May 31, 2010

Getting things to change

I'm a squeaky wheel, although my experience has been more that they keep letting the air out of me, than that I get greased.

I'm a big advocate of talking, asking, demanding, writing letters, and getting petitions going. I'm an inveterate writer-to-my-congresscritter. There is almost certainly an FBI file on me somewhere, not to mention a personnel file full of memos about what a troublemaker I am. It's important to let the powers-that-be know when you're dissatisfied. You have to do it gently, most of the time, and you have to be willing to bear the consequences of both the complaint and the change.

But you can complain, safely, and things can change. I hear about dissatisfaction from many parents, both at the rink and through this blog. I'm happy to be an outlet for the venting, but if you really want change, do it right.

Before you march into your skating director's office with guns blazing, here's some things to consider:

Is there really a problem? Think about the situation that you don't like. Try to step outside it and decide if it really requires systemic change. If you don't like the way practice ice is run, is it because it's run badly, or because you got annoyed one day and decided it was someone else's fault? (Harsh but true.)

Are you the problem? More home truths. You want the ice show changed, because your daughter is tired of being stuck at the same level. Is the problem that the ice show should be changed, or that your skater should work more effectively toward the goal of passing that level before the next ice show (i.e. more practice or additional lessons, which might mean giving up something else)?

How will the change that I am proposing affect the rest of the program?
Will my solution create new problems? The problem you are experiencing may have been recognized and considered by the powers that be already. That thing you're complaining about may actually have been the solution to an entirely different problem. If you want your skater to be able to jump on moves ice, the kids working on moves are going to start doing moves on freestyle ice. Trust me, you don't want the Senior sustained edge step charging through the spin circle.

If you're sure that none of these apply to you, I still want you to keep that pistol holstered. Try these steps:

Talk to the people directly involved: Do you have an issue with the way a coach is running practice or class? Talk to the coach, not the skating director. Is the monitor favoring one skater over another? Go to the monitor, or the volunteer coordinator, first. Is your child not doing well at auditions? This is not the skating director's problem, or fault, or purview for that matter. This is probably the kid. Talk to her.

Talk to the skating director in private first, and explain your concern. Ask her what you can do to help alleviate the problem, and if any solutions have ever been proposed. You might find out that the current situation was the solution and that it used to be worse. Send her a note or an email afterwards thanking her for her time. If you're not satisfied, warn her that you'll be sending a letter, because you're still not comfortable with the situation.

Write a letter that clearly states the problem, and frame it in terms that benefit the entire program and not just your child. Express your desire to be part of the team that works for a new solution, and that you will accept the solution that the team decides on.

Ask other families to sign the letter. If they won't, take a step back and think about it. Either there isn't a big enough problem, or they don't like your solution.

Don't threaten to leave the program if your demand is not met. The response to threats, 100% of the time (in private anyway), will be, ok buh-bye! This is blackmail, and will instantly put the person you're trying to influence on the defensive, and take them forever out of your camp.

Don't expect instant change. There are needs and systems of which you are completely unaware. Many park district programs have insanely long lead times for changes to the program schedule. The one I work at requires changes TWO sessions ahead. So any class or date changes set in motion now will not show up until the spring 2011 book.

Don't expect any change. First, your proposal may not be realistic. Second, your proposal may have been tried and discarded. Third, the skating director may not like your proposal, and she has the final word.

Don't expect to be kept in the loop. You don't work there.

Finally, unless the safety of a child is at stake, do NOT contact the press, the alderman, the mayor, your sister-in-law's cousin who used to work for a U.S. Senator, or anyone else not involved. If you're just pissed that your kid didn't get a good solo in the ice show, or failed the FS7 test, well, my goodness, get a life. It ain't world peace we're talking about here.

May 27, 2010


The fantastic post on motivating kids over at Icemom today (i.e. to bribe or not to bribe), got me thinking about all the different people who need motivating in raising a figure skater.

The skater of course, needs motivation--to learn the next thing, to try again after a bad fall, to compete against someone they fear is better than they.

But it's not just the skater that needs motivation. Parents also can lose their mojo in this sport. The kid cries, the bills pile up, and if you have to face those skating moms just one more day you won't be responsible for your actions.

The coach needs a little push every now and then too. One of the strange things about teaching is the time warp sensation. You move a skater on, but there's another one coming up who reminds you so strongly of the one that just left it's as though time is standing still. To go in, day after day and teach the stupid axel (or the stupid crossover or the stupid bracket) year after year to kid after kid making the same old mistake after the same old mistake...well.

Here are some ways to motivate skaters. More on motivation for the coach and the parents in future posts.

First of all, there's a difference between a reward and a bribe. A reward can have a slightly longer time frame, although immediate rewards are also important, as you'll see below. A reward focuses on the skater; the person sponsoring the reward has no stake in the outcome. It's simply an acknowledgment of effort or accomplishment.

