Feb 27, 2011

I'm so impressed

One of the reasons, of course, that figure skaters become coaches is that they are really good figure skaters (something I have never been, ahem, accused of). I became a writer, after all, because I was really good at it. Sadly, the only thing I ever get to write, aside from these blogs, is grant proposals, but oh well, writing is writing.

When you're really good at something, you want everyone to know it. So I write these blogs. Artists put up shows, figure skaters keep skating. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, blah blah blah.

Let's all do it in its appropriate time and place, hmmm?

For instance, the appropriate place for a very gifted former champion figure skater to show off is on practice ice that is set aside for that level of skating. It is NOT on a Learn-to-skate lesson period on a studio-sized rink crowded with coaches teaching very young children who cannot skate. Coach Fab, your waltz jumps are amazing-big and free and graceful. Not gonna look so graceful, however, if it lands on my 5-year-old student, whom you have not bothered to notice. And let's not even talk about the lawsuit.

There is a coaching approach based on observation: coach executes the move perfectly, student copies. This works brilliantly with gifted students who happen to be visual learners, who are working on ice where there is room for this kind of demonstration. Demo is very important for figure skaters, but you have to be careful 1. to be demonstrating the skill in a way and at a level that a student can absorb (even a gifted, visual one) and 2. that you can do it safely.

The silly thing about these over-the-top demos is that they are completely unnecessary. Everyone in the stands assumes you can do that anyway. I like to be very upfront with my skating background, so that my students and parents aren't helpfully clued in by others. If I kept my mouth shut, everyone would just assume that I was a high level skater, because what kind of crazy person goes into a profession that they aren't good at?

Which is the point. Coaches are not professional figure skaters. They are professional teachers, a very different thing, requiring different skills. As a parent, if I see a coach demonstrating too much, especially demonstrating at a level much higher than my student, I'm going to assume they don't know how to teach and are just trying to impress me. Okay, I'm impressed. Now could you focus on my kid? Coaches who use larger-than-necessary demo in lessons are using it not so much as a teaching tool, but as a public relations tool. "Look at me, parents" they are saying, "I'm a fabulous skater. If your kid skates with me, they'll look like this."

Now, these coaches are looking at this and saying, "oh sour grapes. Xan can't skate her way out of paper bag, she's just an adult skater, and she's jealous." Fair enough. This is why you don't see me demonstrating all that much. If I have a student that really needs a demo, I'll call over one of the junior coaches. But a skater with my approach and limitations is forced to focus on the skater rather than on impressing everyone with my wonderfulness (that's what blogging is for). The most successful coaches at my rink seldom or never use high level demos in lessons.

I'm not talking about all demos. You have to use demonstration in teaching anything; it's a valuable tool. But a coach who is demonstrating waltz jump entries by doing giant axels, or spirals by doing Level 4 spiral combinations, is not teaching, she's showing off.

A good teacher understands that he or she is not the most important person in the room. Big demos take the focus off the student and put it on the coach. The focus should always be on the student and his or her needs, skills, and level of understanding.

Feb 24, 2011


I did the following game on the last day of class, once with 4-5 year olds, once with an Alpha-Beta class and once with a Beta-Gamma-Delta. The tots went along with it and had fun, and the BGDs seemed to like it but the A-Bs absolutely rocked it. I've been doing this for a while, but this group of kids came up with some new stuff to do. I love it when the kids do my work for me.

The idea is to come up with ways to mime playground equipment on the ice.

Rocking Horses- one swizzle forward, one back. If you do the forward swizzle larger than the backward one, this will travel across the ice. Add swinging arms for effect.

Slide (F&B)
High-stepping marches (up the ladder), slowly sink into a dip (down the slide).

Merry go round
"Teacup" spins-- two person spread eagle around a common center.

Hop scotch
Jumping swizzles-- give a couple of pushes to get going, two foot glide, then jump to feet apart, jump to feet together, all the way down the ice. More advanced skaters could jump to one foot glides as well.

Sand box
Different stops (scrape up "sand" or in our case, snow)

Tire swing
Forward skating to small spread-eagle turns

See saw (F&B)
Couple of pushes for speed, then dip low, stand up, repeat until you get all the way across. Advanced skaters do it with a partner, one forward, one backward, one up, one down.

