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.


  1. Great overview! Education is so important in this sport!

  2. My Daughter just completed USFS Basic Skills. It is too soon to even think about skating in Regionals. At this point we are just taking it one level at a time. I try to put her in four competitions a year.

    The things I want her to gain from competing are skills that she can carry into other aspects of life. She gets to how learn planning, preparation, and the need for contingency planning come together to create success. She learns how to overcome those "butterflies" and go out there and perform. She learns that she needs to "bring it" -because everyone else wants first place just as much as she does. She gets the important lesson that judging is subjective and someone else might win even if you skate your program well. She learns how to gracefully lose, not beat yourself up about it and take each loss as a learning experience.

  3. Anon, you sound like you've really thought about why she should compete, and your coach is with the program. That's the best way to be.

  4. I think we're on the borderline. We've been taking things a bit more slowly than others up until this point - for a multitude of reasons that have to do with both our family and the sport - but we're doing a "test run" of upping the practice and the goals for the next year with next fall's Qualifying Regionals in sight.

    I'm tentative. The coach is convinced, but also very practical. We're a good team, lol. Now it's all up to seeing whether my skater is going to put the pedal to the metal or just talk a good game. ;-)

    Either way, my daughter will keep skating. There is too much more that is good about this sport than just aiming for a spotlight.

  5. Just one comment and I'd like to hear your thoughts:

    We were just at a big competition (we skated non-qualifying level) where the common wisdom is that more big-name skaters come here to 1) test their new programs, but also 2) because the competition hosts a lot of the judges who will also be judging at the national and international competitions. That this is the competition to give them a first look and get on their "radar".

    I know this assumes a whole lot of other things, but do you have any thoughts on this?

  6. Jozet, that's exactly the sort of competition I'm talking about. Alissa Czisny used to skate regularly at the DuPage Open, and a couple of highly competitive dance teams at a very under-the-radar competition in Highland Park Illinois of all places. Sometimes judges will let a coach know that they're going to be at such and such a competition; the coach then brings the skaters there for a test run. The competitions I named are known for this, and are a great place to skate with competitive skaters before you try Regionals. They'll often be like a mini-regionals with all the same skaters and judges, so it's a good place to test your nerve, so to speak.

    A coach that is aware of these things and how to take advantage of them is a coach to keep. Sounds like your coach is doing it right.

  7. Just found this handy dandy chart that covers the USFS test and competition structure:

    Silver Baldes