Apr 28, 2010

A free style curriculum

By popular request, I'll be posting my lesson plans for Gamma through Freestyle levels over the next several weeks. You'll find prior posts on tots, Alpha, Beta and Figures; look under "curriculum" in the tag cloud.

Most free style levels, not just Freestyle 3, can use the following lesson plan, simply with the jumps/spins substituted per level. Freestyle curricula in both ISI and USFS Free Skate generally have one to three jumps, turns both in isolation and within footwork, a spin, and one or more gliding maneuvers. USFS adds in jump sequences and combinations as a testable skill, as well as the Pre-preliminary Moves test patterns.

This is my lesson plan for Freestyle 3 (USFS Freeskate 3)

Warm up: It's a good idea in freestyle classes to start using a standard warm up, or a couple of different standard warm ups, to start giving kids an idea of what they should be doing for warm up on their own. At my current rink, where freestyle classes are a full hour, we often run the warm up for 20 or even 30 minutes, with a serious emphasis on power, pattern, and covering the ice. Generally we do 5 minutes of stroking and alternating back crossovers, then "5 circle pattern" forward and backward crossovers, waltz 3s, forward and backward edges, edge pulls, power 3s, bunny hops, spiral and lunge, left and right. Warm up is mixed levels and full ice. Parents often don't like the long warm up, but I have found that it really helps kids develop not only power, but also confidence. For a USFS program, the warm up should include the Pre-pre moves patterns on full ice.

Week one: After warm up, review waltz jump, half lutz (ISI), toe loop (USFS), ballet jump (ISI) or mazurka (USFS), moving forward 3 turns (especially inside), and one-foot spin (not scratch spin). If there are problems or inadequacies with these skills, freestyle 3 becomes challenging. I like to introduce the toe loop from a standing position, and then from a forward inside 3-turn in the first week. Also using that forward inside 3-turn, I'll start working on edge and body alignment for the back spin (which in FS 3 is used in the change foot spin). We'll do spin drills like spinning without pulling in, and backwards glides lightly dragging the toe.

Week two: Warm up waltz jumps, review toe loop and one foot spin; introduce salchow, introduce forward outside mohawk. If the class is small and/or sharp, you can start introducing a scratch spin in this lesson as well. Work on the first two parts of the change foot spin-- one foot spin 4 rotations, and a change to other foot back spin just one full rotation without losing the check. I never let my students add rotations to the back spin until they have one solid back spin on the proper edge; if you encourage multiple rotation too soon, they just drop to the inside edge. I know that ISI now says that the change foot doesn't have to change to a proper back spin, really, what's the point of teaching this wrong.

Week three: Forward and backward spirals should be added to the warm up in this week; work on improving waltz jumps, introduce waltz jump combos: with ballet jump and wj/toe loop, emphasizing proper toe pick entry and upper body movement, start working on toe loop from stroking and inside 3 turn. Review salchows, review & drill one foot spins including strong entry edge, intro 3 leg of spin, the return to the forward spin. Still just looking for 4-1-3 rotations foot to foot to foot. Drill outside forward mohawks left and right. If time, intro waltz 8 pattern.

Week four: Introduce jump combo; if it's a USFS program, this is prescribed, otherwise set one up, or let the skaters figure out 2, 3, and 4 jump combos or sequences on their own utilizing all jumps starting with bunny hop. If there are parts of the testable skills that have not yet been touched on, introduce them here. In week 4, the coach should be aware which students are in this level for the first time, and which are repeating and how many times they have repeated. The coach needs to decide if any student should move up mid-session. (I don't encourage this, but sometimes it's okay; now is the time to figure this out.) The coach will need to juggle week four to give each student help with his or her weakest elements, in preparation for:

Week five, mid session evaluation: review and evaluate jumps and spins; if other skills are testable do these as well. Remember that the mid-term evaluation has two purposes: to let you as the teacher know where the students or your lesson plan have been weak, and therefore where the focus should be for the remaining time, and as an encouragement to the students. Never give a mid term without some positive marks. Be prepared to justify your marks to all the freaked out parents.

Week six: Review progress report, focusing on both class-wide and individual weaknesses; teach a full rink jump entry pattern for each jump in the level, review all moves and footwork patterns; major effort on back spin part of change foot, trying to reach 3 full rotations on proper edge.

Week seven: review all, correcting common errors. Common errors in FS 3 are over rotation on jump entries, wrong toe pick placement on toe loop, salchow free leg, checking landings on combo, losing the check on back spin (forcing an inside edge), underrotation on back spin, wrong edges or steps on footwork, spiral not held long enough, etc.). For USFS programs, all moves patterns should be run at test standard on full ice if you can get it.

Week eight: review all for testing following week. Try to fit every skill in, but if there isn't time make sure to get all jumps and spins, and any new turns that are part of footwork (e.g. the outside mohawk). It's also a good idea to try out moves that indicate readiness for the next level. At freestyle three, you'd want to see kids able to do backward shoot the duck (for sit spin), at least one back outside three (these can be taught in a single session), two foot loop jump.

