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?


  1. It really bugs me that half the battle in getting a boy to skate is convincing all onlookers that he isn't gay. I'm really sick of the Gay Comments. "What if he's gay?"

    I don't know. What? Will the sky fall? Will the sun darken? Will I possibly love him less, disown him, cast him aside? What? Stitch loves to skate, and if he's gay, then the skating had nothing to do with it. He is what he is, he will be what he will be, and I'll love him regardless. Full Stop.

    That being said, Dad couldn't be cooler with the skating. Bear in mind that we come from the theatre; Gay is just one more variety of People, and the norm. Hockey isn't in our picture; Stitch wants nothing to do with hockey. Sparkly Costumes? Stitch likes them. When it comes to Costuming, nothing gets done without his approval, and when I suggest something spangly, he usually gives his enthusiastic agreement.

    But yes, don't put Boys in White Figure Skates. Stitch was also initially disheartened when girls had pretty skating clothes and all he had was sweatpants. So I refreshed my sewing skills and sewed boy's skating clothes. (Boy clothes on the internet are nonexistent, too expensive when you do find them, and have impossibly long lead times.) It works; Stitch skates better when he's "dressed." Boys like to play, so I allow lots of playtime. In fact, I'd say over half Stitch's ice time is playtime. As he progresses, I'm slowly replacing Play with Practice, but I don't ever discount the value of Play.

    Show Big League Skaters doing their thing. When we watch skating, Stitch ignores the ladies. (Sorry, ladies.) He will only want to watch the men.

    I push when I have to, but for the most part I follow Stitch's lead. And Stitch gladly says he Figure Skates.

  2. Skate Mom- because you are in the arts, Stitch has lots of good male role models--both gay and straight--in non-traditional activities.

    I just ignore the gay comments, but unfortunately it's a marketing reality. A lot of parents won't put their sons in figure skates because they are uncomfortable with this subject. I cant' change their prejudices- that's above my pay grade. I just want boys to skate.

  3. My son enjoys the smashing & crashing of hockey. To get JoyBoy in regular skates, I promised him a Lego pirate ship. To earn it, he took 2 sessions of group lessons & skated in the Spring ice show. Now he happily goes to a weekly, semi private lesson taught by Xan. He goes because skating skills is skating skills. To be a competent hockey player, he needs cross over, 3 turns, backwards skating. He also goes because his mother has a poorly concealed fantasy of him becoming a freestyle skater.

    We didn't have good luck with the entry level group figure skating lessons @Crown. JoyBoy is high energy & his demeanor didn't mesh with the pervasive culture. My son and the boy he shares private lessons with were often benched during class. Really a dense way to deal with excess energy. Both boys flunked pre alpha.

    I think my son would love to skate freestyle. It is a whole body activity, requires a lot of brain work & isn't dependent on anyone else. He is fearless & strong. However it seems like an exercise in futility to make him fit into Crown's culture or to bend Crown's culture to suit his personality.

    By contrast, our hockey experience has been largely positive.

    I feel a rant coming on.

    Hockey includes adults. A lot of dads play in leagues. Even if you are an overweight dentist, there is a team for you. I appreciate the fact that hockey is considered a life long sport.

    Hockey parents are supportive & fun. I have picked up kids for parents who needed to work. Other parents have lent my son equipment, fed him snacks, & tied his skates. People cheer for the team. We all laugh at the things the kids do.

    Horsing around is expected.

    Hockey culture feels like getting under a big tent. There are elite players, parents who think their kids are NHL material, but there is room for the recreational player. It is just fine that my son is there for exercise & the experience of being on a team.

  4. No one has commented on JoyBoy's sexuality. Maybe because he figure skates & plays hockey, people assume he is bi-sexual.

  5. Beth, it's so good to hear that hockey feels like that. From the figure skating coach point of view, it feels very exclusionary, like they don't want us except as a source of fresh meat. I wish we had more combined classes- I'd love to see every hockey kid in the rink in the LTS classes. Evanston would be winning every game if they would do that. And you could do it cheap. If kids in hockey leagues were required to take skating class, you could charge them pennies and still make it pay.

  6. I love the idea of bi-sexual 7 year olds. Does that mean he likes cats AND dogs?

  7. How about "Freestyle Skating" as an alternative to "Figure" or "Artistic?" Freestyle inline, boarding, and skiing do not have the stigma.

