Jul 31, 2010

My other life

We get from people what we need from them. In an odd way, friendships can be rich while still one-dimensional.

I don't have much knowledge of my close friends' business lives. I have a good idea of what they do, and we talk about it sometimes, but no real connection or interaction with that aspect of their lives. We've all experienced the intensity and intimacy of work friendships that then drop without a trace when one of you changes jobs. It is very difficult to maintain even the closest work friendship when you don't see the person every day any more.

Your relationship with your or your child's coach is the same way, narrowed further by the very specific need and limited contact. Very few coaches are able to make a full-time living at the profession; it's fascinating to find out what the coach's other lives are.

I'm an experienced arts manager, with 30 years experience in marketing and development (fundraising) for small and mid-sized organizations. At my rink, there's a coach who's a real estate agent, and a couple who are grade school teachers. Another is the head hostess at a high end restaurant, and another an actor who appears in "industrials" (the kinds of films you see at trade shows, for instance). There's a coach who is a physical therapist assistant, and another who is about to get a doctorate in speech therapy; still another was in divinity school. One of my favorites is the coach who owns several small apartment buildings, and is basically the "super" when he's not on the ice. The head synchro coach is a government lawyer, of all things, and the other one runs the back room at a major skating retailer.

Their hobby lives are equally fascinating. There's the dour, quiet coach who spends every vacation with his entire extended family in exotic locations (I'm talking sisters, kids, cousins, aunts, you name it). There's a really good soccer player, who plays on a pretty high-end amateur league. There's a national Synchro medalist. I garden (a lot). A couple of them are serious Triathlon and marathon athletes.

Remember the next time you think your coach isn't devoted enough to you, that coaches have lives outside work, just like you do. Sometimes (most of the time) they have lives outside of two jobs. Think about this before you pick up the phone to call them at 10:30 at night. And if there are any skating directors among you, think about this next time you have a problem to solve in your program.

You'd be amazed at what we know when we're off the ice.

Jul 23, 2010

The Senior's Dilemma

It's fall of senior year. You're filling out college applications, and trying to stay in your seat, knowing that by March you can phone it in. Senioritis is creeping up. You're done. You're about to turn 18 and the world is opening up.

If you are a skater, what you are apparently NOT doing is now clear: you're not going to Nationals. You're not going to skate on the top competitive Synchro team because you're leaving town. You're not going to land all your triples.

So what ARE you going to do with your skating during that Senior year? You've invested a lot of time, energy, money, and fights with mom in this and you love it. Is this it? How can you be done, at the age of 17, with something you love so much (continue this in teenage girl fashion, "it isn't fair, and it's all your fault, mom!") (jk)

Actually, there are lots of things you can still do, and if you've been listening to your Xanboni, you know how to set and adapt a goal. Here's some ideas:

Make a serious commitment to moving up the USFS test structure. If you're only tested through Juvenile, try to get through Intermediate Moves and FS, and even Novice. With an Intermediate Freeskating test you qualify to teach at just about any rink in the U.S. If you're at Novice or Junior, commit to getting through the Senior test by the end of your last summer at home. With a Senior test, you're putting yourself, at the age of 18, in the top pay bracket at many skating schools.

Ask the synchro coach and skating director at your rink if you can start a "baby synchro" team, for kids in the Learn to Skate levels. Even strong PreAlpha skaters can do a lot of synchro moves. Make the project a Senior year Independent Study for credit. If your Synchro coach has a PSA Master rating, join the PSA (more about that in a minute), and make the project an official PSA Apprenticeship. (A good resume builder for that skating job!)

Join the PSA, the Professional Skaters Association. If you're going to be looking for skating jobs, PSA membership is another big sign saying "this is a serious coach." You can sign on as an Intern (ages 16 and 17), or Associate or Full Member once you're 18. Go to local PSA training seminars, take the Basic Accreditation and the Sports Science Exams (on line), and start working toward your first ratings. Commit to having a couple of ratings by the end of college. (Doing the ratings exams is a great summer project for a college-age skater.)

Don't like Synchro? Do an independent study by arranging, promoting, directing and skating in your own year-end skating exhibition. Ask the rink to donate the ice, and find local sponsors to cover photocopying and other costs. Invite all the seniors at the rink, the synchro team, and selected other skaters (for instance, everyone who skates with your coach). If there's a "name" skater at your rink (i.e. someone who's made it past regionals), or one of the coaches is a well-known skater (we've got a former World Champ at our rink, for instance, and this is not uncommon), ask them to skate as the Special Guest skater.