A bribe on the other hand is much more two-way. You get this reward; I get that behavior. A bribe for landing a specific jump is therefore suspect at the outcome. The kid knows that it hardly affects your life if you land the stupid axel, so she's going to wonder what's really motivating you. Are you ashamed that she can't land it? Are you trying to get bragging rights? Kids aren't stupid; they figure this stuff out.

On the other hand, if you're just tired of certain behavior at the rink and you want some peace today, I see nothing wrong with telling the kid, "for pity's sake if you just get through this session without anyone yelling at me over your behavior I'll buy you pizza for dinner." A little sob at the end of this statement will also help. Don't waste your bribes on axels; there's a reason we call them stupid. Save your bribery for stuff that really makes your life better.

Motivating the learner, especially children, means you have to understand what gets that person going. With kids, it's often simply about developmental levels. You can't tell a 6 year old that she'll get a prize when she lands the axel, because unless she lands it RIGHT NOW there's no connection between the reward and the accomplishment--they're just too far apart for that to be meaningful. For younger children the reward must be concrete and immediate "ice cream after your lesson" or "5 minutes free time with no adults nattering at you." This also cannot be linked to complex requirements or additional conditions such as the lesson or kid must be "good", a certain number of skills must be executed at a certain level, etc. Also, no one but the awarder can have the power to withhold it, i.e. the coach cannot say "well, she didn't listen or he didn't do that last spin very well so no reward" because that is forcing you to renege on your promise, as well as forcing the parent to take sides.

A better way to motivate a skater, especially a very young skater, is to keep the reward ON THE ICE. My daughter used to get a sticker on her boot for every clean double. This meant the cheated ones and the falls became unimportant, and when her boots got covered with stickers she could see how good she was every time she laced them up. You can also put the skater in charge--ask them what they are going to do on the ice today, just before the step out there. And not "I'm going to land my axel" but rather "I'm going to attempt 10 axels, or I'm going stroke around 8 times in two minutes or I'm going to increase the rotations on my camel."

Rewards can fall into several different categories: gift, fun, challenge.
  • The "gift" type reward is easy to understand: quid pro quo. It is better to tie this sort of thing into effort rather than a specific outcome (strong practice session as opposed to land xx # of such-and-such jump). You want the skater to get the reward. If the reward is too remote, or too hard to achieve, it loses its appeal. For major milestones: landed axel, got to nationals, first place at competition, there can be a longer term major reward, but this cannot be used as a motivating force, i.e. a bribe, because too many things are out of the control of all parties.
  • "Fun" rewards are immediate: for older kids this might be good practice session on the 3 p.m. ice means no adult interference on the 4 p.m. ice no matter what. The first couple of times expect to be tested-- kid gets off the ice, kid doesn't skate, kid spends the whole time talking. But once they figure out you mean it, this can be an extremely effective reward. For younger kids it can be work now and last 5 or 10 minutes of lesson are free time.
  • Challenge rewards take something the skater does well and gets them to improve it as a game-- who can do the most waltz jumps in a row, adding rotations or features to spins, putting together a jump combo or sequence, etc.
The point of rewards, bribes, and other motivating tactics is not to guarantee a behavior, attitude or outcome, but rather to make the skater feel successful, to let him define what success means and to give him the power to achieve it.

May 24, 2010

Using visuals

Kids learn in different ways. One of the challenges of teaching is identifying the best way to get information from the coach's brain into the student's muscles. "Learning styles" are now an accepted philosophy of teaching, although when they were first proposed, it was extremely controversial, because, gasp, it treated each student like an individual.

It's especially challenging to work with different learning styles in a group class, where you might have representatives of every type, and every one of those kids needs to be reached. The kinetic/spatial learner can't stand still, and won't learn by listening anyway. The visual learner needs a map, and a demonstration. The aural learner has to hear you describe it. The tactile learner must be placed in the proper position.

This is the first of a series on ways to use all these styles in group teaching.

There are lots of things you can do to help the visual learners. If you're lucky enough to be teaching in a rink that lets you draw on the ice (with heavy markers), it's easy-- you can draw pictures. For tots, this might be icons-- a bunny or a frog for jumping, an ice cream cone for "dip" a big 1 for one-foot glide. But on-ice visuals work for older students as well. Of course, there are the actual hockey markings already in most rinks. Want a circle? Put the kids on a hockey circle (believe it or not, there are kids who can't follow a circle, even if it's drawn. If these kids are spatial learners, you can tell them to follow someone, or touch a marker- the wall, you, a cone, etc.) I love to amaze everyone by taking a big marker and drawing a perfect circle (I'd say it's from years of figures classes, but frankly I've always been able to do this.)