  8. Actually, anon, that's brilliant. In teaching curricula, "freestyle" is more or less synonymous with "advanced" but no reason not to use it in marketing. You wouldn't even need to change any acronyms.

  9. I like the idea of mentors. Put some older boy "regular" skaters out there in learn to skate, and also put them out there in a demonstration. I always think that right after the ice cut before public skate is a good time to have a 15 minute demo by the skating club. Get some boys out there doing their biggest, baddest X-game type "tricks" - yes, even if just all the hot-shot moves that you might never see in competition - and, I don't know, put some thrash metal on the PA while they are out there.

    I, too, hate to stereotype. And frankly, I have no assumption that "gay" is a bad thing. But I get it that some people - a lot of people at time - do. And yeah, trying to tell people that some of the gay guys you know are still some of the biggest macho dudes when it comes to sports - doesn't matter. So, just give them the cool, macho tricks to get them hooked.

    It's what I see all the hockey-skate guys trying to do at public skate, anyway. Everyone wants to jump and spin. It's cool.

    Today, there was a group of teens in hockey skates wandering over from the public skate rink to the freestyle ice. They were saying some not nice things about the male skaters until one did a HUGE triple loop right in front of them. I could immediately see the respect because they all shut up pretty quickly. More of that would be good. :-)

  10. It's good to know that some boys can manage figure skating and hockey.

    There is a high level figure skater at our rink who also plays hockey. The poor kid begs us to ignore him when he's at the rink with his hockey team because he would be bullied off the team. I feel so bad for him. :-(

  11. My son never had any interest in hockey. He always wanted to learn to "do the tricks on the ice". But he does have an avid interest in my Victoria's Secret catalogs. I guess he's just looking at the bras for the fashion, not the mostly exposed breasts. Not that it would matter to me if he was gay. He skates at a rink with several male coaches, most of them Russian. In Russia they don't think that figure skating is a girl's sport. I had to push him a little after he first started skating and found out that there were things he had to learn before he could jump. Once he started jumping, I gave him the option of quitting and at that point he didn't want to because he was now learning how to do the things he wanted to do. He loves figure skating and is learning to ignore the snide remarks and teasing from ignorant people.

    At one of his lessons, there was a hockey coach sitting in the stands waiting for freestyle ice to end. A few of his team members joined him in the stands, and he told them "If half our team could skate as well as those kids out there, we'd be unbeatable."

  12. Anonymous, my Russian coaching mentor told me that no one wants the girls in Russia, it's all about the boys.

  13. I have a 4.5-year boy who wants to play hockey, but started learning on rented figure skates. We tried to switch him for one lesson, but he kept falling and after one class on hockey skates he wanted his "normal" skates back. The ideal scenario for him would be to play hockey in figure skates :), because he IS the kid who wants to fall, run into things and tackle other kids. Any suggestions how to transition him into hockey skates, so that he doesn't give up because he is on the ground all the time?

  14. I would just keep him in "regular" skates for a year or so, then see if you can switch him into a beginner hockey class, where everyone is in hockey skates. My prediction is that he'll fall for the first 10 minutes, and then he'll be the best skater in the class while everyone around him is taking headers, because he already knows how to skate. At not-quite-5 he has LOTS of time to get ready for a team.

  15. Wow, a thread near and dear to my heart (sorry to be dredging up old posts but I am reading back).

    One of my pet peeves with US Figure Skating is that the don't seem to have much interest in encouraging males to skate. It's too bad. For one thing it would improve the audience and the economics of the sport. For another, there are scads and scads of ladies wanting to do pairs and dance and they can't find partners.

  16. USFS does a lousy job encouraging ANYone to skate in my opinion. Add onto that the general American homophobia about skating and you've got a losing combination.

  17. Hi. I have a 7 yr old son who is not gay and is in ISI freestyle 1. We've had a lot of support from the other skaters and parents. He wears hockey skates at the moment is planning on to adding figure skates very soon. We have them. During public skate he plays with a lot of the teenagers that do those extreme tricks and he has a blast! Overall, a positive experience except for a lack of other male skaters during the competition and sessions. During those times my son sticks out like a sore thumb.

  18. p.s. Sorry, let me be clear, gay or straight, it doesn't matter to me. That came out wrong. I am writing too early in the morning! I didn't mean to start off my last post offensively.

    1. Not to worry, Anon, it's a fraught subject. :)

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