there are early mornings in your future, it's unavoidable, because that's when there's ice, especially for beginners.

Now, about the why and the who?

Some common reasons for starting privates include:
  • Having trouble with a specific skill, like the mohawk, or a certain spin, or of course the stupid axel (that is the official name by the way).
  • Having trouble getting through a level
  • Desire to progress faster
  • Actual fast progression. I will often recommend private lessons to a student who progresses very quickly in group classes.
  • A specific goal, such as trying to qualify for an ice show solo by a certain date, or wanting to catch up to a friend
  • Desire to start testing or competing
  • "All my friends are doing it" (I consider this a perfectly acceptable reason to take privates. Contrary to popular depictions, skaters are nice, mature, and exactly the kinds of kids you want your kids hanging out with. Well, for the most part.)
Which of course brings us to the most fraught decision in figure skating-- how do I choose a coach? Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Mar 27, 2010

Signs of a bad group class

To some extent, it's all about outcome. You can tell a class or a coach is good, i.e. effective, if the majority of students are getting better.

But there are ways to spot a class where the coach isn't making the optimum environment for this to happen.

Kids aren't moving
Especially at the very beginning levels, like tot classes, and Pre Alpha/Basic 1-2, what skaters need most is mileage, and the ability to push themselves to a glide. A beginner class where kids are standing around a good bit of time waiting for the coach, or waiting for the slower skaters, is a weak class. (sometimes waiting is okay, but it should be kept to a minimum). Get those kids moving!

Coach is constantly yelling at the kids to behave
This is not a sign of a "tough coach" or bad kids. This is a sign of a coach who doesn't know how to control a class.

In a class with two coaches, the coaches are spending all their time talking to each other
Two coaches? They should hardly ever even be standing together, let alone gabbing. One should be leading the class, one should be helping the outliers, or the criers, or supervising the speedy ones that made it across the ice first.

The "outlier" kids get no attention
The outlier kids are the ones at either end of the bell curve-- the really good skaters and the really bad skaters. A weaker coach will ignore these kids, expecting them to either learn on their own (the good ones) or learn to catch up (the bad ones). You can't give these kids all your attention, but a good coach will find ways to keep them with the class, and succeeding within their own needs and limitations.

There are lots of injuries
I'm not talking about falls. There are always falls in skating classes. But if some child is getting sent off the ice for first aid at every single session, something is wrong. Ask the teacher why so many kids are getting hurt. It should not be rare to make it through an entire session of beginning classes (through Delta), or more than one session, without having to get a single bandaid or ice pack.

The coach talks a lot
It's not a university lecture, it's a skating class. Adults love this--standing around talking is way less scary than actually moving. But even they have to move eventually. If the coach is talking without the kids moving for more than a few minutes of the class, it's too much. And you can see when it's too much, because they kids will start wandering off.

Nobody passes
This is a tough one, but I would consider it a red flag. There should be one kid able to pass at every level.

Nobody passes, except the kids taking privates from that coach and his/her cronies
Yeah. Nuff said.

Coach only talks to those kids from the last example
Complain to management; ask them to come observe a class.

Coach never steps off the ice to talk to parents
Even in the most densely scheduled programs, at some point in the session (not necessarily every week), the coach should make herself available to the parents.

Coach doesn't know the kids names
If you never see the coach taking attendance, you can be pretty sure he's not going to know your child's name. I consider this actually insulting; it turns the child into a cog or a commodity. There are coaches at my rink who tell me I'm too tense because I take attendance. But I'll just bet those coaches are not getting hugs at the mall when their students see them there.

What bad coaching have you observed?

Mar 26, 2010

Ladies short

Don't have to work today, so I'm calling the ladies on Twitter until they stop, or 3 p.m. comes (when I have to go teach) whichever comes first. Check my Twitter page if you want a retrospective blow by blow!

I would just like to say, that if I could skate 1/10 as well as the worst of them, I'd be about 100 times better than I am right now! So all snark aside (and I'll try to keep it at a minimum), ladies, you're amazing.

Mar 24, 2010

It takes a village, but I'm just passing through

Group class is a wonderful way to learn how to skate. It's social, inexpensive, widely available, and about as low pressure as it gets in this high-pressure achievement-focused world. I pride myself as a coach on trying to reach every kid on the ice; to know my students, even when, like this session I have 80+ of them each week.

A good, aware coach does this by shaping every lesson around learning styles--visual, aural, kinesthetic, and tactile--and observing each child, as well as possible, to can see who needs what. She tries to tone down the aggressive and the wild ones, and nurture the artists and the shy.

But when it comes down to it, what a skating coach is teaching is skating. Now, I'm a firm believer that you get all sorts of collateral lessons from skating. You learn about poise, and overcoming obstacles, about the good kind of pride that comes from succeeding at something difficult. You learn to make friends outside your normal circle, and about pacing yourself and striving for goals.

But too many parents, especially those with very young skaters, seem to expect life lessons to be the central focus of skating lessons.

Write this down: the central focus of skating lessons is learning how to skate.

