Jan 29, 2011

Should you switch from ISI to USFS

You see skaters every now and then with lots and lots of potential. The families seem committed, the kid's got talent and a work ethic, and you wonder, what is that coach thinking, keeping them competing at Ice Skate Institute (ISI) competitions only?

A coach with a comfort level with ISI might not suggest that you switch, even if they recognize that it might be the best thing. They might be afraid they'll lose the student (they will), or they might simply not get it. There's a lot of really brainless, if well-intentioned skating coaches out there.

ISI, the Ice Skating Institute (see the link in the side bar, along with other figure skating federations), is the recreational federation for skating in the U.S. It is active, has a large membership, and runs numerous competitions. But the focus is on fun and recreation, with competitions set up so that everyone gets a medal or a trophy (by limiting most flights to 5, and giving awards to 5th place). There are many kind of silly events, so that skaters can compete in multiple styles, increasing their opportunities for high placement, and the social aspects are emphasized, through things like team trophies (everyone from a single rink or program earns points for that program).

U.S. Figure Skating, on the other hand, is the federation recognized by the International Skating Union, meaning this is the only way that American skaters can qualify, as Americans, for international ISU competitions like the Grand Prix, Worlds and the Olympics. (Americans can also qualify by skating for another country's federation; each country has its own rules for foreigners qualifying to represent them in international competition.)

There is nothing wrong with ISI competitions. ISI skaters compete at very high levels and do all the skills that USFS skaters do. The hardest test in figure skating is not USFS Senior, but ISI Freestyle 10.

But it's not going to get you to Nationals, international ISU competitions, or the Olympics. The only way for a skater to qualify for these events is to test and compete through US Figure Skating or another country's federation.

To know whether you should make this switch, here are some questions to ask:

Is our skater good enough to be competitive at USFS events? (including the better non-qualifying Club events). Don't answer that! Go to the next question.

Could our skater be good enough? Look at the talent, age, level of commitment of your skater and similar skaters. A lot of skaters are better than yours simply because they skate more. If you think the answer is yes, read on.

How old is my skater? If your skater is 13 and could not pass the USFS Juvenile test tomorrow, it's too late. If they could pass it tomorrow, they'd better, because you've run out of time. You can still do it, but it's going to take a lot of hard work. If they are older than 13 and haven't passed Juvenile, they're done at singles and probably pairs. By the rules, you cannot qualify at Juvenile or below once you're 14. They can still be test skaters, competing USFS "test track" (this is a non-qualifying track for skaters who don't want to try for Nationals) and finish all their tests (this is what my daughter did). Think about ice dance, which many skaters start when they're a little older. (Post corrected)

If your skater is 7 or 8 and has a solid axel, you've got plenty of time. If your skater is 9 or 10, and is just getting the axel, it's going to be a little harder, but still doable.

So, your kid is talented, motivated, and young enough. Big question coming up:

Can we afford it? This is the most important question you will ask. You need to look at all the fungible aspects: monetary cost, family sacrifice (say goodbye to new cars and vacations. Unless you're Bill Gates, you won't be able to afford them anymore), schedule flexibility, emotional commitment (there will be 5 a.m. practices in your future) and willingness of the child's school to work with you (most schools will). Your first year cost for switching that Freestyle 5 student is going to be at least $10,000. If she's successful, that will just go up and up and up.

Now, the critical piece:

Does my skater want to compete at US Nationals? This is not the same as ISI Nationals, which is an open event--you don't have to qualify for ISI Nationals, you just fill out a form and pay your money. You notice that this question is way down the list. Kids want to do lots of things that aren't possible without answering all those other questions first. If your skater understands all of the commitment, sacrifice, sheer agonizing work, and financial struggle that a skating career means for the whole family, then, yes go for it.

Which brings us, parents, to Rule Number One-- don't trust the coach to read your mind, or even necessarily, to listen to your words. Arm yourself with information, which is easy to get through everything from the gossip mill to the internet. Furthermore, you have to know your skater. Make sure this is not your dream, but his or hers.

What it all boils down to is knowing your skater, your options, and as much information as you can gather. You might love your ISI coach, but if what you want to do is compete at Nationals, then that might not be the coach for you.

Jan 27, 2011

Brain Sprain

After stepping into a pothole and badly spraining my ankle, I spent the week teaching 8-year-old beta and gamma students from the boards.

Now, teaching from the boards is standard operating procedure for free style, even low free style. Many coaches put on their skates anyway, but many don't, even for very young skaters. But my skating director told me, don't worry about it, we don't want you losing income any more than you want to (at least 4 weeks no skates), so just do the best you can.

So, Gamma from the boards.

Yesterday I was sandwich coach-- moms on the benches behind me in stitches over my antics, kids on the ice in front me with vacant eyes. "Sweetie, I want you to skate to the blue line, do the turn then STAY BACKWARDS. Just glide backwards back towards me." Child looks at me as though to say, I want to do what you're asking, Coach Xan, but I don't speak Chinese.

"Look toward the lobby" Child looks at me, in exactly the opposite direction of the lobby.

"No, look toward the lobby." Child obediently looks toward the lobby, then looks back at me to make sure she was doing it right.

"That's right, the lobby. Don't look over here, look towards the lobby then skate towards the lobby." Child looks towards the lobby, then skates in the opposite direction, still looking towards the lobby. Unfortunately, there's another child in the way, who is looking directly at the first one, but gets crashed into and knocked over anyway, because apparently she thinks her super power is You Can Skate Right Through Me Girl.

Clearly I need a demonstrator. "Who can do this mohawk?" I ask. Five hands shoot into the air. Okay, El, show us the mohawk (I have seen El do a mohawk, so I know that this is at least a possibility. "OK!" Big Smile. Stands at the circle. Looks at me. Thinks a minute. Looks at me. Looks around.

"What's a mohawk again?"

I explain it. El tries. Pretty decent. "Okay, that's what we're doing-- mohawks. I need 4 people on the red line and 4 people on the blue line. Everybody right T push, we're going to do right mohawks. Miraculously everyone figures out their right foot without too much drama, and then 7 of the 9 push onto the outside edge.