Tow line
Lunges with arms stretched overhead

Monkey bars
Couple of pushes for speed, then wide-leg dip and pull yourself across the ice with your hands. For little kids, just mime monkey bars with your hands while doing high-stepping marches.

Balance beam
One foot glides, with different leg positions

Feb 20, 2011

Working with a Master Coach

As part of its coaches education program The Professional Skaters Association offers coaches the chance to work with top-level coaches through the Apprenticeship Program. As part of on going education, or in preparation for Ratings exams, a coach can seek a colleague with a Master rating in the desired discipline, and set up a mentor relationship. The project can include skating instruction, co-teaching, off-ice instruction, and observation.

To reach my Master rating, I have put together a plan to do apprenticeships in Free Skate, Moves, and Synchro at the Registered level, and Group at the Senior and Master Levels. I completed the Senior one two years ago, and passed the Senior Group rating. In addition to the free skate apprenticeship just completed, I have lined up apprenticeships in all these levels to pursue over the next couple of years, prior to taking the Master Group ratings exam. If I can meet the other qualifications of the ratings, I'd like eventually to have Registered ratings in Free Skate and Moves.

It’s just a matter of time and money.

For the Registered free skating apprenticeship, just now finishing, I worked with the only coach at my rink who has gotten the Master FS rating. Ratings exams are not easy to get, requiring a serious commitment of time, money, and continuing education and a serious degree of knowledge, as well as the ability to impart it in an oral exam before a panel of Master coaches. Of the 17 coaches on staff, we have just one Master-rated and one Senior-rated FS instructor, two Senior-rated Group instructors (one of whom is me), and one Master-rated Moves instructor. (There is no requirement to work with a coach at your facility, or even in your city. I was just lucky to have someone interesting to work with so close at hand.) Of the younger coaches, to my knowledge only one of them is starting the ratings process; most of them seem to consider PSA ratings useless at best. Inexplicable. Since there is no college degree or in fact any sort of required credential at all to teach figure skating, I consider it to be very nearly irresponsible to forego the ratings process.

I have known the coach I worked with for more than 15 years. I’ve watched many of his skaters start from Learn to Skate as tots and finish with the Senior test before heading off to college. His commitment to the sport, sense of humor, and affection for his students are obvious and unmatched, and it was a fascinating to work with him.

Because of his general approach using group lessons for free skate instruction, even among his private students, having him as my mentor was made-to-order. I was able to observe how specific teaching approaches and technical information could be imparted in a group setting that yet honors the individual skater’s needs and abilities. I was especially impressed with his ability to keep a class moving, using the whole ice, and with minimal standing around gabbing (the curse of close coaching relationships, such as this coach has with his students).

As with my Group apprenticeship, this coach was unfailingly generous with his knowledge, his students and his time. For much of the course of our time together, it was very gratifying to find out how similar many of our techniques, class management approaches, and coaching philosophy were. Because of my background as a skating mom and adult skater, I often have to overcome feelings of being not quite up to par. His patience and affirmative approach to mentoring have helped me to overcome some of this.

Right now I'm taking a break from the Master skating exam to focus on my Master Gardener exam (one thing at a time). Even if I never scare up the courage to take the rating, apprenticeships are worth the time and effort for someone committed to excellence in figure skating instruction.

A conversation with a coach

Here’s a conversation I had with a coach who was about to lose a student that she felt she had gone above-and-beyond with. I have many conversations with coaching friends who reach the point that this coach reached. In fact, we talk about you all the time. The way to not be the mom in this conversation is first of all to remember to trust your coach, and second, to always talk to the coach when you have a concern, and then to listen to the responses. Don't go into a conversation with a coach thinking you know the answer.

Coach: It’s messed up because of how the mom handled this... so I think it would be best to just get the hell out.

Me: I think the mom needs a clean break, too. Not sure she knows it.

Coach: I just don't feel like she really appreciated or trusted anything I did for her skater. And I really feel like more of this is coming from the mom than the skater. The mom puts all these ideas in the skater’s head... and the skater believes it because it's mom.

Me: I know exactly what you’re saying. It’s really powerful; I destroyed my daughter’s ability to work with Dance Coach because I couldn't work with him. I should write a post.

