Sep 16, 2011

How dangerous *is* figure skating?

from a reader:
I'm always trying to get more folks on the ice, skating, taking a few lessons so they can enjoy skating recreationally (especially in 99 degree weather like we're having now.) I always get the same reply: it's tooooo dangerous.

I get that it's on ice, on blades, and takes a bit more skill then walking and chewing gum, but I think these massive numbers of broken bones and head trauma that people quote just aren't accurate. So what do we tell people?
Why can't beginners skate? It's not that hard!Seriously, it's not that hard. The number one reason beginners can't skate is crap rental skates. (Number two would be "we found these in grandma's garage! Why are the blades black? Haha! We stuffed socks in the toes because they're 4 sizes too big. But if Precious can't skate it must be the coach's fault!)
Lobby your local rink to care for their rental skates, and to replace them every couple of years. There must be an industry standard on how often skates should be replaced, but I can tell you that at the rinks I've taught at only one doesn't wear skates to the nub. For a while we had a sharpening service that was using a hockey setting on our figure skates, so that they were too curvy, wrong hollow, and ground to a point at the back. It was amusing, in a schadenfreude sort of way, watching the little kids tip over backwards. I pointed this out to the facility manager, who said "oh, there's a difference?" (True story) They did not correct it. 100% of our rental skates are garbage.

My advice is don't take a beginner class. Take the hundred bucks it would have cost you and buy a decent pair of recreational skates, then go to public skating for 6 months. If it's your kid and you don't want to skate with them, hire some skatergrrrl to "babysit" Sunday afternoons at the rink, at a babysitting rate. High school skaters should not be allowed to charge $50/hour to teach tots, anyway. THEN take a class.

*Do* beginners fall? And how many get hurt?

Fewer beginners fall than you might think, and almost all beginner falls are skaters who don't listen, or can't employ, the coach's advice not to "dance" their feet or wave their arms madly when they start to lose their balance. Among beginners who fall vanishingly few get hurt, and vanishingly few of those get hurt badly (concussions, soft tissue tears, broken bones). But if it's you, or someone you know, then that seems like a crazy statement--"well almost no one gets hurt, but my friend got hurt, so the odds must be really high"

Why do people fall on the ice?
Well, it's slippery if you're moving. (It's not slippery if you're not moving. True fact. It is the movement that creates the slip--your blade melts the ice and you glide on the watery interface, i.e. hydroblading-the scientific definition. No movement, no melt, no glide.) And you're on a stiff, curvy metal tightrope. Beginners try to duplicate familiar movements--walking--which doesn't work, or they try to duplicate "skating" like they've seen on tv, attempting to push and glide before they're ready, or they put on hockey skates because figure skates make you gay. But the most common reason that beginners fall is because some idiot is giving them bad advice. Friends tell them "it's easy, do this!" (hard move follows). They want to keep up with their experienced friends. A coach refuses to "baby" beginners "no need to start off the ice, just come out and skate" (I said that in my head with a Russian accent, haha).

What are common injuries?
Far and away the most common ice injury is soft tissue damage in high level skaters. I tore my MCL once and could not get the stupid emergency room to do an MRI. They insisted I'd been skating so I must have broken my knee cap (only knee cap injury I ever heard of was Tonya whaling on Nancy, so I guess that counts as a figure skating injury). I'm pounding away at my knee cap, going "see? Not Broken! I tore my MCL please do an MRI". The other common injury I've observed is adults breaking wrists, because they're afraid to drop and roll when they fall, and instinctively put out their hands to brace the fall. The fact that this, instead of tuck and roll, is instinctive, is in my mind proof positive against intelligent design, because it's a stupid instinct. Heads would be a little ways down the list, but still high enough to count as common. This is why the resistance to head protection is so inexplicable. (Great new head protection product).

Uncommon are other broken bones, and cuts, although I've seen my share of blade-in-the-muscle accidents, and chin splits are fairly common. This is not to say these can't happen, just that they are rare. I've been teaching more than 10 years, have observed thousands of skaters and off the top of my head can think of only around a dozen hospital-level injuries, most of them intermediate or advanced skaters.

However, common sense and statistics is not going to get the skittish onto the ice. It doesn't matter that it's one of the safest youth sports, or that it's great for adults trying to get back in shape. (I had a doctor once describe it to me as "low impact"- another true story. Yes, I still go to that doctor, she's a keeper!)

The worst thing you can take onto the ice with you isn't bad skates; it's a bad attitude. People who believe that they can't skate will make that happen. Take them for a nice long walk.


  1. Great post! And a lot of things I hadn't thought of!

    But this:

    "The worst thing you can take onto the ice with you isn't bad skates; it's a bad attitude. People who believe that they can't skate will make that happen. Take them for a nice long walk."

    is the honest truth.