Other drawings that help some kids are the different turns, stroking, jumps. One of the things coaches learn to recognize, in fact, is the proper "print" for each jump-- the skate leaves a distinctive mark on the ice for each jump. It's very important for a visual learner to know this mark, because like as not, they can't "feel" it. But they can see it.

Visual learners are also good at visualization, meaning, giving them concrete images to imagine to help them understand where their bodies are in space, which is often difficult even for the athletic kids in this group. Visualizing is also fun, and can make a challenging, frustrating or difficult skill more enjoyable to work on.

One of the most difficult concepts in figure skating is the "open" hip. Hips, of course, are not a hinged joint, or in fact a joint at all, and yet skating coaches are always yelling at kids to "open your hip! lift your hip! you dropped your hip!" Huh?

I like to take a metaphorical arrow, and stick it through a skater's hip (pretending, folks, just pretending). Then I'll tell them where the arrow should be pointed. For a mohawk, the arrows have to point away from each other. For a cross over, they have to be parallel.

The other difficult thing in a crossover is the shoulder position--hips closed, shoulders open. Again, huh? So you tell them to hug the circle with their arms. Want them to lean? Have them lean against you, then step away and tell them to lean "on the invisible coach."

When learning swizzles, kids never glide between swizzles--they just go from swizzle to swizzle to swizzle. So I tell them "it's shaped like a spoon, with a bowl and a handle. Don't forget the handle" I might actually draw a giant spoon, and then trace it myself, skating the swizzle over it.

Visual learners also do well with physical objects, i.e. something they can see. Using objects is great, because it also reaches the spatial and tactile learners, so everyone benefits. Hula hoops can be used to keep a skaters arms in proper position, to get them to stand straight, and to learn shoulder rotation and check. The coach's hand or body is a great tool for both visual and spatial learners, both in demonstration (although I cringe when I see coaches demonstrating things badly-- please don't demonstrate if you are not absolutely positive that you are doing it right). Objects on the ice are great too--kicking a puck, or aiming for cones, for instance.

What style learner is your skater, and what are some clever teaching tactics that have helped her?

May 23, 2010

Conversation at the ice show

Parent: "My coach says Synchro is for kids who can't skate."
Me: "Did those girls look like they can't skate?"

May 21, 2010

Saving money and figure skating -- an oxymoron?

  • Skating class: around $120 to $180 for 10 lessons, (higher or lower depending on locality)
  • Private lessons: $25 to $120 per half hour, depending on coach's credentials and chutzpah
  • Skates: $70 to $120 for beginner skates, $400 for serious recreational skates, skies the limit for professional/competitive skates ($800+ for boots and blades)
  • Ice time: $6 to $25 per hour
  • Group class with specialty coach: $15 to $30 plus ice time
Shall I go on? Tights? Bunga pads? Extra tutoring to help with missed school? Camp? Sleep away camp? Extra lessons with famous guest coach? Synchro fees (and matching skate bags, guards, scarves, pins...)?


You spend what you can afford to spend. Yes, people take out second mortgages to cover skating expenses, but they don't do this until the kid has won Junior Nationals, giving him or her an actual shot at an international competitive career. Suzy who just placed 4th in PreJuv at Regionals, even though she's got a double axel just a little bit cheated and coach says she's the best thing since Tara, should not be creating financial hardship for her family, or depriving her siblings of their needs.

The best way to look at the cost of figure skating, is to look at it in comparison to what else the child might be doing. If you are a middle class family, you might have a reasonably talented violin player, for instance, who enjoys it but isn't planning on going to Juilliard. She is going to cost you for lessons ($30 per week, probably 40 to 45 weeks per year), purchase and upkeep of an instrument ($500 to $2,500), plus orchestra dues, recital costs, and touring fees. Probably starting at age 5 to the end of highschool $30,000, at an average of less than $100 per week, including the prorated cost of the instrument. Think about it.

This is very close to what a serious recreational figure skater will run you.

The point is not to start worrying about costs adding up, but to know in advance what you are willing to spend out of discretionary income, and what you are willing to give up to be able to increase the skating budget.

Be aware of what the costs are, and don't forget that there are blade guards, and that coaches raise their rates periodically, and that the ice is a separate fee, etc. If this is important to you, your family, and your child, figure it out ahead of time and work out a budget (assume that the budget you've worked out is 20% low, by the way). Then please stop complaining. No one is twisting your arm to make your child skate, and kids can be remarkably understanding about the consequences of any expensive hobby or dream. Stop buying lattes every day; just make your own coffee at home. I'm serious. That will pay for a skating lesson.

A really common complaint I hear is about the cost of the ice show. When parents rail at me about this fee, I just tell them, "she doesn't have to skate in the show." Mouths drop. While I am 100% on the parents' side in just about everything figure skating, this is not one of those places. Make choices, folks. Can't afford the show? Don't skate in the show. Can't afford the designer dress? Go to eBay and buy one used.

