Oct 13, 2010

How good is perfect?

One of the most common whines I hear from students (and parents, truth be told) is "but I already know how to do that, can't we learn something new?" And the answer is, yes, you can learn to do this skill at a higher level, with fewer errors and more art. Because to learn any skill, whatever the art or discipline, you have to go through stages.

Stage one: Introduction
Every level, from a tot learning how to fall and get up, to a National champion learning a quad, starts with the introduction of the skill, and every skill, no matter how basic, has a level before it; something you already know how to do. Even that tot; the pre-skating skill that they already have is walking. Which is what I tell them-- you already know how to walk! Let's walk on the ice!

Introducing skills involves a lot of review, and a lot of explanation. You have to find creative ways to make it interesting; recreational skaters especially don't want to take the time to go from A to B to C. They want to jump from A to N and skip all that boring stuff in between. You introduce tots to the ice by playing games and using toys; you introduce adults to speed by tricking them into skating without stopping (see the 30-minute warm up). You introduce freestyle skaters to an axel by breaking it down and having them do each skill in sequence.

Stage two: Acquisition,
Acquisition means making the skill your own, i.e. "acquire" it. This is as simple as mileage (just doing it over and over) and is the hardest part of the process, because you can't really avoid the drudgery of it. Further, a lot of skaters acquire skills poorly or even wrong. Once you've learned something wrong, and really gotten it into the muscle memory, fixing it is agonizing. I've got a student right now who has figured out an easier way to do a flip. Unfortunately, it's also entirely wrong (i.e., not a flip) but getting her to unlearn it is proving extremely challenging.

In a complex activity like skating, every step must be drilled. Failure hurts, literally. Again, you resort to games, challenges, threats (I suppose I can't threaten bodily harm, but you'd be amazed how effective it is to threaten a kid with devoting an entire lesson to some hated drill.)

Stage three: Mastery
You master a skill when you do it over and over. Mastery means not only perfecting the skill, but also refining it. You'll often hear people refer to a skater who "makes it look easy." This is a skill that is mastered. The skater doesn't have to think about it; her body knows what to do. It's why you get that look of surprise when a skill falls apart--that skater has reached a level of mastery where they simply expect it to be there for them. The true masters can salvage that moment and still pull off the skill.

If you only skate a couple of hours a week, you won't reach mastery. Period. You'll have a high level of acquisition on a skill, but mastery takes hard work and time. It means doing the boring edge and turn drills as well as the fun jumps and spins, and always trying to skate "up" and not just doing the same things you already know over and over.

The biggest mistake I see skaters make is thinking that learning stops with mastery, or worse, at acquisition, or worse yet, that acquisition means mastery. That's where you get the whine "I already know that." One of the most frustrating skaters to coach is the one who makes the same mistake repeatedly, even after having the mistake pointed out to them and corrected. The skater relies on his or her own false sense of mastery-- which is really just their muscle memory and comfort level-- to resist reaching true mastery of the skill.

Learning never stops. Even once you've mastered the skill, you can take it to another level.

Stage four: Enhancement

Two-time Junior World Men's champion Adam Rippon does quads, and all the triples; where do you go from there? Well, you enhance the triple lutz by jumping it with both arms over your head, probably the most difficult jump anyone in the world does right now. You don't get much better than Adam, and there he is enhancing the best skating in the world.

Everyone from beginners to world champs has skills that they can enhance, and you can use this all along the way from introduction to mastery, to lighten the burden of acquiring or mastering a skill. For PreAlpha students I do "silly" glides-- one foot glides in goofy positions. They're thinking enhancement while I'm getting them mileage. Freestyle students can start learning jump combos and sequences, spin features, and choreographic spirals, which also serves to introduce them to choreography skills and IJS terminology.

So, back to the original question: How good is perfect? It's as good as a little better than the best you can do today. Keep working at it!


  1. I like the way you've outlined these stages. As a (very) beginning skater, I've never had the feeling that I really know how to do anything! Still, I do get bored practicing the same things over and over. Seeing these phases broken out gives me a better perspective.

    On a similar note, I used to get annoyed when my coach would tweak something I learned. He'd tell me to do it one way then a few weeks later he'd have me do it slightly differently. Aaargh! He helpfully explained the building-block nature of learning to skate. In fact, he very dramatically said, "I build you like legos. If one piece is missing you will fall apart."

    So, does this mean "practice makes perfect" isn't true in figure skating? *shrugs*

  2. One of the most difficult aspects of figure skating culture for latecomers and outsiders is that no one cares what you can already do. Figure skaters dole out the praise very stingily-- it's not about what you've done. It's about what you'll do next.