Mar 7, 2011

The Specialty Coach

What do you do when you cannot get the jump? Or can't get control of your nerves at competition or testing? Or need to increase the difficulty of your spins?

You call in the specialty coach. (Maybe. We'll get to that.)

A specialty coach is a coach with a strong track record in technique on a single type of element-- you'll most often find specialty coaches working on pairs spins, jumps (or a specific jump, or a specific level of rotations). Off-ice training and choreography are specialty fields. Dance teams in particular might work with a number of coaches because of the complexity of the discipline--pairs and dance spins, lifts, stroking and tracking, expression, compulsory patterns. A specialty coach may also have general students, but then team teaches with the main coach on some kids working on the specialty.

So how do you know you need one? Who decides that, and when? Who are the specialty coaches? How long do you work with them, who takes part in the lesson, how much will it cost (and how do I keep my husband from finding out).

How do I know I need a specialty coach?
If your regular coach suggests it, you need one. However, if you're only working on single axels, it's possible that you don't need a specialty coach, you just need a regular coach who knows how to teach axels. I hate to break it to the newbie parents, but single axel is a low-level (ok ok mid level) jump. Your regular coach really should know how to teach this. If you're having trouble with your axel and the coach suggests a jump coach, you might want to look around and see if your coach's other students are landing axels. (Then, just for good measure, make sure the supposed jump coach has kids who are landing axels, and isn't just the regular coach's buddy.) You might not need a "jump coach" so much as you need a "coach." If you're having trouble with your axel while working with a coach who has a track record, stick with him. The only reason to get a jump coach in such a case is to break down mental barriers that you may have built up with your regular coach.

If you think you might benefit from specialty lessons, it's okay to approach the regular coach with this idea. This is where I might relent a little on the idea of a specialty coach for the axel. If you've been working on the axel for the better part of a year or more, sometimes just hearing even the same technique from someone else really can help.

If your coach suggests a specific specialist ask around and see if this person really is a specialist in this area. You will tend to start to know who the jump wizards are at your facility. (Ask the parents, not the coaches. A coach will not pass judgment on a colleague. We are actually prohibited by our professional association, the PSA, from stating an opinion on another coach's teaching ability.)

What if my coach suggests working with a "guest coach?"
Sometimes a guest coach might be in town and your coach suggests taking a couple lessons with him or her. The guest coach might be a famous person (at least in the figure skating world), so go for it, because what fun! We had former U.S. Ice Dance Medalist Morgan Matthews teaching at our rink last year; her friend that brought her in even had her working in tot class, which was just wonderful.

Higher level skills
You're more likely to need a specialty coach for doubles and triples than for singles because of the greater complexity, and because it frees the regular lessons from overworking the jumps. When you take a specialty lesson, this is additional, not in place of your regular lesson. Including the additional cost. Further, find out if your regular coach expects to be there, because if he does, you're going to be paying two coaches for that lesson. (This is not always clear to parents.) Again, especially with doubles, which are basic skating really, make sure that you need a guest coach because it's the best option, and not because your coach doesn't know how to teach doubles. Again, because of the additional cost involved, check out your coach's other students-- are they landing doubles? If so, then a specialty coach may or may not be called for. (Sometimes a coach might say right up front, look, I don't teach doubles, why don't you work with Coach Special on those, and we'll continue to do everything else in our regular lessons. This is fine, and bully for that ethical coach.)

Special skills
Spin features, expression, stroking technique, and other narrow skill areas are also places where you might find specialty coaching. Your Xanboni says if you are competing only in Basic Skills or non-qualifying events, and call in an expensive specialty coach to work on your Level IV spin, you're either pretentious, indulgent, or delusional. But that's just me.

What will it cost?
Whatever the market will bear. Some coaches will charge their regular rates for specialty coaching. Some coaches will charge more when it's framed as a specialty skill. Some can charge a lot more because they've got a reputation for being good with the specialty. Plus, remember, additional ice time and fee; you're doing this in addition to your regular lesson, not in place of it.

