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.


  1. Great post, Xan! I love the stickers idea, but I think I'm going to see if Ice Coach will adapt it to suit Ice Girl. Instead of stickers: crystals.

    Few things motivate Ice Girl or Ice Coach like bling.

  2. "I was going to land my axel, but I got distracted by something sparkly"

  3. I love the stickers idea! My past two pair of skates were covered in stickers. (that I bought, I did not earn them for landing jumps) I'll suggest this to my coach.

  4. Stickers worked great for my 4 yr old for the first few times. Then it doesn't make much difference. May she got bored of it? Maybe she can't tell the difference between 5 or 6 or more?

    I never gave her anything for her practices. I just told her if she doesn't practice, there is a good chance that she will fail the exam and repeat the same move all over again. She seems to understand and is making a better use of her practice session

  5. Anon, is she still four? Why is she worrying about exams? She needs to just go out and have fun. A better way to get very young children like that to learn specific moves, skills, and patterns is to put them in a program (I call it a "dance" when they're that young).

    But you're right about the shelf life of individual types of rewards and bribes. Gotta keep changing it up!

  6. I think of our big rewards more like Girl Scout badges. More of a celebration of long term hard work and accomplishment. Plus, I need time to save up money to pay for a Zucca bag. ;-)

    Although, I'm sticking to the chocolate treat for practicing moves test. She'd do it anyway, but comes off the ice happier knowing there is a bag of M&Ms at the end of all those 5-step mohawk sequences. It's like... I love my job, but there are some days when looking forward to my feet on the sofa and a milkshake in my hand is what gets me through.

  7. “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

    Right now we're chasing those ISI patches! He told me I needed to get the Car Magnet of a boy skater in an "Arabesque" position... I said once he does it on the ice, I'd get the magnet. I think that counts, too!