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.


  1. If you don't care about winning, does it make much difference whether you're at USFSA regionals, a basic skills free skate event, or an ISI competition?

    If you are competing as an adult in local USFSA competitions is it different from ISI adult competitions?

    For team trophies, does the largest team always win?

  2. If you don't care about winning, then you need another reason for competing. The whole point of competing, it seems to me, is to score as high as you can, i.e., win. If you want to push yourself, then probably USFS is where you want to be, because you'll find IN GENERAL a higher quality of skating (this is not necessarily true at the higher levels).

    The team that enters the most events wins. So a small team where everyone is in 5 or 6 events (and you can do this in ISI) can compete with a much larger team, especially if they enter events that typically have low enrollment, increasing your chances "against the book" which guarantees a first or second place, i.e. more team points.

    Any system can be gamed, sadly.

  3. I'm considering switching from ISI not because of the whole "competitive" thing but because I like their Basic Skills curriculum better. Had I known a year ago what I know now, I would have started with them.

  4. Xan, the Intermediate age limit is 18, not 13. Juvenile caps at 13. Intermediate caps at 18. They're pretty similar levels, though Int allows one triple and Juv does not. The skaters can still compete in Open Juv and Open Int but cannot qualify for Nationals until they move to Int or Novice.

    Though ISI FS10 is the hardest test, a skater who passes that still doesn't have a chance against Senior competition. FS10 only requires a double axel, a triple edge jump and a triple toe jump- Senior competition typically has 5 to 6 triples.

    A skater can compete in both organizations if they wish. They can stay with ISI and dip their toes in USFSA's competitive track to see how they like it. Moving from ISI to USFSA will require learning -all- the jump combos, many spin variations, like pancake, catchfoot, tuck, haircutter, sideways layback, layover, etc. etc. and learning how to build points under IJS.

  5. Anon, you are right. Correction made in post. Thank you!

  6. Anon, you are also right about doing both tracks, and many kids to do this. The problem with testing both tracks is that the skills start to diverge; as you say USFS Senior (and even Junior and increasingly, Novice) require greater competency at triples. However, ISI has extremely difficult skills that you never see in USFS competition, like the split Lutz, 1 1/4 & 2 1/4 flip, reverse axel, etcetera. So doing both at a high competitive level is tough.

  7. Skate Mom, it's not about the curriculum. It's about the teacher.

  8. Hi I'm back. I am almost 11 and started at almost 9. I am ISI freestyle 1 and have sal, toe and flip, but loop only half of the time. So do I have time, do I have time but have to move it, or is it too late for me to be national track?

  9. Anon, You've gotten really far in just two years, so you've clearly got motivation and ability. With the jumps you've got, you can ask your coach if you can get ready to take all tests through PreJuv (you need the moves tests, too). But you need an axel to compete at that level. But, remember, only 2 years to get that Juvenile test. Competitive Juveniles have all doubles, including axel.

    Talk to your parents and your coach if you think this is the road for you.

    (And by the way, I hope your mom knows you're talking to random people on the web! ;)

  10. "If you don't care about winning, then you need another reason for competing. The whole point of competing, it seems to me, is to score as high as you can, i.e., win."

    In IJS you can have the goal of setting a new personal best score. Can you do that in ISI?

    According to the ISI website, the purpose of Adult Nationals is to go to the beach?!

  11. Anon-- good point, and if that works for you, it's an excellent way to motivate yourself. And yes, pretty much the point of ISI AN is to go to the beach. But apparently, it's loads of fun. The adult skaters I know who do this love it.

  12. Xan,

    This post couldn't have come at a better time. Our little munchkin is 7 and will likely start working on her axle in the next few months. Her coach is talking about dipping our toes into the USFS competition side and you have laid out the key decision points in a really easy to understand manner. Thanks so much. So, basically, you are saying they need all their doubles by about 11 1/2 or so? That gives them a year + to compete at Juvy and work from there?

  13. A lot of coaches will tell you that the safest thing is to have the doubles solid before the child hits puberty because of all the physical changes that occur then, so 11 is a good age. If she's working on an axel at 7, you are well within the margin.

    (That said, skaters can acquire double and even triple jumps as long as they keep training until they lose their nerve, however hold they are. I've seen adult onset skaters, over age 40, learn doubles.)

  14. So few skaters make it to nationals that I think most skaters compete for reasons other than just to "win" or with the ultimate goal of winning. I think most skaters who end up competing at Regionals know they aren't going to make it to nationals, but yet they want the challenge of competing year after year. The goal of a competition also pulls the best out of many skaters. It feels amazing and is a huge rush to work hard and then put out a great program.

    I never did ISI as a kid because it wasn't in my area, and now as an adult I see what they offer and I just am not interested (plus there is never anyone at my level). Even if you are just competing for the challenge of competition as well as the fun of it, I think USFS competitions are more satisfying.

  15. Finally someone with the guts to say it as it is...about the competitions. I get really fed up with people saying it's just for fun, don't do it to win, but to have fun. It belittles the hard work these kids put into it. And it also sends a message if your kid is last that it doesn't matter to work harder next time. Yes what someone did at basic 4, or FS 4 doesn't matter if you are now at regionals or above. But the kids should know to shoot to win and if you don't, work harder to win the next time.

