Jun 22, 2011

Coaching discounts

I'm having an argument with a young coach at my rink. A family wants her to take their skater through a competitive season, including qualifying events, but told her upfront "we can't pay your full rate." I maintain that this is unfair to the coach, especially a coach with whom they have no track record. My friend feels that a child who is motivated and talented deserves her shot and should not be hobbled by her financial situation.

Skating is an expensive sport. There is a fundamental unfairness because, unlike popular scholastic sports (especially boys' sports, hmmmm) it is inaccessible to families of lower means. It's not an NCAA sport, so you can't use the excuse that you'll end up with a college scholarship because of the skating. It's not a team sport so there are no economies of scale. In the U.S. skating talent is not subsidized at the developmental levels, let alone for beginners.

The truth is, no one can afford this sport. Even at the lower levels of qualifying--PreJuv through Novice, you're talking about upwards of $15,000 a year in costs. At the Junior and Senior international levels, it can skirt six figures.

So what's a coach, and a family to do? Can you ask for a coaching discount?

Negotiating a discount with a coach who is giving you a high volume of lessons makes sense, especially if there's either an established relationship, or a demonstrated level of success; for instance if you've already medaled at the national level (or have reasonable expectations to do so) and are switching coaches or ramping up an existing relationship. The coach knows that you are going to be taking a high volume of lessons; it's reasonable to set this up as a weekly fee on almost a salary basis-- the coach takes a bit of a hit on the hourly in exchange for guaranteed income and the prestige of a high performing student. "Volume" discounts or, essentially, retainers are common at high competitive levels.

You will, however, probably be paying full price for extras-- the choreographer, spin coach, stroking coach, dance coach, off-ice specialists, jump coach, etc. Make sure that you're not stiffing your primary coach unduly.

I believe that telling the coach up front that you have to have a discount, with no evidence that you will stick with the coach is exploitative. I would say instead, approach it as above-- if you're trying to compete at a national level, ask the coach how much time he or she thinks this would require and what the full fee for that would be. See if the coach offers a volume discount. If he doesn't, broach the subject yourself, and negotiate this. Do not present it as an ultimatum-- if you don't give me a discount we won't hire you. Especially young coaches need money and need to establish themselves; they're not really in a position to refuse. Don't take advantage of this.

You can also wait for a coach to offer. I have a very talented student that I knew was on scholarship at the rink; I offered to take the skater on for a private and any semi-private group class I set up for free. In fact, this mother refused to comply--she insisted that she pay something, so I charge them $10 an hour.

You also want to be careful not to set yourself up for future grief-- is this coach going to hold you hostage to your discount? What if you have to change coaches? Can you get the same discount from a new coach? Will the old coach tell the new coach that you actually "owe" him a lot of money because of unnegotiated discounts or because you didn't pay the full amount and he just said "pay me later." (This happens--watch out for discounts that aren't really discounts.)

Discounts are a way to pay for a competitive career. But be sure you know what you're buying.

Jun 20, 2011

When everyone is out to get you, it's completely rational to be paranoid

"All the competitive coaches want my kid."
I hear this a lot. The truth is, all the coaches want all the kids. Yes, we look for students that match our style, competitive profile, and financial needs, but frankly I may be the only coach in the history of skating who actually turns away students in favor of a coach that is a better match. Coaches actively recruit anyone who shows the slightest interest. Coaches who will turn down a student are vanishingly rare. It is the parents' job to make sure that the match is a good one, because most coaches are not going to do this for you. You'd be appalled at the number of coaches I hear who say "I hate that child." Doesn't stop them teaching the kid! Personally I think it's insane to hire a highly competitive, international coach for a once-a-week beginning skater. As the old HR adage goes, "hire the smile." The most important factor in a teaching relationship is not the teacher's background, skills, knowledge, or or other students (although these are factors that should be considered). The most important factor is the teacher's commitment to and connection with the student.