"No-- people on the blue line, you're going to do a half circle towards the wall, people on the red line, you're going to do your half circles towards the lobby."

This apparently does not compute; for some reason they all decide to switch lines, except S, who has taken eternal ownership of the goal line and will not move, probably ever. They all finally reorganize themselves and instantly go onto the wrong edge again. Okay, let's move from skating mode to vocabulary mode.

"What three things do you need to know about your skating?"

Forward and Backward! everyone shouts. oKAY-they've been listening. "What else?"

"Shoot the Duck!" someone says. Yay! Now we all want to do shoot the duck. If only there was an Olympics for shoot the duck, Robert Crown Center would win, because this is all anyone wants to work on.

We finally establish that I'm trying to get them to say Inside-Outside and Left or Right and that left and right is hard and I don't care that much if they know that at this point. So what's harder of Inside-Outside or Forwards-Backwards? I ask.

The consensus is that it's harder to tell if you're going forwards or backwards. They can't tell. This explains a LOT.

Okay, everyone, we're going to make a big circle, like we do every week. No one moves. "I can't be part of the circle, because I don't have skates today because of my hurt foot." Now everyone has to give me hugs and tell me they hope I feel better soon. Okay, you guys are the best, now every make a big circle and skate around, we're going to do inside and outside edges. Two children skate around a circle--okay everyone follow them, that's right!

The other 7 skate in 7 random directions, apparently eager to test You Can Skate Right Through Me Girl's super power.

The moms behind me by now are laughing so hard they are gasping for air.

"I have an idea!" I say. "Let's do Shoot the Duck!

Jan 24, 2011

Can I really audition a coach?

I've recommended auditioning coaches, and a reader asks "can I really do that?"

And, yes, of course you can. It's your money, time, and child (or self). Depending on where your skater is in her "career" there are different ways of going about this.

For very young children and beginners, the best thing to do is simply hire a coach that your child (or whoever the skater is) gets along with well. Don't worry too much about credentials-- if they've been hired by a rink, they have the credentials they need to teach a 5-year-old, pretty much. Your first coach does not need to be the one that gets you to the Olympics, he needs to be one that inspires a love of skating. You've already "auditioned" this coach in class. Auditioning several coaches at this level is just going to look silly, and furthermore is going to give all the coaches in the rink the idea that you're a bad risk.

In fact, class is the place to start the audition. If you move to a new rink, and don't come armed with a referral from your old rink or coach, just take class with as many different coaches as you can and see who clicks. Then ask a couple of the coaches if you can try a lesson with them, making sure that every coach KNOWS you are trying out different coaches. I wouldn't do this with more than 2 or 3 of them. Then choose one; the other ones will grumble and gripe for a while and then forget about it. As a species, figure skating coaches have very thick skin and a marvelous ability to rationalize not getting students.

I'm pretty sure I've been "stealth" auditioned--I'll do a couple of lessons with a kid and then come in and see them working with someone else. Fine, whatever, but do me the courtesy of telling me this is going on.

You don't have to hire the first coach that approaches you. If you're at a rink with those "lesson request forms" remember that only one coach ever sees it-- the first one that grabs it off the board, or the first one on the skating director's "next up" list. Tell them, sure, let's try out a lesson and see how it goes, but that phone call does not commit you to the lesson. By the way, if you decide not to go with this coach and the sheet goes back up on the wall, rethink it, because that's an ethical and generous person. (If you turn in a sheet like that and don't get ANY calls, there's a red flag on there somewhere-- more in another post.)

For competitive and higher level skaters I really believe that auditioning a coach is imperative. You need to know that you like this person's teaching style, that you are clear on the financial and time commitment, and that you're going to get what you need personally and professionally. At this level, it's not only taking a couple of trial lessons, but also observing the coach with her other students. At nationally competitive levels, this works both ways--the coach may be auditioning you as well, and will agree to take you on or not.

Higher level and seriously competitive students should also not limit themselves to the staff at a single rink or program. If you're that serious, you need to know ALL the options in your area, and not just the ones at the facility most convenient to your home. If convenience is your number one criterion (in fact if it's even on the list), you may want to rethink that whole "serious competitor" thing.

If you are working with a regular coach already, and are thinking about a change, do NOT audition other coaches without letting your current coach AND the prospective coaches know. And, once you tell the current coach about this, then the relationship is effectively over, because the coach knows you're unhappy. Try to repair the current relationship first.

More on choosing a coach:
Young Coach or Old Coach
How to choose a coach: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Jan 21, 2011

Just the one skill

One of your kid's rivals jumped 4 levels overnight. Talented adult skater can't do hockey stops because the coach said "it's not important" (at least until you try to stop really fast). Princess's PreJuv Moves test bombed because the she was toe pushing (making you wonder why they let her pass PrePre and Prelim). Don't even start on the axel. You can't do the axel because no one ever made you do a proper bunny hop.

Every skill is important.
  • You can't do a forward cross over without a forward one foot glide. Therefore, you must legitimately pass Basic 2/PreAlpha before starting to work on these.
  • You can't do a turn without a backwards one-foot glide. Therefore, you must legitimately pass Basic 3 AND 4/Beta (yeah, Basic Skills is weird with the turns) before attempting them.
  • You can't do a flip if your mohawks are "closed" (free foot finishes in front) rather than "open" (free foot finishes behind). Bet you didn't know that. It's because everyone lets skaters get away with the closed mohawk. You'd be amazed at the coaches I meet who don't know there's a difference.
Et cetera et cetera et cetera

Basic Skills, despite the unfortunate acronym, has that name for a reason. These skills are BASIC. This is not a euphemism for "easy," "boring," "pointless," or "too easy for my future Olympian to waste time on." You have to have strong basic skating-- stroking, crossovers, turns, and edges-- in order to have solid, safe jumps and spins that don't take years to learn. All those skaters struggling with the jumps have one thing in common: poor basic skills.

This is never the skater's fault. Parents and coaches let their egos and marketing goals get in the way of good sense.