Week nine: Test week in most rinks. This is not an encouragement test. This is the real deal for class purposes. The skater should show easy, confident ability at every maneuver. ISI has rather specific breakdown of marks. I'm not sure what their language is, but I break it down like this: 0= did not try; 1=tried, but hopeless; 2=tried, can't do; 3=good understanding of maneuver but not at passing standard; 4 (F)= almost there; 5 (D)=passing standard; 6 (C)=very good, above passing standard; 7 (B)=excellent; 8 (A)=superior; 9 (A+)=pro; 10= perfect. No one gets a 10. I've given out 2 nines in 11 years of teaching. I once had a teacher give me a "1." This is just mean. ISI lets you pass with what I consider a "D," i.e. a 5, but I tell my kids I want them passing with 6s and 7s. When I do a test, I watch for kids who will be able to succeed at new skills on the first day of the next level. At most rinks class level and competition level will be different, with the skater competing one to two levels lower than their most recently passed class.

Week ten: You can have a "Game Day" in freestyle classes, tailored for the greater range of skating skills, age range, and ability of the class. I like to introduce a skill from the next level, or even from two levels up, as well as things like jump and spin games-- most waltz jumps in a row, longest jump combo or sequence, biggest jump; most rotations, best feature. You can also have the skaters put together 20-second programs. This is enough time to do one jump, one spin and one gliding maneuver with transitions.

Skaters who are not taking private lessons should expect to take every freestyle level twice or even three times. This moves you up 1 to 2 levels per year. If you start freestyle classes at the age of 10 this gets you to Freestyle 8/Intermediate (all double jumps) by sophomore year of high school. It's a very rare rink that has enough freestyle skaters still in levels classes beyond FS 8. Please remember that it's not a race, and there are no prizes for being the youngest freestyle skater in the program. If you want to move through faster, take private lessons and practice properly; however, I still firmly believe in taking the classes one at a time, and in their full 10-week span. At the very least, it's a really cheap way to get a second or third lesson per week.

Teaching mistakes I made this week

What I did: Gossiped with the other teacher during warm-up, to the extent that we forgot to actually run the warm up.
Why I did it: Human foibles? Seriously, this is one of the easiest traps for coaches to fall into. The kids are having a good time, they'd rather just be skating around half the time anyway. (In this case they were playing tag and having a blast.) Coaching is an extremely autonomous job--at many rinks you can go for days without any interaction from a boss, and in my experience they tend to ignore warm up altogether. So you can get away with a lot out there. It's very easy to bellyache during warm up-- no one can hear you except the coach you're talking to, and she or he is usually sympathetic because they've got the same issue.
What I should have done: Save the bellyaching for your own time. The kids have a right to the coach's attention. Five minutes of free skating before a formal warm up or class is it; use the time for a couple of gripes or exchanges with your fellow coaches and then get on with it.

What I did: Lost my patience with a child and sent her off the ice.
Why I did it: She just wouldn't listen. I tried repeated warnings, I tried on-ice time outs, I tried threats (stand still or I'll send you off the ice).
What I should have done: Examined my own teaching approach with this class and this child. If there's a child who can't stand still, then she needs to be given something to do. Keep a class like this moving. There is only bad coaching; there are no "bad" children.

What I did: Talked too much about technique, making the kids stand around.
Why I did it: I talk a lot. I am an ubergeek when it comes to skating. I just know a lot about the how's and why's. I get caught up in it.
What I should have done: I know what things tend to require wordy explanations. I need to learn, and even practice off-ice, bullet-pointing those things. Say it, demonstrate it, then have the kids do it.

What I did: Pulled a child from another coach's class to talk to her about her ill-fitting skates.
Why I did it: I have something of a relationship with this child-- she has been in many of my classes, and her brother is also my student. She was having a terrible time with her ankles, so I thought her skates needed tightening (they didn't, the skates themselves are way too big).
What I should have done: So many options here. Watch to see if the coach said something to her or checked her skates. Waited until after class to talk to her. Ask the coach if he had noticed anything and talked to her.

What I did: Forgot about a regular private lesson.
Why I did it: Got caught up in a family activity.
What I should have done: Check my calendar, for pity's sake, every day! Then offer the student a make up lesson at no cost.

Teaching is a dynamic profession. You're never done learning how to do it, and to be effective you have to be aware of your own mistakes and learn from them. In a repetitive atmosphere like coaching, where you rewind to start every ten weeks (Alpha class done? Let's start over with Alpha class) constant reevaluation of your own skills and approaches helps to keep it fresh and interesting for you and everyone in your class.

Well, week's not over. I'll keep updating and share the rest of this week's screw ups. In the meantime, what suspicious coaching have you observed?

Apr 25, 2010

That is never going to come together

Ever watch the first day of the ice show rehearsal? What a mess. I always lose my voice because those kids are Never Going To Pay Attention.

But by the third or fourth rehearsal it really starts to come together. We're lucky at my current rink, because we get six 30-minute rehearsals with the ice to ourselves, plus a run-through, plus a tech/dress rehearsal. But even at my former rink-- with three and four groups sharing the ice for a rehearsal, only 3 weeks, no run-through, and two casts, it followed pretty much the same pattern-- chaos giving way to a really good time.

Here's how choreographing the ice show tends to work.

Once the music has been assigned, the pro or pro's in charge of each group number listen to the music and map out a basic pattern. Some coaches do this on the fly at the first rehearsal, some do it in advance. I love seeing people's different notational systems; since there isn't a set system it's like reading heiroglyphics. First rehearsal for some reason NEVER has all the kids there. I've had first rehearsals with fewer than half the participants. So you sketch it out, see how it fits the music, then clean it up as the rehearsals progress and parents remember to start bringing the kids. sigh.

Here's a good sign-- if the kids run over the music by 10 to 20 seconds at the first rehearsal, it's going to work out with very little additional choreography. This is because as inexperienced skaters get comfortable with a pattern, they will skate faster, and will also tend to jump cues and shrink the pattern. So choreography that's too long for the music at the first rehearsal with tighten up and fit. Choreo that's on time or, worse, short, will need to be expanded.

