Jul 9, 2011

What does a skater look like?

There's an ideal skater type; coaches sigh and flutter their eyelashes when these kids walk in-- they are naturally slender, look taller than they are, with a low center of gravity and short legs. If their legs are slightly bowed, even better. Sasha Cohen is the perfect example; Yu Na is another one-- they look so tall and slender, but when you see them in person you can't believe how tiny they are. Evan Lysacek and Carolina Kostner are unusual in that they are tall with long legs. As Johnny Weir once remarked, he admired Lysacek because it's really hard to jump "when you're 13 feet tall."

We like the little fireplugs with the power thighs, too. I call them mini-mights. Think Tonya Harding (well, the skating and body type anyway).

And gee, they never seem to wear glasses.

Coaches do talk about your children's looks. We're perfectly awful about it. Sometimes in admiration, sometimes mean, sometimes with a wistful "too bad he doesn't (get contacts, lose weight, tuck in his shirt, come to the rink without his mother...)."

But I hear worse stories, naturally, of the children who are told that they can't be skaters unless they lose weight, or get contacts, or wear their hair a certain way, or that they can't be skaters at all because they are knock-kneed, or slope shouldered, or some other physical attribute completely beyond their control.

So what's the truth, can anyone be a skater?

In a word, yes.

However (you knew there was a however).

Certain body types and morphological issues will limit your "career"-- if you are really overweight (medically overweight, I'm not talking about what we used to call chubby kids who slim down when they hit puberty), then the higher level jumps will be hard. You're just fighting gravity too much, and your flesh will literally be in your way. There is a limit to how hard a fat person can pull in, or how low they can get for a sit spin. (Sorry).

Glasses will fly off your face on a layback or a triple jump. You can get a strap--common in other sports--but because in figure skating presentation is also important, this is just not going to happen. Canadian champion and Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette actually got eye surgery to correct her bad vision because glasses were out and she couldn't handle contacts.

On the other hand, Joannie Rochette is a multiple international medalist, so this kind of step makes sense for her. Your child is just taking Preliminary Moves. So here's the low down:

Yes you can skate in glasses. If your child can handle contacts, fine, but this should be under the consultation of a medical professional, not a skating coach whose self-esteem is wounded by an "ugly" child in glasses. You can take ALL the moves tests in glasses. There is nothing in any Moves level that would be difficult in glasses.

Yes, you can do low-level competitions in glasses. Until you are doing lay backs and double jumps, you are not going to notice them. If they make the skater nervous, get a strap and arrange hair to disguise it. Or not. Make the nerdy look the kid's signature.

There is a very talented obese child at my rink. Yes, there is an upper limit right now to the skills she could acquire, and she cannot compete at a national level with the weight; for one thing training at that level she would simply lose it. But even with the weight there is an axel and probably a couple of doubles in her future. I have seen many many overweight children test at the lower levels without any penalty from the judges.

Her mother knows she is overweight. She doesn't need the coach to tell her. She especially doesn't need the coach to refuse to let her test because the coach disapproves of her weight. Testing is about the quality of the skills, not what the skater looks like. Judges, especially in the lower and recreational levels, understand this. Judges in testing situations are not allowed to take a child's appearance into account, unless it is interfering with the quality of the skills.

Now, if you go to the coach and say that you want her to be nationally competitive, then the coach has a right, even an obligation to tell you what that will take, including losing weight. No child should be on a diet regimen unless they are under medical supervision.

Not classically pretty
It's a sport not a beauty pageant. The next coach I hear who says "she'd be great if she would get a nose job" is going to get her own nose broken. I'm sorry, I have difficulty focusing on a skater's nose when they're spinning at 40 revolutions a second. This attitude is also responsible for generations of black and brown kids who don't even try because they figure they'd be penalized for their skin color. This, thank god, is starting to change.

Too tall
Like the overweight ones, the tall ones have greater difficulty. Even when they're very thin, they simply have more weight to heft off the ice. The center of gravity is necessarily higher. But just as they do not have trouble figuring out how to handle stairs when they are this tall, they also figure out skating.

Slope shoulders
Two words-Rachael Flatt.

Here's the low down--coaches love kids who are easy to teach, we're only human. Medical and morphological issues make kids hard to teach. A competitive coach may not want to be bothered with a skater whom she judges has no shot. And you know what, with this shallow coach the kid doesn't have a shot. I'm also extremely bothered by the prognosticating-- how they heck does any coach know that some kid who wears glasses at the age of 8 or 10 can't ever be nationally competitive because of this? In this culture, how dare a coach hold a child back because she doesn't conform to some ideal? Soviet Russia, okay. Middle class West? Please.