Tired of training? How about learning hockey or speedskating? Figure skaters who switch to hockey absolutely kill, because their skating skills are so far superior to the kids who have come up just through hockey. Plus, that's where all the boys are. But hockey is not the only ice discipline you can switch to. If you've already got your Senior Moves and Freeskating tests, think about trying to test as many of the compulsory dances as you can. (While you still can. They just got rid of compulsories at the Qualifying levels.)

Are your parents cool? Tell them you want to do a "gap year" (or three, ahem) and skate in a show on a cruise line, or with one of the traveling shows like Disney on Ice. There are always ads in the PSA and USFS magazines, or ask around your rink and see if any of the coaches are former show skaters who still have connections. (Most shows require tests of just Novice or above, and two solid doubles. Show skaters with double axels are superstars; it's not that common in shows.) Put in the college apps as planned; most colleges will defer admission for one or two years or more. (My daughter's college was still trying to get her to come after three years-- in fact, they were willing to defer not only the admission, but the aid package as well.)

Find out if you can do Junior coaching at your rink, either through an established program, or as the assistant of one or more of the staff coaches, for both classes and privates.

You could also do skills goals, like "land a triple jump" but I think these are harder to pursue when there's a specific calendar date by which it must happen.

The point is, the goal-setting doesn't end with the dream. If you're a talented, competitive skater who hasn't made it out of Regionals by your sophomore year, you already know that you're done.

But, remember, you're only done with that. Skating is a huge world involving all ages and abilities. Old ice skaters never die, they just glide away.

Jul 19, 2010

Suzie's going to Nationals! I think all she needs to do is skate in 10 ISI competitions, right?

Don't laugh. I'm pretty sure there are parents who think that's how you do it. As the competitive season gears up, it's important for parents and skaters to understand the relative importance of the various competitions, and what participation in them means.

Information gathering is enormously important for figure skating parents. Educate yourself about the sport and know what people are asking you and your skater to do. Check out sources like IceMom, who has a great post up full of definitions, About.com's Jo Ann Schneider-Farris for encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of the sport, and of course the USFS and ISI websites, especially the parents' pages.

There is a hierarchy to competitions, and I'm going to go rogue here and tell you which ones you should get your knickers in a twist about, and which ones you should just do for fun. Often, the coach will not tell you that there is a level of seriousness about various types of competitions. Some coaches play up just the concept of competition, or don't put the brakes on parents who get too caught up. It might be ego, but more likely coaches just don't get what parents don't understand. When we were just starting out, I thought that you somehow had to gain "points" by going to a lot of competitions (otherwise why were we dragging her around to all these damned competitions--8 or 9 a season). I had no idea what Regionals was; I thought you had to be invited by someone on high, since we never went. Turned out that the coach had just tracked my daughter (who ended up, with a different coach, at Junior Nationals) into his non-competitive group, without ever asking us. Other parents reinforced this by saying things like "oh, weren't you invited to go to Regionals? (smirk snark)"

There's a quality, a career, and an emotional difference among the different types of competitions. Basic Skills and ISI competitions are for fun-- these are not on any sort of track, are open and accessible to skaters of all levels and abilities, and are geared to younger and lower level skaters. ISI also has a "Nationals" and even a "World" competition, but anyone can go by signing up. Qualification equals "write a check." Individual skating clubs run the so-called non-qualifying competitions. These are often the "regular calendar" competitions that everyone in your region goes to. In northern Illinois it's Southport Invitational, Chicago Open, Ladybug, WIM, Northern Blast, Rockford Open and a couple of others. There are also major club competitions that anyone can go to but that have greater prestige, attract serious competitive skaters, and are considered critical to the training calendar. These include competitions like the DuPage Open, the Broadmoor Open, the Detroit Open, the Lake Placid Ice Dance competition, etc. But again, the only qualification is the proper level skating test, and the price of admission.

The qualifying competitions are Regionals and Sectionals, at which you are trying to qualify for Nationals (by coming in first, second, third or fourth/alternate). Anyone who has the proper tests can sign up for Regionals-- there's no qualifier for Regionals. From there you have to advance based on placement.