When are we done with the specialist?
Up to you and the regular coach. When you master the skill, or after a set number of lessons. Or you do occasional one-offs. Or when you run out of money (if you think this might be an issue, please tell all parties involved at the outset. Thank you.)

What's the best way to brag about this?
Cool, specialty coach! Well, maybe. If you're working with a specialty coach because it's been 3 years and your kid still doesn't have an axel, I'd keep it on the QT. But if you're working with Famous Coach, or you've started working on triples, or you just really can't keep your pride to yourself (yeah, yeah, I get it I get it), don't say (nose in air) "Owh, that's her jump coach." Say, "Oh, she's just working with Butch on jumps." Please don't start in on "well, Princess' jump coach blah blah blah and Princess' choreographer blah blah blah and Princess' sports psychologist blah blah blah and Princess costume designer blah blah blah" or if you do, don't come crying to me about your slashed tires.

So, specialty coach, yes or no?
Yes. Even if you're not sure about your coach's motivation. Even if you feel a little silly having a "specialty" coach for a nearly recreational skater, as long as you can afford it, it really can't hurt.

And there are those bragging rights.

Have you worked with a specialty coach? Was it a good experience, or do you think you might as well have gone without?


  1. Great post full of information and laughter as always! I have a specialty lessons question: to improve the basic skating skills of a low level freestyle skater, what are the likely factors to consider between adding ice dance lessons (group or private) with a dance coach and increasing lesson time with the regular coach?

  2. My skater works with a specialty coach on moves. He's working on Junior moves, but started with her at the preliminary or possibly pre-juvenile level. Rationale is that she does it all the time, so she can teach it in less time than Primary coach. Primary coach could do it, but it would take longer. Bottom line, quicker passes and less money spent.

    He also worked with a spin coach, but I had reservations after about a year. Spoke to primary coach and agreed to continue with specialty coach. Finally another year later, we stopped with spin coach (for other reasons, mainly simplifying my life, but back of my mind thinking that primary coach was better for my skater than spin coach). This proved correct. Primary coach consented to do spins and has cleaned up and advanced my skater's spins (literally) to the next level.

    Rationale for the spin coach in the beginning was that it's a lot for one coach to keep up with (IJS) dance lifts, spins and singles spins, footwork, jumps etc. More chance for errors in COP. So it's a trade off...but that's what the smaller competitions and other coaches (advisors) are for right? ;)

    To be fair, the great improvement it also could be partly due to the fact that my skater finally realized how important spins were and worked harder at it, but the bottom line, my life is easier (one less coach to schedule) and my skater's spins are better. :)

  3. The Same AnonymousMarch 8, 2011 at 2:35 AM

    Thanks for the post Xan! :D I see some people working with multiple coaches so it's interesting to find out why.

    What about specialty group lessons? My rink offers these for edges, jumps and spins (separately). I want to do the edges one because I'm sort of good at edges (for my level) and also it prepares you for the first formal freestyle test. Is this a good idea if I discuss it with my main coach first?

  4. sk8rmomp- missed Moves. Yes, moves is a specialty, and a good one to do with a special coach, because you can do them in group, reducing cost. Which gets to SameAnon's question, and yes in some instances group can work with a special coach-- again cost might be a factor, or if it's a guest coast with limited availability, or if that's just the way the coach rolls. Jane, a low-level skater should not need a special coach for basic skating, that's what low-level lessons are for. If a skater thinks they're not getting good instruction in a problem area like stroking, they should ask the coach to do some work on it.

  5. Thank you Xan, had a great lesson on basics. Waiting to see if ice dance group lesson can become a reality.

  6. We have another coach helping with some double jumps. It's actually our coach's coach, and they more or less tag-team a bit since they coach the same way.

    We just had a double jump in particular that my skater girl hurt herself doing and was having a mental block. Double-coach helped on this. Two different personality styles when coaching and this was most important, I think.