Apr 30, 2011

The gag rule

UPDATE, November 2014: The gag rule is dead! The Federal Trade Commission got wind of it happening (across many professional associations, not specifically the PSA), and put a stop to it. PSA has changed their guidelines in compliance.

Imagine a job where if someone else's client approaches you about switching, because they were unhappy with the current relationship, you are bound by your professional association to report this to your rival.

Imagine you're the client. If you are seen talking to the rival firm, you can yourself be reported for an ethical violation, you risk destroying your current relationship, and the current firm can, in fact is encouraged to, sabotage your ability to hire a new firm. Doesn't matter if the current firm is abusive, incompetent, or unresponsive. If you talk to another firm, even if you leave your issues out of the conversation, you are in violation of the ethical standards of the industry.

Imagine an industry that tacitly encourages its clients to stay in arrears, so that they can prevent the client, legally, from switching to another firm, based on unpaid bills.

Imagine an industry where your firm doesn't offer a product that's available at the rival firm, and that your client needs. The client isn't allowed to seek it, and the firm isn't allowed to advertise it to your client.

Imagine an industry where my client isn't allowed to tell your client how much they like me.

Welcome to figure skating.

The issue is Solicitation, Tampering and Promotion, and it's a big big topic of discussion in coaching circles. Famous coaches have lost their right to attend competitions over it. Skaters have ended careers rather than run up against the rules. Reputations have been destroyed over rumors of violations.

Solicitation is the Big Bad Wolf of the issue-- seeking to acquire a student who already has another coach. Of course, you don't always have control over it, because if the student or parent comes to you and you don't immediately shut down the discussion and report the student to the current coach, and it gets out, you are in career-ending trouble. Tampering is "undermining a coaching relationship" for instance by encouraging, or even by not discouraging your skaters from singing your praises to the skater of another coach or his/her parents. Promotion is just marketing--neutral advertisement of your services, like this website. Just be careful who you market to. Some rinks are so skittish that they don't even allow you to pass out business cards on the premises.

Coming from a performing arts background, I could not wrap my head around this when I learned of it. What do you mean, I can't talk privately to a different teacher if I don't like the current one? And they have to "report" me? It was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard.

If you're a serious competitor who needs to be with a different coach, you practically have to quit skating before you can switch. If you're in a small market, the dumped coach can make your life miserable.

If you just suspect that your coach is not what you need, you cannot ask around and find out. Other coaches won't talk to you. Other parents won't talk to you. You literally cannot get the information that you need to make an informed decision. It's patronizing, insulting and paternalistic, assuming that all coaches will try to steal students, and that parents aren't capable of recognizing good vs. bad information from their own or other coaches.

I have run up against this often. Because of the types of students I take (recreational and low level only), and because of the blog, parents do approach me looking for neutral advice. I'd give it, if I was allowed. I recently had to tell a parent, who in fact has an unqualified coach that is holding their skater back, that I could not talk about it.

I call it the gag rule.

So here's a career-ending opinion:

The gag rule is bullshit. If you can't hold onto your students, that's not my problem. If you let bills go unpaid, you're just a bad businessperson and it serves you right if the student leaves without paying you. The gag rule is unfair to the parents, allows incompetent coaches to thrive, and prevents young coaches from establishing themselves. Get rid of it.


  1. Couldn't agree more. When we were looking to make a change, I read these rules and was just amazed. How, as a customer, can I not be allowed to adequately evaluate the options - and that involved talking to other coaches? Yes, it is also bad for coaches, because it seems that the ones that don't follow it are the ones that are the usually the problem. The good coaches follow it and get hosed in the process.
    There is just no reason that I, as a customer, have any obligation to tell a coach that I am contemplating switching. Now, when I make that decision, I owe it to the coach to do it professionally, pay any balances and make sure that it is done civilly. That whole coach switching thing just creates so much unnecessary drama.
    Love the post - good stuff.

    Posting anonymous because I don't want my daughter's current coach to get in trouble for "violating".

  2. I agree with the previous poster that the coaches who are the problem don't follow the rules anyway.

    A skater at my rink recently switched coaches. Her previous coach found out about new coach when skater went on a trip to another rink with new coach. Now it's not the skater's fault, and although the parent should know better, it's not really their fault either. The new coach should NEVER have let this happen.

    I agree to an extent, you shouldn't be obligated to tell your current coach you're considering switching, because if you end up staying, coach can make your life miserable, or they might make it harder to switch.

    But, new coach should NEVER EVER EVER start a coaching relationship until old coach has been told. In the UK we generally pay for lessons on the day, so no issues of outstnading bills here, but in the US, obviously all bills should be paid before switching.

  3. Turnip I agree that you should inform the old coach when you're actually switching, but for the life of me can't figure out why it's anyone's business but your own in the research process. Would you tell your piano teacher you were thinking of switching? Or your school? Or your plumber? It's absurd.

  4. I think it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes it might be a fixable problem, in which case it might be better for everyone to have it out in the open.

    I work in financial services, and one of regulations is that we can't put up barriers to clients who want to transfer, withdraw or complain. However, we still have a retention program where we attempt to get more info about why client's are withdrawing and provide info (never advice, we can't do that) about alternative options, such as only withdrawing part of their investment or switching funds. Coaches should be given the chance to do the same, if they wish.

    Coaches have cliques too, and the rink is rife with gossip. If coach is gonna find out anyway, it's better coming from the parent/skater themselves.

    It depends on the people involved and their relationships. It shouldn't be in the rules either way, parents/skaters and coaches should be allowed to use their judgement.

  5. Xan, I sooooo I agree with you! This rule is absolutely absurd. I'd understand why a group of coaches might invent something like this, or just one coach might ask their own students: "if you ever decide to switch, I request that you let me know before you talk to any other coach". But then it would be student's courtesy, not obligation, to do so. But why in the world would PSA encourage this??? It's ridiculous!!!