I absolutely see red when some parent tells me they just can't afford the $2 increase in my fee, and that they'll let me know what they decide to do when they get back from Europe, or Vail. Again, not kidding, I have heard this more than once. And half the time, they leave me, and turn up a couple of weeks later with a coach who charges even more. Yes, families give up vacation to fund their kids' dreams. I had an aspiring, now professional musician, and a competitive figure skater. In the last 20 years, we have taken exactly 3 out of town vacations. While the musician was in college and the skater was competing, we both worked 80 hours a week so we could make it happen for them. They both started teaching at the age of 12 to help pay for it. I don't begrudge them a minute, or a dime.

If you start getting into the more competitive levels, or join a Synchro team, you'll have to make some decisions, usually involving the cost of things like family vacations, additions to the house, private or public school, expensive camps, etc. Again, kids really really understand the idea of trade-offs and sacrifices. I am not one of those people who believe that it somehow damages a child's self esteem to tell them to stop wasting your money when they don't take skating seriously. Families sacrifice for these dreams, and kids should be part of that conversation.

While I think the children, and his siblings, should be involved in this, I do NOT think the coach needs to be involved in this. It is not the coach's fault if you are spending more than you can afford, or depriving other family members of things they need or want, with or without their collusion. The coach charges what he charges; we're all adults. If you need to say no, say no. But don't blame me for your inability to balance a budget.

That said, if it's your 6 year old who is costing you more for skating than you can afford, you don't need a calculator, or a second job, what you need is therapy.

May 20, 2010

The show always brings out the weirdness

I teach a girl with a cognitive disability, and am skating the group ice show number with her. Earilier this week I had this dream:
We're waiting to go on at the show, and I look down and realize that Miss E is wearing speed skates (yellow speed skates, for the record). I know this can't be right, so we race back to the dressing room, which for some reason is in another building, to change her skates. Miss E thinks this is hilarious, and really fun, because we run so fast in our skates.

I put on her regular skates, but the laces keep getting messed up. Finally, they're on, and we're back at the show, where the last little girl in front of her has just gotten on the ice, so no one can tell that we were late. I look down, and realize that Miss E is only wearing one skate; the other one is in my hand.

There is no way we're going to get on the ice in time.

At this point I realize, "hey! this is a dream! I can just make this happen." So I think, let's pretend that I actually got Miss E's skates ON and we can skate. This happens, and we get out just as they're starting their circle, so we're just a little late. Then there's a place where apparently, in the dream choreography, everyone is supposed to get off the ice, pick up a toy, and get back on the ice. Only Miss E and I remember to do this. The rest of the girls are just milling around on the ice (NB: this was approximately what the rehearsal was like because they changed the choreography and it was 25 seven year-old girls completely at sea). Miss E thinks that she and I can go back to the room, get ALL the toys and save the day. So we go back to the room, but the toys aren't there, because my friend Rachel, who has nothing to do with the rink, (this made perfect sense in the dream), put them in a different room, and none of the regular coaches are around.

At this point, they stop the show and tell everyone in the show that we're going to have free time while they find the toys.

Then the dream morphed into Jason Bourne, which I had been watching the night before. Fortunately Miss E was not along for that part.
Miss E's psychologist mom tells me I'm feeling anxiety over the show, but am confident that Miss E and I, at least, know what we're doing. Theoretically.

UPDATE: The actual show went pretty much like the dream. Backstage, all the kids were making weird sounds, and stomping their feet, and waving their hands around. On ice, Miss E went to all the right places, even when the other skaters did not. I just had to laugh. How do you tell again which six-year-old has the disability?

May 17, 2010

Turn with your elbow!

I get all my best ideas from the kids.

S kept forcing her three-turns with her hip this morning. I asked her "which body part helps you turn? It's not your hip or your knee, so what is it?" So she tried some serious answers-- your foot? your head? and then got silly-- your pinky finger! your elbow!

Wait. And I thought about it, and then tested it, and then told her, yes. Your elbow. I want you to turn with your elbow. She pushed off, moved her elbow into position (which forced her shoulder into the proper position) and presto-chango, 3 turn.

Gamma and Delta (variously Basic 5 thru 7) are about turns and edges. These aren't hard to do, but they are hard to do correctly, because there are lots of easy cheats that make it look like the correct thing, but are subtly wrong, like turning with your hip. Here's my 10-week curriculum for Gamma.

Week one: as always, start the class with 25 each, forward and backward right and left crossovers. Depending on how good they are, in an ISI program start introducing progressives for forward crossovers (foot hits the ice before the cross) and "cut backs" for backward crossovers. (USFS Basic Skills teach these with the basic crossover curriculum). Introduce two foot turns CW & CCW forward to backward, and back Mohawks both inside and outside (stepping forward from one foot to the other).

