How do I tell when my child is ready?
Competition/performance readiness has less to do with skating skills than with the ability to understand and follow through on a goal. I don't think children should compete unless they understand on some level what this means. But I also don't think that competition necessarily means, or should mean, to a child what it means to a parent or a coach.
Clearly a four- or five-year old is not going to view competition as a chance to achieve a personal best, win a coveted trophy, or perform a difficult skill under pressure (all classic motivations for competing). However, it's perfectly fine for the 4-year old to understand they'll get the ice to themselves, or take home a medal or trophy (in ISI, everyone gets a medal or trophy, and all Tot levels get 1st place regardless of the number of competitors), or get a cool costume. That tiny child does however have to be able to understand and use some basic knowledge of competition, most importantly that you have to practice and that you have to learn and duplicate a program.
I view as ready to compete the kids who:
- are capable of memorizing a program and doing it substantially the same every time
- understand that skills in a program must be at the same level of technical excellence as skills demonstrated in isolation,
- understand that competitions mean winners, almosts, and losers. Your child needs to be emotionally ready not to come in first (and so do you)
- have or can be choreographed into some flair for showmanship,
- don't try to "direct" the lesson ("can we do Favorite But Useless Skill now? How about now? Now?")
- will let you use lessons to teach the program (some kids don't understand this),
You can "compete" at a really really low level. We're taking toddle on the ice, no glide, fall-down-get-up level. In ISI, everyone entered in a "tot" competition gets a first place trophy. But seriously what's the point? Take the kid to Stars on Ice or Disney on Ice; it will cost about the same and be a lot more interesting (for everyone). Don't compete a child without a skill set worthy of the title, say, a long one-foot glide, swizzles that look like swizzles, etc. If you want grandma to see Precious skate, bring the whole family to public skate some Sunday; everyone with the guts to do it puts on skates and out they go. Or hire a teenager to skate around with the child while the family watches.
(Please note that there are genius children who can handle "real" competition at the age of 5 or 6 or 7, and who have axels and are fabulously marvelous individuals. I'm not talking about the outliers; I'm talking about your general run-of-the-mile looks like she's good enough to lay it on the line skater.)
With older children (6 or 7 and older) I'd let the child lead. You may have to do a little reading between the lines. For instance, Coach says "what about a competition?" Kid shrugs, but doesn't jump at the opportunity. This might be a kid who's afraid to say no, or a kid who's afraid to say yes. You have to lead them to the answer they're comfortable with. Once your child is in FS4 or 5, they should be doing one or two competitions, exhibitions or ice show solos every year. Figure skating is a performance sport. If you take it seriously enough to learn double jumps, you should be taking it seriously enough to perform.
If you're interested in competition, and the coach hasn't said anything, ask. The coach may be someone like me, who generally doesn't do competitions, or the coach may feel the child isn't ready. Or may be just about to bring it up. Point is, you don't have to wait for the coach to make this suggestion. As always, ask.
Whether to compete is first the child's choice (yes, you can push a reluctant child to try this, based on your knowledge of the child), then yours (can you afford the time and expense, and are you available for the full time span of the competition--you won't know the exact schedule until a few days before), and lastly the coach's. If you and your child REALLY want to compete and the coach says absolutely not, find out why. The coach may have very good reasons, or you may need a different coach (you can do competitions with one coach and still retain your lesson coach. It's weird, but workable).
How good should the skater be?
Skating skills have less to do with it than you might think. No matter what anyone says, ISI or Basic Skills competitions prior to axels are exactly the same. Basic Skills competitions have a little more flexibility on skills allowed, but both tracks are essentially meaningless in terms of a kid's career; they are there to give kids and their families a goal and a structure and to help them learn about competitions in a fairly non-stressful way. USFS and ISI diverge at the Beginner/PrePreliminary and FS 5 levels, where ISI stays recreational and USFS starts thinking about "bridging" kids into the qualifying competitions through what I call the "practice" competitions of the Club or non-qualifying circuit.
Should we compete?
Competitions are fine, even for tots, even for Pre Alpha. I like all competitions; I make no judgment on whether ISI is bullsh*t (a common refrain) or Basic Skills is for "real" skaters. It's all going to seem pretty real to the skater. Coaches like to have their students do one or the other because the required elements and program times are very different; it's hard to do both, you need too many different programs which can be confusing especially for very young skaters. I would consider a coach's statement of "I don't do ISI/Basic Skills competitions" acceptable, whereas a statement of "I don't do ISI/Basic Skills competitions because ISI/Basic Skills is stupid" to be a red flag for a coaching change.
If you've selected a coach who takes all her students to competitions, you should know this going in. Choose a coach like that and your skater will be competing. If you don't want to compete, make sure the coach understands that, or think about a different coach. Conversely, if you know you want to compete, don't choose a coach who doesn't do competitions unless you make it clear upfront that you expect this to happen. Coaches may make exceptions for individual needs.
Let the coach choose the competition, based on your schedule. Don't research this and then tell the coach "we're doing this competition and this one and this one." You don't really know enough about it. Let the coach make the call; she'll have her reasons. Then it's just a matter of scheduling. Above about a Delta/Basic 7 level if you want your skater to compete, you might consider adding a lesson per week just to work on the program, and adding a solo practice, since the coach won't be out there with the kid during the actual competition.
Competing is a fairly serious thing to do; take it seriously.
Watch for a separate posts on adults and competition.