I polled my skating friends to find out what their experiences were with cliques, positive and negative, and what types of cliques they had encountered—parents, kids, coaches.
Some respondents seemed to pride themselves on being set apart, defined by some special characteristic: “we’re poor but still competing and it pisses people off;” “all of my skaters are really good friends, but they don’t seem to get along with other coaches’ skaters.”
A coach from out of state mentions that there are certain coaches who will only talk amongst themselves, not only about skating, but about anything, setting themselves apart as though even acknowledging someone else diminishes their own expertise somehow.
Every parent I asked this acknowledged that there are parent cliques, but they were universally reluctant to talk about it (which just really made me want to know why.)
T, who grew up at the rink where she now coaches feels that the cliquishness of the current atmosphere is new:
Cliques didn't really exist in my generation of skating. I can prove it with pictures (NB: She can, I’ve seen them, plus they are ALL still friends). Where you will now see several small sized groups of skaters together, my clique was larger and more inclusive of a broader range of skaters.B, another skater who grew up a couple of skating generations after her had a very different experience at the same rink:
I grew up in a different era of skating – it didn’t matter who your coach was; we were all always there at the same time, and thus, got to know each other pretty well.
My story sounds like a fairytale in a sport considered bitchy and elite. Aside from the day-to-day drama that pre-teens/teenagers produce, it was really quite picturesque. The beauty of kids of multiple ages and different coaching backgrounds all pooled together as one group that dominated the rink made it fun for everyone. Sure, we had our scoffs and irritations with one another, but at the end of the day or at graduation time, we were still happy for each other and grateful for the memories we made together.
I hated how cliquish the rink was, with people basing their opinion of you on stupid sh*t like what coach you had. [Those girls] were always so mean to me even though I just wanted to be friends. And I absorbed this model in an attempt to fit in, being mean to other people for no reason.R, from the same generation as B, didn’t even want to teach at their childhood rink, and never bothered to apply for a position there; “It’s too weird over there” she told me. B has this same attitude. “I can’t stand the idea of going back and just getting sucked into it again.”
In life there are going to be people you get along with and people you don't. Coaches and parents can really have an effect on this; I’ve known of coaches and parents hinting to kids that they shouldn't hang out with other coaches’ students; in fact I think coaches and parents have more to do with cliques forming than kids do. There are a lot of people who are my friends now who were really mean to me as a kid. Now we’re older we realize that it didn't matter who your coach was. Kids are just dumb; they’ll follow the lead of the adults.
What can you do about cliques?
First of all, do your research. If you’re new to a rink, or just starting to consider private lessons, observe the dynamics for a while. Learn which coaches discourage their skaters from getting involved in the culture of the rink—those kids will be on practice ice, but you’ll never see them in class. People don’t know who their parents are. The parents never volunteer at shows or competitions, and sometimes the skaters don’t even participate in shows or competitions.
Avoid parent gossip like plague, especially from parents you don’t know very well. (Really, what’s the agenda here?) Let your children choose their friendships themselves and then befriend those parents. You’ll find more in common than if you choose your social circle based on who the coach is.
You’ll naturally gravitate towards the families that share your coach, but they’re not the only ones in the rink, and judging a family’s suitability by coaching choice or competitive stature is simply absurd. Skaters have widely varying goals, all valid. The goals of a recreational skater are no less important than the goals of a competitive skater. While shared goals are a way for friendships to start, they are not the only way. Every time I hear a coach tell me that ice show solos aren’t important, or are “good enough for that skater, but my skater has more important goals” I see red. In the universe of a recreational skater, competing at Nationals is by definition unimportant. They aren’t going to do it; it’s not important to them. There is nothing in figure skating inherently more “important” than something else. Goals are personal, not universal.
(Whoa, off the topic there a little, sorry.)
Friendships are a personal choice
Any coach who tells you not to talk to other parents, coaches, skaters, or administrators is to be avoided, and in fact should be questioned. If a coach suggests in any way, “don’t let Susie talk to Jenny,” or if a parent says that her skater only socializes with Coach's other students (or worse, with no one at the rink) make them tell you why. The only way to stop this kind of poisonous behavior is to call them on it. If you’ve been at the rink a while and your skater only seems to know skaters who work with the same coach, see if you can figure out why this is. That’s how the poisonous cliques, and in fact all prejudices, start—with limited experience of the “other.”
Not all friendship groups are cliques, and not all cliques are exclusive or destructive. You don’t want to discourage close friendships, and while I think T’s idyllic experience is sadly a thing of the past, I still maintain that an ice rink is a great place to grow up.
Let me know your experience with cliques, good and bad, and how you handled it, in the comments.