Gamma has a lot going on-- at my rink we start refining cross over skills, and kids learn 3 different turns, which also includes of course, back edges and confident backward gliding. (Skaters in USFS Basic Skills have theoretically mastered back edges in the level before introducing three turns.) So they have to learn back inside edges (for three turns and mohawks) and back outside edges (for the required Mohawk step pattern). I always teach these, plus proper rotation, first, before trying to get the kids to turn on one foot.

Week two: start class with 25 each, F&B R&L XO, and review 2 foot turns. I'll start working on outside three turns right away in week two, emphasizing upper body control and what DH just called "ambiflexterity:" the ability to turn both clockwise and CCW with equal facility. I like to take a figures approach to 3-turns. I make the skaters break the skill down-- forward edge from a strong push, then forward edge plus strong rotation thru the shoulders (or the elbow!), and only then checking the shoulders to create the turn. This helps the skaters understand that it is the check and not the rotation that makes the turn happen. Otherwise they just spin.

In a sharp class, I may have time to introduce Mohawks.

Week three: cross over drills, including lots of work on backwards freestyle crossovers, and crossover patterns, like half-circle forward/turn/half circle backwards, step to forwards, repeat, as well as crossovers in a figure eight pattern. Introduce hockey stop. Review and practice forward outside 3s, introduce inside 3s, and start Mohawk drills like teacups, wall crawling (doing Mohawks while facing the wall and holding on--this shows skaters how open your upper body is for a mohawk). I'll also introduce the ISI Mohawk combination pattern, but with a two-foot turn instead of the Mohawk for the first timers. This gives the kids who are in the level for the second time a chance to work at their level.

Week four: crossover drills and patterns, then review. Week five is often a mid-session evaluation, so I try to get through all of the required elements, even the ones they haven't worked on much, like hockey stops.

Week five:
mid session evaluation. Start with crossover drills and patterns anyway.

I consider a mid session evaluation to be an evaluation of my curriculum as much as an evaluation of the skaters. I need to see what the class as a whole is struggling with, because that's where the focus needs to be for the next couple of weeks. I also look for individual skaters who are struggling with one or more elements. I almost never advance a student to the next level at this point, because they've missed too much from the new level. It won't kill them to spend another 5 weeks in Gamma. However, I want to note who is really advanced, so I can start coming up with enhanced skills for them to work on, so they don't get bored.

Week six: crossover drills and patterns; focus on the problem areas, and start enhanced patterns and skills for the stronger skaters. Start doing the combination with the actual mohawk.

I like to try to reserve the last five minutes of any class for fun stuff-- higher level skills, or add on games, or skaters' choice. In Gamma class, however, there is often not a lot of time to give the kids reward skills for their hard work. After the mid session, however, it's a good idea to start throwing them a bone and let them work on lunges, bunny hops, turning two-foot jumps, shoot the duck and spins. They need to have some unstructured fun.

Week seven: crossover drills and patterns, then drill and review all skills. Reserve 5 or more minutes for off-level skills (this can also be things like crossover challenges-- who can do the fewest crossovers on a circle, forwards or backwards, who can do the mohawk straight out of a forward crossover, etc.)

Week eight:
crossover drills and patterns, then drill and review all skills for test next week. Freak kids out by reminding them that the test is next week.

Week nine: This is test week. Here are the proper passing standards for ISI Gamma:
  • Forward outside 3 turns: strong forward push to outside edge at least as long as the skater's height, clean turn with proper shoulder rotation, keeping free leg and hip back; strong back inside edge check at least the skater's height. Must be on a curve (edge).
  • Forward inside Mohawks: strong forward push to inside edge at least as long as the skater's height, proper step for open mohawk (there is also such as thing as a closed mohawk, and an outside mohawk, just to complicate things) to back inside edge, which should be held in proper checked position with leg back for length equal to skater's height. Got that?
  • Mohawk combination: three forward strokes, forward inside open mohawk, to back outside edge and back outside mohawk for step to forward. Must be equally solid both clockwise and counterclockwise (right and left mohawks).
  • Hockey stop: Proper sideways stop from three strokes, with skids on both blades.
Week ten crossover drills and patterns, plus testing of anyone who missed Week Nine. Since this is Game Day, and I hate Game Day, I'll do advanced Gamma skills including variations of the Mohawk combo including USFSA Basic Skills Mohawk pattern (stepping into Mohawk from a forward crossover), doing the combo with different turns, trying two-foot back threes and two foot forward brackets. Other turn combinations are waltz threes (continuous three turns around a circle), waltz eights (a figures pattern), running threes (three-turn with toe-assist), inside three turns, power three-turns, etc.

Send them on to Delta, where they will all forget how to do Mohawks.

Healthy snacks at the rink

Reposted 5/17, because I somehow posted it at a prior date. Someday I'll figure this all out.