Here are some of the things parents have asked me to teach:
How to socialize: it's skating class, not a tea party. But we are learning about sharing (for instance, in tot class, not to horde the toys, or in a Pre Alpha class, not to monopolize the coach's attention). If you want to use skating class to help your child socialize, that needs to happen off the ice. Talk to the other parents there, let the kids find each other and arrange play dates.

To make new friends: I'll actually encourage this, unless I see the kids so focused on this fascinating new person that they forget to skate, or to listen. But again, the class itself is not the place for this. Sit next to the friend in the lobby when you're tying skates, or invite the family to share a juice box in the snack bar after class. But again, skating class is not a match-making service.

To learn not to cry: Please. Let your 4 year old cry. I just make a rule: no crying on the ice. I'll ask a child who has fallen if she needs to go get a hug, but she has to get to the door without crying. They will do this. But the no crying on the ice goes for temper tantrums too. Do NOT force your tantruming child onto the ice, I don't care how much of a man you are trying to make her (sic). It's not just about her; her screaming will disrupt the entire class. Either wait til she calms down and then send her back, or talk to the coach after class about strategies for coping with this. There are lots of things you can do, that make the child feel better, and that get her back on the ice eventually. None of them involve forcing a screaming child to skate.

Expecting a child to learn these types of things in an unfamiliar, difficult, not to say dangerous, endeavor like figure skating is inviting failure, both at the collateral lesson and at the skating. Things like these are difficult enough to teach directly in a classroom setting; in a skating class they are way outside the scope of my mandate, which is to teach skating.

Conversely, let the coach guide some of those collateral things as they occur. If your child falls and cries, allow the coach to assess the situation before you go running onto the ice to kiss it better. If the skater is really hurt, the coach will bring him off the ice. One of the things you have to learn on the ice is when you're really hurt; goldbricking is dangerous in an ice rink. A child who is sitting on the ice crying to get the attention risks getting his hands run over, and then he's really hurt.

If your child is shy, don't blame the teacher for pushing him into participating. The coach can see that he's shy, but can't allow him to either hang out on the boards, away from the class, or constantly be paying attention only to him. Even he will tell you that's not fair.

Let the coach assess when and who to give individualized attention to. Again, in an ideal situation, the coach is going to try to reach everyone every week (or in a larger class, every couple of weeks.) But sometimes there's a kid who needs extra attention all the time, to slow her down, or speed her up; to bring her up to the average level of the class, or to get advanced instruction because she's way ahead. These things are done to make the whole class better for everyone. In a group situation, you strive towards maximum participation. You don't want everyone waiting for slower kids, or a fast one out of control because he's not getting attention (sometimes simply because you can't catch him).

Remember that in a 30 minute class with 15 kids in it, any one skater is getting at the most 1-3 minutes of one-on-one time (it's simple math). If you happened to be blowing your nose or taking a phone call during that 1 minute, you think your child has been ignored for the whole time. just because you didn't see it.

In skating class, you'll learn how to skate. The life lessons are the free bonus.

Mar 21, 2010

How to cope with a new rink

So if you have to switch, how do you make it work?

If the new rink is going to be your new home rink, work yourself into the culture there, but not too fast. First step is:

Educate yourself
Hang out for a week--drop in and find out which sessions are crowded, which tend to be "high" and which have more beginners. Watch the classes to see what coaches interact a lot with the kids, and if there are any that make a point of coming off the ice between classes (if they can) to talk to parents. Are there classes where all the kids are smiling (or classes where they're not)? When is the ice show or exhibition, and what are the rules for participating (some rinks put up barriers to this, like you have to be in the program for the prior two sessions to get a solo, which is insane-- what about the Freestyle 8 kid who just moved to town? Sorry, no, you're not one of us.)

Second step is a negative one:
You don't know anything about this rink. Don't come in talking about how your other rink did xyz differently; that statement will be interpreted as "you guys don't do this right." Absorb the culture, don't roll over it. I would frame all my initial interactions as a search for information: "we're new here, how does this rink do [whatever]?" NOT "I don't get how you do this here, at our old rink, it works like this; blah blah blah." (That is what people will hear. We're basically a selfish species, we don't care how it works at your old rink, we're never going there, especially if everyone is like you.) Don't bash the old rink or the old coach or any skaters you knew there. Figure skating is a very small world. Forget 6 degrees of separation. In the skating world, it's more like 2. I can get to pretty much any skater you can name through just another two people . Further, this is how skaters talk to each other when they first meet. They'll determine where you're from, then start with, oh do you know Coach A? Well, no, but I know her student Y, etc.

Snark at the rink will come back and bite you on your frozen arse.

Third step is get involved
Sign your skater up for a class. Sign up for two! Take a class yourself. If it's ice show time, volunteer. Sign your skater up for the ice show. If you've missed the deadline, talk to the skating director and see if there's a way for your skater to be involved (last year two of our best skaters had to compete the week before the show and couldn't be in it, so we found them a couple of old costumes and sent them out as tot wranglers). Introduce yourself to the moms and dads in the stands (remember, no old rink gossip or "we do things better!") Bring a cake for the next birthday or holiday, set it out in the lobby for all the kids. If there's no holiday, just make one up.

