Sep 3, 2010

So you want to be a figure skating coach!

Unlike most youth sports, American figure skating seems to discourage volunteer parent coaches, even when there are parents who were former high test figure skaters or collegiate hockey players. Conversely, there is no national certification standard-- it will vary from rink to rink and club to club, and no requirement that coaches have any sort of certification. Pretty much if you can demonstrate an ability to not go splat, and you can get someone to hire you, that's all it takes.

There is a certification path, which I've spoken about, the Professional Skaters Association ratings, which is a series of four oral exams in a broad range of skating disciplines, for instance Group Instruction, Free Skating, Moves in the Field, Synchro, and Ice Dance. However, coaches who do not participate in USFS sanctioned events are not required even to be members of the PSA, and there is no level of coaching that requires a rating. There are a few rinks that require all coaches to be members of PSA (the PSA calls this "Exellence on Ice" and the moniker is awarded to rinks where all coaches are members).

There is no college program that I have been able to find that offers a degree in figure skating coaching. You could probably do a PE or Rec degree with an independent study, but you'd have to make up your own course work; since figure skating is not an NCAA sport (can we change that please?) there is also no college course work or scholarship program.

So becoming a coach is both easy (no required course work or continuing education) and hard (no guides or rules).

So how DO you become a coach?

First, start with group classes, and by that I mean the beginners. Don't walk into a rink demanding only to teach the high level skaters because you're too good for the beginners. The old pros will roll their eyes and put you down so fast your head will spin (independently of the rest of your body).

Second, coaching is a profession. Join the professional associations-- USFS, ISI, and PSA. (see the side bar for links) By the way, to be a full member of the PSA you have to actually be a professional-- you need to be paid for teaching. However, there are intern and associate levels as well.

Second, acknowledge that teaching requires more than the ability to land a solid double flip. There are plenty of coaches with solid doubles at my rink. But everybody comes to me (highest jump-- toe loop) when there are eight screaming three-year-olds to deal with, or an Alpha class with 27 kids in it. To learn how to work with groups, start attending USFS Basic Skills Seminars and ISI District Seminars in your area. Put your attendance at these on your resume.

Other than that, it depends on where you are in your training:

If you're a young skater with an ISI 6+ or USFS Intermediate test:
You qualify to teach in just about any club or skating school I've ever heard of, where they do have minimum requirements (minimum requirements are fairly rare). Start talking to area skating directors about either getting hired as one of the assistant coaches, or find a junior coaching program in your area. If you're college age, same thing at your school's or the local rink. See if your old skating director will let you teach in a summer program during the break, or talk to local summer camps to see if they have skating field trips, and offer your services as the teacher. In other words, start building a resume.

Young coaches should also consider finding a mentor-- your own coach, or another older coach who's into group classes-- and look into the PSA Apprenticeship program, with an eye toward ratings. I think it's a great idea to make it a goal to have at least a Registered (the lowest) rating in at least one discipline by the time you graduate from college. Or maybe do one rating each summer, so by the time you graduate you might have a Master (highest) rating, or a couple of Certified, or four Registered. I know if I was a skating director and some 22-year old came to me with an Intermediate Free Style test and Registered ratings in Synchro, Dance, Group, and Free Skating (for instance), I'd hire them on the spot.

If you're a former high-test or competitive skater trying to get back into teaching:
Put together a resume, and see above. If you're still in the area where you grew up, your former skating mates are the current coaches and even skating directors. See who's working where and see if you can get hired by an old friend, or a friend of a friend.

If you're an adult skater, with your adult gold test, or competing at a Gold or Master level:
See above. You fall into the same category as the other high test skaters trying to teach. Be prepared for a certain amount of, shall we say scepticism from the other coaches. There is a lot of contempt for adult skaters out there. I always find it amusing when fellow coaches start disparaging adult skaters, because they've forgotten that I'm one myself.

If you're an adult skater who hasn't tested, or is still in the Basic Skills or Learn to Skate classes:
You need to get your skating skills up to at least a Freestyle 3/FreeSkate 3-4 level. You really should be able to do at least a salchow and a toe loop at a minimum. If you think that's where you'll top out (like I did), work on higher jumps off-ice. I learned how to do an axel off-ice; I never put it on the ice, not being completely insane, but I can do the multiple rotation. At the same time, offer to be a volunteer for the tot and beginner classes, and for the low level groups in the ice show. You'll start learning how to be comfortable standing on the ice (standing around waiting for beginners to get all the way across is a skill in itself; you'd be surprised how hard it is), and you'll get to observe the experienced teachers in action.

If you're going to get hired, it will most likely be at the rink where you're volunteering. But not necessarily. In an urban area where there are lots of rinks and lots of high level skaters it's going to be harder than in more remote areas. I was very lucky to have encountered a skating director with a lot of guts and imagination when I started this journey; without her I don't think I'd be doing this right now.

I love to skate. I love the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of having command over my body to do something difficult. But teaching takes it to another whole level of joy. It allows you to continue your love affair with ice after your body decides it's not so crazy about being exhilarated any more.

Landing an axel is great. But putting a smile on a child's face is even greater.


  1. You are AWESOME! Thank you so much!

  2. Why do other coaches disparage adult skaters who want to teach? And no, I'm not thinking of becoming a coach, considering my skating will probably top out at...oh...three-turns.

  3. Why does there have to be any disparaging at all? I find it horrible that coaches would do it, how unprofessional. I admire that you find it amusing Xan, when it makes me gnash my teeth just reading your post.

  4. It's either laugh or cry. I will say that once you prove yourself, they take you into the fold. But you never see high test skaters having to "prove" themselves, and in fact I've seen high level skaters kill programs because the students don't care, or know, who you are if you can't teach. And yet, they get away with it in a way that someone with my background never would.

  5. Yeah, but at least the high test skaters have proved that they have the skating skills, and have probably experienced a lot of coaching. Not that those facts mean they can coach by any means, but it's a really important head start!

  6. I am currently teaching with a high test skater who had all triples. This person cannot teach a crossover, and is unclear on the concept of group lessons-- does all classes as a series of one on ones, which I'll tell you doesn't work in a class of 15 when you only have half an hour. So what exactly have they proved again by having this amazing skating ability?

  7. I stumbled upon your blog while trying to find something else from google. I have to say, I completely agree with many things that you say; there are a TON of great skaters who turn out to be horrible coaches. I know of several great coaches who never achieved more than an adult bronze medal.

    However, I think there is a lot to be said for having the ability to do (or maybe have done when you were younger) through at least doubles. Doubles and tripples are nearly the same in the way you go about learning them and there are so many specific movements that I feel must be experienced in order to fully understand how to teach them. Single jumps are easy to teach because they will come more naturally to beginners. But the doubles and on are more of a challenge for anyone to teach.

    I am by no means saying that anyone has to win Nationals in order to be a good coach. I agree that coaches who have less skating experience can sometimes make great coaches. The only part that bothers me is when I see someone coaching a student with a technique I know probably won't ever work because I have done it first-hand. And that is where the skating experience can sometimes be necessary.

    I really do think it is great that you are getting all of the education possible, though. That proves that you have some sense as to what you are doing.