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.


  1. Great post, Xan!

    I have three rules when I'm discussing a tough subject with an adult:

    1. Give all parties the benefit of the doubt. Assume everyone is doing her best.
    2. I'll believe half of what my kid says about you, if you believe half of what she says about me.
    3. What's best for the child? (I don't care if it's inconvenient, etc. It isn't about me; it isn't about the adult. It's about the kid.)

    Great post, Xan!

    Ice Mom

  2. Another excellent post! So glad there are coaches like you out there!

    My 2 cents: what you say is so true! I can't emphasize how small the skating community is! Talking only to the involved parties is a must!

    I'd also like to add not to be intimidated by your child's coach. Respect, yes, but not unchecked adoration. USFS has pointed out in their literature for parents that the skater has a team, and that consists of the skater at the center, the coach and parent as well as other support people around them. Parents and coaches are partners. You gotta be heard, but you also gotta know in what subject you have the expertise to be heard, parenting: namely your child, their learning styles, their emotional life, life outside skating etc.

  3. The other very salient point that USFS makes in both its parent and coach's guidelines is that the outcome should be in the best interest of the skater as a whole person, and not just for their career, the parent's ambitions or the coach's credentials.

  4. What a great topic. Talking to a coach about what is best for the WHOLE child and not just the skating child can be tricky. In my view this involves not only other activities, but, the emotional state of the skater that is often only evident in the privacy and emotional safety of home.

    Skating coaches, like everyone else in life, look at things based on their own experiences and points of view. But, because you often (usually) don't know your skater's coach outside the rink it seems that it is easy to step on toes.

    I sure appreciate these words of wisdom.