Coach: Just about your experience as a parent/coach?

Me: yeah-- about how I sabotaged DD and Dance Coach without meaning or wanting to and how long it took me to really come to terms with that, if I ever have. Not that he or she were blameless, but I certainly was a trigger.

Coach: I think it's great that you were able to see that about yourself. A lot of other parents wouldn't, I don't think. They see it as caring or worrying or some other sort of parental feeling.

Coach: The mom is insisting on having this "conversation" away from the rink... I told her I had 15 minutes between freestyles I could give her in person, but apparently she didn't understand that it was only 15 minutes.

Me: Make her buy you coffee before work. It will be less stressful to do it on neutral ground away from both party's support systems. Off site is a good idea.

Coach: I just don't feel like donating the time anymore. She pretty much ruined it. I've been more than accommodating to her and their schedules and their constantly canceling last minute, answering all of the ridiculous questions while trying to steer her in the right direction.

Me: No, don't burn bridges. Keep the friendship. Nothing deteriorates only on one side, plus you lose nothing by eating a little crow.

Coach This was a one-sided thing, Xan.

Me: I agree. But it gains you nothing to fight it out anymore.

Coach: For all the reasons I mentioned before, I stayed consistent, I kept the mom informed of the things she needed to know about, I've pushed that kid to the point of tears and spent, now, hours answering her many emails. Then she cancels several lessons and I’m still supposed to set aside my free time to talk to her. I have to talk on my terms, when I have the time now. If she does not want to take the time out of her schedule and truly do something when it's convenient for me, I'm not going to waste my time anymore.

Coach: I'm tired of all these parents making coaches jump through hoops. Coaching relationships have really changed. The current generation of parents is not willing to let the coach be the coach.

NB: This skater has since worked with 4 different coaches, and is having trouble with the same elements and with progress in general for the same reason: the mom won't leave the coaching to the coaches, won't maintain a consistent practice schedule, and tells the skater that the lack of progress is because the coaches don't understand the skater. The lesson being learned here is all on the side of the coaches-- don't take this skater seriously, and avoid the mom at all costs.

Have you had a coaching relationship spiral out of control? Share your experience--where did you go wrong, where did the coach go wrong, where did it get away from both parties?

Feb 18, 2011

Beyond Game Day: The Olympics

A wonderful alternative for horrible game day races on the last day of a figure skating session, based on circuit training-- every child does every station, at their own speed. The diagram came from a PSA seminar that I attended a couple of years ago and was created by Carol Rossignol, PSA's Education Director and all around marvelous human being.

Here's how Carol describes the activities (with a few variations of my own):

Olympics Day is designed for 7 stations with about 8 skaters in a group. You need an instructor and an assistant for each station/group. (The instructor can travel with the group or be assigned by station.) Skaters move from station to station in a circuit format, rotating counter clockwise around the rink, with 5 minutes at each station, filling out a 40-minute class. Adjust the amount of time per station, or the number of stations for shorter or longer class periods, remembering to reserve about 5 minutes to organize it at the start.

Station 1: Bobsled. Using cones or drawn circles, have skaters skate half way across the ice and then do a dip as low as possible. Four at each end start at the same time toward each other, doing a splice or pass through. They need to keep their heads up so they don't crash into each other!

Station 2: Speed Skating. Time the skaters to see how fast they can skate around the two red circles at the end of the rink. Skaters skate two at a time, and are timed individually. Each skater's time is recorded. If there is time, have a second round and see if they can improve their time.

Station 3: Curling. Draw curling circles on the ice and make rocks from plastic bottles filled with sand. Four skaters are on a team and each skater slides one rock toward the target to see which team will have the most rocks closest to the center white circle. Teams alternate sliding the rocks.

Station 4: Downhill skiing. Set up obstacle course with cones or other markers. Use sculling or slaloms to run the course.

Station 5: Figure Skating. Have skaters create a mini program consisting of a spin, a jump and a gliding maneuver for a maximum of 20 seconds program duration.

Station 6: Hockey. Set up actual hockey nets at either end. Use soft balls for pucks and plastic or inflatable hockey sticks. Let each skater have a ball and a stick. Four skaters at each end try to hit the balls into the hockey net.