  1. My middle child is one of those kids that ballet and gynmastics teachers drool over: small, thin, great build, solid muscle. She wants to play soccer. So she works hard, and she plays soccer. She'll have to work harder at playing soccer than other kids who are a bit bigger, more muscular, but thems the breaks.

    It's the same with skating, and the same with girls versus boys. At some point, boys hit puberty and simply build muscle by walking around the block. Girls bodies in puberty want to put on fat and loosen up in preparation for making babies. Any girl who is skating competitively after puberty has to put in more conditioning work than the boys to stay at the same level. Any girl who is over about 5'5" or over about 110 lbs, who has a chest, who had big hips...add on more work. (Most internationally competitive skaters seem to be between 5'2" - 5'4" and around 104-110 lbs at the top range.)

    However, it's not impossible. The best spinner in the world - Lucinda Ruh - is 5'9". She had a late growth spurt and had to relearn all the triples from singles.

    Agnes Zawadski, World Jr. Silver medalist is 5'6". Alexe Gilles is 5'7". Shizuka Arakawa is 5'4", but a slightly heavier body build than other skaters; she is a jumping powerhouse. Katarina Witt is far from flat-chested. The Georgian figure skater Elene Gedevanishvili is positively Dolly Parton material.

    Is it possible? Of course. More work? Absolutely.

    Brynne McIsaac got to Jr. Nationals at Juvenile level with glasses on. Here she is with her Novice short program, double axel, level 4 spins, glasses and all.


    My own daughter is Juvie level and has 400/20 vision in her left eye. She skates in 2D with no depth perception.

    It is harder. But not impossible. However, again, I think kids need to be honest with themselves that it's going to take more and more hard work to get to higher levels. There is no excuse that a judge is going to take into consideration when adding up the points.

  2. OMG you have no idea how timely this is. I am a prefessional lurker, but I had to repond. DD wears glasses and had no periferal vision because of it. She is getting so discouraged. Thank you

  3. so funny though because it is very hard to predict what a 7 or 8 year old will look like body type like once they hit puberty - short ones can shoot up like weeds and tall ones can grow very modestly, one might stay a rail and another develop a very curvy figure that affects balance and center of gravity. Reminds me of european school systems that track kids into college or trade track at age 11 long before some kids may come into their academic potential

  4. btw, this "little fireplugs with the power thighs" is hilarious!!!

  5. The more I read this blog the more I want to shy away from your rink. It may be what every rink is like but I preferred the days when I cluelessly dropped off my kid and picked her up and wasn't aware of the snarkiness on so many levels.

  6. This post is actually in response to two emails about coaching comments on children's bodytypes bordering on emotionally abusive (Details have been changed so don't bother the "do I know this person" game). Neither of them are from my rink or even my state. I have worked at 4 different rinks in two skates, and have encountered the full range of coaches AND parents from wonderful to horrible and everything in between.

    Good luck helping your kid avoid snarkiness. What you miss at the rink you'll get in spades at school or on the soccer field.

    The purpose of this blog is not to vilify my rink (far from it), or scare people away from skating, especially recreational skating, but to give parents some really honest insights into where the behavior comes from and what tools they can employ, and teach their children, to help them.

  7. Also, I very seldom write specifically about my rinks. If I personally encounter rink issues that seem like they have some universality about them, I will generalize them. Some issues addressed in this blog are from one of my rinks; some are suggested by parent and skater emails, some through conversations with coaches I know all over the country. Some are editorials, in which case you will find "editorial" in the tags. All opinions in this blog are my own and not those of my employers or other coaches.

  8. Hmmm...I think Xan is a bit snarky, but it's her writer's voice. I get a kick out of it and enjoy her perspective and sense of humor.

    And yes, soccer, school, scouting, skating...your kid is going to come up against people who are both unfair as well as the inherent unfairness of any activity beyond recreational or lower academic levels. Even in scouting which is a volunteer based charitable organization, not every scout gets to go on the trip to Patagonia; kids are essentially shooed away if they stray too far from any one service unit's idea of what scouting is.

    As a parent, I just accept this as true, not only because I'm too cynical for my own good, but because I like to teach my kids to keep their eyes open, find their support and backbone, and go after their heart's desire even against all odds. Knowing what the roadblocks are is a help; then they know how fast they need to run and how high to jump to get over them.

  9. @ Jossette - thats not cynical its just good realistic parenting. Kids need to learn that life is not set up to give everyone a gold start or a trophy and how to pick their battles.