  2. I love this post.

    For beginners afraid of falls -- or for 7-yr-old boys who want to careen around on hockey skates with their friends -- a pair of knee pads is a nice help, since knee-cap bruises aren't fun (but also won't kill you). My son used the cheap plastic knee pads made for kids learning to ride bikes with training wheels, and he just strapped them on under his pants so no one would know. It was his idea.

    For adults: WRIST GUARDS, WRIST GUARDS, WRIST GUARDS. Mine have saved me at least two broken or badly-sprained wrists due to that stupid instinct. Of perhaps the most use when falling due to being cut off by 7-yr-old boys careening around on hockey skates.

    And, just to add to your anecdotal evidence: the only really bad, call-the-paramedics fall I've ever seen pretty certainly resulted in a concussion, BUT the fall itself was the result of the girl having a seizure, which is hardly a routine cause for a fall in most beginning skaters.

  3. "True fact. It is the movement that creates the slip--your blade melts the ice and you glide on the watery interface."

    I asked the professor at the University who is an expert on these things, and he said that this was once widely believed among scientists, but that actually there is no proof of it. It turns out ice is pretty complicated and he didn't know of any good way to experimentally test the theory.

    "I had a doctor once describe it to me as 'low impact'"

    Which I would like to vigorously agree with, since I always hurt myself with sports that are not low impact.

    "High school skaters should not be allowed to charge $50/hour to teach tots"

    I think that should go for certain experienced coaches too, particularly if
    - Tots' edges have rust you can see across the rink
    - Coach doesn't actually watch said tots during crowded public
    - Tots have not learned anything after several months

  4. I can chime in as a retired Pediatrician & there was a rink about a block away from my practice, so being the closest to the scene we had our share of cases. Most of the time the injuries we saw were the ones where someone put out their hand to break a fall and sprained/fractured their wrist. The only others were the occaisional small lacerations to the chin or forehead from falls. I saw a LOT worse from Football. As for Rollerblades - don't get me started.

    It would make a HUGE difference if the same place that rents skates would just rent some kid sized protective equipment like wrist guards, knee pads, or helmets. I can't think of an injury we saw from FIgure Skating that would not have been prevented with just that slight level of precaution.

  5. Mommy Time-- Word! Adults please wear wrist guards! Here's my take on available safety equipment:

  6. AMS all I know is that it's slippery when you're moving. If you stand still you will not slip. Whatever the science is, this is demonstrably true. People dispute this by demonstrating that they are standing still but are in fact pushing their feet apart like a swizzle, or their feet are still but their arms are swinging (and other variations)

  7. I'm thinking of investing in elbow pads to go with the (dancers) knee pads and wrist guards I already wear. The knee pads are great as they are really flexible, and give enough padding to avoid the permanent top of the femur bruise that I seem to have. They also make kneeling up to get up much easier and less painful. And given that I have already broken one wrist guard in a fall (sounded like a gunshot) I am pretty certain they are saving my wrists.

    But it is very annoying that everyone thinks skating is dangerous because I'm always falling - I'm doing that because I'm constantly pushing myself and trying things out of my comfort zone (and sticking my toepick in when I shouldn't which is another matter).

  8. I'll third wrist guards, especially for adults.

    I think adults might sometimes be more careful beginners, and so they don't always learn to fall the correct way. Then, when we get to harder skills (aka, you're going to start falling now), we don't have all that falling practice behind us.

    Well...unless it's on my tailbone. ;-)

    I will say I am especially shocked at the numbers of little newbie skaters without helmets. Little kids have way heavy heads compared to the rest of their body, and not a lot of neck control, if I remember correctly. A helmet on a newbie little kid seems like a very smart idea.

  9. @Josette at my rink they won't even let you on the ice in the Snowplow or lower level Basic skills classes without a helmet (unless you are anl adult). Makes sense to me.

    And I'll second MKP on the falling once one is past being a beginnger: it always reminds me that I am probably not working hard enough if I don't fall at all during a whole practice. Hence my wrist guards and knee pads (for anyone looking for gel knee pads--cushion without bulk--I highly recommend ones made for volleyball).

  10. I *love* MKP's assertion that falling does NOT equal dangerous.

  11. Well, I've broken a wrist skating, but it was either break the wrist or break a rib -- I had a collision with a little kid pushing an EZ-Skater when I was doing back crossovers (he skated into my path perpendicularly, couldn't see him coming) -- if I had not put my hand out I am pretty sure I would have broken a rib falling onto the stupid thing.

    Other than that I've had a broken foot (spinner accident) and innumerable bruises and sprains.

    I am curious as to why you recommend wrist guards for adults and not for children, though.

  12. Sorry, I was referring to the watery interface - it is hard to prove that exists. You are correct that the resistance to sliding is greater if you are not yet moving, but that is not unique to ice.

    Sometimes you can stand still and slip in the studio rink by the zamboni door, but that's because it's tilted.

