Oct 18, 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. Thank you for this so much, Xan. I more often feel that I am the right kind of pushy parent, but sometimes there is that gray line.

    As my kiddo moves up the ranks and adjust her goals, the hardest part has been adjusting the definition of "hard work". I'm not sure whether it's like this for every skater, but "hard work" at a lower level seems to be a lot different from the definition of "hard work" at higher levels. This latest move up has been tough on all of us - my daughter coming to the realization that she's at a level now where most all the skaters are good - or have been told they are good, or talented, or hard workers - and that her new 100% work ethic is actually 120% of what she had been doing before.

    We seem to be in a place where she is sort of "trying on" whether or not she wants to be a committed and dedicated as she now knows she needs to be to reach the next goal. I think that as a parent, there is a sort of arc of being pushy. I'll lay off a bit for now that we just came back from her big competition for the year, let my daughter re-work her own goals now knowing what it will take, then we have a big sit-down before I start writing checks. After that, I resume good pushiness and continue on an upward trend until we get to the competition.

    I don't know if I'm doing it right, but posts like this help me to keep my perspective.

  2. I must respectfully disagree that the parent has to push younger teens like me. I am entirely self motivated. I don't whine about falling, being cold etc. I work hard on everything, even spinning, which I hate. I also keep up my schoolwork and housecleaning to earn my skating, and I do off ice strength and flexibility training with no prompting from anybody.
    My mother does not push whatsoever, she just brings me and watches and pays. I had to push her hard to get the ice time and lessons I have right now, since she used to refuse to pay for anything except the group lessons. I also had to buy my own skates.

    And, yes, my coach pushes me, but for the most part I skate hard without complaints because I love the sport. I just think that if somebody in their tweens or teens is complaining about 5 am ice, do they truly love the sport and would die without it?

  3. Anonymous,

    That's great that you're self-motivated about skating! There are many kids your age who are self-motivated when it comes to sports or academics or arts or even just being a good friend and a compassionate person.

    And yes, of course, keeping up on chores and schoolwork maintaining B or higher - or just keeping up on being a nice person all around - is a non-negotiable for many parents of student athletes. Parents don't always actively push; I'd say that a parent who won't give her kid skating money if that child didn't keep up on schoolwork or housecleaning is also the "right kind" of pushy parent, just as a parent who puts up with whining might be a too permissive parent.

    But remember - before being too judgmental of any one parent/kid team, there are parents who have their kids on the ice for a lot of different reasons. For some parents and kids, it's not just about the skating. Some kids would never know what it means to work hard or hold to a bargain if they didn't have that underlying and basic "to die for" love of the sport. That is, nothing else would motivate those kids to even allow themselves to be pushed to challenge themselves or know what "work even harder" means.

    I just watched a video about prima ballerinas. One of the top ballerinas in the world said that without the imposed discipline of the school she attended for 10 years, she would have never internalized that discipline to use for later in her life. That it was hard as a kid, even though she loved ballet. And that there are still days when she dreads going into the studio to practice, wondering whether it's all too hard, whether she should quit. Hearing her and other ballerinas complain out loud like that and say she even thinks about quitting, I would never ask "does she truly love ballet". In fact, just the opposite - it lets me know that even with things I love to do, there will be hard days, and there will be days when I don't feel motivated.

    Whether it's a mom giving a "you can do it" to get a kid out of bed or my husband encouraging me to "go write; I know it's hard to do, but you know once you start you won't be able to stop", I don't think the point is to have to go it alone without support anymore than the point is for a parent to push hard and do all the work for someone else.

    When doing any kind of hard work, it's okay to vent and even complain a bit, as you say you do. As long as you're still doing the work. :-)

  4. Anonymous: you're that dream skater that we all envy; I left out that type of kid in this post because I wanted to focus on parental pressure. But I'll bet if you think about it you'll realize that what your parents did was create an environment where you could make those good choices. Like I said, there are all kinds of ways to push, and helping a child grow into the kind of young person who makes her own choices and motivates herself is one of them.

    You give me an idea for a vocabulary for "pushiness"-- let's call you parents "steery" i.e. they steer you to your good attitude, rather than pushing you for outcomes!

  5. My Mom is So pushy. She always yells at me and makes me run routines over and over and over. I always get first and always go the top figure skating competitions and that is why she does. At least she tells me. I personally hate her pushing me because I have a lot of self motivation and she does not see that. It is a royal pain in the a**. I am only 14 years old and she doesn't get that I have a social life. It's not just skating either. It's my grades (she expects 3.5 GPA), in gymnastics (I'm level 9) and in pageants that I do. It is so stupid. My dad totally agrees with her. And I go to an elite school and it's hard to keep up. My parents are soooooo ridiculous.