    @ Xan How much of the "perfect figure skater" profile is nature vs nurture. Is it possible that it is self fulfilling? That coaches think they know what a potential star looks like and so they select for it and lavish attention on it and therefore make it true? What would happen if coaches decided that tall black girls were the it profile and selected and nurtured those to make nationals? Interesting to think about....

  10. "I have worked at 4 different rinks in two skates"

    There was an old lady who lived in a shoe...

    So there can be a rink in a skate.

    Contacts are fantastic for sports as a practical matter rather than an appearance matter. But there are blind skaters, so they aren't a necessity. I wouldn't want to see a skater fall on their face while wearing glasses.

    You didn't touch on how appearance relates to dance/pairs. It seems to me that dance calls for the skaters to be the same size, and pairs calls for a big size difference, there are good opportunities for both small and large people.

    Large and Female -> Dance
    Large and Male -> Pairs
    Small and Female -> Pairs
    Small and Male -> Dance

    Our rink may have problems, but it's still fun to skate there. But then I don't pay much attention to social issues - it's the organizational ones that bother me. My opinion is, don't stay away from the rink because of what you read online.

    Xan is very cheerful and positive when coaching, even while she was injured.

  11. Right, our rink has its imperfections but there are always people who make you feel better. --- And only if all of you stop being shy and contribute more to the wiki... ;)

    AMS: that's exactly why glasses worry me. And all hard-plastic hair accessories too.

    And someone please tell me why most figure skating girls have long hair? Like way higher percentage compared to girls in general?

    Another excellent post, thank you Xan!

  12. AMS- thank you! There's something about teaching that brings that out in me; in "real" life I'm more like this blog-rather too blunt for polite company. I like to joke that not even my friends actually *like* me!

    anonymom--you've hit the nail on the head. Not all coaches have the imagination, energy, or, frankly, intelligence to to let a skater develop out of any child. So they dismiss the kid that doesn't fit their image, probably missing a lot of wonderful skaters, especially those kids who don't have easy talent or good looks, but who have drive and worth ethic, which can be more important in the long run.

  13. "And someone please tell me why most figure skating girls have long hair?"

    So it will move around when they spin, just like the skirt? The bleached hair I cannot explain.

  14. Coaches not only dismiss a skater that doesn't fit their image but some also insist that they change their natural tendencies to accomodate the coach. Our daughter is left-handed and she was a left-handed skater in the beginning. Her first private coach didn't like to work with left-handed skaters...too much work to transpose her instructions...so she insisted our daughter learn all the skills right-handed. We were newbie parents and we didn't have any idea what she was doing or that there was even such a thing as a left-handed skater. Unfortunately, when she gets nervous during a synchro competition, she occasionally spins the opposite direction than the other skaters because it is her natural tendency. When she struggles with skills, I wonder if it's because she is fighting the urge to perform the skill the way that seems the most natural to her.

  15. snarkyness is everywhere, not just skating. I was part of a management team, and the head manager would coment about every one of the staff. Everyone had a name: mr potato head. Fat chick, Chink, I am glad he only lasted 2 years, but what an uncomfortable 2 years that was. However it is scary when a teaching pro does it, whether its in schools or the rink because a kid is developing self esteem and can't defend himself.

  16. @ Anonymous 8:39am--from what I understand from our coach, if it is possible to change the direction of spins/jumps then they usually will because it is much easier for the "right handed" coaches to coach that way, but if it is too much for the child to handle, good coaches will allow them to continue in their preferred way.

    My son started out spinning and jumping "lefty" but was successfully changed to the other way (much to the relief of his coach, who by the way has successfully coached opposite spinning/jumping students).

    @Xan, it is interesting that you say about the bow legs. One thing that I can turn into a blessing (always hated my bow legs, from my Dad's side of the family). My skater loves to jump and is pretty successful at it. LOL. Would be very interested to know why the slight bow makes this is so.

    We are glad for Evan Lysacek and his height since my skater might just be that tall...

    Guess it goes to show that you can't judge how good a skater will be by their looks alone... ;)

  17. Post on lefty-righty coming up!

  18. Just read that Elaine Zayak had a piece of her foot cut off in a lawnmower accident when she was two. Skating was suggested as therapy. She skated with a wooden insert to compensate for the part of her missing foot. National and World champ, double axel and triples.

    I'm assuming that comments aren't being made directly to children; cruel comments can be a deal breaker. However, for example, if the kid is being held back from winning Novice level competitions because of weight issues, glasses, etc., well, sometimes, the truth is hard no matter how it's sugar coated. Sometimes, self esteem = hard work, too, and holding back critiques because a person sees all honest needed feedback as a self-esteem crusher doesn't help either.