There's a LOT of yelling in rehearsal. The kids have more ice, and know that it's just for fun (I agree) so they're a little less disciplined than in class. There's also not that much time in each rehearsal, so the coaches tend to yell a lot. Sorry.

You will usually start to see it come to together in the third rehearsal. If it really starts to come together you can add dance steps and other fun accents. I don't start to worry until the last rehearsal. If it's still not coming together there, you're in trouble. But I've seen numbers get fixed at the run-through and even at the dress rehearsal. I always remind the kids not to let on if there's a mess up, because the people in the stands won't know unless you signal it. After all, they don't know the choreography!

Oddly, it's the higher level numbers that seem to have the most problems. Even though the choreo is going to be more complex, I somehow expect the older and more experienced skaters to pull it together sooner, but this is not usually the case. It's the little guys that seem to rock the choreography.

Here's my advice to parents-- don't watch the rehearsals. Let it all be a surprise, with the lights and the soloist and the music at the actual show. Let your child have her mess-up with her team; she's entitled to do the hard work without having to share the mess ups with you. You'll find it's really enjoyable when all you're seeing is the end result.

Apr 21, 2010

B is for Backwards

I've always liked the confluence of B-Beta-Backwards. Just my obsessive compulsive tendencies kicking in I suppose.

Beta is my favorite level to teach. For one thing, I think I'm really good at it. It also tends to hit at right about the ages of 7-9 when kids are old enough to carry on intelligent conversation, but still too young to have figured out what idiots most adults are. Plus, not one of them ever believes that backward crossovers are actually possible, so it's fun when they get it. (Don't get me started on adults and backwards crossovers. That's a whole alternate universe right there.)

One of the first things I did when I started teaching was to work out a weekly lesson plan for every level through Freestyle 3. This really helped when I was an inexperienced teacher, because it kept me on track and gave me a prop around which to organize my lessons. I worked in drilling and games, to keep the kids interested. Here's the Beta lesson plan (in practice, it varies from this considerably depending on the class):

Week one
Review forward crossovers with 25 fwd XO each direction; Straight line backward swizzles with glide; straight line forward and backward pumps, L & R, straight line pumps alternating (slalom); introduce back 1-ft glide from slalom and on circle

Week two
Review forward crossovers with 25 fwd XO each direction; review back slaloms with one-foot lift/glide, introduce stroking concept (foot held forward); back pumps & I/O edges on circle; start cross if class is ready. (You're ready for the cross if you can hold the one-foot back glide, foot in front for 2wce your body height, on a curve.)

This is the basic drill portion for backward crossovers, and I always go back to this lesson when kids are having trouble-- pumps and one foot glides on the circle.

Week three
Review forward crossovers with 25 fwd XO each direction; back stroking review & refine; back pumps with 1-foot glide on circle; start crosses (most of class time). Reward skill.

Week three is the money week. To get at least some of the kids solid in Beta by Week 10, you have to start the crossovers by week three. A kid who isn't at least stumbling through them at this point is going to repeat beta without divine intervention. Don't tell anyone I told you. Most of the lesson will be going round and round and round in circles just throwing out terrible crossovers. I never try to get kids to bend, pump, or stay off their toe picks at this stage. I just want crossovers and continual backwards movement. Introduce t-stops.

Usually, because this is hard and boring, I'll throw in something fun, the "reward skill" for the last 5 minutes. Kids love learning shoot-the-duck, spirals, spins, and synchro moves at this level.

Week four
Review. Week five is often a mid-session evaluation, so in week four you want to review everything in Beta, let the kids know where they should be for the evaluation, and encourage them to come on their own and practice. I wish rinks would hand out discount or free coupons for public skating the week before evaluation, but they never do this.

Week five
Evaluation week. For mid-term evaluation, a coach with sense will always pass something and never pass everything, especially if it's the skater's first time through the level. Only the rare exceptional skater can step into the next level 5 weeks in and not be utterly lost, and only the rare exceptional skater can't spend an extra 5 weeks getting better at the level they're at. I think it is lazy and irresponsible of coaches to pass kids up halfway through a session; I almost never do it. If you're a skater that I passed halfway through, pat yourself on the back. You were really really good.

Also, coaches? Please never give a child only "needs improvement" marks. It's not going to kill you to make a little white lie and tell them they are good at ONE thing. I've seen more skaters quit at mid-term because the coach decided to be brutally honest. Really, what's the point? If worse comes to worse, I'll write "Alpha review exceptional!" on a struggling skater's evaluation form. By extension, don't pass everything, because it confuses the kid and their parent. They think they should now get to move up, and it isn't true. You can't drop a kid into the next level when they've missed the first five classes (unless you're using this as a marketing tactic-- "oh have him take a few lessons with me, I'll help him catch up").

One of the things I like to emphasize at midterm is that the test is not about how well the skater is doing, more it lets me know what the class, and I, need to work on as we move toward real evaluation week in a month.

Week six
Week six is a work week. First, review forward crossovers: start with 25 fwd XO each direction...

Okay, wait. What's with all the forward crossovers? I thought this was Beta?

Every skill a skater learns, right up through quad jumps, doesn't stop improving once you've "learned" it. Kids barely understand this, and it drives their parents crazy. But especially because class skaters seldom practice, it takes a lot of drilling to remind them to do prior-learned skills properly. I try to sweeten the pot by telling kids we're now working on "freestyle" crossovers, with improved rhythm, power, and body alignment.

