Apr 4, 2010

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?


  1. THank you, Xan, for posting about abusive relationships. I see this from a coach (not Ice Coach)and I'm really concerned. I'm too close to the situation to write about it, but I'd love to see you write more about the abusive relationships that can develop.

    What happens when parents believe only one person is qualified to coach their kid and the coach becomes self-obsessed, abusive, and capricious?

    Please. That'd be a great one, Xan.

    Happy Easter!

    Ice Mom

  2. I think we have all observed that situation. Gentle talks with the parents, where you talk AROUND the issue is the place to start I think, or get the kids to rally around the skater and start letting her know what they seem to be observing. Kids can be way more blunt with each other than adults can. I know of at least one coaching relationship in my area that is not actively abusive but is destructive and obsessive in a Svengali sort of way. We're at a loss about what to do about though.

    But it's a great idea for a post, and to be part of the "how to talk to a skating coach" post.