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.