After their 25 forward crossovers, we start just putting mileage on the backwards ones, starting with 25 bwd XO each direction. I watch for common and specific weaknesses (generally toe-pick dragging, and opening up the hip so that they face the circle when they cross) plus I'll introduce moving two foot turns & step forward, which they'll need on the first day of Gamma. Review stroking and t-stops.

Week seven
Here we go again: start with 25 fwd XO each direction, then 25 bwd XO each direction. Work on noted weaknesses, two foot turns & step forward; Review stroking and t-stops. Introduce freestyle skills such as spins, waltz jump, pivot for fun.

Because they've been working really hard and they deserve a reward.

Week eight
Another serious review week, because next week is The Test.

Week nine
Evaluation week! Expect tears, because some silly mother has told her kid that she's going to pass without consulting the coach first. (That's me crying; the kids are usually fine.) Review standards, practice the move, observe a demonstration, and then have them skate one at a time, attempting to keep all the ones not skating from getting bored and killing each other. Pry the adults who are ready out of Beta with a crowbar.

So what should proper Beta/Basic 5 backwards crossovers look like? Skater should be able to do 6 backward crossovers in a row with no extraneous pumps or wiggles in between. Skater should have a clear understanding of the first pump, with proper push and knee bend, and be able to cross fully either by lifting (ISI) or cut back (USFS Basic Skills) with a clear understanding of proper edges and weight shift, and strong arm position. Backward stroking should be smooth and continuous, and at least one T-stop should be mastered; a clear understanding of proper edge should be demonstrated on the "hard" side.

Because many rinks don't split Beta into Beta 1 and Beta 2, absolutely no toe pick dragging is allowed to pass, or you'll never get rid of it. Students should expect to go through Beta twice. I always call my second-timers "Beta 2" just to make them feel better, even though it's not a real level.

I also feel strongly that someone entering Gamma should understand moving rotation and be able to do a two footed turn from a glide both clockwise and counterclockwise. This is part of the Basic Skills, but not of the ISI curriculum at this level.

Week ten
Every damned rink in America calls this Game Day. I hate Game Day. I hate it with a passion. Please please please no more relay races on the ice. Or maybe ONE. They are boring, pointless, and leave out the kids who are intimidated by speed.

Here's some better things to do with Game Day.

Apr 19, 2010

Who are the coaches?

I never heard the term "developmental coach" until well into my coaching career, since I wasn't any kind of skater, let alone a competitive skater, as a kid.

But when you think about it, someone has to be the first coach, and someone has to get the skater ready for Prime Time. Trust me, Frank Carroll is not teaching swizzles to anyone. (Update: according to one of my tweeps, apparently, in fact, he is. Good for you, Frank.)

So what are the different types of coaches, and just how does the whole thing work?

Elite coaches
These are the coaches that you see at the boards at major competitions. You may or may not know their names; basically having an elite student sets you on the path to being an elite coach. A very rare minority of them came up through the ranks, starting as a class coach with local students, and gradually developing their coaching skills and student base until they managed to find a student they could develop into a champion. Some of them were champion skaters themselves, like Tiffany Chin, Brian Orser, Yuka Sato, and Charlene Wong. The majority of them started on the staffs of other elite coaches and gradually developed a student base of their own. As a rule, you must audition or be invited to train with these coaches, but they often also have less glorious skaters in their rosters.

Developmental coaches
This is USFS's term for coaches of national and sectional competitors below the Senior or even Junior level. They are "developing" the next level of Senior competitors (and I count everyone who gets to Nationals, not just the "name" skaters). Some developmental coaches are on staff with elite and national coaches, some have managed to establish their own coaching business. USFS takes a strong interest in these coaches, providing them with seminars, support and training, along with their skaters, especially starting at the Novice level. Some of these coaches will eventually join the elite ranks, others will stay with the developmental group. In some cases it may be that they just never make the leap, or attract the students; but in more cases these are coaches who have established a niche and an expertise at this vital level of a skater's training.

Your coach
Assuming that your coach does not have a skater on the USFS team envelope or is an elite coach, I would also characterize this middle level of the coaching pyramid as developmental. These are the vast pool of working coaches who do the heavy lifting, (and I mean that literally), teaching kids basic skating technique and jumps, and suffering through learning the stupid axel.

As far as I'm concerned, this echelon is the most important one, because without strong basic technique, usually learned from these coaches, a skater has no chance at developing into a national competitor. Tarasova is not going to fix your axel. These are the coaches teaching strong basic skating and instilling love for the sport. Without local coaches at everyday rinks, there would be no elite skaters. Dorothy Hamill started skating on a pond with socks stuffed in the toes of her too-big skates. Some local coach noticed her talent and the rest is history.

And then there's me
Holding up the whole heavy pyramid are the many many part time coaches teaching group classes at local rinks. This is the first coach your skater meets. If she doesn't make it click, your skater is never even going to get to step two. Don't underestimate the importance of this group. Again, they are instilling that love of the sport. They are the first ones who will notice your child's talent, and probably will be your child's first coach. With luck, you'll happen upon one with the integrity and self-confidence to recognize when the skater starts exceeding the coach's expertise or ability and will help you move up the ladder, to a higher coach at your facility, or into the developmental track.

Apr 15, 2010

Skating myths

An overheard conversation (okay, I was eavesdropping) made me think of misperceptions common among skating parents.