Coach seems to be losing interest in my skater
Time for a really honest assessment of your skating. How much are you skating? Do you bring the skater to practice and to classes, or only to a once a week lesson? Is the coach asking for things that you are not delivering, like multiple lessons, extra practice, proper attire/equipment, on-time attendance, or other things? Are you involved in other activities that you are clearly more committed to, and talking about it all the time? Ignoring coach requirements and/or not wanting to focus on skating, with a coach that demands this, will in fact cause the coach to suspect your level of commitment.

This is not a criticism-- you might just need a coach who is a better fit.

Skater is not making any progress
Based on what? Was there a goal, like pass into a certain level or a USFS test by a certain date? Did the coach know this goal? Does the coach have a different goal? You see where I'm going with this--everyone needs to know the task and the timeline.

I think the coach is scheduling us for someone else's convenience
Entirely possible. Does the other skater take more lessons than you? Have they been with the coach longer? Does their skater demonstrate a higher level of commitment? Be honest with yourself before you complain about the coach. It's a business, and a livelihood. Coaches need to give better service to their more valuable customers.

Coach has a huge number of skaters
Only a problem if you are not getting the attention/service/progress you feel you signed up for. If you think you're being neglected, confront the coach gently but directly, in so many words, about your fears.

I think my coach cherry picks potentially competitive skaters and then neglects them so that they're not a threat to her "real" skaters.
Sigh. Either, 1, get over yourself, or 2, if it really seems to be true (jaysus), then fire the coach. Why would you put up with that?

Other coaches are telling me my skater is wonderful, giving us free lessons, criticizing her progress.
Well, based on PSA rules, this is so so so wrong. But based on human nature, if you think what they are telling you is true, and you like one of these coaches better, then switch.

I'm afraid if I leave my coach, she'll retaliate by keeping other coaches from taking my skater, or by messing with judging/testing and generally making the skaters life miserable.
If this has been observed, and better yet, documented, the coach and her skating director who is tolerating this behavior, need to be reported to the PSA. And if your skater is a high level skater with looming national prospects, it's a problem that should be addressed. But seriously, no coach, especially high level coaches, has time to make life miserable for some little Gamma student, and if they're just mean to her at the rink, then chalk it up to character building.

We're not entirely happy with our coach, but it feels ungrateful and insane to leave a coach of that caliber
What's insane is sticking with a coach who isn't commited to your skater. I don't care how many Olympians a coach has trained, if she's not fully committed to every skater in her stable, at their agreed on level of need/commitment, then where's the coaching caliber? Coaching caliber is measured not by her skaters' resumes, but by her skaters' joy.

I can't communicate with the coach due to language barriers (heavy accent), non-return of texts, emails.
Language barrier is not an excuse. Does she have an accent when she writes? Non return of written communication is simply unacceptable. However, 10 emails a day from a parent who is only taking a lesson a week is also unacceptable. Look honestly at the behavior on both sides. If it's really that the coach is not responding to any communication you need to sort that out, again, by confronting her directly: "I'm concerned that you never answer my questions". If it's that she's stopped replying in an attempt to get some respite from you, then you need to stop haranguing her.

Should I dismiss the idea of hiring the other local rink coaches just because they don't take serious skaters?
No. nononononono. Define "non serious" skater-- someone you think can get to the Olympics? Someone who only takes one lesson a week? Someone who doesn't wear Chloe Noel pants? Someone who only takes ISI tests? But make sure that the coach that you hire understands what you mean by serious for yourself.

Jun 10, 2011

A coaching problem

The scenario:
Your skater is not progressing commensurate with other skaters of the same age, ability and commitment. In particular, she's been working on her first double for nearly 2 years, with no progress for half that time. She's taking 2 half-hour weekly lessons and practicing on her own an additional two hours.
What's going on?
Issues with current coach: Does the coach have other students who have mastered this skill? Is the coach actively engaged with the skater during the lesson? Has the coach talked to you about the issue, and addressed your concerns? If the answer to the first question is no, either you're the first (so give her a chance), or you need to switch. If the answer to the second question is no, you need talk to the coach yesterday and find out what's going on. If the answer to all three questions is no, you're probably looking at a coaching change. Caveat: "addressed our concerns" is not the same thing as "won't let parents make decisions/judgments about technique."