You do not get to decide when to move the child up. I don't care if she's disappointed. I have a skater right now in a Freestyle 3 class who started deciding for herself to not repeat levels. She has never passed PreFreestyle, FS1 or FS2. At least I didn't pass her, and I had her in all those classes. Can't do edges. Doesn't know the warm up (which is what we learn in PreFree at my rink). We have a family that actually switches rinks each time the child doesn't pass, and then lies about passing at the other rink. The thing is, talented skaters can do all the skills credibly. But you know what, smart 2nd graders can read Milton. That doesn't mean they understand it. Whatever. Have fun with the axel.

Your kid needs to skate more. Your child is not going to be a good skater if you only come once a week. I don't care if it's class with Suzy from the high school, or a private lesson with the World Champion. Once a week skaters either never progress, even tho the coach may be moving them up just so you think they're earning their keep. Here's a clue: you're paying close to $40 for a half hour lesson. You. Have. Financial. Resources. People who can't afford this don't do it. You are being cheap. You are making choices about what to spend your discretionary money on. Which is fine. But then don't make faces when I tell you that the reason your child doesn't progress faster is they don't skate enough (and unlike some coaches, I'm not trying to get extra lessons. Bring the kid to public. Sign up for class. Whatever. Skate more!)

Stay in class. If the coach tries to bump the kid forward several levels, or in the middle of the session, just say no. Tell them, you know what, how about if you work on the advanced skills in the privates; the extra 5 weeks at Beta aren't going to kill the kid. Kids who are really ready to move up a level after only a couple of classes are rare as hen's teeth. Chances are, your kid isn't one of them. And even if they are, HOW CAN IT HURT TO GET ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION IN THE BASIC SKILL? All that's happening if you move them in the middle of the session is the new coach is ignoring them, because they're too far behind to catch up and it's not fair to the kids who have put in the time. Plus, when I see a kid who is ready to move on, I move them on-- to a more advanced version of the skill at hand. Further, if I've got a class full of kids like that, I'll just start introducing the next set of skills anyway.

Skate as much as the coach says. If the coach says Princess needs to skate more, and has a good reason (a competition, a test, your frustration with her progress), then you need to use that common sense again and sign up for more ice. And no, the second lesson per week cannot be with her friend who's a Freestyle 4 skater. An 11-year-old is not the same as a rated coach. Refusing the advice of the coach regarding preparation for tests or competitions is just setting the kid up for failure.

STOP lying to parents. "She's so talented" "Beta is a waste of time." "All my skaters have their axels by the time they're 7" (that's my favorite-- it both pumps up the coach and blames the child if they can't do it.) The child's progress is not a marketing tool, and I'm tired of being blamed (well Xan wouldn't pass him, but Other Coach says he's ready for Delta. Therefore Xan is a bad teacher). I have plenty of students taking Gamma class and working on Waltz jumps in lessons. That kid is going to be the better skater.

Don't pass a skater who hasn't mastered every skill. Yes, all of us have skills we hate to fail a kid on. But I once made a child stay in Beta 5 times over T-stops (and god bless that parent who understood how important it was). The thing is, with skills like that, if you don't learn them in class no one is ever going to teach them to you. Especially if a kid who skates only in class, they need their skills solid before they move on, because they don't have a coach to fix them. This is why you see kids in Freestyle 5 doing those foot-dragging non-stops. You may not agree with the curriculum (trashing the curriculum is second only to trashing that other coach as a favorite coaching parlor game) but the skills are the skills. Further, that Beta student? She had KILLER back crossovers by the time she passed-- better than most freestyle skaters.

Don't complain about the level of coaching in the basic classes if you're not willing to teach them yourself. The only time I ever see the "top" coaches in Learn To Skate classes is when they realize they need fresh meat. They come in for a session to skim off the most talented students and then disappear back onto the freestyle ice.

And finally, for Skating Directors
Don't just rubber stamp the pass. Especially at the freestyle levels, make the kids skate to the proper standard. I don't care how good their axel is. If they toe-push their cross overs, they shouldn't pass Freestyle 5.

Jan 19, 2011

Patches, stickers, and rewards

There are two primary curricula in figure skating schools, promoted by the Ice Skating Institute (called Learn To Skate or weSkate) and by US Figure Skating (Basic Skills). Many rinks also use their own curricula, although my sense is that this is getting rarer; using an established curriculum means that standards are starting to, well, standardize nationwide. You can now move from Chicago to Tucson, and if you tell the ice rink there "I was in Basic 4" or "I just passed Delta" they know pretty much where to put you, regardless of the curriculum that they use.

Along with the curricula, come bells and whistles. Basic Skills in particular sends lots of fun stickers and pictures and posters and progress books. You're also automatically a member of Basic Skills when you register for a basic skills program. You don't have to sign up separately. ISI has patches for registering tests, but you have to join ISI, on your own (rather than through the rink, with them handling the paperwork) which I think is just a barrier to membership.

Anyway, the patches and stickers and poster are a great way to motivate kids, to promote figureskating...

And to drive skating coaches and directors to insanity.

The problem is carrying all this stuff, and coordinating the awards. Basic Skills has sticker books. The kid gets a book, listing all the skills, with a sheet of stickers. The teacher is supposed to put the sticker in the book when the skater masters the skill. Here's what actually happens:

1. The kid gets the book on the first day of class, and yay! stickers! All stickers go immediately into random spots in the book, if you're lucky, and on the car window if you're not.
2. The kids who haven't used up all the stickers already bring the book, as instructed on the last day of class. The teacher is now juggling 14 books and trying to remember which kid gets which sticker. This all has to happen in the last 5 minutes of class, because the parents aren't paying you to put stickers in some stupid book.
3. Unless of course, you don't manage to get the stickers into the book, making Princess cry, and what kind of skating teacher are you, anyway.
4. The kids who DON'T pass and therefore aren't entitled to stickers want stickers anyway, because kids today get rewarded for simply breathing, which I guess they wouldn't be motivated to do if they didn't get stickers.
5. The kids who pass some things but not others want to know why they can't just pass to the next level anyway, since they have stickers (plus I'm still unclear on what prevents them from simply putting the stickers in their own books.)