Myth #1: Skating is expensive.
Training for Nationals is expensive. Skating is one of the cheapest entertainments around. Park district skating classes are no more expensive than any other park district classes. Skates, even decent skates, cost less than a bicycle new, and can be extremely cheap used. It's easy to find kid's gently used skates. (More on buying skates.)

Myth #2: If my child start privates, it means I think s/he's going to the Olympics
I've said it before: no one avoids music lessons because the kid isn't destined for Carnegie Hall. No one thinks you believe your kid is ready for Manchester United just because you sign up for soccer. Like anything else, you can skim the surface or dig in deep. Skating lessons are not a lifetime commitment to second mortgages.

Myth #3: Ice dancers can't jump/ice dance lessons detract from "real" skating
Let's explode this one. Ice dance is one of the best ways to learn power and body alignment. Ice dance is not full of skaters who bombed at singles; it is full of skaters who wanted the greater emotional and artistic range tolerated in the discipline. Many ice dancers, my own daughter included, have the full range of double and even triple jumps. Yes, when you get to the higher levels you stop training the other disciplines. But that works both ways. Might as well say "singles skaters can't dance."

Myth #4: Synchro skating ruins your technique
Like ice dance, synchro skating uses different techniques, not "bad" technique. Synchro skating, far from depleting the world of strong singles skaters, is the single most important discipline in skating right now because of the number of kids who now stay in skating so that they can be on the synchro team. Kids that used to quit in high school are now sticking with the sport. In fact, write to the NCAA right now and demand that Synchro be added as an NCAA sport!

Myth #5: Skaters are cliquish and mean
This one actually has a basis in truth, but not because of the skating. It's because middle school girls in general can be cliquish and mean. In fact, skaters, because of the independence and physical discipline required of the sport, tend to be more emotionally mature than their peers. I actually use this myth in teaching, because of a remark my daughter once made, when she said the good skaters looked so snotty. This is because when they skate, they have their noses in the air-- it's not arrogance! It's technique! I now tell kids "let me see 'snotty skater girl' posture!" They all know what I mean.

Myth #6: Figure skating will make my son gay
Just. No. Figure skating, like other artistic disciplines, sometimes attracts gay youth, but trust me, they were there already. Good news is, your gay son won't get married and move away. And he'll go shopping with you.

Myth #7: My coach will make my child starve herself
If your coach is doing weigh-ins and/or checking your child's eating habits, she or he is abusive. It's one thing to note when a child is losing or gaining weight inappropriately. It's fine to instruct a student in healthy eating for athletes and other human beings. Other than insisting on only healthy snacks at the rink, it's entirely wrong for the coach to make eating habits an issue, in the absence of any direct knowledge that the child has bad eating habits. You, as the parent, may concern yourself with the child's eating habits, and I hope you're teaching them how to eat healthy, whole, seasonal foods. But it's your business, not the coach's.

Myth #8: Taking class with a different coach will ruin the primary coach's technique.
Your coach's technique should be strong enough to withstand a once or twice a week class from another perspective. There are lots of different techniques; they all work and the skater should be aware of them all. Knowledge of other techniques does not "ruin" a skater; in terms of life lessons, it's a powerful one to learn that people who respect and get along with each other can disagree.

UPDATE Myth #9: If the skater does not have all the double jumps by the age of 10, it's too late to be competitive.
There are lots and lots of successful skaters who did not start until age 9 or later. Dorothy Hamill started at 9. Kurt Browning started at 13*, and he's Canadian! (How did his parents avoid jail time!) The correlating myth is that there is a specific level a skater "should" be at by a certain age. If your coach is telling you that your skater is behind simply because "at her age she should be in Free style already" or "all my students have an axel by age 7" well, that's about the coach not about the child.
*UPDATE/CORRECTION A reader did some research and learned the Kurt Browning had won some competition at age 11, so he couldn't have started skating when he was 13. He did hockey too, so he wasn't exclusively a figure skater until he was 15 or 16. The source of my information was an old bio-pic on him, but I did not confirm my memory of the statement.

UPDATE (thanks to reader Gordon) Myth #10 I can't skate, I have weak ankles Yeah? How's that walking thing working out for you?

What are some myths that you want exploded?

Apr 12, 2010

First you have to identify the problem!

Your child is in here somewhere, a wonderful website called "Discipline Help- You Can Handle Them All" It has two main categories: Behaviors at Home and Behaviors at School. While the correlations and manifestations of the behaviors are not exact, I like to look for my students in here; it's fun, but they also give great tips for how to deal with problem students.

The website recommends, "Before you can try to change a student behavior, you must properly identify that behavior. The identification must be specific; for example, the talker, the cheater, the bully. Therefore, in the first step, you must specifically identify the behavior based on its characteristics." On the "Behaviors at School" side, there are 117 of them, and most kids fit more than one.

Here's some of my favorites. I promise I'm not talking um, about anyone, ahem, in particular.

The Angel
Being something of a rebel myself, the angel drives me crazy. I know that behind my back she's making fun of me, blaming me for her own failures and generally being a little devil. She's the one that you catch rolling her eyes, and then denying it, and the one who falls apart when she doesn't pass because she did everything right. The Angel is often also The Spoiled Darling. If Dad is bringing her to the rink, watch out.

The Baby

Called by this list "The Immature" this is the one that demands all the attention, whose parent runs onto the ice every time he falls, and doesn't understand why you can't rearrange all the ice show rehearsals so that her child doesn't have to choose between soccer and skating. He still has to have his hand held, 6 weeks into Beginner 2. Mom also ties his skates and carries his skating bag.