Skater issues: Is the skater responsive and engaged with the coach? Does she appear to be working on actively fixing the problem skill or technique or is she just practicing the mistake, (a very common issue, especially with scary things like jumps). Is there a non-skating issue such as stress at school (either good/academic expectations or bad/social problems or mixed/social pressures), family difficulties, growth or weight gain, etc.

Someone needs to fix her double salchow:
I think you can focus in on specific skills at a Basic Skills level-- fix her crossovers, fix his 3 turns-- but if the problem is doubles, then there are deeper issues than "can't do double salchow," starting with poor basic skills. Talented skaters who have difficulty with higher level skills almost always have underlying technical problems. Might be psychological (rare, but parents always think this), might be coaching incompetence (rare, but parents always think this, yet oddly don't act on it), but more likely it's problems with basic skating. In other words, you cannot demand that a coach fix one problem when you, as a layperson, can't really know exactly what the problem is.

Is this actually slow for this skater?
Look back at her skating background. If she's made slow but steady progress, two years on a double might not be out of line. If she's "suddenly" gotten complex skills in the past, this may happen again-- it looks like one day it was just there, but maybe all the slogging just finally fell into place. Again, make sure she's practicing the problem skill and not only doing it in lessons. I can tell you that a skater who will not practice a specific skill outside of lessons is going to get the same lesson over and over because she's not making the technique her own. You might need to add some practice time to allow her to feel she's getting everything in.

We've already decided to switch: Then please stop complaining about the coach and just do it. When you do it, do NOT claim that it's because the coach couldn't teach her way out of a paper bag, or start questioning her credentials (e.g. "well, supposedly she had skaters at Nationals, but that was 15 years ago. How come she hasn't had one lately?"), or complaining in any way about her. Coaching issues are, frankly, less often problems with competence than with skater/coach compatibility, which is no one's fault. Complaining about a coach is harmful to her career. Unless you actually want to negatively affect a coach's career, the reason for switching is "it wasn't working out." If you actually think this coach shouldn't be teaching, then file a complaint with the rink, club, or police and be ready to back it up with justifiable accusations.

Jun 5, 2011

The dreaded schedule

Reader question:
My daughter is 8 yrs old and has been skating 15 months. She currently has a group lesson a week (just started Freeskate 1), and has had one private lesson a week for the past year plus an extra ½ hour when preparing for competitions. She is also going to be on the Beginner synchro team in the fall and we'll probably be adding a second ½ hour lesson.

Is it better to do a one hour private or 2 - ½ hour lessons per week? I was thinking that since time is spent warming up and practicing things like crossovers etc at the beginning of each lesson that an hour lesson would leave more time for learning new things. It would also be more convenient because we already come to the rink for synchro and group lessons. At this point she is not into coming to the rink 4 or 5 times a week.
Forget the axel. Working out the schedule is the hard part of figure skating. For a serious skater like this one, several days of skating per week (3 or more) is not unreasonable.

Personally I think lessons should be as spread out as possible. In other words, don't do a Tuesday morning lesson, Tuesday afternoon practice and class and Wednesday morning lesson if you can spread it a little thinner. Figure a day on, a day off, two days on two days off, and on Sunday even the Lord rested. Skaters coming 4 and 5 days a week should try to have at least one period every week to two weeks where they get 2 days off in a row. That's for sanity.