There are new families at our rink who you'd swear have been there since the kids were tiny, because they've absorbed the culture and made themselves a part of it. And there are kids who grew up there that still sit on the sidelines, looking forlorn and lonely, because their moms won't talk to anyone, won't sign them up for classes, and yank them away the second they're done.

Guess which kids will keep skating?

Mar 19, 2010

Switching rinks

There's lots of anxiety and advice about switching coaches, but changing rinks is another issue that comes up, both for kids in group classes and with private lessons.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg first proposed the theory of the "third place," those public gathering places, outside home (your "first" place) and work or school (your "second" place), as crucial to healthy civic society. Places of worship are the most common third place, but in consumerist America, the marketers quickly latched onto this concept and started promoting malls, coffee shops and other places of commerce using this idea. The public sphere has been slower to catch on, but parks, community centers, and yes, ice rinks, are natural "third places" because of the amount of time people spend there.

It's hard to change your third place. It's a community, nearly a home, and it's a place whose culture you understand. Anyone who has switched rinks understands how out of place you feel at the new one; how they don't seem to do anything right, and how they don't embrace newcomers. A "third place" that gets it will have programs that quickly incorporate newbies into the culture, be it food in the lobby or multiple extracurricular activities and strong volunteer programs.

So why do it? Well, there are good reasons and bad reasons. Here's some good reasons:

You've moved to a new community
In a new community, choose your rink by proximity, unless you have a reason to go somewhere else, like your old coach has hooked you up with a new coach in the new place, or there is a particularly strong program at a farther rink. No sense adding the anxiety of travel time when you're already anxious about the new place, plus your skater is more likely to encounter kids from his or her own "second" place, namely school, at a neighborhood rink.

Problems with your existing rink have become intolerable
It happens. Practice ice is poorly managed, costs are too high, classes are inadequate or nonexistent, coaches are unprofessional, there's a toxic synchro team, you name it. Start by asking your coach if there's a different place to skate. Most coaches teach at more than one rink. If you really can't stay at your current rink and it's the one closest to you, you'll have to eat the travel time. If you don't have a coach, try signing up for lessons at a different program just to try it out. Ask the skating director at the new program to test your skater so you get placed in the correct level. There is wide variation of passing standards from program to program.

Your skater is specializing in an area not offered at the current rink
This is common with Synchro, Pairs and Ice Dance. You can still take classes at the old rink, but your training is going to happen somewhere else. My daughter went through this, and she missed the people at the old rink, but developed new relationships at the dance sessions.

Your coach changes rinks
This is actually only a reason to move your lessons, not your practice or your classes. You don't have to follow the coach to a new rink. I've seen coaches try this, and the parents all just quit on them, and stay put, because for most skaters it's not about the coach, it's about the family at the rink.

Some bad reasons:
They won't advance my skater, so I'll just sign up for the next level at a different rink. Who will know?
The coaches will out you at the first class, and furthermore they'll start thinking that the people at the other rink are idiots, or why would they have passed this skater?

I've antagonized everyone at the old rink, and am slinking away in shame
Don't do it. Mend your fences, change your ways, and stay put. Every town needs a village curmudgeon.

Mar 17, 2010

Safety at the ice rink

The most common question I get from new parents, especially tot parents, is whether the child needs a helmet.

Some rinks will have a policy on this-- all beginner and tot classes, helmet required, or anyone in hockey skates helmet required-- but not always. Here's a brief guide to safety equipment that doesn't interfere with learning:

Helmets: Get a skateboarder's/inline skater helmet, with the flat back, (or a standard hockey helmet, although they are more expensive and a nuisance to put on) and make sure it fits fully and snugly. A helmet with a pointy back, like a bike helmet, will force a child's head forward and down if she goes over backward, risking neck injury. A too-loose or too-tight helmet will not properly protect from impact if the kid strikes the helmet, and may slip off just when needed the most. Don't use a cracked helmet, ever, for anything. (Okay, you can plant things in it. But don't use it as safety equipment, because it's not.)

I like to see tots in helmets, but frankly a soft thick wooly cap does the trick nicely. If you think your child won't wear a hat, you haven't seen me make 15 tots bow to my will. Head bumps are actually fairly rare in skating class. I tell the kids "don't kiss the ice!"

Knee and elbow pads: Children, even beginning tots, need the full range of motion for skating. A pad that is constantly slipping, or is too tight or too loose will interfere with the motion needed for balance, completely defeating the purpose. The best knee pads are soccer pads that are a soft cushion in an ace-bandage type stretchy cuff, in the child's size. For very small children, sometimes a small adult elbow pad works great. DON'T get those Toys backwardsR Us hard plastic pads (often with trademarked characters on them). First of all, they fall off. Second, they are so slippery that the child can't kneel on the ice to help him stand. Elbow pads are a waste of time. Ditto wrist braces, except for adults, for whom wrist injuries are the most common skating injury.