Well into high school.

The Disrespectful
I see a lot of these kids, and they always tug my heartstrings a little bit, because they're clearly using a bad attitude to get attention; it's likely the only time they do.

The Absentee
The kid is usually fine, but the parents don't seem to understand, at test time, that if the kid is never there, she's not going to progress. Parents of absentees also often resort to lying, stating that in fact the child was there, and the coach is so incompetent that they didn't notice. The solution to this is to query the class-- "really? Janie's been here every time?" The kids will all back you up, because they've never seen her before and have no reason to say otherwise.

Won't try
Won't Try's mantra is "I can't." So I forbid the phrase, and then, being much more manipulative than any child, tell them they can only say "I haven't learned that yet." And they say it, and then I get to tell them, "Okay, let's learn it now." They fall for this over and over and over. It's a beautiful thing.

The Repeater
Everyone knows this kid. She doesn't want to be bad, or spacey and has no idea that she's being disruptive. She simply can't listen to, let alone retain, what you're telling her. She'll exhibit the same misbehavior over and over, often the very second you stop admonishing her, and you'll have to give her the same instruction repeatedly, because she's not listening.

I have to confess, I really like these kids. They drive you crazy in class, and they take forever to get through each level, but they're very entertaining.

Check out the site-- can you find your kid?

Apr 11, 2010

Summer skating

It's always puzzled me that in the winter when it's freezing cold outside, everyone goes to the freezing cold ice rink, and in the summer, when it's steaming hot outside, everyone goes to the steaming hot beach.

Ice rinks are great in the summertime. Nice and cool, and often, empty. They often turn over the ice to the figure skaters all morning and the hockey players all afternoon (or vice versa), and you can basically spend all day in skates. Many rinks run skating camps, at both learn to skate and freestyle levels, or you skate on your own; take your coach's summer program if she or he has one, sign up for one of the many sleep-away skating camps, or just come once in a while for fun.

For skaters who want to compete, summer is pre-season, one of the most critical training periods. You want to make sure you're at the correct test level, start solidifying the new programs, make sure you have all the latest rules updates incorporated into your choreography, and strengthen your newest elements. Serious off ice endurance and strength training starts building up in the summer too.

Even for non-competitive skaters, you can use summer as your pre-season push. Maybe there are synchro or ice show auditions in the fall, or you're trying to make it up a level or two in class. This is the time to learn a new jump or spin, even if you're not planning to compete, just because there's so much ice available.

By May you're going to want to have had a conversation with your coach about your goals for the summer and the coming year, so you know how much ice to sign up for and what the training arc is going to be. Find out which competitions the coach is expecting you to do, what costumes you're going to need, and what the requirements are for your various goals. Here are some of the summer skating options:

Sleep-away camp
Like any sleep away camps, there are serious highly competitive ones for "career" skaters like Ice Castles (although anyone with the cash can go if I'm not mistaken) or USFS camps for the current Team Envelope members. But there are also many many quality camps for skaters from serious to recreational. Ask your coach, club rep, or local USFS or PSA area representative how to find a skating camp that matches your skater's goals and level.

Local skating camps
Many rinks have both interim skating seminars and summer-long camps, ranging from half to full day. These camps usually consist of on ice and off ice components and may include things you won't get during the school year season. At my own rink we offer ice dance, figures, moves, and choreography as part of the summer program, as well as off-ice components that include ballet and jazz dance, pilates, soccer, arts and crafts and field trips to do things like roller blading or swimming. These camps are extremely cost-effective; often you don't have to sign up for the entire time, or even for every day, but can create your own schedule according to your vacation schedule, finances, and other activities.

Coach-led camps
Many coaches will set up their own summer programs, if their rink allows them to. You'll pay the coach a retainer-type fee based on the number of participants and hours, plus you'll pay the rink directly (in most cases) for ice time. Depending on how many skaters your coach gets involved, this can be the cheapest option, and easily incorporates your private lesson time into the ice schedule. Not all rinks allow coaches to do this; if your regular rink does not, you may need to follow the coach to a different rink for the summer. Many coaches will allow only their own students into these camps, even if you are not taking from someone else.

On your own
You can also set up your own training schedule without a supervising camp structure, but I would recommend this only for older and very self-directed kids. It is extremely difficult to maintain your own practice when you feel like the odd one out, where everyone else is in a program and you're just on your own. A couple/few times a week it will be just like school year skating, but if you want to try to skate every day, I would recommend finding a program to be part of, for the social aspect and the supervisory safety if nothing else.

Just for fun
Summer is also a great time to just take a break from structured lessons. At many rinks, practice ice is much emptier in the summer, and at every rink public sessions are very very sparse. Just come and skate for fun. Then go to the beach or the pool, where it's hot and sunny.

Me? I'll be waiting for you in the nice cool rink.

Apr 5, 2010


Jumps are taught in a very specific order, that helps skaters build the skills and muscle memory they need as they become more complex. You'll see skaters practice the jumps in this order as well: Waltz jump, salchow, toe loop, loop, flip, lutz, axel (or axel lutz). Skaters will usually start with singles and then move up to the double, then the triple jumps when practicing. Even the top skaters generally start with a simple waltz jump.