ISI doesn't overload you with crap to carry around, and intelligently does not trust children with stickers; what they have are patches.

The patches are great-- they're major bling for one thing, and look pretty cool on a bag or jacket. In the past, ISI membership was so cheap-- just $7--that rinks could work it into the cost of a class. Rinks also used to award the patches--I can remember the skating director having a drawful of patches that you got when you passed a test; I never paid for one, and my daughter's got all but the last two (FS 9 & 10, oh was that me bragging?) but apparently now they make you pay $3 per patch. Budget cuts, I assume. I haven't heard of anyone getting their ISI patch in years at my rink; I don't think they tell parents about this. You have to be motivated enough to learn about it on your own. Don't know about other rinks, but ISI still makes patches, so someone must be doing it.

The problem with the patches, is, when do you award them? I've suggested doing it in class, but of course you run up against the everyone's a winner in modern America problem: what about the kids that don't pass? They'll feel bad when they don't get a patch! Musn't have that. How do you know the kid's an ISI member? This costs $25 now, and the benefits of ISI membership are really unclear. Magazine? meh. Compete? meh. Test? Don't you do that in class anyway? You could just award it for passing the class, although some rinks will tell you that class standard is lower than "test" standard (gosh, you mean I could have been "cuting" all those kids up, rather than making them actually master the skill? Stupid me), plus the patch is supposed to denote that you've formally registered the test with ISI, and there's that $25 fee that parents aren't going to pay (did I mention that you have to pay it every year?). Also, parents can't register tests. Only rinks can register tests, and trust me, skating directors have better things to do than help ISI increase their membership.

So what to do. My crankiness and poor juggling skills aside, the bling is a nice reward for mastering a set of skills. ISI and Basic Skills membership does help keep families in skating. So how do you get the bling into the hands of the kids that have earned it?

Jan 16, 2011

The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Skating Coach

Some of you may know that I'm also an avid gardener and "real food" proponent. I read a lot about sustainability issues. Right now I'm reading Joe Salatin's The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer.

Joe's point is that he does things contrary to conventional wisdom, but that he believes so strongly in what he's doing that he also goes against the conventional wisdom that bigger is better, richer is more successful, and growth is always a good thing and is the only metric for business success.

Lately, I've been feeling the pain. I think I'm a wonderful teacher. And yet I never seem to get the private students. It makes me feel awful-- I'll talk to some mom after class and the conversation inevitably ends, "My child just loves you, thank you so much for taking so much personal interest in her. So what we're going to do is hire Other Coach." I haven't had a raise in 11 years. My boss gave me a "6" (out of 10) in skating knowledge because I never skated as a kid. (So I guess the PSA, which gave me a Senior Rating, doesn't know what they're doing, either.)

And I started to think, y'know, screw this. Why am I breaking my heart over this. I'm going to be like the coaches who only ever talk to their own kids in class. I'm going to lie to parents about how fabulously talented their darlings are and how group class is bullshit. I'm going to skim off the best and the brightest and be like the coaches who just phone it in during group class, because what's the point of giving so much to these kids and these parents when they just don't get it.

And then I came home and picked up Joe's book, and this farmer, this guy in a profession as different from skating as could be, inspired me to remember exactly why I do this.

Because I am a lunatic skating coach.

I quit a $65,000 a year executive job to work in a profession that pays $12 an hour (group class rate at my rink). No benefits (by which I mean not just no pension or insurance but also no sick pay, no vacation pay, and forced layoffs three times a year).

Why would someone do that?

Well, because I was that skater that everyone ignored and/or made fun of. Because my daughter grew up in a rink where the culture was poisonous and I wanted to change that. Because I remember figuring out that the reason no one wanted to coach my daughter was not because she wasn't talented, but because they had figured out that we had no money. Because I have a coaching philosophy, and it has very little to do with the number, quality, or competitiveness of the students that I attract, and everything to do with how happy the kids in my classes are. Because while Coach Fabulous might have 15 students, I have 140 because every one of the kids in my beginner classes thinks of me as "their coach," like Sarina, a little girl who hugged me in the lobby on Thursday. She looked about 7, and had been my class student when she was 3 or 4. I barely remembered her, but as far as she's concerned I'm her teacher.

This is the passage in Joe's book that brought me out of my self-pitying funk:
"Here's the question: 'What goals are noble enough to justify my life?' That leads to noble and sacred goals...Goals need to be far bigger than sales.If we strive to be good above all else, growth tends to take care of itself. Growth can occur in ways besides gross sales and net profits. We can grow in relationships, knowledge, quality of life, spirituality."
So I'll concede the masses of individual students to Coach Former Champ, and Coach Sweetheart, and Coach Fashionista, and Coach In-Crowd. I don't do this, I've never done this, in order to be famous or to have the most or the best students. I do this because I love teaching group class, because I truly believe that everyone can and should love to skate, and because I know that I can inspire them in that.

And that's the sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic skating coach.

Jan 14, 2011

Getting boys to skate

Whenever a talented boy shows up in a learn to skate program, entertain yourself by watching all the coaches drool and elbow each other out of the way to teach him. Seriously, it's the pinnacle of achievement, to snag a talented boy as your student. Sorry, girls, you're a dime a dozen.

There's a common coaching complaint "how do we get the boys to skate?" but really it's the wrong question. LOTS of boys skate-- in hockey programs. I routinely have tot and beginner classes that are predominantly boys. The question is--how do you get kids into the skating discipline that they'll be most successful in. Because not every hockey boy belongs in the sport, but they may belong on skates.

The problem is a cultural one. I actually had a father tell me once that if his 5 year old son wore figure skates, it would "make him gay." Not "if he learns figure skating as a primary focus." Just wearing figure skates makes you gay, apparently. I was seriously tempted to tell this dad, sorry, too late, kid's already gay, might as well get used to it. (Or ask the dad, oh, is that what happened to you?) It's always fun to go to hockey games and watch for the boys who should be in figure skates-- they're spinning, and jumping, and doing artistic things with the sticks, rather than focusing on the puck.