Time, culture, and access are the three big barriers to providing healthy snacks for our kids. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the conversation at the vending machines: you can get cheez-its or pretzels, but not cookies or chips. Of course, they all have identical ingredients, but somehow the cheez its and pretzels FEEL healthier, because, hmmm no sugar? (Not true. Maybe sounds like they have no sugar.)

My student was given a dollar by her dad for a vending machine snack after her early morning lesson this week; he probably expected her to get something marginally acceptable for breakfast--a bag of cereal, or a granola bar, or even Sun Chips. At least they're not fried.

She got skittles. We both jumped down her throat. Dad confiscated them, but I'm not so sure he would have if I hadn't been there.

Concession stands are not much better. Convinced by the culture that they have to feature only the worst food--ring pops and microwave french fries--they reinforce ideas either that we can fool ourselves into believing that processed foods are healthy if they include "reel froot juice" or that it doesn't matter as long as we go home to a healthy dinner (usually also highly processed).

The best thing to do, of course, is to carry a bag of apples, or peanut butter sandwiches, or raisins, or even homemade cookies with you to the rink or on errands. And I wish more parents would just do this. Why do we let strangers choose what food our kids will eat?

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. My rink changed, and yours can too. After years, nay, decades of variously awful concession stands, or NO concession stand, we have a new vendor, Michelle, of Healthy Concessions, Inc.

And she's fantastic.

First, she's a skating mom, so she really gets the need to have healthy food at concession. The last concessionaire, who was actually okay-- he had different types of tea, and was open a lot-- but would say he "couldn't" sell things like yogurt and fresh baked goods, and hamburgers made of, um, hamburger (instead of those premade microwave things), because "no one will buy them."

Apparently, not so much.

Michelle serves real fruit smoothies--just fruit and milk,--and Torani sodas. She bakes shortbread and brownies from real ingredients. Fresh salads, fresh paninis, cafe style coffees made from fair trade, organic, Casteel Coffee, which furthermore is a local company.

She's got the usual concession stuff too-- those nasty ring pops that kids love, hot dogs, pop corn and soft drinks, ice cream treats. But she balances them with oranges, bananas and lots of good stuff.

And she's thriving. I hear kids being talked out of ice cream treats in favor of the smoothies, and skipping the microwaved cheese sticks in favor of a ham-and-cheese panini. She Has Grown Up Food. I've been able to start eating dinner on Wednesday nights again (when I teach from 3 to 9 with only a half-hour break), because she lets me put in an order ahead of time for her marvelous "special salad" (mixed greens with homemade glazed pecans, tomatoes, and dried cranberries), so it's ready when I get off the ice, without my waiting in line.

Michelle, stay forever! If you want to know about getting a Healthy Concessions stand at your rink, or would like her to cater an event, call her at 847-226-7103. Let's keep this lady in business!

May 14, 2010

Whose best interests?

It's one of the most-repeated statements in USFS and PSA ethical guidelines and tenets of professionalism statements: that all parties concerned--coaches, skating directors, parents--should be acting in the "best interests of the child."

But what does this mean? Is it a daily thing, or a long term goal? What if it conflicts with the goal and how can you tell? The technical, competitive, and artistic aspects of a sport like skating are complex, but compared to the moral obligations of the adults involved, they are a walk in the park.

Everyone involved in a sport has to take into account the interests of the skater, the coach, the parents/family, the skating program (i.e. your rink and its skating school), the club, and the federation (i.e. SkateCanada, ISI or USFS) and the sport in general. All of these parties have legitimate and sometimes conflicting interests.

The sport: I define the sport as "skidding around on the ice." This means that hockey, curling, figure skating, and speed skating all have legitimate interest in recruiting skaters. They are not in competition with each other; as ice sports, each supports the other. Is it better to insist that a boy who wants to figure skate play hockey, the result being that he quits entirely? Or is it better to make all options available to a young person and let them choose. 'nuff said. So the best interest of the sport is also the best interest of the skater.

The federation: Federations exist to establish standards and manage large groups of people. In a way, it is the competitive aspect of a sport that requires a federation. It is in the interest of the federation to keep people involved in the ice sports; they need to have programs that reach every level of interest, from family outings the day after Thanksgiving, to Kim Yu Na and Shani Davis. Again, the best interest of the federation is also the best interest of the participants.

Federations have a second tier of "participants," namely the fans. USFS and ISU got in the way of the best interests of the fans with the judging scandal, and are now standing in the way through an impenetrable scoring system. The sport is hurting, because the federations have not been able to find a way to reconcile these problems.

The club: the club is the representative of the federation on the ground. I think a lot of clubs and parents lose sight of this essential fact and think of the club as a private, personal and exclusive entity. No club is better than any other club, because they are ALL, in the end, the national federation. Making the clubs exclusive, opaque, parochial, and unfriendly is not in the best interests of anyone. The more transparent and welcoming the club, the better for everyone, from the neophyte skater and parent, to the mother of a national champion.