But jump technique actually starts way ahead even of a waltz jump, with a simple bunny hop and the various half-jumps. So here's the tutorial:

The half jumps:
Bunny hop, is a simple forward take off and landing, off the toe of the gliding foot onto the toe of the free foot, which then pushes back to the original gliding foot. It's the first named jump taught. Leg action translates directly to axel entry, so it's important to get it right. Bunny hop is the scariest jump in skating, because, yikes two toe picks, both forward. You can also do a "double" bunny hop, essentially skipping on the ice. Bunny hop teaches skaters basic upper body movement, proper leg action in a jump, and how to rock to the toe pick for jump take offs.

Half flip, half toe walley, ballet jump, scissor or mazurka, half lutz are all 1/2 rotation versions of the full jumps (ballet jump has same entry as toe loop). The entries translate very directly to the full rotation versions, so proper entry technique on these is extremely important. These jumps are often used in footwork sequences (you're not allowed to do a full rotation jump in footwork).

Full rotation jumps
Of the full rotation jumps, only the lutz really goes 360 degrees. The others have slight pre-rotations on the take off (I'll get arguments about this on the flip). These pre-rotations are not "cheated," they are part of the jump technique. You can cheat an entry, but some jumps actually incorporate a small forward edge. You know you're good at jump ID when you can spot the difference.

But this also helps fellow travelers like parents understand why jumps are taught in a specific order. Generally, jumps are taught bunny hop, waltz jump, half jumps, salchow, toe loop, loop, flip, lutz, axel. No one teaches walleys or mazurkas anymore. Doubles are added in the same order. Each jump has slightly greater rotation than the one preceeding it. Lutzes, not axels, are considered the most difficult of all the jumps because the entry edge is the opposite rotational direction to the air rotation (known as a "counter" jump). The challenging part of the axel is the extra half-rotation, requiring both good timing and serious upper body strength.

There are a lot of jumps that haven't made it into the cannon so to speak. An inside axel (launches off the inside edge instead of the outside edge). Walleys and toe walleys (a counter jump off an inside edge). There's a wonderful jump variation off a flip-- 1 1/2 flip, which lands forwards. Split lutz-- full rotation with an aerial split in the middle. Many of these jumps are taught in the ISI curriculum, which is one of the reasons I really like ISI for high level skaters.

There is no set amount of time for learning these jumps. There is no "a skater must be doing xx jump by age yy or they can't compete." Master each jump and then move on. Don't move on before you've mastered it.

Do parents need to know the jumps?

Not really. But it's fun to test yourself.

Apr 4, 2010

How to talk to a skating coach

Most of the misunderstanding and all of the drama at skating rinks comes from saying the wrong thing to or about the wrong person.

But there's a way for a parent to talk to a skating professional and for a skating professional to talk to a parent, to get the information you need and the outcome that's best for the skater.

Keep the roles clear
You know parenting and your child. The skating professional knows skating and the rink. It works best of course if both parties retain this idea, but even if only one of you does it, the conversation will be much more productive.

As a parent, you cannot frame any issue you have as a technical one. You cannot say "her axel technique is bad." You can say "she seems to be struggling with the axel." Try not to start a conversation by impugning the skills of the coach or the culture of the rink. Even if that is the problem, you will immediately put the other party on the defensive, and they will be less likely to hear the rest of what you have to say, no matter how much merit it has.

Talk only to the people involved
Don't take the problem to the gossip mill first. It will get back to the parties under discussion, and never the way you want it to. If the problem is not serious enough to bring to the proper party, it isn't worth discussing at all.

Don't bring other children or other parents into it. If you suspect favoritism, for instance, you need to find a way to state it that does not accuse other children or families of infamy, or that impugns the coach's professionalism. (I'm not saying this doesn't happen, just that saying "mom always liked you best" is not the most productive way to start a conversation.) Say "I'm concerned that Susie is not getting the degree of attention that I feel she needs." If you think a rule is being broken, start by clarifying the rule. Instead of saying "The Joneses are breaking the rule and their coach is letting them and you're not doing anything about it" saying, for instance, "I just found out that you can share practice coupons! Is this true? How do I arrange that?" to the skating director or the monitor will stop this sort of thing in its tracks without ever having to name any names at all.

Always start at the bottom. There is no problem so small that it can't turn into a federal case if you go to the coach's boss's boss first. If the monitor is the problem, take it to the monitor. If the coach is the problem, take it to the coach. Solve the problem at the source. Only escalate to the next level if all concerned parties can't or won't resolve it among themselves.

Use active listening
Active listening is a standard negotiating technique that helps everyone understand exactly what the problem is and why you're concerned.
  • Frame every concern as to how it affects you or your skater: "If Susie keeps refusing to practice, I'm afraid she won't progress."
  • Use "I" statements, not "you" statements. Wrong: "You never pay attention to my skater." (parent) "You always bring her late to her lessons" (coach) Right: "I'm worried that Susie doesn't get enough one-on-one time with you." or "I'm concerned that Susie doesn't get her full lesson time when she gets here late."
  • Repeat the response. If the coach says "I do so pay attention to her," the response would be "I understand that you feel you are paying attention (repeat the coach's statement) but I'm wondering why she feels this is not true." ("I" statement about how it affects you or the skater)
  • Don't have an outcome in mind. If you make up your mind about a single acceptable solution before you start the conversation, you will not be able to hear reasonable compromises.
  • Don't use threats. Don't tell a coach, monitor, or anyone else that if you don't get the resolution you want, you will escalate, or quit, or change coaches. The immediate response to this will be, either "Go ahead. Make my day," or "okay, buh bye!" If you do this repeatedly, you will lose all credibility.
Avoid blame
Controversies are no one's fault. They are simply ordinary situations that slipped under the radar and got out of hand. Go back to the origin of the problem, find out how the problem affects the skating goal and the best interests of the skater, and agree going in that you want, not vindication, but resolution.