The idiocy works both ways. There are lots of disastrous girls trying to figure skate who would absolutely KILL at hockey. But. Girls figure skate. Boys play hockey. Sigh.

So how do you keep boys in figure skating? You may not believe it, but I have an opinion, and some ideas on this subject! (What were the odds.)

Let the boys move
And run into things. Screw technique, at least to start. The reason boys like hockey is because they're allowed to be boys. I am a died-in-the-wool feminist from way back, but boyz iz difrent. They want movement. They want physical contact. With something. The wall. The ice. The kid standing next to them. If you don't structure it into the class, they're going to do it on their own. Don't make them stand around. Don't use long explanations. (This is actually good advice for any Learn-to-Skate/Basic Skills level class.) In a hockey game, even the bench warmers are moving around. They're jumping in and out of the box, they're leaning over the boards shouting, there are all kinds of ways to move around. Nobody gives them grief because they aren't pointing their toes. Once they're comfortable on the ice, you can start insisting on technique. But by that time they're hooked anyway, because it's fun.

Promise them hockey (this is a lie)
Keep telling them that figure skating makes their hockey skills stronger (this is not a lie). If you're going to lose them you're going to lose them; at least you've given the hockey team a kid who can actually skate. And as I've said before, skating is skating. I'm happy to have a kid on the ice, in the long run.

Stop with the sparkly costumes, already
This one's for the dads. Dads freak the bleep out over the sparkly costumes. Either it makes the kid gay (see above), or it makes the dad acknowledge that the kid is, in fact, gay, which is hard to deny when the kid is totally into the sparkly costume. I have seen this happen. The number one rule of retail is keep the customer happy. And the kid is not your customer-- the parent is the customer.

Classes for boys
This is a tough one, because it impacts directly with available ice time and coaching budgets. The 5 and 6 and 7 year olds really don't care about skating with girls. Older than that and the boys start wanting to be with boys, the girls start being in the majority, and it's all over. It takes a lot of strength of character for a little boy to stick with something so against the cultural norm. My solution would be to find ice coincident with hockey games, or put a figure skating class just for boys right before, between, or after hockey classes. Price them together, with a discount.

Encourage dialog between the hockey coaches and the figure skating coaches
The best I can say about the hockey coaches and the fs coaches at every program I've ever worked at is "armed truce." The hockey coaches seem to expect us to steer kids into their program, but I've never heard of the courtesy being returned. Just as not every kid who starts in figure skates belongs there, not every kid in hockey skates is suited to the sport. Let's act in the best interest of the child, and instead of having kids who don't like hockey just quit skating, encourage them to switch.

Speaking of discounts
You want boys in your intermediate and high level classes? Give them a discount for the first time or two they sign up. A lot of ballroom dance studios comp in the men, because there are never enough. Can't give a discount (there might be legal impediments, especially at municipal rinks). Find something just for the boys that adds an incentive for the parents.

Promise them girls
Keep reminding them that this is where all the girls are in high school. They might not care now, but in a few years, all the girls will love them because they skate. This resonates with some kids.

Sign up with a friend
Then hope they both progress at the same rate.

Don't call it figure skating
Call it "regular" skating. Train the kid to call it "regular" skating. Tell the skittish Dad that it's "regular" skating. Then when friends say, do you do figure skating? the boy can say, no I do regular skating.

Spend money
Please don't put little boys in white skates. At the very least, invest in a bottle of black shoe polish. Let the little boys look like little boys, not like they're in their sister's hand-me-down clothes. If the kid shows any aptitude at all, buy a pair of boy's black figure skates, or boy-colored "comfort" skates.

Give them role models
If Dad skates, have him skate in figure skates. Rinks, try putting male coaches on the beginner classes (which always have a lot of boys) or, if you've got the scheduling flexibility, on classes that have high boy enrollment. Hire teenage boys who skate to "babysit" at the rink on weekend public skating.

What's your idea to help our culture accept boys in figure skating (um, I mean regular skating). What did you do to encourage your son to skate?

Jan 12, 2011

Competing as an adult: ISI

I sat down with my old friend and skating buddy Teresa G last week to talk about skating and competing as an adult. Teresa is a Freestyle 3 skater and a skating mom (our kids grew up together); she skated recreationally as a child, and has been skating seriously for about 12 years. She first competed as a soloist 3 years ago, but had done competitions with an adult ensemble and many show performances, both group and solo, before taking the plunge.

Teresa competes at ISI; I'll also be talking to a former Adult Nationals competitor in a future post.

Xanboni: what inspired you to get back into skating as an adult?
Teresa: oh, my daughter. She started skating, so I did too.
Xanboni: haha! That's exactly how I started!
Teresa: Actually, my daughter was in the Nutcracker on Ice, so I came to see the show. There's an adult number, of course, and I thought, well, I think I could do that. (NB: Nutcracker is an annual show at our home rink. Teresa has had many solos in the Nutcracker on Ice, including the Mrs. Stahlbahm, Mama G, and the Overture, as well as solos in the Spring Show.)
Xanboni: So, why compete?
Teresa: Well, a few years ago I joined this adult ensemble and they decided to compete. We just like to travel together, the competition is almost secondary, although that's fun too. What I learned from competing with adults, and at ISI, is that it's really different than the USFS competitions, either kids or adults. The skaters just take themselves way less seriously, even though they're good skaters. It's about meeting people and having fun. There's lots of camaraderie, especially if you keep going back to the same competition year after year. People praise you, and everyone is happy that you performed; it's fun to win, but that's not the emphasis.
Xanboni: what was the hardest thing when you started.
Teresa: Oh, I was nearly catatonic the first time I competed solo. The initial anticipation wasn't so bad, I mean I was nervous, but just short of debilitating. And then I got there and it was so scary. But you go out and skate and it was really fun. It kind of goes by in a blur. You finish, and think, "gee, did I leave something out? That seemed awfully quick."
Xanboni: how did you get over that?
Teresa: ISI competitions are so skater friendly, and having a really clear goal helps. I also have a great coach who really understands adults. He helped me understand how to be well prepared, he knows how to encourage you without coddling or kidding you and an experienced coach really knows the ins and outs of how to make the competition process work.
Xanboni: like what?
Teresa: I always skate the Spotlight and Light Entertainment events, rather than the skill-based solos, and we learned that you really have to pay attention to what ISI wants out of these performances. We kept thinking that it was about the skating, even thought the description of the event really deemphasizes that, and talks about character and props and costume. So we finally said: you have to skate well, but let's really amp up the concept.
Xanboni: So did you win?
Teresa: Well, I had this really cute program to Bjork...
Xanboni: Right, with the glasses and props; it was adorable
Teresa: Except that another skater in the flight had the identical music. So I don't know, maybe she did have the better skating, or maybe the judges liked her props better. But I came in second!
Xanboni: so good, experienced coach, good prep, what else?
Teresa: always always practice with your music, right from the start. This makes a huge difference. Learn lessons as you go; you'll get better just at competing as well as at skating. Keep at it. People go once, and then think well, that was okay and they don't go back. Go back, it'll be better the second and third and fourth time. I also think it really helped that I had done the shows here where everyone knows me, and with the team. Also, watch the winners, and figure out what they're doing right. Then copy them.
Xanboni: What do you think keeps people from competing?
Teresa: People think, oh I'll lose, or I'll look foolish, but really, it's not about that in ISI at all. Like I said, it's fun to win, but it's also fun just being there.