The rink or skating school: This is where the blade hits the ice. Without a strong local program, geared to local needs, there are no skaters. Period. I would say that in the whole complex heirarchy of skating, this is the single most important piece of the puzzle, starting with public ice and the learn-to-skate portion of the group lesson program. Every single champion skater in America started in someone's Pre Alpha or Snowplow Sam class, or on public or pond ice, often in rented skates. In interviews, you will often hear these superstars talk about their early experiences. At my rink we still get regular visits from many U.S. figure skating and speed skating champions, because they remember the wonderful program that set them on their path.

It's not just a strong free skating program, either, because most free skating programs don't pay for themselves. The rinks usually get no income from coaching fees (some rinks charge a pro fee or a percentage, but not all), and there just aren't enough high level skaters to support a rink. Rinks are supported by public skating, mite hockey, and beginner classes. Never begrudge them their ice. They are subsidizing you.

A strong, friendly, broad-based program is in everyone's best interests.

The coach: I would say that the coach barely fits into the "best interests" equation at all, because if the coach acts in the best interests of all other parties, he or she is acting in her own best interest. By following the rules of the federation and club, by supporting the skating school through teaching in the group classes, by helping skaters choose their best path, they are creating a brand and persona that will lead students to the school and to them. I tried to find a way to share the two incidents this week that inspired the post, but couldn't without naming names; suffice to say I felt caught in the middle of a couple of pissing contests, neither of which was thinking about the poor kid caught in the stream with me.

So whose best interest is most at stake?

The skater's of course. Adult skaters can mostly look after themselves, but child skaters are more problematic. Because who gets to decide what the best interest of the child is? A 7 year old in Freestyle 5? A 13 year old in Delta? A 17 year old champion? The money, prestige, and personal honor at stake for everyone else often rests on tiny shoulders. Too often I see coaches pitting their skaters against each other without thinking about what is the best interest of the child. If coaches would just choose the option that helps the child most, so much drama would go away.

And not just "singles or synchro" as a career, but today, right now, should THIS child be skating on THAT ice working on THIS move?

In the end, coaches, parents, rinks and clubs can all get their way, by simply thinking about how the best interests of the skater is served. Because that is their best interest, too.

May 9, 2010

Gotta move

Every class has them--the kids with ants in their pants. These kids are usually bright, very engaging, often athletically talented (it's all the muscles they develop because they Never. Stand. Still.).

But in a class situation they are challenging. They seem to get away with alot-- moving around when everyone else is standing and listening. This is extremely appealing, and inevitably, the other children will take their cue from Ms. or Mr. Can't Stand Still, and they'll start wriggling. By the time you catch the first one, two others have escaped. Got them back in line? The first culprit has zipped off again.

For some reason, the parents of these children seem to think that skating is a great thing to do with them, which I tend to disagree with. Especially for kids with actual ADD and ADHD, who often have sensory issues, a skating rink is a sensory nightmare- bright, loud, social, and visually complex. Plus, it's really really easy to move. And move is what these kids want to do, so they do it.

There are lots of tactics you can use with these children. Watch for coaches that use the following techniques; they understand your kid.

Keep the class moving. If you've got one or more child escape artists in your class, never explain anything in more than 10 words. You will lose those children. Their eyes will glaze over, and they'll either just skate off, or make you repeat the instruction, which they will keep missing.

Correct ONE thing. This is just good teaching technique in general, but it works especially well for these kids. They can listen to and execute one instruction (hold your glide for a count of 4). They lose focus at the second one (hold your glide for a count of 4 with your foot behind you), although they might pick it up through watching the other skaters. Instructions 3 and up (hold your glide for a count of 4 with your foot behind you and then push to the other foot and repeat) are lost in the ether of their active brains, which by now have come up with something entirely unrelated, and much more interesting, and which they will suddenly share with you, regardless of its pertinence to the class.

Separate buddies. Like I said, these children are utterly seductive. They seem to be above the rules, they engage that scary adult directly, they're charming and fun. Inevitably, they will find a soul mate in the class. Let them stand together and it's all over. Every time you stop the class, pry them apart.

Do not punish them. These kids are not misbehaving. This is their "normal". Giving them time-outs or sending them off the ice is utterly pointless because they literally do not understand the infraction, so punishing them for it is meaningless.

Phsyically restrain them. WHAT??!!! I don't mean handcuffs, although I confess to having entertained that fantasy every now and again. Ants-in-the-pants kids, all the way along the spectrum from wiggly to ADD to Aspergers, often dislike being touched or restrained. If a child simply will not stay put, call them over, continuing to talk to the rest of the class. Place them in front of you, and lightly place your hands on their shoulders. When they try to wiggle free, tell them you will let go if they stay put and listen, but if they start wriggling again, you will hold on. Threats, umthatistosay engaging the darling child in this way works wonders.

