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.

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