Update: A commenter found a link for a very helpful .pdf on the competition structure at USFS (I have seen this before and forgot about it. Thanks, commenter!)

Don't let parents of extremely active coaches make you feel like you're doing something wrong because you don't do competitions, or you don't do certain competitions. Through Regionals, you get to go to competition by paying a fee. That's it. No one competition is better than any other. You go to the "big" club competitions like Detroit in order to get on the ice with the up-and-comers, and you'll probably get a better quality of judge and technical specialist, but other than that, it just depends on how much you want to spend.

So here I go, off the reservation:
The only competitions you should spend serious money and emotional commitment on are the Qualifying competitions: Regionals, Sectionals, Nationals.
These are the competitions that put your name in lights. Nearly all the other competitions are for recreational skaters, including very serious recreational skaters, and "tourists" (i.e. no chance of winning, but out to skate with the big dogs). Yes, highly competitive skaters compete at some Club competitions, but mostly at those few select non-qualifying club competitions.

So how do you know what track you're on? How do you know whether or not your coach is thinking about working toward Nationals? First of all, if your coach hasn't talked to you about it, you're not on a track toward Nationals. Your are also not on that track if:
  • your skater only skates in local or regional nonqualifying competitions, especially if your skater is 13 or younger and tested Preliminary through Intermediate.
  • your skater is older than 13 and is tested only Juvenile or under, or older than 16 and only at Intermediate. They have "aged out" of those levels and cannot skate in qualifying competition until they take the Intermediate and higher tests.
  • your skater has never taken a USFS free skating test.
  • you don't know what the prior statement means.
  • your coach has never taken you to Regionals.
  • your coach has never talked to you about Regionals.
  • you have no idea what "Regionals" is.
  • you have never had a conversation with your coach about how to become a serious competitive figure skater, (including the "should" your skater do this).
I watched a girl have a complete and utter meltdown over a 2nd place finish at our rink's ISI competition last week. This was so completely out of proportion to what was at stake that I could only blame the coach, who clearly had overplayed the importance of this event. Frankly, I'm not entirely convinced that this coach understands the system. I really believe that coaches do not understand that parents don't know the difference between their little ISI competition and getting to Nationals.

Yes, you have to start somewhere, like your own rink's ISI or Basic Skills competition, and just about every skater does. But where parents should start is by understanding the terms, educating themselves, and not getting snookered by a coach who can make just as much money dragging you from competition to competition as she/he can by actually cluing you in.

Jul 16, 2010

Fall ice

To most people, summer is just hitting its high, with the hottest days and the August vacations still to come.

For skaters, it's time to start thinking about autumn ice.

For competitive skaters summer is what we call "early pre-season." It's the time to choose music, work on the new program, nail the new jump and create that perfect level IV spin. You're working hard, but the goal right now is simply working hard. Late pre-season starts in August, when you're revving up the intensity of your work outs, starting run throughs, and putting the finishing touches on the costume. The first significant non-qualifying club competitions are in August, and Regionals comes in late autumn.

Seriously competitive skaters already have their schedules and their training plans in place, but what about the rest of us? From once-a-week class participants to recreational competitors (who don't necessarily go to Regionals, or haven't a prayer of getting any farther than that), it's also time to start thinking about the fall. Here are some things to line up:

What's your goal for this year?
This can be to master a skill like a jump or a spin. You might be aiming to pass a level (or more) in class, or to take (or starting taking) tests, whether USFS or ISI. It can be to skate a certain number of hours per week, or to start private lessons. Whatever it is, you should define it, and work towards it. If the skater is a young child (8 or under) you can guide this goal, but the skater has to own it, even a very young one (for skaters this young, call it a "promise"). For tweens, 9 to 13, the parent and coach can start the conversation, but the skater has to set the goal. Teenagers might be given a nudge to think about it, but most of the process has to come from them.

Goal setting for skating is one of those skating-teaches-life-lessons things, and aside from knowing your budget is the most important thing you'll do in skating each year. If you can afford either private lessons or synchro, but not both, you've got to think hard about what your goals are, and be happy with your choice.

What else are you doing, besides skating?
This is critical to understand for many reasons. First, the other things you're doing take up time. Other sports, school government, church, mosque, or temple responsibilities, college applications all require commitment. Know where these commitments will balance with skating, where they'll take precedence, and where they can be deemphasized. Check the schedule for conflicts and resolve them now, including letting the coach know.