  16. The Same AnonymousFebruary 1, 2011 at 2:34 AM

    'Hi Xan! I'm not in the US, but I am interested in all this discussion of "normal" rates of progression. I have some minor muscle/coordination issues which make me progress slowly at physical activities (18 months of skating = backward crossovers).

    Everyone talks about how high level you have to be to be on the competitive track at any given age, but what about the usual rate of progression for a recreational skater who skates a couple of times a week?

    Thanks! :)

  17. Same anon- here's a brief discussion on the topic! http://xan-boni.blogspot.com/2009/11/from-keyword-search.html

  18. Xan, I've always wondered if there are guesstimates or stats on the following:

    1) what percentage of preliminary skaters will pass the intermediate freestyle test down the road?

    2) what percentage of intermediate skaters will eventually pass the senior freestyle test?

    (Testing only, not necessarily competitive.)

    3) To quote from the keyword search topic, "For children, if you start skating by age 10 you will be landing doubles by the time you graduate high school, provided you work at it. You can pretty much take that to the bank." How likely will this hypothetical population pass a senior test which includes a double lutz?

    Sorry for super utilitarian questions, I am just curious what the odds are!

  19. Jane, I'll answer your question in a future post.

  20. That's extremely nice of you, Xan!!

  21. Xan,
    Like one of the previous posters said, even though Juvenile has an age limit, you can still skate at higher levels after 13. Even though it becomes far less likely to do well in competition when you get older, it is still possible if you are a quick learner. The age limits are not there to discourage kids from getting into the sport. They are simply there to make sure that older kids can't clog up a level forever.

    I also would not say that those skills you listed under the "extremely difficult skills" for ISI are all that difficult. The only reason they would be difficult to a USFS skater at all is because they are not something they normally practice. When I was learning my doubles and competing in the USFS system, I learned my axel the opposite direction for fun. It took all of 15 minutes (without instruction).

  22. Anonymous, all the points you make are excellent. The issues are complex and all the permutations cannot really be covered in a single post.
    Anon, I do understand why the age limits are in place, and frankly it's not "to keep kids from clogging up the system." It's to keep people from cheating, by competing at levels for which they are over qualified and over developed (see the recent scandal in Chinese pairs).

    As far as extremely difficult skills, I'm sorry, a split lutz, a reverse axel, four consecutive butterfiles, I think could fairly be characterized as extremely difficult skills. This is exactly the *reason* they "are not normally practiced".

    Congratulations on being such a fabulous skater.

  23. Same anon as before...

    I would consider sandbagging a form of "clogging." Sorry that I was not more specific. Older kids like to either stay in a level forever because the next one is too hard OR they like to stay there because it is easy and they can win. Some competitions also have the rule where if you won that level the previous year, you cannot compete it again the next year (which I think is a pretty good idea).

    And I was not trying to brag about the difficult skills. I think you are misunderstanding what I wrote (which is not hard to do over the internet) or maybe I just did not write it well enough. Most of my friends could also do some of those types of skills, too. We were at about Preliminary at the time I believe. Of course they could be categorized as extremely difficult when you compare them to forward swizzles, but when you already know an axel one direction it's not hard to figure out how to do it the other way real quick. My only point out of that comment was that the skills in ISI, although it is rare to come by someone who has taken the time to do them, are no harder than the USFS system competition levels. If you can do a triple lutz at senior, you can probably do an axel both ways if you worked on it for a bit. However, if you are basing it solely on the senior freeskate TEST through USFS, then I will agree that doing some of these things would not work too well considering the test system is much lower than the competition system.

  24. Thank you for your article! It is very informative!
    I would like my daughter to switch from ISI to USFS.
    How to talk about this with our coach? She is great teacher and we love her. I do not know even how to start this conversation that we want to change coach. Sounds horrible...

  25. Hi, My daughter is seven and just started landing her Axel. She is currenlty both USFSA and ISI - does have the occassional before school practice. She says she wants to go to the Olympics, she does work very hard - sometimes six days a week. I am starting to doubt my choice in coach for her. Her coach is registered with both but not pushing testing at all. I am pro testing even if the initial results are not so high because I believe that if you compete up you will improve. How do you know when its time to change coaches, how do you have a conversation with a coach where the only reason not to test up is that she has not yet given the student her program and does not want to rush the learning of a program.

  26. First, there is no "initial results not high" in testing-- you pass or your don't. If you pass with high marks hooray, but really, no one cares.

    As far as when to change coaches, that's the thing isn't it. I think you need to have the goals conversation with the coach (check out posts here tagged "goalsetting") and also ask her about testing. The other thing to do is check out her other students-- do they test? Does she have students in USFS competition? Does she have students with high tests? These are all things to watch for. You can stay with a strong developmental coach certainly through Juvenile, and then assess whether you want to grow with the coach or move on!

  27. Why would it cost $10,000 to switch? Is it the cost of the tests?

    1. We're talking strictly about bringing a skater up to a competitive level, so this includes increased coaching, ice time, costume, choreography, travel, etc. If you're just switching to get on the test track, the cost may or may not increase, depending on how seriously the skater was training at ISI, but at any rate it's likely to be much less if you take the competitive aspect out.