Have you competed as an adult? Share your experiences!

Jan 9, 2011

Are you crossing the line?

Came across a fascinating article from the Women's Sports Foundation, for coaches to assess whether they are crossing the line with athletes regarding their relationship beyond the coaching one.

They are talking about the dangers of developing a sexual relationship with their athletes, but there is another relationship in youth sports that coaches need to be wary of: the coach-parent relationship.

Especially if you're a recreational or class coach, or if, like me, you coach at the facility where the other skating parents were your peers as your child was growing up, there is a very fine line between being friends and having a professional relationship with the parents of my students, my class roster, and other coach's students. Every time a parent "friends" me on Facebook, it's a huge ethical dilemma. I don't want to disrespect them or hurt their feelings. I don't want a blanket rule "no skating parents" because some of them really are my friends.

So coaches, and parents, here's the self assessment, in its entirety (also here). Try substituting "parent" or "other coach's parent" for "athlete" (and other minor adjustments) and think about, not a sexual relationship, but simply how your actions might appear to that other coach.

Are you crossing a line?

The Women’s Sports Foundation published the following article entitled “Are You Crossing the Line with an Athlete?” on March 11, 1996. Set out partially below, the article contains a self-assessment questionnaire that may prove helpful to the skating professional in determining whether their relationship with their student has crossed a line.

Are You Crossing the Line with an Athlete (Parent/Other coach's student)?

The purpose of this questionnaire is to alert coaches to boundary issues which might be interfering with their ability to work effectively with a team or an athlete. Coaching is an emotionally intense profession. Strong bonds and emotions are part of the job. The line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior is often a matter of intent and context. The following list of questions is intended to help coaches know when they may be extending the boundaries of their role as coach and potentially crossing the line with an athlete.

Check any statements which reflect your behavior or attitude toward an athlete:

1. I often tell my personal problems to this athlete.

2. I want to be friends with this athlete when his/her career ends.

3. To be honest, my physical contact with this athlete is motivated by desires that go beyond an attempt to support and motivate the athlete.

4. I find myself thinking of ways to work individually with this athlete and in special practice sessions which run before or after practice.

5. This athlete invites me to social events, and I don't feel comfortable saying either yes or no.

6. There is something I like about being in the office with this athlete when no one else is around.

7. The athlete feels more like a friend than someone I coach.

8. I have invited this athlete to public/social events which were not team functions.

9. I often listen to the personal problems of this athlete.

10. I find myself wanting to coach practices when I know this athlete will be there and unusually disappointed when this person is absent.

11. I find myself cajoling, teasing, joking a lot with this athlete.

12. I find myself talking a lot about this athlete to other people.

13. I find myself saying a lot about myself with this athlete -- telling stories, engaging in peer-like conversation.

14. This athlete has spent time at my home (other than a team function).

15. I am doing so much on this athlete's behalf I feel exhausted.

16a. I agreed to take this athlete on for a very low fee, and now I feel like I need to be paid more for my work. OR

16b. I agreed to take this athlete on for a very low fee, and now I feel like I need to get more out of this athlete.

17. I find myself looking at this athlete's body in a sexual fashion.

18. I make comments to my athletes about bodies which have no relevance to the sport.

19. Sometimes I worry this athlete is going to get so good he/she thinks he/she doesn't need me.

20. Sometimes I resent this athlete's success.

21. To be honest, sometimes I make demands on this athlete with the intention of limiting his/her social life.

22. I find myself making sexual jokes around this athlete.

23. To be honest, I feel jealous when this athlete spends time with other people.

24. Sometimes I check up on this athlete, wanting to know what he/she is doing when he/she is away from practice.


Coaching involves intense emotional and complicated relationships with athletes. It is difficult to make blanket statements about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Certain items above might not always reflect poor coaching. This self-administered test is offered as a means to locate potential moral and professional dilemmas.

If you checked any of the above statements you may be crossing the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. If you are unsure if the behavior is ethical and professional discuss it with colleagues. Self-assessment and peer supervision can help you avoid trouble before it starts.

Jan 8, 2011

Skill building

How do you teach a new skill? Do you insist on absolutely correct technique from day one, or do you perfect one skill at a time, building it to perfection over time? This question brings coaches to blows. The technique-first people will say "Why teach it 'wrong'. Skaters need to know proper technique from the outset." The one-thing-at-a-time people will tell you "There's too much too learn about each skill to get every detail from day one."

Both arguments have merit, so what do you do?