  13. It's not so much that I *don't* recommend them for children as that I *do* recommend them for adults. But as a practical matter, children tend to fall onto knees and butts. If you're going to put padding on a child, knee pads are better. However they should be the soft ace-bandage type ones, NOT those awful plastic things--they impede movement, parents never seem to get the right size, they knock into each other and slip off. Worse than nothing.

  14. I agree that soft pads are better. But in my experience, if you already have the plastic cap kind that actually fit (because your kid skateboards, for example), they will work just fine. (That is, no need to buy more equipment.)

  15. I used plastic knee pads up to FS3-ish, although I think they are not appropriate for freestyle levels. They don't get in the way often, but totally skary when it did happen. After those pads retired, I switched to gel pads (similar to skatingsafe ones) and can't stop raving about them: discreet, comfortable, and very effective.

    Two of my friends completely left skating due to serious injuries around the same time: wrist surgery for one and ER-worthy concussion for another. I have since picked up wrist guards and a padded hat (helmet for a while too). The human body can only take so much accumulative abuse, eliminate the unnecessary ones and enjoy the sport longer!

  16. What I've always wondered is: what if you're not falling? Other than a minor aversion to turning at speed, I don't think I "hold back" much when I skate, but I don't seem to fall much at the moment.

    I was once worried about this before, but now I'm falling even less frequently (probably not for at least 2-3 MONTHS now). Xan once said, "you'll start falling once you start jumping", but I especially push hard for height on waltz jumps and bunny hops (which I used to fall on), but I just don't seem to fall much/ever. Is there something wrong with me?

  17. "Is there something wrong with me?"

    My diagnosis is that your skating is getting better. The treatment is to attempt an axel.

    Must be nice to be concerned that you aren't falling enough.

  18. Blunt skates! I keep telling people that - they say, "oh, I can't skate at all", and I tell them no, you probably just had blunt hire skates. The worst culprits are the temporary rinks that appear around Christmas. I went on the one in Princes St Gardens in Edinburgh on a whim last year and had to use hires since I didn't have my skates with me. Now, I'm working on Skate UK Gold / Freestyle Level 1, and I went on the rink, fell over three times in a row, handed the skates back and left. I asked them if they could sharpen them and they said it was against their Health & Safety rules in case someone lost a finger. I said they'd see more broken bones and concussion injuries from blunt skates than lost fingers from sharp, but they couldn't do anything. The hire skates were about as sharp as a blunt spoon.

    Also, wrist guards - are they genuinely beneficial? From what I've seen, the hard plastic on the underside is designed for roller blades or similar, to allow the hand to slide on the concrete and disperse the impact, rather than stop dead, which is what breaks it. Whereas on ice, the hand will slide regardless, in which case that sort of protection is not perhaps very useful. However, I can see some benefit in support on top of the wrist to prevent it bending too far backwards, as in snowboarding guards. Hmm. Wrist injuries really do worry me though, since I'm a musician and couldn't play with damaged wrists. Any recommendations?

  19. @nimoloth: I fractured a wrist ice skating as a teenager. All it takes is that split-second of instinctive putting your hand out to break the fall. I've also spent years rollerblading and, more recently, ice skating, with wrist guards. Recently on ice, I've had a few very hard falls that I am certain would have resulted in a broken wrist had I not had the guards on: the hard plastic runs from the palm to several inches up the inner arm, and it disperses impact substantially, even on ice. With the addition of the straps, etc., the whole thing also works like a wrist brace, preventing sprains. If you are a musician, I would definitely recommend the wrist guards (I just have the rollerblading ones), particularly if you are ever skating on public ice. I find the worst falls are not when I am working on jumps, etc., but when a preschooler cuts unexpectedly across my path. My two cents...

  20. nimoloth, you point out the very reason that figure skating needs dedicated safety equipment--I never thought about the fact that wrist guards are designed to slide, but I have in fact observed that. Better for fs might be ones that have a stiff plate, but then padding over that. Knee pads have the same problem--they are too wide for figure skaters, forcing the knees apart, which is wrong.

  21. I use the roller blade wrist guards and I'm also certain they've saved my wrists. The hard plastic takes the impact; the time I did fall without them, I had a huge purple bruise on the heel of my hand did *not* slide on the ice. Or not enough. And yes, the binding around the wrist gives added support.

    I'm learning better how to not fall on my hands/wrist, but just in case.

    I agree that something might be designed to be better suited to ice skating, but right now, I take what I can get.

  22. I guess I'm a few days late to this post, but it is a great one for all skating parents out there. You should tell them that I have three scars under my chin: one from skating, one from rollerblading, and one from biking - why? - because I'm a big klutz! - and the skating scar is the only "clean" one. My biking scar had dirt trapped in there and now looks like I have ball-point pen on my chin. So that's good news for those future face scars from skating. I don't know of a single hockey player alive that doesn't have a scar on their chin or by their eye.

  23. Be sure to wear the socks you will be skating in. Generally speaking, the thinner the sock, the better the control over the skate; tights, knee-high stockings, or thin summer socks are best.