Hockey equipment
: Completely unnecessary, even in beginner hockey class. But if Dad insists that Junior has to wear full equipment, at least no shoulder pads, and the shin guards must be covered-- the bare hard plastic just encourages them to do nothing but knee slides. Fun, but kind of annoying in class, not to say dangerous (think bowling ball, with the rest of the tots as the pins). Hockey gloves in beginner class are the devil's tool.

Gloves: Ever since having a child get a bad cut having her hand skated over, I make gloves a rule, even in my advanced classes. In the warm weather I bring a big bag of them onto the ice with me for the people who forget. Don't worry if your child says "no." I just make it a rule, and kids respect rules. You can usually find gloves in the lost and found if you forget yours.

Snow pants, parkas and snow suits. At ground level, an ice rink is cold, about 24-28F/-2to -4C. Two feet up it's about 50F/10C. (YMMV, as they say on the web: your mileage may vary.) It is not cold enough for a heavy snow suit in class, where we move around all the time. For children 4 and younger, snow pants are a good idea, because we tend to spend a lot of time sitting on the ice, and the cold is a distraction. But in general two layers will do it-- a long sleeve shirt and a heavy sweater, and long johns or leggings with sweatpants over them. PLEASE no low-rise jeans, especially on tots, in an ice rink. You wouldn't believe the number of bare baby butts I see in a week.

All that said, your child will not die from childhood bumps and bruises. Kids fall. Very very very rarely, they get seriously hurt (although in 11 years of teaching I have seen only three injuries in learn to skate classes serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. None of them were head injuries.) Skating at a beginning level is not any more dangerous than running on the sidewalk.

Things to avoid: Hockey gloves. Big heavy padded mittens or gloves (too hot-- the kid will just want to take them off.) Jackets or sweaters with too-long sleeves. Hoods--they obscure vision. Tiny skating dresses on beginner tots-- too cold. Helmets that don't fit properly. In other words, anything that impedes vision, sound, or movement.

Safety equipment for advanced skaters:
Unlike beginning skaters (which I define as Beginner through Freestyle 2), advanced skaters do get injured, with soft tissue injuries to knee and groin being the most common, followed by dislocated bones -- knees, shoulders, fingers, followed by broken wrists and ankles. For a typical serious recreational skater these are like other varsity sports: injuries happen, and can be serious, but life- and career-threatening injuries are vanishingly rare.

Knee and elbow braces should only be used with the advice of a doctor or physical therapist. If your skater has an issue severe enough to warrant the use of braces, it is severe enough to warrant professional medical advice. (Make sure you go to someone familiar with sports injuries. I can't tell you how many parents tell me that their doctor told them to quit skating because it's too dangerous. I wonder how many football players are getting that advice?)

Butt pads: For some kids, hip padding distorts their movement and makes the technique they are trying to improve worse. But for most kids, it adds a layer of confidence and takes away some of the fear of falling, not to mention some of the pain. They will not, however, remove pain entirely, and the skater needs to understand that. Older adults (over age 35) who are resorting to butt pads because they are falling a lot while learning jumps really need to rethink whether they should be attempting these moves.

Helmets: I live for the day that someone finally convinces US Figure Skating to invest R&D dollars in designing a safe training helmet for figure skaters, especially for women in pairs. All helmets now on the market, because they aren't designed with our sport in mind, impede movement, obscure vision and alter balance, besides being unattractive. It is the discretion of the parent whether to put your freestyle skater in a helmet; I won't argue with you. But I think helmets create their own problems because of the reasons above, and are better left off once the skater starts jumping.

Rink padding. Speed skaters get soft padding on rink walls. Figure skaters do not. Why not? The most serious injuries I have seen all involved skaters crashing into the boards at high speeds after a fall. It is inexplicable, and inexcusable, that rinks are not designed with soft boards. Please write to your local, state and federal representatives requesting that this be made law.

In the lobby
Please please please do not let your toddler walk around the ice rink lobby barefoot. If I tell you he needs to be wearing shoes, don't for god's sake tell me "oh he hates wearing shoes." WTH, he's 3. You get to be the boss. When he gets stepped on, do not yell at me for not controlling the forty 8 year olds in skates who are milling heedlessly around stomping on babies.

The Olympic effect

We just started our second week of the post-Olympic session, and the beginner classes are packed. For the first time ever, we had to actually close all 9 times of the Beginner 1 level-- 19 kids (the limit) in every class. All the classes through Beta are nearly full, and Saturday is a madhouse.

So what can all these new parents expect? Here's some of the concerns I got this week:

"I want her to have fun, and all she did last week was fall."
This parent's solution was double-runner skates. (Child looks about 8 years old.) While these may be fine for public or pond skating, they are inappropriate for class, because you can't glide. This parent is just wasting her money on lessons, because the equipment is wrong. It would be like sending your child to basketball with a beach ball because the basketball is too heavy. Probably the child had a bad pair of rental skates, and because classes are so full, no one caught it (which is unacceptable, but human).