    Again, I don't like cruelty, but I also don't go for "good jobs" for kids who aren't working or trying and falsely building up self-esteem, especially for a competitive athlete. Sometimes, a kid has to hear the truth, whether it's that they are being lazy or wasting time or not taking their appearance into consideration to the point that it *is* detrimental or shows an overall lack of self-respect in the sport. I'm not talking about nose jobs; I'm talking about looking neat and like an athlete, being prepared, being attentive and on task in lessons, having your dang long-hair pulled back and not flying all over the place.

    Again, from hanging around teachers and scout leaders and people who deal with kids, it's a tough job, often made tougher by over-bearing parents. If some adults need to vent out of ear shot, I understand that. I care about what goes on in front of my kid. But even then, at some point, kids need to build the backbone to fight their own battles - no matter all the wishing that people would just be cool to each other, it will never, ever happen. Kids need to learn Plan B and how to diplomatically get what they need from coaches/teachers - whether that's a certain piece of information or an overall attitude change. Kids need to learn how to say, "This isn't working for me, I'm not understanding you, now how can we fix it?" Or "This isn't going to change about me; if this isn't going to work for both of us, then I need to make a change." Kids can do it. Parents can teach this and then step back far sooner than what we usually see.

  19. Meant to say "This isn't going to change about me; if this isn't going to work for both of us, then I need to make a change in the person helping me to learn this skill."

  20. Hooray for the lefty-righty post, as a CW skater I am curious what you have to say about this.

    In response to today's post my adult group coach is constantly pointing out how my weight affects my ability to perform certain elements. I think if you skate (especially as an adult), you need to be thick skinned.

  21. I don't think an adult group coach should be doing that.

    Maybe once, just so you can see how it is affecting you specifically (the extra weight in the stomach area is affecting your center of gravity...), but constantly certainly doesn't help anything. One would assume that an adult understand that their weight likely gets in the way, and I don't know if I've met any adults (even the super fit ones) who wouldn't like to lose a few pounds. Pointing it out constantly does nothing but make you feel bad! Not to mention (and this is an assumption) if it is a group coach, and not a private coach, most adults in that situation aren't really serious about skating to the extent they need to be dieting specifically for it!

    I've seen some videos of a heavy adult who is passing high level MITF and doing an axel. It can be done. (I liked to tell my old coach that my thighs are getting in the way of things like crossovers, and she would tell me the thighs wouldn't be so much in the way if I bent my knees more...)

    I just hate that I'm overweight because I don't look like an adult, I look like a fat kid. I think if I looked older I wouldn't feel quite so bad about myself...

    (I'm a CW skater too! But not a lefty, which is why I think I can't do a loop at all.)

  22. Thank you for this post! I'm 23, I'm 5'0", 5'1'' on a good day, and I have been overweight since the 4th grade. When I started skating I was chubby but nothing that would prevent me from doing well. When I stopped at 15 (started at 11) was when I ballooned. I got close to 200 pounds and have been working my tush off literally to combat it and get in shape. I physically look healthy, I do not look very overweight, I'm a lot of muscle now, but I still am considered overweight by the BMI scale. I've been working with a trainer going on three weeks now because I was just over trying to lose weight with no problem. While I've not lost weight yet (only about a pound or two) I have physically slimmed down and LOOK thinner because I've gained muscle. I'm also eating healthier than I ever have. I let myself indulge and don't deny anything, for example I just had supermarket sushi because I was there and it looked delicious, but I also make sure it's in moderation. Because I had sushi I am going to have a smaller healthy dinner. I am competing at the end of next month for the first time since I was little and I want to look and feel good and plan on ordering my first dress since I was little as well. :)

    Does my weight keep me from skating? Heck to the no. I love skating and use it as an incentive to go work out. While I'm struggling with landing on one foot for my flip and getting more height in my jumps, it has more to do with my knees rather than muscle and weight. I have the ability to get higher, but due to many falls on my knees when I was younger they are very weak and they pop when I bend. I will need surgery on my left one in the future (right one had surgery two years into skating, I don't have problems with that one). I also skate with contacts in. I'm too chicken for lasik. But when I began skating I had glasses (and braces, with rubber bands that would snap the second I got into the rink) and skated for a good two years before I got contacts. But the glasses never prevented me from doing anything (well, other than fogging up when I came in from a very hot day).

    Kids should not be hindered by physical imperfections. There's one girl at the rink who is taking Basic 1 lessons who is partially blind. While I think this is moreso dangerous to herself, she's still pushing through because she's having fun.

  23. I hate it when people say tall people can't skate. I'm tall and I CAN skate!!!!!