What's your family up to?
Are there vacations planned? Is grandma coming for a visit? Are there going to be transportation issues? All these things will affect your skating schedule and progress; if you understand upfront what's going on in the rest of your life, your skating life will run more smoothly, and you'll be able to adjust your expectations (both up and down).

What can you afford?
This should probably be first on the list, because along with time, it's the thing that somehow seems to creep up on skating families. Have a skating budget ("we can afford $$ per week for ALL skating expenses), but also have a contingency budget so that if an uexpected expense (let's call it an opportunity) comes up, you can cover it guilt-free. We take all the singles out of our wallets every night and set them aside. You will be amazed at how quickly this adds up. Remember that skating expenses includes not just classes, lessons and practice ice, but also off-ice training, training clothes, synchro fee, USFS & ISI membership, competition fees, costume, and travel (even a competition across town is probably going to involve a meal), etc. Don't be afraid to tell the coach exactly what your budget is, and how much flexibility you're likely to have.

And finally, the most important question for a skater to ask themselves, now certainly, but also at every step of the way:

Are you still having fun?

Jul 11, 2010

Don't be this parent

I just got back from our annual ISI competition today. ISI is the figure skating federation that focuses on the recreational skaters-- the ones who now, and probably only and always, do it just for fun and the love of the sport. Don't get me wrong, there are some very talented, motivated skaters in ISI, and their top levels- Freestyle, Dance, and Pairs 10- have more challenging tests than the comparable USFS tests.

But the focus is fun.

One of the ways we make sure of this is the "everybody gets a medal, and all tots win first place" philosophy. Flights are small-- 1 to 5 people-- so that you can credibly do this. I love hearing all the clinking hardware at the end of an ISI competition, or see the kids juggling mulitple trophies. Sometimes the kids will brag "I got a First AND a second AND a third AND a fourth" as though it's a collection. Tots get first place no matter what, so that they (and their parents) get a big shiny trophy. For a 3-year-old, this is huge.

That's the set up.

Today, we had a wonderful 3-year-old skater. She did an entire program from memory, covering the entire ice, doing what I can only call a well-balanced program: a lot of different elements, responsive to the music, with energy and personality. But the coach had changed the music, and the mother forgot that this had happened, having sent the child skating only with the nanny for the past two months.

When the music came on, the mother flipped. First she stormed into the music booth and attempted to physically remove the CD while the child was skating, screaming at the announcer the whole time. Then she went into the lobby, where she was verbally abusive of the skating director (mind you, the child is still skating; mom is not watching, she's too busy flipping out over the 3-year-old's music). When the child was done, the mother got abusive with her relatives who were trying to calm her down. Then she moved on to the child's coach, and then to another coach who tried to ask her to please tone it down (we're talking screaming f-bombs in the lobby) as there were a lot of children present.

I want to emphasize that this was a Tot 1 program for 3 year olds at a local ISI competition.

There is never any excuse for this sort of behavior.

This was not the case here, but there are probably scenarios that we could come up with where heads should roll in figure skating. Maybe the coach blows off a major competition. Or says something inappropriate to a student or parent at a competition. I don't know. I guess you could come up with reasons to be publicly upset at a competition.

It is never okay to run with that. If you feel you must, calmly remove your child from the venue, explaining "something came up, I'm sorry, we have to go." Text the coach and let the competition director know you're withdrawing. Or let the child skate, pick up your trophy and take her home, then call and let the coach or the skating director have it, when the skater and other skaters/parents/judges/coaches/innocent bystanders are not there to observe.

There were coaches who felt that ISI should be called and have this family banned from competition. Imagine that? Your child banned from competition because you could not act like an adult? Others felt it unduly punished the child, but the coach in the music booth said he was seriously considering calling the police before he managed to get the mother to leave.

There is no competition so important--not at the local rink, not at the Olympics--that responsible behavior and appropriate ethics, not to say morals, are optional. And you know the worst part? She entirely missed seeing her beautiful daughter's adorable and excellent program. (Really, the program was excellent. One of the best tot programs I've seen.)

Think about this mother--abusive, out of perspective, and out of control-- next time you get upset at a competition. Don't be the parent that everyone talks about for the rest of the day.