Sep 26, 2011

Getting out of your head

Often, I'll be teaching a skill, offering this bit of advice, or that. I'll review the physics or the physicality of the skill, and talk about dropped hips and opposition, and where you should be looking and your knee action and the relationship of your blade and the ice, and and and and watching the skater get more and more confused.

At which point I'll ask "is your head about to explode?" Skater says yes, I say, okay, forget everything I just said and go out there and do the skill.

Like as not, some of the problems will be gone.

This is what one reader described to me as "getting out of your head." Everyone engaged in complex skills experiences this. Getting our of your head is an athletic skill just as much as the actual skills, and one of the most important. The biggest impediment to meeting goals in figure skating is not talent, or ability, it's giving in to the psychological and social pressures.

So what do you do?

Just skate
You do this because it's fun. Even the highest level skaters don't do it because they want to slog through to the next paycheck. It's fun. So sometimes, go out with no goal in mind, and just skate for the sheer joy of it, even if it's just skating around in circles on public ice every couple of months. Remind yourself that you love doing this.

Think of one thing
Coaches get really frustrated too, when they give a correction, and the skater does not seem to even be attempting to do it, but instead just does the same learned mistake, because it's easy to do it that way. (Believe me, we can tell when you are trying to incorporate the correction.) A skater like this is a little bit too much out of her head (and yes, I like the double entendre), she's not thinking at all. Rather than ignoring all the advice, if your coach has given you three or four corrections, think about ONE of them. Especially in a skill that you've already mastered, focusing on one thing can allow your body to settle in to muscle memory. Try repeating the part of the skill that you're planning to correct out loud before doing it: "I'm going to keep my arm stretched out on the spin entry." This can both focus your own mind on it, and let the coach know that you've been listening.

Find the root problem
Most problems in skating skills come down to a single mistake, usually made early in the set up for the skill. Root problems are very nearly textbook, literally. Abbreviated as CE, these common errors are actually taught to coaches to watch for. See if you can find what this is (and actually I'll tell you what it is--you're rushing the skill. Whichever skill you're having trouble with? You're shorting the entrance edge.) and then fix, even exaggerate that. This is similar to "think of one thing."

Show off
So there you are, listening to your Xanboni and skating on public for fun. Take a friend, especially one that doesn't know how well you skate and show off for them. Nothing like a little ego boost to make you feel good about yourself.

Don't skate
Everyone has observed the phenomenon of someone not skating for 2 weeks or a month, and then coming back and rocking some skill that they'd been having trouble with. There's probably some psychological theory backing this up, but I think at the base, you've just really gotten out of your head.

Skip the hard stuff
If your brain is too full of information about some skill that your having trouble with, just don't do it for a few days. Skating skills, even basic skills, are complex; there's a lot of noise in your head. So rather than frustrate yourself practice after practice, just skip the "noisiest" skill for a practice or two.

This may not be possible for someone who only skates with a coach--either in class or in a lesson, but to that I will say that skating only with the coach is a bad idea anyway. For those who do skate on their own, meet your coach's expectations, but incorporate some of this as well. Remember that unless you are a Nationals-bound competitive skater, you mostly get to control your timeline. If skipping the hard stuff for a practice a week slows you down a little, that's okay.

Practice smart
I've written about this before. On the challenging, new, or boring skills, give yourself a limit and then stick to it. I also do this with very young children. You do the skill xx number of times, and every attempt counts, even poor, wrong, or uncompleted ones. (With skaters known to be manipulative or lazy I change the instruction to xx correct ones, or xx "real" attempts.) Another way to practice smart is to think of practice as a series of nesting arcs--the single practice, the week, the session, the season. Taken to a complex level, this is called periodization, and it can be used not only for competitive training, but also to help recreational skaters stay focused and satisfied.

Skate on your own more
If you're always relying on a coach to tell you what to do and how to do it, you're never learning your own internal language, which leads to all that noise in your head that you're trying to get away from. Be your own skater, know your own self talk, and learn how to think about what you're doing when you're doing it.

What do you do to "get out of your head?"


  1. Try repeating the part of the skill that you're planning to correct out loud before doing it. I do this all the time, and I find it really helpful (even if I do look a little nutty talking to myself on the ice). Talking through the whole jump just confuses me (adds too much noise?), but saying out loud the part I most need to work on really helps.

    The other thing that helps is a physical version of this, which is to isolate the skill in motion. I'll stand still and practice just the arms I'm having trouble with half a dozen times before trying the jump again, or skip the entry footwork altogether and just start from a back one-foot glide, or whatever it takes to pare down the element to the part I want to work on most.

    Sometimes I find that once I've done these isolation exercises, skating to music (not program music, just random setting on iPod) helps me not think too much WHILE practicing the whole jump.

    Another thing I really like to do is look at slow-motion clips on youtube of people doing WELL whatever I'm working on. Trying to pick out small elements of good technique helps me envision myself doing it better.

    For a recreational skater, I also recommend just going on vacation periodically. Nothing like a week at the beach to recharge, and invariably something will be better as a result.

  2. Fabulous post Xan - I've been really struggling with back double inside 3 turns and it's completely psychological...I had actually just today decided to ignore them for a few weeks!
    And I like the idea of x attempts rather than correct ones - i find if 2 or 3 go wrong I can't ever get it back so beating myself up about not being able to do 10 correct ones is making it worse!

  3. mommytime said: "For a recreational skater, I also recommend just going on vacation periodically. Nothing like a week at the beach to recharge, and invariably something will be better as a result."

    This goes for competitive skaters too!

    Great post Xan!

  4. Thanks so much for writing about this Xan, I really appreciate all your insights! :) Mommytime, I also find that focusing part of my mind on the music (or anything else, really, besides what I'm doing) sometimes helps.

    I definitely agree also with the idea of focusing on one thing, especially with a learned skill, to help click imto muscle memory instead of thinking too much. Sometimes focusing on a specific word (bend, reach, etc.) is useful, or sometimes I use a mental picture. Anything to help avoid over thinking.

    Now I just need to find a way to relax and not rush... Vodka or Valium?

  5. (Believe me, we can tell when you are trying to incorporate the correction.)

    Um I feel terrible disappointing Coach, but sometimes can't help it! Whenever possible, I attempt to visualize the correction in an exaggerated way, and what actually turns out is probably what Coach wants to see. There is a huge difference between my perception vs. reality, case in point: sit spin always feels lower than it actually is, lol.

  6. jjane's point about exaggerating is an excellent one.

  7. I find that I can only remember 2 or at most 3 things to try to fix in one go anyway, especially if they happen at the same time.

    I try to visualize the thing I am trying to fix before I do it.