  6. If you're in a Basic Skills class with someone who also takes on individual students, does that someone count as your coach, as far as these purposes go? I'm wondering, for example, if I as a parent can talk to a number of coaches at the local rink in order to get a sense of whom I'd like to start my daughter with if we get to the point where we're considering private lessons. I don't just have to stick with the group class coach she got through luck of the draw in Basic Skills, do I?

  7. If you're just having group lessons, then no, you're not committed to that coach. Talking to a number of coaches is perfectly fine and is in fact a really good idea to make sure you get one who is the right fit for your daughter. Good luck :-)

  8. What Turnip said. But this is the problem with this. A lot of parents just start with the class coach, or the friend's coach, and then realize it's not a good fit. But even these recreational skaters, where no one has much of a financial or reputational stake in the activity, get caught up in this rule, which is really written for the Frank Carrolls of the world.

  9. Agree 100%!!!!!
    This is so timely, we are currently researching different club/coaching options. I keep talking to parents because we can't talk to other coaches until we decide we're going to leave our club/coach. What's holding us back?...The fear that the next situation won't be any better.

    I want to be assured that we're doing the right thing. I need a knowledgeable and impartial SKATING GURU to advise me. I think that would be a great new employment opportunity.
    Skating Guru: independent consultant to skating parents.

  10. As an adult skater I'm offended and sometimes angered by these rules. I'm choosing to spend my time and money on this sport, I want to make a worthwhile investment. I get to decide how much information gathering I need to do, and from what sources. That an organization that I don't belong to can inhibit my ability to make an informed decision is insulting and reflects poorly on the industry. (And this is coming from a woman who is completely happy with her coach and her skating experience thus far.)

  11. Huh. When other moms ask me about starting Private Coaching, I will freely state that I like Stitch's coach, she's great, but to look around and watch who their child has a good rapport and reaction with. So, I guess I'm not breaking any rules but who knows. I can always plead ignorance.

    This explains why when I was inquiring around the rink about starting privates, no one would speak to me but instead pointed me to the form. And when I did get a Coach, there was some lip biting that made me nervous. (It was unwarranted.)

    I've often wondered why Coaches don't have business cards, why there's an aura of mystery around the whole private coaching thing, why other coaches will give me a wide berth until it's clear that I'm just chatty, and why other moms will glare at our privates with an inspecting eye. This must be the only way to get information.

    Sad, silly rules.

  12. I find this really difficult to understand sometimes, however I had an experiance last year that the head coach at my rink saw me in the town and told me that my coach was leaving and what was I going to do.

    This was common knowledge with the coaches and some of her students however she had not told everyone. It took her over 6 weeks to tell me and then she only gave me two weeks warning and I am with turnip over here in the UK we pay our coaches on the day. If it wasnt for the head coach I would have been stuck being a uni student and this was just before summer and when I was only going to be down at that rink over a couple of weekends over that time.

    Luckily I knew and looked for another coach without telling them or my coach (just watching other coaches and how they coached) and had made my mind up who I was going to have before my then coach told me she was leaving so I knew and once the coach told me I sorted out lessons out with my new coach (who I still have).

    Was this wrong on my part of looking without telling my coach, was it wrong on the head coach for telling me, or was it just the way! The rules are confusing but most of life is!

  13. Until the skaters are at a very high, elite level in figure skating--we're talking Nationals at Novice and above-- these rules simply do not apply to you. At that level USFS makes you sign a statement and at any rate if the coach has any sense at all she's made you sign a business contract. Personally I think there's a restraint of trade law suit in here somewhere, but basically, parents of recreational students are not bound by these rules-- you're not a member of the PSA, and ISI has no comparable code of conduct (altho USFS Basic Skills does. Again, however, it's not a contract so you are not bound by it). Unfortunately, your coach is bound by it, so you're stuck.

  14. It would be nice if rinks had something parallel to the PTA at schools -- a kind of Parents & Coaches Association -- that would run periodic seminars on topics like MIF or whatever, where LOTS of coaches would show up, and lots of parents too. If the emphasis were on information, people could ask questions in a forum that would be clearly NOT about trying to "steal" coaches/students. Such a group could also do something like create a roster of the coaches at the rink, listing their various tests/certifications, areas of specialty (if they have them), recent seminars they've attended, a brief coaching philosophy, etc. This kind of roster, updated once or twice a year, would be invaluable for parents looking for a private coach for the first time. And if it were emailed out to ALL families/members of the rink club every time it were updated, would at least enable parents who are thinking of needing to switch coaches to tell who has the basic qualifications to be a reasonable fit for the Skater Child, without getting anyone in trouble for "soliciting" etc.

  15. MommyTime, it mystifies me that rinks do not do exactly that. Every rink I've ever worked at just cedes the education to the rumor mill, the gossipmongers and the internet. At my rink, some parents finally to matters into their own hands and created their own on-line wiki.

  16. It's a difficult situation. I want to move rinks (various reasons) - but I don't want to do that until I find a coach there that I like - and until I do I don't want to p**s off my coach at my current rink by telling them that I am trying out other coaches. So what do you recommend?

  17. Anon, I'd say you should try some group classes at the new rink, and also skate a couple of their practice sessions and just observe. You don't have to tell anyone THAT you're doing it, let alone why.

  18. Thus rule is bull. I've been held back by it at least 3 times. Its hard to look for a coach or get lessons at another rink if you travel if you can't even inquire what time slots they have open, there rates, etc.

    Coaches are uber paranoid with this rule and so are parents and other skaters. As an adult skater it is pretty insulting as well. Am I a functioning human being or some stocks and bonds?