Use them as a demonstrator.
Like I said, these kids are often very athletic, or at least fearless. If you spot them doing something well, send them out to do it and show everyone else. (Yes, this is also a bribe. What can I say.) You will have to find a strategy for the "me too's" from everyone else, but it's a great way to get the wigglers on your side.

Other than that, no demonstrations.
This means coach can't demonstrate, especially if it means turning her back on the class. Just too much standing around time for these kids. But it also means no one-at-a-time skating for the kids. I hate this anyway, because it just eats up too much time. If you ever spot me doing this in a class other than testing day, you know I've checked out and am just counting the minutes and looking for time wasters. Having 10 kids stand around while 1 kid does a one foot glide is death for Ants in the Pants. You can observe what you need to three at a time if you must, or better yet, have them go back and forth the number of times=to the number of kids in the class. Two birds, one stone--class keeps moving, you get to observe each child.

Let them leave the ice. If they have to tell their mom something, or put their sweater on, or pee, or get a drink, let them do it. These things are all strategies they have developed themselves when they start getting too much input. Make sure you can spot the adult in charge of them, and make them ask permission before they leave, but let them do this. It is part of their own coping mechanism. Plus it gives you five minutes of quiet. (Did I say that?)

I love a class full of gifted, serious skaters committed to excellence in ice skating, who listen and then execute every instruction. Maybe someday I'll get one. In the meantime, I want my class to be as rewarding for the special child as it is for the gifted one.

Thanks to for inspiring the post.

May 8, 2010

So many choices, so little time

Soccer. Skating. Ballet. Hebrew school. Math tutor. Karate. Chinese dance. Tap dance. Jazz dance.

Add your kid's activity to the list. Children today are booked from dawn to dinner and beyond. Every now and then some hardy parental rebel decides "enough!" and takes their kid to the playground, but it doesn't work anymore. No one is there. Everyone else is at soccer, skating, ballet, Hebrew school, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

And every now and then the activities run up against each other. Our spring ice show lost a bunch of kids to a local dance recital this year. One parent suggested that we change the date of our show, because her child did not want to choose between them.


Come again?

One of the most difficult thing for teachers in our current version of child rearing society is the fact that children are never made to choose. Every answer is yes. But sometimes, you must choose, because the world is not going to rearrange itself around your convenience and desires, much less a child's.

I'm extremely flattered and gratified at a child's disappointment in not being able to skate in a show, or take a second class, or a private lesson. But I understand that sometimes other things take priority. With younger children (I'd say 8 or under), mom and dad can make the choice, and then just present it to the child as a done deal. Don't even let them know there was a choice to be made. If the child says "skating show? WHAT skating show?" just say, we're not doing that, because we're visiting Grandma that weekend! (or whatever). For a child who can backtrack that decision and understand a choice was made, you can make them choose, or tell them you chose for them. Teens? Gotta choose. It's part of growing up.

My point is, not doing the ice show, or the competition, or the dance recital, or going to the birthday party, is a reasonable decision. Parents often make this more fraught than it needs to be. If you're tired of skating in the Freestyle 5 number because you've done it five times, well, just don't do it. Don't gripe about it, don't complain about it. Simply skip the show this one time. In fact, you can still volunteer with a show you don't skate in--help out with the tots, or sell programs, or work in the costume shop.

If you have a conflicting dance recital, or chorus performance, or church pageant, choose the one that is more important, or flip that coin. Literally nothing is at stake in the eventual choice, but the socialization of a child is at stake in the choosing.

May 1, 2010

Coaches are people too

I recently ran into a former student and her mother at the store, which is always fun.

Well, almost always.

In this instance, what I got was not "hey Xan, fancy meeting you here!" but an immediate diatribe about how our program could better accommodate this parent's child. I offered brief advice and tried to make my escape, but mom did not want to give in until I agreed with her. Since her idea was unworkable, for reasons too complex to get into while I was trying to shop, I refused to give in and repeated my advice with a smile while backing slowly away.


Like I said, it's usually fun to run into students off-campus, as it were. Especially with the once-a-weekers I often don't recognize them, because they look so different without skates (shorter), hats (who knew she was a blonde?), and coats (heavens, she's not fat, she's bundled!). So I have my all-purpose "hey buddy! howeryadoin!" (what the heck is this child's name?) and we have a big smile and sometimes a hug.

The tweens usually look a little sheepish, wondering what greeting a teacher will do for their street cred. The former students give a baffled, do I know you? greet and move on.

Coaches have lives, just like you do. We shop, and we go to the library. We take our kids to school and attend political protests, or church, or book club. We have no problem making skating acquaintances a part of that larger life; what we don't want is for your personal skating issues to intrude on that life at inappropriate times. Talk to me in the rink, send me an email, invite me to coffee.

Don't demand that I fix the problems of the skating world when I'm trying to pick up milk.