Station 7: Ski Jumping. Draw four or more lines on the ice. Skaters take turns (one after the other) doing a two-foot jump or a bunny hop over each line.

Option Station 8: Medal ceremony. Set up a podium in the lobby (or a couple of them) and have junior coaches handing out medals and taking pictures of all the winners (mom and dad can take pictures, too. Ask them to post them on your rink or club's Facebook page). Participation is optional, and everyone gets a first place medal.

For more Game Day alternatives see Beyond the relay race.

Feb 13, 2011

It's just the one skill

Unlike private lessons, skating school curricula have sets of skills at each level that you must master in order to pass to the next level.

In the USFS Basic Skills curriculum, each level contains testable skills that are critical for the next level (backwards one foot glides at Basic 4 before backward cross overs at Basic 5, for instance). The ISI curriculum contains all necessary skills for the "macro" skills within a single level, but the principal remains the same--you have to have the building skills before you can acquire the macro skills.

So what if a skater is missing "just one skill." Do you pass them on an "average?" Do you let it go?

ISI PreAlpha, Basic 1, 2, and 3 contain more or less only "building" skills, and no "macro" skills: forward and backward two foot and one foot glides, and marching or "push-and-glide" (weight shift from one foot to the other while moving forward), swizzles, one-foot pumps, forward to backwards two-foot turn, scooter pushes on a circle. I think everyone would agree that the ability to move forward on the ice and generate a two-foot glide is pretty basic, and that a skater that can't do this shouldn't move on.

But what about that one-foot glide? What if a kid does it really well on one foot but not at all on the other? This is the most common problem with kids on the cusp in these beginner levels. Well, next level, Alpha or Basic 4, is forward cross overs in both directions. If you can't balance on one foot, how are you going to cross? The building skill is necessary for the macro skill. I hate having to waste time in Alpha 1 class (much less Alpha 2) teaching kids this skill that they were supposed to master in the beginning level.

The next macro skill is backwards stroking and crossovers. Basic 3 and 4 include backwards one foot glides; again, this is necessary to the completion of a cross over, even the unfortunate swizzling ones that they allow in Basic Skills (snark snark This is the biggest problem with Basic Skills- USFS makes fun of the "ISI crossovers" with a lift, but ISI kids understand the weight shift in a backwards crossover better in my opinion. /digression). A good ISI teacher (that would be me) adds this Basic Skills skill into Beta class- gliding backwards on a circle.

How about t-stops? T-stops are stupid, and why do we have to do it in both directions? Well, that's essentially your hip/foot position for the mohawk turn in Gamma. Can't hold the "T"? You're gonna have trouble with the mohawk.

Both curricula are constructed to lead to later skills--proper bunny hops lead to proper waltz jumps which lead to proper axels. Proper understanding of 3-turns, equally strong in both directions, with the free hip held back, will make back 3s at FS4 or FreeSkate 1, and brackets at FS5 much easier. If you enter your ballet jump or mazurka with your toe pick facing forwards, you'll have difficulty learning a proper toe loop, and you'll never get the double.

Especially in the lower levels (which I count as thru FS3), every skill must be at minimum passing level, and preferably better. The more time you take with the basics, the easier time you'll have with the higher levels. A lot of my kids go through Alpha or Beta or Gamma 2 or 3 or even 4 times, but very few of them spend more than one session in FS2 or 3, because their basics are strong.

It's not just one skill. It's the bottom of the pyramid, and it needs to hold the whole structure up.

Feb 9, 2011

Lesson Request Forms

One of the most common questions I hear is "when should I start private figure skating lessons" and "how do I go about choosing a figure skating coach."

My best advice is choose a coach that your skater gets along with well, but if you're new to a rink you might not know who that is, or you might feel awkward about approaching someone.

Many rinks also have some version of a private lesson request form, where you note your skater's level, your availability and your contact information.

At some rinks, the form just goes up in the pro's room; the first coach who sees it nabs it. If you don't end up working with that person, don't assume they've reposted the request (in fact I can practically guarantee that they haven't). Fill out a new one. Worse, if he doesn't call you, he might not repost it. If you turn a form in and haven't heard from anyone within a few days, fill out another one and ask to have it posted again. Other rinks have a rotating roster or a seniority system--they give the form to the next person on the list. In systems like this, you're supposed to give it back if it doesn't work out, but again, this doesn't always happen. If you don't sign up with the first coach who calls, fill out another one.

