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).
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.