So here's my first piece of advice to new parents-- if your physically normal child cannot stand up in his rental skates, it's not the child, it's the skates. It is NOT HARD to stand up in ice skates. Ask a pro for help (not the office staff). If the pro cannot help during the class, because the class is full, snag them or someone else after class or before the next class. Either that, or just go to the office and say "my kid can't stand up in these skates. Can I try a different pair?"

"He wants to play hockey, so we bought him hockey skates"
You can learn to skate in hockey skates, or speed skates (or anything except double blade skates), but be prepared with a real beginner for a possibly longer learning curve. Hockey skates can be harder to learn in (not for all kids but for some.) If you buy hockey skates, they must be the child's shoe size. Do NOT buy grow room in hockey skates. The soft wide boot will make it harder for the kid to keep his ankles straight. If the child is having a lot of trouble and the coach suggests switching to regular skates until he's got his feet under him, this is not to impugn your manhood, or his. It's just to help him learn to skate. He can switch to hockey skates in a few weeks.

"She's only 4, but she's really athletic, so we put her in the regular track. But she needs you to give her special attention."
No can do. On most classes, it's one coach and maybe a junior coach, with 19 kids. I'll help the slowpokes and the scared ones where I can, but if you want special attention for a too-young child, put them in tot class, where the teacher-student ratio is lower. If I suggest that tot class is a better fit, trust me. It's not because I think your 4-year-old child is stupid. It's because I think your 4-year-old child is four.

"She wants to compete!"
Great! While starting this out right from the first day of Beginner One is jumping the gun a little bit, we can work with that. But make sure you understand that this means private lessons, extra practice, and additional expense. Talk to any coach at the rink, or the skating director about how to hire a private coach. Be sensitive that the coach you talk to is probably going to expect you to hire her.

"We hate that teacher, what do we do?"
This is a toughie. Option one, which I recommend, is stick with it. We can't always go through life only dealing with people we like, so here's where that skating teaches life lessons thing starts. Also, maybe the teacher comes off too soft or too gruff in the first lesson, and the child will get used to it. Option two, check the schedule and see if there is another class that you can attend instead (make sure you're not trading a small class with a "bad" teacher for a full class with a "better" teacher. This is not a good bargain.) Option three, drop the class entirely and switch to private lessons. This is my least favorite option, even when it benefits me. Kids benefit from the class learning environment, and privates are expensive. It is not okay to just move your child to a higher level with a teacher you like.

I'll add more as they come up! In the meantime, what are your first-week-of-class questions and comments?

Mar 12, 2010

How to be a skating parent, the real story

All humor aside, parenting a committed skater is the most thankless and misunderstood factor in the equation. And you don't have to be the parent of a skater who is legitimately heading to nationals to feel the brunt of the disdain for skating parents that is systemic to the profession, and tolerated or even encouraged by a lot of rinks and coaches.

If your child considers skating one of his or her main activities, you are a skating parent whether or not the child takes private lessons. It is the child's relationship to the sport that defines your role. Never let anyone denigrate your, your child's, or your family's commitment just because you choose not to take private lessons. And the reason for that is no one's business but your own. It might be time, it might be money, it might be dumblebunny. It's nobody's business unless you choose to share it.

Your decision to go group classes or synchro or privates, to test ISI or USFS, and whether or not to compete should be informed from the outset by one thing-- what can you afford. "Afford" means not just money, but also time and emotional investment. You can walk into it with a decision matrix at your back, where you've weighed every factor you can think of, or you can slide into it, as most of us do, suddenly finding yourself with an serious figure skater. But either way, always be aware of what you're spending, how much time you're giving, and how your skater is dealing with the various pressures of the sport, physical, emotional, and social.

Your skater's reasons for skating are another personal decision, and this is where a lot of parents and coaches get it wrong. I was the parent of an extremely gifted skater who did not like to compete. We pushed her into it, and she did quite well, but finally told us "done" when she was just sixteen. Whatever it is that skaters get from winning competitions, she just didn't care enough about the Gold, removing a lot of the motivation from the onerous training. Ironically, after she quit competing, she increased her training schedule. Because now she was doing it for her own reasons.

The reason for skating can change, as I've discussed before (search "goals" in the tag cloud). A skater doesn't have to make the decision to be an Olympian when they're five. A coach that tells you he'll get your 5 year old to the Olympics, or even to her Senior test, is talking through his hat. You can go with the flow and still not miss out on anything.

Start taking privates, if you do at all, when it feels right for you. In a strong program, a skater can learn an axel and a couple of doubles in class with extra practice. Privates will get them there faster, and probably with stronger technique, but it's not the only route. Again, let your emotions, your finances, and your schedule guide you. When you decide on privates, hire the coach that your skater likes. Don't worry too much about the end game. As you learn the discipline from the parent's point of view, you'll start learning how to recognize the signs that you need a new coach (ooo--great post topic, watch this space).