I'm a one-skill-at-a-time person. I've had this validated by my Master Coach mentor, who likes to teach pattern and power, and then get down to steps and technique. (I was surprised that he and I shared this philosophy, as I can be something of a maverick since I didn't grow up skating.) After having an argument with a technique-first person yesterday, I was very amused when I opened up this month's Professional Skater Magazine from the PSA, and found this quote from Olympic coach Tom Zakrajsek: "...when I was younger I wanted it done correctly right away. It's all going to work in the long run. Patience. There are steps and that process can take a long time."

The one-skill-at-a-time approach isolates the parts of the skill. Each piece is mastered before the skater moves on. What it is not is "cheating" or "teaching it wrong." The end result will be proper technique on a given skill. The technique-first approach teaches each skill as a whole. The skater will get to the same place, and will make the same mistakes early on, but will have a picture from the start of what the skill needs to be in the long run.

Here's how this might look with basic alternating back edges:

One-skill. Start with the backward glide on an edge, with arms in an "airplane" position, and free foot tucked. You might teach this on a circle, or on a long axis, but the object is to get comfortable with the glide itself. I let skaters use a double pump to get going, because the most difficult part of backwards edges is the first push from a stationary position. Once they can glide backwards, I add the arm and head movements, and then the leg positions. The last thing I teach is the initial push. One-skill teachers do not compromise the final product. I believe this approach helps recreational, once-a-week, and not naturally talented skaters achieve success faster. It gives a skater something to succeed at on the first try. Instead of telling the skater "no that's wrong!" you get to say, "good, you've got a strong glide, let's add the arms." Further, it adds a reward to the process- you aren't allowed to move on until you've mastered each piece; the full skill becomes the reward for your hard work, instead of a mountain you have to keep climbing.

Technique-first: You have to explain the entire move: (face down the long axis, put your weight on your pushing foot, lift and turn the gliding foot, and pump to the glide. Free foot in front, drop and switch arms, turn your head toward the long axis, and bring the free foot through, setting up for the next push from the one foot glide. I know I'm showing my bias here, but really, how many FS1 skaters are going to be able to absorb and understand all that, let alone do it?). There's going to be a lot of hands-on guidance, placing skaters in the proper position, and guiding arms and heads. In private lessons, this works, but for group class, it forces everyone to stop while you work one-on-one with each skater. However, each skater is watching you (one hopes) working with everyone else, and absorbing the correction and the look of the skill. You'll get a lot of sloppy skating at the start, but theoretically a better understanding of the end result.

So which do you choose?

What I would say is: don't choose. Look at each skater and make a judgment. Can this skater handle the whole skill at once, or does she need it broken down? Are you sure that by choosing one over the other you are not compromising the quality of the final product? Are you using consistent, correct evaluation? In a class, you might encourage one skater to go for the entire correct technique, while allowing another (generally weaker) skater to break it down and perfect one skill at a time.

In the end, it's not about the teaching philosophy. It's about the best interests of each skater, and the approach that will help them be most successful.

What works best for you?

Jan 5, 2011

Moving up

I have a new Learn To Skate student who discovered last month that she loves skating in our show (we do two a year). She'd never done it before, because she has a regular conflict with the rehearsals at her level. Her parents found out that free style level skaters practice on Sundays, so she could make those rehearsals.

The ice show is in May. The skater is in Alpha. The parents wanted to know, how do we do that.

Now, to some extent, I rolled my eyes a little bit. The skater is just 5. Her other activity is fun and valuable. By next year at this time and certainly by the Spring show in 2012, doing two classes a week, she will be in Freestyle 1 anyway, so she'll only miss one more show. But there is a way to power through the levels.

Ever wonder about those little kids who have all their single jumps, maybe even an axel, by the time they're 7? They aren't any more talented than your kid.

They just skate. All. The. Time.

Each class session is 10 weeks, 30 minutes of instruction, shared with 4 to 10 other kids. I like to assume that each level takes two sessions to master (some kids move faster, some slower). And really, it's not rocket science, it's just arithmetic: 5 levels (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, PreFreestyle/Basic 4 through 8) is 25 to 50 hours of instruction (assuming twice through each level). You want to get there by April 1? You need 25 to 50 hours of instruction and practice between now and then-- 12 weeks, so 2-4 hours of lessons and practice per week.

Set your alarm for 5 a.m. and get out your checkbook.

Edited 1/7/11 at the request of a reader.

Jan 4, 2011

Your first clue is the screaming

I want to say up front that there are no serious competitive figure skaters without a pushy parent lurking about somewhere. It's a necessary part of the equation, and it's not just the skater they're pushing-- they're also pushing the coach, the judges, USFS and rink management, and we need them to do this.

If you've done your homework and set your goals, then have at it. There isn't a teenager on the planet who really wants to get up at 4:30 to go skate for 4 hours before school, I don't care what Rachael Flatt's press pack says. That girl and every one like her has a pushy mom helping her achieve greatness, and god bless 'em.

Skating needs pushy parents.

What it doesn't need are stage mothers. These are the Skating Moms who think they know better than the coach, the judge, and the skating director, or who insist that their 4 or 5 or 6 year old participate in class even though they're having a tantrum, or who buy their Pre Alpha skater Pattern 99 blades with K-picks because, well, only the best for Princess.

So how can you tell if you're right kind of pushy?

Did the skater set the goal, or did you?
Is your skater aiming at competing in qualifying competitions? Even if you're still in Learn-to-skate classes, if you've discussed this with the kid, then you need to push, which at this level just means telling the kid "you promised" or "you made a commitment" to skate this much, and I paid for it, so you're doing it. You have to read your own kid and understand the difference between pushing him to do something he loves but is hard, and pushing him to do something hard, which he hates.

What's your skater's age?
If your child is under the age of 5, lighten up. If your child is 11 or older and you're sinking money into skating, then push them to excel or make them scale it back or quit. Now, by "pushing" I don't mean screaming at them in the lobby, complaining about them to everyone, embarrassing them in front of their friends, et cetera. Figure out what you need to do to make them fulfill their goals and obligations-- take away the cell phone, make them pay for part of it, conspire with the coach, whatever. If you don't know how to push your teenager, you're in trouble, anyway.

What was that about goals?