Here's a great graphic from the Professional Skaters Association ethics guidelines.

When to change coaches

I've talked a lot about how to change coaches, and how to choose a coach, but how do you know when a coaching change is warranted?

Skating parents are the most skittish creatures on this green earth. Ready to see a snarky skating mom, a snotty skater girl, a stuck up skating coach, and a judge with an agenda behind every zamboni, "do I need to get a new coach" is very nearly a mantra at any rink. Most of the time, the answer is "no." You do not need a new coach. Ninety percent of coaching problems can be solved by simply stating to the current coach what you think the problem is. And usually the problem is that either the coach and the parents are not talking at all, or they're talking, but they're not listening to each other. (See How to Talk to a Skating Coach.)

But there's still that 10% of the time when you do need a new coach, aside from the obvious ones of either you or the current coach moving away. Here's what to look for:

Lack of progress:
First, know what is creating this. I recently talked to the mother of a skater in my group class, who was concerned that the other kids were moving ahead of her so quickly. Turns out she has NEVER skated more than once a week, in class only. The kid is a genius based on this, but the mom didn't want to hear it. She's convinced we're deliberately holding her back as "punishment" for not signing up for privates.

If the lessons seem focused and productive, the skater is working on her own and/or in class in a focused and productive way, it is possible that the coach is either incompetent, in over her/his head, or not communicating effectively with your skater. Express your concern to the coach (um, don't call the coach incompetent); if the problem persists, let the coach know you're considering a change for this reason.

If the coach tells you "she needs to practice better" ask for a practice guide, with a check list that the skater has to log every time. If that doesn't help, back to the discussion. Skaters under the age of about 12 or so need to learn how to organize their own practice sessions; it's not a inborn skill.

Sometimes a coaching change jump starts a kid even if the original coach is doing everything right. Don't assume that a coaching change works because the new coach is great and the old coach is incompetent. Some kids just need to hear the same old thing from someone new.

Changed goals
This works in both directions. A competitive kid loses interest in competing, or a recreational kid decides to test or compete. Your coach should not only share your goal, and support the change, but should have a track record with the new goal. I would never take, as the sole coach, a kid on a test track, because I do not teach USFS tests. When my students decide to test, I help them find a new coach.

Be wary of coaches who don't or won't help you find information you request, or who discourage, or worse, disparage, your exploration of new goals. (You often see this when a skater joins a Synchro team. I hear way too many coaches tell skaters that Synchro is "stupid" or will "ruin her technique.") This is a coach who is more interested in retaining the income than in supporting the skater.

Again, this can be that you suddenly have more money, or you suddenly have less. Maybe you've always wanted to work with that top coach, and now you can afford it. Or maybe you need to step the lessons back. You might have an idea of what you can spend, and the coach wants you to spend more. I'm watching a family right now who just switched coaches, with the understanding (so the mother tells me) that she had a certain amount to spend each week. A month into the relationship, the coach has added several additional hours of training each week. This family can't afford it, but the coach is telling them they "must" do this to be part of her team. The coach isn't wrong, that's what it takes to be on her team; but the initial communication was faulty.

Interest in a new discipline
Your skater might develop an interest in dance, or get into Synchro (which means Moves and Dance tests, as well as sucking up all your time). He might decide to try Pairs, or for all I know, curling, hockey, or speed skating. Your coach should have knowledge and interest, again, the skater's goals, and not only in his own needs and expertise.

The stuff we don't want to think about
Some skating relationships become abusive, either emotionally, financially or I hate to say it physically. If your child complains that she feels uncomfortable with a coach's physical presence, end that relationship immediately. The coach may not be stepping over any lines, but the child's discomfort is crucial. A child's unwarranted discomfort with a coach can ruin an innocent coach's career. Better to simply end the relationship before things get out of hand.

Sometimes, the coach is physically inappropriate. If you suspect this, please go to your child's doctor and have her interview the child. Do NOT go to the skating director first. The skating director is legally obligated to report suspected abuse, but may not have the proper training to identify it. This is how careers get ruined. Better to go to a physician, who is also obligated to report suspected abuse, but has the training and background to interview the child and recognize the signs.

If this happens to your skater, unless abuse is confirmed DO NOT SPREAD RUMORS that you "think" something is going on. Again, someone's life is at stake. Be very very sure that you are right.

Financial abuse involves coaches who keep adding on charges that you have not necessarily agreed to. Sometimes coaches will tell you not to worry about the bill, that you can pay it later. NEVER do this. Keep your coaching bills current; it will save all kinds of heartache later on. I know of a coach who lost an entire complement of skaters in one fell swoop when eight families found out she'd been charging everyone an $80 private lesson fee, but had been teaching them as a class. (So she was making $640 per hour. Nice work if you can get it.)

Finally, emotional abuse involves telling a skater she's bad or not as good as other skaters, and generally using emotional undermining to try to get results. If you ever catch your coach screaming at your skater, pull them off the ice and end the relationship. Coaches are only human, sometimes they'll yell at a kid. But screaming and insulting are signs that this is an unhealthy relationship.

As I've said before, the vast vast majority of coaching relationships are fine. Like any relationship they'll have their peaks and valleys. A coach-skater relationship is very intense and intimate, and therefore rife with pitfalls. Most of the time, you can ride the rough spots and come through on the other side just fine. But if you're thinking of a coaching change, do it right.

What are some reasons you have changed coaches?