A high level skater (figure FS 3 and up) should never have less than an hour and a half per session, including 15 minute off-ice warm up, 15 minute on ice warm up (stroking, cross overs and edges), 30 to 45 minutes practice or lesson, and a 10 minute cool down. A higher level skater, or one with good stamina can do as much as 3 hours in a single stretch, with breaks. Learn-to-skate and low freestyle should shoot for that hour, including a 5 minute stretch and 10-minute "fun skate" warm up.

Ideally, you want your lesson in the second half-hour of the practice ice, so that you get to do the warm up on your own rather than, as the reader says, spending half the lesson on stroking and crossovers. You really can't skip this part, so if your skater has not done the basic warm up on her own, she's going to have to do it with the coach.

With low level skaters, I rarely manage to achieve this ideal. Most of my skaters get to the rink 5 minutes before they go on the ice, and their warm up is maybe twice around the rink stroking. If your coach is spending free style lesson time on cross overs, it's because there's a problem with the cross overs. The way to get rid of the cross over lessons is not to increase lesson time, but rather to increase practice time. This is especially important for a lower level freestyle skater starting synchro, because synchro techniques can be very different from free skating, and the skater will need to be able to learn the differences and apply them in the appropriate situation.

Here's my favorite way of figuring out how much ice time you need to progress in freeskating: for every full rotation, your skater should be on the ice for 30 minutes a week. So-- Free Skate 1 (waltz jump=half rotation, half flip = half rotation, mazurka = half rotation. 1½ rotations= 45 to 60 minutes per week, or one class or practice and one lesson. Free skate five (axel+salchow+toe loop+loop+flip+lutz), 3½ total rotations combined= 3 1/2 hours on the ice. Call it 2 half-hour lessons, two 1 hour practices, one class.

Synchro, I'm sorry to say, is additional.

How do you work out your schedule? How much do you feel you or your child has to skate to progress?

Jun 3, 2011

The once a week skater

A discussion popped up in the last couple of weeks, you might recall, about what to focus on during lessons.

For the most part, you'll do what your coach has planned out for you. In most cases the coach has a goal in mind--pass such-and-such class level, introduce higher level skills, get ready for testing or competition.

For skaters skating several times a week-- say a class, a practice or two and a lesson-- this usually will work out without all that much communication back and forth with the parents. You'll be having enough quick conversations, and the skater is getting enough ice time to progress.

But what about the skater who doesn't have a lot of time. What if the skater's goals conflict with what seems to be happening in a lesson? Here's how to stay on track:

Talk to each other
This works both ways. Your coach should be telling you "I want to work on such-and-such, we'll measure success by xyz outcome in # weeks." You should be telling the coach-- I want to pass Freestyle 5, or I want to do competitions, or I want to learn new jumps. Sometimes parents will nudge me back on track, by reminding me of a goal that's gotten neglected, or asking me to test a specific skill, as this morning when a parent asked me to see whether her skater was ready for Freestyle levels.

"I just want to skate for fun" is not a goal. If you just want to skate for fun, don't take private lessons. Just come and skate for fun.

You are the customer
If you want to learn jumps and all your coach is teaching you is Moves, you need to say something. If you don't want to test and the coach keeps teaching you the test, say something. If you DO want to test, you're observing other people passing tests, and your coach is doing nothing, for goodness sake, SAY something. The coach may then have a very good reason for doing this. However, if the coach's reason is "because I don't want to teach you jumps," "just do what I say," or "I don't want to talk about it," then you may want to rethink this relationship.

Make sure your effort matches your goals
You're not going to learn an axel, or, frankly, anything else, if you only skate once a week in lessons. You will simply get the same lesson over and over and over and never progress. If you really can only skate a half hour a week then you goals have to reflect that, and the pro needs to accept it.

If you really don't want to give up the challenging goal, you'll have to find a way to increase your practice time. If cost is a factor, do practice ice without a coach, come to public ice, take classes and see if your coach will do semi-private, small group sessions. Personally I feel that a skater whose only ice time is that once-a-week half hour lesson is wasting everyone's time and their money. It's like playing an instrument-- you won't get any better without practicing on your own.