Are you goals and the skaters the same? Does the coach know what the goal is, and does she support it? No matter how talented your skater is, if her goal is not to be a competitive skater, you cannot push her hard enough to make that happen. There's a legendary skater at my rink, best skater that ever went through there. She didn't want to compete, but her mother pushed and pushed. So she would just sabotage her final round at Sectionals every year. The skater has to want the prize, whatever it is.

Dino-Boy and Joy Boy
Oh Dino-Boy. What can I say about Dino-Boy. I don't argue with him. Sometimes he skates. Sometimes he don't. He's got me and everyone, including his mother, his sister, and the junior coach, completely in his power. This is a push-resistant kid. They exist. You just gotta go with the flow. I think he'll be a skater eventually, but for now, I just let him do his thing.

JoyBoy on the other hand loves to skate and he's really good at it. Unfortunately, he also loves to mess with you, but you can push him really hard and he'll respond. He'll roll his eyes, he'll stick out his tongue, but you can push. If you've got a JoyBoy, push away.

Pushy skaters
Interestingly, there's a subset of families where the pushy ones are the skaters-- it's the parents who are reluctant. This can be a heartbreaking phenomenon, because minor children are at the mercy of their parents' whims and needs. I've seen kids who had to quit because mom doesn't like getting up at 5-- kid was perfectly willing, but mom wouldn't do it. I have seen families decide that spending on unneeded consumer goods was more important than the child's dream. Dad retires and moves to a community without a rink, and off the kid goes too, kissing the skating dream goodbye. These kids need to push-- for time, for funds, for respect, and sometimes for the right to move away from their families in order to pursue the goal.

You can tell if you're pushing too hard by how hard the kid pushes back. Kids will test you; they'll see if they can resist just a little. Don't give in to the little bastards, and they'll generally step happily onto the ice.

More about pushy parents (the good kind) here.

Jan 3, 2011

What's that called again?

With any specialized skill comes specialized language. As a grant writer (in my other life), I work to avoid jargon that is meaningless to outsiders.

Skating parents are the ultimate inside-outsiders. Definitely an important part of the equation, but not really skaters themselves, so what do they really need to know about skating terminology and jargon? What about skaters? Sometimes in class, you'll use the colorful or description word or phrase instead of the correct one. So what is skating jargon and when is it appropriate for whom to use it?

First of all, if you're deep into it--your skater is competing in qualifying competitions-- you should at least have a passing understanding of the terms. You don't need to know how to do it, or even what it looks like, but you should know that a Salchow is a jump and a Layback is a spin.

If you're a skater at any freestyle level, even just in classes, you should know every skating term through your level; if you're a serious skater, whatever that means to you, you should know every skating term through your level and beyond. Know what a bracket is. Know what a qualifying competition is. Know the difference between ISI and USFS.

If you don't know the terms, don't pretend you do. Sadly, we got a lot of mileage recently making fun of some poor parent who posted a lesson request, written very pretentiously, about how her "serious competitive skater" need someone who "knows how to teach whirlies" (we are still not sure what this is), fix her axle (sic), et cetera, and that only serious high level coaches would be "considered." This person tried to sound like they had a clue, which they clearly didn't. We know you're not a skater or a coach; don't pretend you are (this is just good advice no matter what the discipline). You'll just sound like an idiot and squander respect going in. Give me a parent who doesn't feel compelled to know everything I do any day. I don't try to pretend I know everything about the law that my skater's lawyer-mom knows; why should you or I expect you to know everything about figure skating.

You can educate yourself. Ask the class teacher what the class is working on. Ask if you can get a brief overview sometime so you know what you're watching. Look things up online. Youtube is full of ice skating how-to videos (of varying quality).

As I said, skaters should know the terms, but with very young skaters they can be confusing. I'll often call a serpentine pattern (alternating half-circles along a straight line) a "snake" because it's more descriptive. I have lots of silly and/or completely idiosyncratic terms that I use as well-- "criss cross applesauce," "train tracks," "hooks." that only I and my own students understand. So I always also teach kids the real term; if they go to a different rink or a different coach, that coach or rink isn't going to know my made-up terms. If the skater hasn't learned the real term, they're going to be very confused.

Terminology is short hand. I don't want to have to keep repeating "this pattern is alternating half circles along a straight line parallel to the long side of the rink." I just want to say "it's a serpentine pattern." Here's a list of the most basic skating terms. Your assignment is to look them up and find out what they mean! (With a little help from my good buddy* Nancy Kerrigan!)

Edges (inside and outside)
Turns: 3-turns, brackets, counters, rockers, mohawks, choctaws
Cross-overs and progressives
Long axis, Short axis, continuous axis
Edge jump (and can you name the 3 edge jumps?)
Toe, or Toe-assisted jump (and can you name the 5 toe-assisted jumps?)(NB- Nancy says "3", but there are 5)
Bunny hop
Spins: Scratch, Upright, camel, sit, layback, Biellman, pair, combination, A-frame
Figures (or Patch)
Spiral, (and like the Bielmann, Sasha, Kerrigan, Catch foot, etc.)
Ina Bauer (and other glides like spread eagles, Jenkins spirals, shoot the duck, etc.)

Here's a really nice overview of terms.

Some more of the mystery-- some turns are named for the shape they make on the ice: they're called 3-turns because the tracing they make on the ice looks like a 3 and brackets because they look like a bracket }. No one knows why they're called mohawks or choctaws, however. Pretty sure they weren't any actual Indian tribes involved, but who knows.

Some jumps are named for their inventors: Ulrich Salchow, Axel Paulsen, Alois Lutz, Nate Walley. Some for the program they first appeared in: Mazurkas, for instance. The loop is named for the tracing it would make were it on the ice instead of in the air. Some jumps are named for skaters who excelled at them- the Albright (mazurka), the Mapes (flip).

Spins are named descriptively, thank god, except the camel, the name of which may or may not be a corruption of the inventors' name, which may or may not be Campbell. (You begin to see the problem with terminology.)

Here's some more Xanboni on terms and skills:
General skating terms

* I don't actually know Nancy Kerrigan. But if you know her, tell her Xan says hey.