You also do not have to hire the first coach who calls you. You can shop around. Try a lesson, put the form back up. Use this judiciously, because if you do it too many times, word will get around that you're not serious. But it's okay to "audition" two or three coaches, especially if you're on a competitive track or are a higher level (already have axel) skater.

To get the best service from using these forms, here's some things to know:

Do put down the skater's current class level. Don't put down what you think she should be in. Don't write down what skills you think the skater should be learning, or novels about prior good or bad experiences. Don't put down statements like "current teacher is holding him back." Especially don't use skating terms, even if you are confident that know them. A lesson form with excessive information is a great big red flag that says "overinvolved parent." Plenty of time to get obnoxiously over-involved once you and the coach know each other better.

Do put down specific goals if you have them: "help with axel," "start USFS test," "pass Gamma," "lessons during intersession," but keep it brief and specific.

If availability is asked, be flexible. Don't put down the one half-hour slot that is optimum for you, especially if it's during a popular time. Chances are the more desirable coaches are already teaching on that ice. If you say "only available Tuesdays at 4:15" 80% of the coaches are going to pass this up. In addition, don't make up times that aren't offered. Ice isn't just sitting around waiting to accommodate your schedule. Every rink has specific times when coaches are allowed to teach. If there's no ice, I can't come on Saturday at 3 just because it's more convenient for you.

Remember that the lesson form is for that rink. Don't assume that if the ice you want isn't available, you can simply tell the coach to meet you at Rink Across Town.

The price is the price. Coaching fees and ice entry fees are set. They are not flexible, you cannot get discounts. Some coaches charge less than others, but if you tell an interested coach, well so-and-so only charges $X, you're likely to hear, "fine, go skate with so-and-so." Plus, So-and-so will be informed of the conversation (coaches tend to take care of each other when it comes to problem parents).

In general, and especially for lower level skaters (LTS/Basic Skills through about FS3-4), the first coach who calls is going to be FINE. You'll get different personality types, but figure skating coaches are a flexible bunch, well able to adapt teaching style to the child in front of us.

Feb 5, 2011

In search of Type III Parents

I originally found the following on the Lone Star Figure Skating Club website in 2006. It was written by Robert Mock and used in presentations by Dr. Gayle Davis, including a PSA seminar that I attended (can't remember if it was a coaching seminar or a parent's seminar). Don't forget to check out my version "In Search of Type III Coaches"). Thank you to a reader for tracking down Dr. Davis for me!

Parenting Styles
Reprinted with permission from Sports Psychologist Dr. Gayle Davis.

At every competition and test session, I hear coaches and judges voicing concerns over the dramatic change of behavior by parents in the past several years.

Generally three types of parents are stalking the ice rinks of America.
Type I Parents are rarely seen by anyone. They are the folks who drop off their skaters at the door and whiz off in their BMW's. These parents are generally wrapped up in their own careers and feel skating is a good pursuit for their children.

Type I parents leave decisions up to the coach, rarely interfere unless skating conflicts with their own world, i.e.. vacations, family functions, etc.

Coaches and officials seldom have difficulty with these parents. They pay their bills and maintain a low (or no) profile in the skating world. Usually, coaches become surrogate parents to Type I's children, and skaters develop a strong relationship with their coaches. Training areas, where very little is expected of parents tend to be full of Type I Parent's children. Coaches are very useful to Type I Parents. They generally like the arrangement, and the skaters seem to do well.

Type II Parents make coaches and officials very uncomfortable, as they are (or seem to be) at the rink 24 hours a day. They are advocates looking for a cause, and they usually become obsessed with their children's skating careers, living through their children.

Type II Parents think they know more than coaches and judges, and spend their time either at rinkside coaching their children or in the lobby giving advice about what coach everyone should be taking lessons from.

Type II parents have no loyalty to any coach or rink, and no respect for the USFSA system or officials. They are consumers of skating, trying to buy, maneuver and outsmart the competition. As they lose touch with reality (usually in the first or second year of skating) they become a coach's nightmare, as they feel that they must have total control over the coach and the decisions being made.