One place where I would resist the child's desire or lead is quitting. A lot of kids hit a snag, or have a fight with a friend at the rink, or get stuck at a skill and decide they want to quit. This is one of those times when I would push that child up that hill and help them see the vista from the top. They may decide to quit after all, but kids, especially young teens, are easily discouraged and then get embarrassed by their own discouragement. Help them through this. Remember that especially at the basic skills level (through Freestyle 1), and with kids younger than 9 or 10, you can quit and come back without losing much momentum; ditto with advanced skaters. They can pick up more or less where they left off. The danger zone is young teens in FS 3-6, where the difficulty jumps exponentially just as the hormones kick in. Without a compelling alternative, keep them in skating until they settle back down.

It's all too easy to slide into stereotype, to become a Stage Mother to your skater. Step outside yourself and watch. If you observe behavior that would make you cringe if you observed it in someone else, you've fallen for the evil stereotype.

Be the skating parent that makes all the coaches wish they had your kid.

How to become a Skater Mom (or dad)

Step One

Have a child who is obsessed with skating. If your child is not cooperating with the skating obsession, start bribing her with sparkly dresses. (This also works with boys, but dad has to be a really understanding sort.)

What is "obsessed?" Wants to skate more often than you want to take her. Doesn't mind (much) getting up at 5 a.m. to skate. Is willing to forgo social opportunities to skate. Knows what a closed choctaw is. Voluntarily does cardio workouts. Likes the coach better than she likes you. SEES the coach more than she sees you.

Steps Two through Infinity

Send daily emails to the coach, questioning her progress and wondering why that other girl is going to Regionals when she has not been skating as long as your child. Tell that child's mother that she has no idea what she is getting into. Call up local judges and ask them to come observe your child, without letting the coach know you've done this. Send a press release to your local newspaper when she wins the rink's ISI competition. Change coaches every six months, so you can find the "perfect" one. Invite out of town coaches to come work with your child (without informing your coach). Have loud fights with the coach in the lobby. Only talk to parents of your coach's kids unless you have something nasty to say about them, then say it to parents of the other coaches' kids. Walk around to the back of the boards during practice ice, so you can "monitor the lesson." Come to the rink with her every time she skates, even if she's twenty. Stand in the door yelling at your child during practice. Buy those skates with the colored blades. Alternately, buy K-picks for your FS 4 skater. Get custom-made practice dresses. If you're the ice monitor, always place your skater's music at the top of the queue. Wonder, to anyone who will listen, why your skater always gets the worst ice show solo. (And don't forget to complain about the costume.) If someone else gets a good solo, be sure to mention that your skater had that solo LAST year.

Any more? Obsessed Skater Moms, please add to my list!

Update from Ice Mom: talk very loudly about how smart your kid is and how the kid should be in a more advanced skating level because she's such a good reader. (More from Ice Mom in the comments)

Update from Beth M: tell your daughter to quit standing still and listening to the coach. Why? Because kid needed to practice!

Mar 8, 2010

Alphabet Soup

There are two established curricula for figure skating schools across the US: the Ice Skating Institute's Learn to Skate or weSkate program, and US Figureskating's Basic Skills. Both these programs take skaters from first-time on the ice up through triple jumps (in USFS kids transition to high freestyle through their Bridge program), as well as specialties like Pairs, Dance, Figures, etc. Basic Skills also has speed skating and hockey curricula. In Canada the skating federation (Skate Canada) promotes the CanSkate curriculum (see what they did there? Cute.).

There are also rinks that use their own curriculum, but if you then compete in any ISI or USFS competition you have to adhere to the curriculum as laid out in the two federations (ISI has greater restrictions on elements that can be in programs than USFS believe it or not).

ISI is strictly recreational. Although it does have local, national and even international competitions, and trains to the highest level (most difficult test in figureskating is not USFS Senior, but ISI FreeStyle 10) the focus is on fun. Even if you start in an ISI program, if you want to compete in qualifying competitions leading to Nationals, you must eventually switch to the USFS Moves and Free Style tests. It is possible and common for skaters to do both.

So that's the outline. What's the difference?

Both curricula are designed to lead the skater in a logical progression through the skills; to "build" each skill as it were. From two foot to one foot glide, to glide on a circle (edge), to crossovers. Then do it all over again backwards. Then combine forwards and backwards (turns). Add jumps, spins, more complex turns, etc.

ISI is a goal oriented curriculum. The skills are basically stated as "Forward Crossovers," "Backward Crossovers" "Three-turns" et cetera, leaving the instructor to break the skill down into the necessary glides, rotations, body alignment etc. A successful coach in ISI needs to understand the details of each move, because the curriculum doesn't hand it to you.

Basic Skills is very process oriented, and relies less on the knowledge and creativity of the teacher, but it forces students to really master each individual component of each skill.

