Oct 8, 2010

Why figure skating needs pushy parents

What, exactly, makes a parent "pushy?" And why do we always use the term as though it's a bad thing? I don't know about you, but I don't know many 11 year olds who will get up at 5 a.m. every day to go freeze and fall on their butts over and over without a little whining. Or who then have the energy to finish their homework before an early bedtime, and then do it all again tomorrow.

You gotta push a little. In fact, you gotta push a lot. You've got to push a 10 year old to have the mindset of a 20-year-old, and a 15 year-old to approach their skating as though they're 25 year-old grad students, with that level of commitment, sacrifice and maturity.

So what's the difference between a pushy parent who's effective, and one who's just pushy?

First, it depends who you're pushing, and how. It's completely appropriate to push your skater to follow through on his or her commitments, to keep both the whining and the bragging within reasonable levels, and focus the skater's eye on the prize. Effective pushing means that everyone understands what the level of commitment is, that the skater practices, if not cheerily, at least effectively and consistently. It means being aware of the coach's plans and making sure the skater does the work, while not neglecting other critical parts of life. It means holding the line on late nights before early morning skating instead of indulging a skater because you also want them to just be ordinary kids.

Ambitious skaters, whether competitive or just pushing through the test structure, aren't ordinary kids.

But a lot of parents think that pushing means pushing the coach, while letting the skater coast, or that public confrontations with the skater, the ice monitor, the coach, or the rink staff are necessary to get them to behave the way you want. They think that pushing is necessarily adversarial, and set themselves up in opposition to everyone on the team, as though no one else is quite as committed as they.

If you push a skater to do something they don't want to do, you'll push them right out of the rink. If you push a coach to do it your way, you'll end up fired (yes, that's what we call it, when we drop a student.) This is why it's important to have regular discussions about goals, both with the skater and with the coach. If your skater is telling you they don't want to compete, but it's your lifelong dream to have them be national champ, you are the one who is going to have to concede. Pushing a kid to do something against their deepest inclination is a recipe for failure.

Of course, we all know the skater who says, at 21, "why didn't you push me, I really wish I'd done X." I've got one of those in my own family, now regretting that she didn't continue to compete in Ice Dance. But you know what? Her life isn't ruined-- she just missed one of many many opportunities she'll have in her life, and she learned a valuable lesson about when to push yourself to do something hard. If we'd pushed her to compete when she wasn't ready, she'd likely have quit skating entirely.

Conversely, if you don't push at all, if you keep making excuses for illnesses, or for vacations, or over cost, or whatever; if you let the child sleep in "just this once" (or twice or a couple of times a week), if you stop pushing, the kid will get the message. You are telling them that the skating is not important, or that their momentary needs and desires are more important than the end game. I think that, in skating, the opposite of pushy is indulgent, and I'll take the pushy parent over the indulgent one any day of the week.

If the goal is multiple Gold tests, or a trip or two to Nationals, the parent needs to push, but with the coach and the skater. You cannot fight the coach over training schedule or regimen, or resist the regimen he or she has set up. You cannot dictate the training schedule; if you were qualified to do that, you'd be the coach. I see this all to often-- a parent thinks "well I know my kid, and this is what's best for her." Maybe. But you don't know figure skating, and frankly, high level figure skating brings out different aspects of your child, ones that you won't see elsewhere. Pushing at the coach to let you be in charge, or pushing the skater to fulfill your own goals is how you end a skating career, not how you manage one.

Imagine a triangle. The coach is at one point, the parent at another, and the skater at the third. They're standing palm-to-palm-to-palm and pushing as hard as they can each against the other. If one of them pushes so hard that the other one gives in, everyone tumbles to the ground. But if everyone pushes equally they'll create a strong and stable relationship around a solid center.


  1. Does it make sense to push a skater?

    Look at this month's Skating magazine. Page 7 tells us that there are 170,000 members of USFSA. Page 26 tells us that 39 of them got to go to Champs Camp.

    With those kind of odds, it's a rare skater who has both the talent and the drive to be a champion. If you have to push your child, you should be asking yourself the question, "Does my child really have what it takes to be a national champion?"

  2. You could use that argument for any endeavor. When I started art school, there were 300 "painting" majors. When I graduated there were just 15 of us left. Of those, only 2 are still working artists. How many of us would be artists still if we'd had someone pushing us harder to sacrifice for that dream? External pressure is not in and of itself a bad thing; it's only bad, like anything, when it's misused.

    Just because the odds are slim doesn't mean you shouldn't even try. And parents are a critical piece of the effort.