Winning and passing tests are their only priority. Anything less is usually dealt with through threatening a coaching change. Children of Type II's tend to flourish early on, but fizzle out from the stress of the constant demands of parents who are sure their child is headed for the Olympics.

Type II Parents and (unfortunately) their skaters are generally eliminated by the system. Eventually they cross the wrong official or are done in by their own hands...given enough rope.

Type III Parents are becoming more and more rare. They are the parents who step back and let the coaches do their job. Type III's know that their duties as parents involve support roles that are vital to the success of their child. They see that the skater gets to the rink on schedule, is properly dressed for skating, and lives a happy and well balanced life away from the arena.

At tests and competitions, they turn their children over to the coaches, and do not interfere. Type III Parents monitor the progress of their children as individuals first and within their peer group second, if at all.

Type III Parents make appointments with coaches if questions arise and are always ready to pitch in if a coach needs input or help. They respect the knowledge of the coaches and listen to their recommendations. They also have utmost respect for the judges and the USFSA system. Coaches feel fortunate to have Type III's and their skaters within the rink.


Coaches and officials are very concerned over the increased number of Type II Parents and their skaters within the skating community. As their numbers increase, they set a bad example for new parents coming into the sport, and become a never ending source of trouble for the rink, the club and the skating community.

The best way to avoid a problem is to set down rules early, and stand behind them without hesitation. Parents have a right to be informed by their coaches, and to have a basic understanding of their child's progress, but coaches and judges must define the parent's role from the beginning. This is the way to have a healthy situation for the skater an everyone.

Feb 1, 2011

Supporting your rink

Had a "grit your teeth and smile" conversation with a mom a few weeks ago. She was griping about the awful spring show music, that she ALWAYS hates, it's ALWAYS awful, and who benefits from spring show anyway? "The rink," she said. "It's all about the rink. My daughter could be the guest skater at any ice show, any ice show, why should she skate here for the same old people. What have they ever done for her?"

Well, let's see. What are some of the things a local rink does for its regular skaters.
  • Comp ice on the sly when they know there are family issues
  • Junior coaching programs that might include free ice or guaranteed future employment
  • Discounts on ice, shows, or classes
  • Personal, knowledgeable help with scheduling and coaching issues
  • Being, just in general, your home away from home
Let's turn that around. What have you done for your program? Have you offered to volunteer on busy Saturdays, helping newbie parents tie skates, or keeping the snack bar area clean? Have you volunteered at ice shows? Have you recruited your neighbors or friends to join the program? Do you spend money at the snack bar, the pro shop, the hockey games, the ice shows? Do you sign your child up for classes? Do you bring cookies for the pro's or the office staff?

Or do you just complain about this system that you are barely a part of?

What you will find when you make an effort to be an active positive part of the life of an ice rink (or your place of worship, or your children's school, or your local park council) is that you will suddenly like the place better.

For one thing, you've invested the most important asset you have: your time. In fundraising, this the holy grail. Get your donors to invest time, and not just dollars, and they become your best contributors as well as your best marketers. When you give your precious time (and I use the term precious without sarcasm), it becomes important to you that your decision be justified. So you'll start seeing the positives, and not just the negatives.

It will also get you out of the echo chamber, where all you hear are the complaints from one class of people-- the parents. It will put you in contact with the hockey or speed skating program, the skating school parents (who make up the bulk of volunteers, as a rule), the management, the office staff. You'll start thinking of them as people, and we all have a default position that people are basically good. When they're just "the office staff" it's easy to trash them. When they're Jane and Mark and Alicia, you start to care about them.

It works in the other direction too. You'll morph from That Mom to Mary and you'll find that your experience improves exponentially.

Every time you feel like complaining, stop and ask instead. Ask the Skating Director, not "how can you change this thing that drives me crazy, yesterday," but "why is it done this way." There might be a really good reason, and it might be that it makes someone's life easier.

I'm not going to stop you from complaining. Heck, if you stop, I'll have to stop. But take an interim step-- help out. Ask. Engage.

With apologies to JFK, ask not what your rink can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rink.