Jun 4, 2010

The competitive kids

There are major training centers throughout North America where the elite coaches work their magic- Southern California, Florida, Toronto, Detroit, Delaware, Boston, Colorado. If you've got an ambitious skater and you're lucky enough to live near one of these facilities, a lot of the anxiety created by travel, lack of resources (monetary, physical/facility, and human), and their associated costs will be allayed.

But you can develop national talent outside these centers as well, and frankly you have to, because simply not every national medal winner is going to magically come from a family near these places. (There are 480 skaters/teams competing for 90 national medals in the US, remember; it's not just about Olympic gold. Five levels Juvenile through Senior compete nationally, with 24 finalists in each discipline reaching for 4 medals awarded starting with 4th place Pewter.) A lot of them move to the training centers eventually, especially at the Junior and Senior levels, but they start out in Your Hometown USA.

So what happens when you suddenly find yourself with a nationals skater? You freak out, that's what, if my experience is anything to go by. Here's where the freak out happens, and what to do about it.

Coach just got me to nationals, now she wants a raise. This is perfectly reasonable; you reward your employees for merit, and you give them cost-of-living increases as well. In fact, if you did not come up with the concept of a bonus for the coach after your kid won, shame on you. If the coach increases her rates, don't use the request as an opportunity for threats or blackmail (i.e. "if you charge more we'll go with someone else"). You're in Backwater, Vermont, remember? There is no one else. But you can negotiate, because the coach does not want to lose her national skaters.

We used to work with a coach four hours a week, now he wants us to work 10 hours per week. Yup. Spotlight's on you folks, you better deliver in year two or it's all over.

But he wants to charge us for all the extra time! He won't do it for the same money as 4 hours! Um, hello, what? Personally I don't think coaches of elite skaters should be giving more than about a 25% break in cost anyway (sort of a volume discount). It's just not fair to them, because the coaching time that your skater is using is coaching time he can't sell to someone else at full price. If your coach offers you a deal that seems too good to be true, it is. Paying a coach too little is going to cause resentment and a feeling of entitlement on the coach's side, and a painful increase in costs for you when she realizes that she cannot afford to do this anymore, or when you decide to go skate with Brian Orser and find out that he does NOT do volume discounts.

The coach has started being "mean" to my kid. This is where I went hugely wrong (among other things. I was like a textbook for "how not to prepare for nationals"). I did not understand the difference between strict and adult, and mean, and I let my kid know it, so she lost her respect for the coach. Skating in a national competition is a very adult thing to do. Immature kids, and touchy parents, don't cut it. If your skater (or you) cannot handle criticism without the sugar coating, find a different activity. Best thing you can do if it bothers you is get out of the arena. Stop watching.

The coach won't listen to me no matter how much I scream at her in the lobby. Unfortunately, everyone else is listening, and possibly writing it down, so they can post it to Facebook later.

This other coach told me that our coach is [fill in inappropriate interference here]. You are in violation of USFS Parents Responsibilties (at the national level they make you sign them) for engaging in this conversation, and Other Coach is in violation of every principal of ethics there is. Turn him off or turn him in.

This other mom told me that our coach is [fill in inappropriate interference here]. Stop sitting with that mom. If you can't avoid her, just smile and nod smile and nod smile and nod.

There's a major pre-season competition coming up, but we always go to California for the three weeks just before. We can just work with someone down there, right? Or skate a whole bunch when we come home. Nope. The competition schedule now rules your lives. Adapt. There's this time of year called "Rest" when the coach will kick you out of the rink. That is now your vacation time. Rework the schedule.

My kid wants to start skating at 5:30 because the ice is more empty then. I don't want to get up! (Corollary- the coach found better ice, but it's almost an hour's drive and that's too far. Additional corollary- we just got tickets to Billy Elliott during his regular practice, so we won't be there tomorrow.) Now I'm not even listening to you. Notice that look of utter incredulity on the kid's and the coach's faces? It's because you're not getting it yet. But they are. This is now your skater's job. And just like your job, you are not in charge of the schedule.

I have no one to talk to about my anxiety and concerns.
Okay, now I AM listening. Because this is the hardest part. At one of the big training centers, there are lots of skaters on national tracks. Once you hit the podium at Novice, USFS puts you on the team envelope, which means additional training and competitions for the kids, and therefore contact with other parents in the same boat for you, as well as seminars put on by USFS Parent Committee. But right now, you feel really isolated, and you are. You can't talk to parents of less successful skaters, because it looks like bragging, or fishing, plus they won't really understand what you're going through. It's awkward to talk to parents of equally successful skaters whom you know. It's against the rules to complain to another coach.

Here's what one mother of an elite skater told me:
"It is difficult to speak to parents without emotional involvement. Someone is going to get their feelings hurt. [At the lower levels especially,] they have such a LONG way to go in this sport. While the kids may get along, parents who get over-involved usually are the result of [a skater's stalled career or a team's breakup]. But there are parents out there who have been there, done that. There are sources through PSA and USFS parents' committee, too. Just know that some things [the coach and their friends] can control and some [they] can't. Either way, there is no win-win. You're either going to get involved more than you want or you're going to have to step back. So much depends on them, not on [the people around them]."
But there are things you can do before you reach that level, and trust me, if you don't do them, you won't reach that level.
  • Read the blogs. There's a couple of great ones from parents who have done this. Check out Life on the Edge by Allison Scott, mother of Jeremy Abbott. Allison's wisdom, courage, and spirit are inspirational. Especially go back and read the posts about Jeremy's road to the Olympics, and read this wonderful post (hoping that you don't recognize yourself). Deb Chitwood, mother of a former national US pairs skater and a current UK world team ice dancer writes Raising Figure Skaters, another great source of insight into the world of elite skater parenting.
  • Find other parents in your area who have been there and done. Go out for coffee, far away from the rink, and vent. You'll find that, first, what you're experiencing is not unique, and second, that they'll have good advice (some of which may hurt) because they'll have the perspective of distance.
  • Get in touch with your local representative of the Parents Committee at US Figure Skating (or its Canadian counterpoint if you're in Canada) and ask them if there are resources in your area, or if you can just relay your concerns to them.
Your skater is one of fewer than 500 kids who has done what 50,000 little girls and boys in UnderArmour leggings dream every single day. You and your skater are unique, lucky, and blessed. That road can dump you on what could have been, or it can take you on an empowering journey for your whole family.

On behalf of those of us who missed the turnoff, don't blow it.


  1. Just out of curiosity, is NJ (near NYC) one of those places?

  2. I didn't list all the places with elite centers, just the ones that sprang immediately to mind. There are, as you say, the one in New Jersey, as well as in Texas, and a couple in California, among others that it was outside the scope of this post to research.