I like the way Basic Skills forces a teacher to break the skill down. The drawback with the curriculum is that it breaks the skill down so far, with 7 testable skills at every level, that it removes a lot of discretion and creativity on the part of the coach, and just takes up a lot more class time on each line item skill. This is part of an educational approach called "deskilling" as in the teacher doesn't need actual skills to teach. It is directed at the idea of anyone being able to teach anything if they just follow the curriculum exactly, whether they're a trained teacher or not.

I like the way ISI makes it very clear to the student (and the parent) exactly what it is they are learning. "Forward Crossovers" is way clearer than "forward alternating half pumps on a line, then pumps on a circle, then forward inside and outside edges on a circle, then crossovers" (which spans 3 separate levels, but are all aimed at teaching crossovers). ISI forces skaters to connect the dots. My experience of Basic Skills was that kids just do not really get the connection between stroking, pumps, one-foot glides and crossovers, because the curriculum decouples the skill from the goal.

The drawback with ISI is that kids get "stuck" and it's harder to demonstrate why to the frustrated parent. In Basic Skills you can see that you have to have a solid one-foot glide on a circle before the crossovers. In ISI it's just "can't do crossovers."

Kids learn to skate no matter which curriculum they use, or neither. The key to learning how to skate is mileage. If you keep taking classes and lessons, you will get better, ipso facto. You will get best if you allow the teacher, and not the parent or the kid, decide when a child can move on. Slower is better. As I said to a child today, bored with edges, "in 5 minutes, you will get to do whatever you want. Is agonizing boredom for 5 minutes something you can handle?"

I like the way ISI leaves the breakdown up to the coach. Unfortunately this does not work if the coach does not know how to break down the skill.

So what's the solution? ISI requires coaches with a clue. USFS has the better skills progression. Coming up with better skills progressions and lesson plans is a favorite coaching parlor game.

Mar 4, 2010

Game Day: Beyond the relay race

Curmudgeon that I am, I hate Game Day.

The whines of "no fair, they have all the fast skaters" and the timid ones who are too scared to play catch games (personally I don't blame them). The wracking the brain for a new variation on the relay race and the tedious wasteful arranging of the children.

But I am happy to say that I have managed to get through the last week of the current session without running a single relay race or red-light-green-light game, and only one instance of Sharks and Minnows. So here's some Game Day alternatives:

Especially this week, following hard upon the Olympics, all my Beta and higher classes got to make up their own programs. First we talked about what goes into a program, and I made the kids figure it out: Jumps, Spins, Footwork and Gliding Maneuvers. For jumps we did two-foot hops, bunny hops, and two foot jumping turns. For glides we did spirals (sort of), lunges, attitudes, and shoot the duck. Footwork was one- or two-foot turns and crossovers. I told them about transitions: "it's what you do in between the other stuff," and then how to put everything into the program. (Basically put one element in each hockey circle). To time the practice period, I put on the Skater's Waltz, which is about 12 minutes long, and had each kid make up his or her own one-minute program. I went and got the parents and explained what we were doing, then at the end of the music, everyone got off the ice and we all watched each student perform their programs one by one.

This one requires that you really know each kid's strength, so that you can make sure you have challenges that everyone can win at least one of. This can be longest glide (one foot or two foot). Longest glide from a single push, or from one or multiple swizzles, or backwards. It can be an actual race, for the fast kids. It can be most creative one foot position (or silliest), or best use of arms. For higher level kids most rotations on a spin or most waltz jumps in a row, best spin feature or longest jump sequence.

Add on
Basically this is another program game. You start with one skill everyone can do, say stroking. Everyone does it. Then you ask for a suggestion on another thing they can do. Now you do stroking plus that skill. Keep adding skills until you're doing as many as fit in the width of the ice.

Divide the group into two equal teams (speed does not matter in this game). Put out an even number of traffic cones. One team is "neat" and stands the cones up, the other is "messy" and knocks the cones down. Whichever one has the most cones in the desired position at the end of a specified time period wins. Kids LOVE this game. They will play it 20 times if you let them. It's great because it's a "fast" game where you skate your own speed.

Free time
That's right. This is the one thing that kids today don't have enough of. So give them the last 5 or even 10 minutes of the last class to just do whatever they want to do.

Mar 2, 2010

Another great practice ice question

Great question from a regular reader:
Do really high level coaches only have one student at a time? And, do advanced (like, international) skaters have private ice time, outside normal freestyle sessions, when it's just them and their coach on the ice? It's just something I've always wondered, for some reason.
Elite coaches (if any of you are reading this, feel free to chime in), like any coach, will have more than one student (after all, what happens if that student switches coaches or quits- suddenly no income!). I imagine that when the big competitions come up they focus in on the skaters attending, and pass their other students at least for a while, to their staff, underlings and developmental team. One at bat, one on deck, couple in the wings. They're going to have fewer students than less lofty coaches, if for no other reason than an elite skater is working with the coach every day, sometimes for hours. The fees add up.

Elite coaches not only have more than one student, just a few coaches will account for most of the top skaters in a single country or discipline. Frank Carroll and John Nicks used to pretty much own U.S. singles, and Tarasova is working on owning the rest of the world. Just two coaching teams accounted for 5 of the top 7 ice dance teams this year. We're witnessing the rather exciting (to a skating geek) phenomenon of the emergence of a couple of new coaching dynasties in the U.S. with Tom Zakrasjec (ha! spelled that right without looking it up!) who coaches Rachael Flatt among others and Jim Peterson who coaches Denney and Barrett and a couple of other high ranking pairs teams.

Anyone can have private ice time if they're willing to pay for it. People rent ice for birthday parties all the time, about $160-200 per hour. This is undoubtedly negotiable since most ice goes unsold; I assume a lot of rinks would like the ability to say "so-and-so trains here" as much as the extra income. A little bird tells me that there are probably rinks who would give away ice to a "name" skater in exchange for the ability to say that. That said, my daughter has shared regular club ice with Evan Lysacek, Vikotoria Volchkova, Gregory and Petukov, Totmianina and Marinin and others, not because she was some fantastic skater, but because that was her regular ice and they showed up. You go where the ice, or the coach, is.

Finding "empty" ice is a religion to the less fortunate (and wealthy) skaters. Kids work with school districts to rearrange schedules so that they can skate during the day. Finding optimum training time, including that empty ice, is one of the reasons you find so many so-called "home schooled" kids in elite skating. (So-called because in fact they're being taught by professional tutors, not mom. This always bothers me; it's not homeschooling if you're farming it out to pros, as far as I'm concerned. Tara Lipinski, famously "home schooled" had separate tutors in math, science, English, and foreign language.) What I always wonder is how U.S. Figureskating can keep these kids on the road for weeks and weeks (think 2 Grand Prix competitions, possibly Sectionals, Regionals, Nationals, and Worlds) out of the school year and not be required to provide tutors for them. Trust me, the film industry isn't getting away with that.

Mar 1, 2010

Xan's all-purpose answer to every skating question

Beta means B for backwards. I always liked that accidental coincidence in the ISI curriculum. Aside from backward swizzles, this is the first place that sustained backwards skating is introduced.

By definition, backwards crossovers are a continuous backward movement around a circle, pushing with the “outside” foot, then crossing it over the “inside” foot; the crossed foot then pushes to the outside of the circle (the “undercut”), and returns to the starting position. To pass, you must demonstrate a strong first push without dragging the toe pick, smoothly lifting that foot to cross the skating foot, and pushing to the outside of the circle with the second foot. (USFS Basic Skills teaches cutbacks, i.e., no lift. More on that in a minute.) Five consecutive cross-overs are required to pass, with no additional pumps or pushes.

Backward Stroking is also in this level: Continuous alternating backwards pushes along an axis. Finally, Beta includes forward T-Stops (right and left): A one-foot stop in a “T” position, using the outside edge of the rear foot to stop. To pass, you must be able to use either foot to stop and you must be able to come to a complete stop after three strong pushes.

Throughout the ISI curriculum, a great deal of independent thinking is required on the part of the coach. Inexperienced coaches will jump in on the first day of Alpha or Beta with crossovers, forgetting that you can't do crossovers with a hinky one foot glide. The USFS Basic Skills curriculum solves this by making testable skills of one foot glides and pumps around a circle, forwards (Basic 2 & 3) and backwards (Basic 3 & 4). Unfortunately, these skills are in the levels BEFORE the crossovers. I also think Basic Skills gets it backwards, teaching pumps before edges. You can't do a proper pump if you don't know how to balance on a curve (i.e. edge). Further, separating these skills disguises their connection to each other. You'd be amazed at the number of kids who tell me there are no one-foot glides in crossovers.

Cut backs, with no lift over, are actually correct backwards crossovers. High level skaters don't generally lift the foot on back crossovers. However, in the lower levels, unless you're in a program that's willing to let a kid languish in Beta for a while, it's difficult to start with the tricky weight shift in a cut back when you've never done back crossovers before. Unfortunately, ISI does not then put cutbacks into the curriculum farther up, and some coaches expect the kids to just pick it up, or to learn them in private lessons. (ISI, are you reading this? Can you please add a pre-freestyle level for cutbacks, moving turns, and stationery spins? Thank you.)

Unlike at the Alpha level, where "correct" is good enough to pass (i.e. a "C" grade or even a D), your Beta skater should start working towards As and Bs. Coming out of Beta, the skater should be starting to use backward crossovers to generate power. This means no toe scraping, and a clear understanding of how to generate the underpush. Not every teacher will continue to work on crossover skills in the following levels, so if they don't learn it here, they'll suddenly turn up in a freestyle class in a few months with everyone whizzing past them. Personally I think Beta should be divided into Beta 1 and Beta 2, but no ever asks my opinion, for some reason.

So how do you generate the underpush? The key is to sink down as you stroke through. Watch a low level freestyle or under class sometime. You'll see kids nicely bend their knees for the first pump, and then straighten up as the leg crosses under. Crossovers bend down and then down again. (Can't use your knees for power if they're straight, after all.)

Bend your knees. It's what the title of the post means.