Sep 26, 2011

Testing out

You will often hear coaches and skating moms remark, with just an edge of contempt, that a girl has decided to "just test out," meaning try to complete all of her Moves and Free skating tests by the end of senior year.

There's a funny disconnect in the skating world. While everyone acknowledges that an elite competitive career requires a rare confluence of talent, drive, good coaching, time, a flexible school, and money, skaters who can't or don't pursue this are viewed with pity, or, as I say, contempt.

But "testing out" is a worthy goal, the skating equivalent to four AP courses your senior year, or being a Congressional page-- not every good skater is capable of it.

Skaters get to the "testing out" decision for a variety of reasons. They've stopped competing for whatever reason (time, money, lack of success or loss of interest), but want the gold medal (see below for what this means) to validate their effort. They don't like competing, but love skating and want something external to keep them motivated. They want to be coaches, and the test credential can help that. (At some rinks, you basically don't need any credentials to teach, but many rinks and especially clubs require a minimum of an Intermediate Free skating test of their coaches.)

If you decide to test out, you have to factor in all the same measures you would for competing, because in its way, it's just as intense. You don't need a double axel, or any triples; you don't need level 4 skills, but you do need to follow a calendar, perfect difficult skills, be in really good shape, and impress several judges.

How fast can you move through and where are you starting
To get to the Senior Free Skating test, you have to pass 15 prior tests: 8 Moves (thru Senior) and 7 Free skating (thru Junior). If you're already older, say in your Junior or Senior year in high school, and at a lower level--Juvenile or Intermediate--you need to sit down with a coach, make a calendar and figure out a training plan as much as any high level competitor would. A very strong committed skater can do this in about 4 years starting at Juv or Intermediate. If you don't have 4 years, the hill's a little steeper, but not unclimbable. Know yourself, and assess yourself honestly.

All the factors that are there for competitive skaters are also there for these skaters--time, commitment, a lot of hours of practice, cost. You won't need to skate 20 hours a week, like a serious competitor would, but you will need to skate nearly every day, for a couple of hours, and you will need off-ice, especially at the higher levels, where the aerobic demands are considerable.

Keeping the coach on track
Some coaches consider themselves "competitive" coaches, whether or not they have the track record to back this up. As far as I'm concerned, if you're not getting a couple of girls past Regionals every year, and have never had a National skater, you're not a competitive coach; you're a coach who is feeding your parents a line of hooey. (Boys don't count; it's comparatively easy to get a boy to Sectionals, and even to Nationals.) Competitive coaches deliver medals that count. Otherwise you're a recreational coach. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, unless you're keeping your kids from testing, or suddenly pushing them through when they're high school seniors "so they have something to show for it."

If you're 16, in Intermediate, and aren't working on your second triple jump, take a step back and think about whether pursuing the competitive career makes any sense at all. Ask your coach why he thinks continuing to compete at Intermediate or Novice in your Junior or Senior year of high school is the best thing you can be doing with your skating.

To compete or not to compete
Even if you're not trying to get to Nationals, you should be skating in one or two competitions a year. There is absolutely nothing like a competition to bring out the best in a skater. It's a really good idea to compete just before a test, in a non-qualifying competition where they allow you to compete up a level, so that you can skate your test program in front of judges. Find one that has a judges critique for the skater and coach so that you can get a really honest, outside assessment of where you need work.

You have to remember that your goal in competing is not to win, but to polish the program, and to learn to overcome nerves. Especially now with the IJS, that protocols sheet can be brutal; when you're competing a senior program with only doubles, you're going to be at the bottom of the points, but remember, that's not the point. If you get a little starry eyed and start thinking "maybe", coming in last can really sting, even when you know you don't care.

Don't let the test date define your readiness
Even when you're pushing that college deadline, the thing about testing is that there are endless second chances. So don't think "I must take xx test by xx deadline." There's another test in a month. Don't take the test before you're ready, even if the calendar is making you nervous, because the judges will just stop you cold anyway, by failing you, and possibly yelling at your coach for putting out a test that wasn't ready to pass.

A word about gold medals
Yes, you get a little gold medal when you pass your senior test, and you get to call yourself a "gold medalist." This is a little trick to look for on coaching resumes. If your coach's resume says "gold medalist in free skating" this does not mean they won first place at a competition. It means they passed their senior test. "Triple Gold Medalist" is the Everest of Figure Skating-- it means you passed 3 different senior tests, typically Moves, Free skating, and Dance or Figures. It is not, however, to be confused with competitive success. And trust me, every coach who is a failed competitor is calling himself a "USFS gold medalist." In my experience, and I've taught with some really famous skaters, the really successful competitors absolutely never talk about it, either through modesty or embarrassment ("former multiple World champion, now teaching at Rink Nowhere in Podunk, Nebraska". Think about it).


  1. "There's another test in a month."

    Well, if you want to travel out of state for it!

    I'm not close to testing out (no where near it!), but was trying to reach a test by a deadline (I've since changed my goals). Clubs around here offer one test session a year, possibly 2, and they don't coordinate with each other, so they are often within a month of the other club, so you can't use them for a retrest. My "test plan" had me driving up to 6 hours to find a club I could test at, and then if I didn't pass there, a 5 hour drive in the other direction, and if that didn't pass, I would use a local, but not my home club (home club only tests in the spring.) Then my deadline was up. If I stuck to local clubs, I had one chance. This was a 6-month plan.

    Skaters who have another test session they can take in a month, have no idea how lucky they are.

    As for coach's who are "triple gold medalists" to me (which my coach is, though the third is a discipline you didn't mention, he's working on dance now to bring it up to 4), it doesn't matter if they are a failed competitor, being a strong competitor doesn't make you a strong coach, but having a triple gold medal means you were at least a strong skater. And of course famous skaters don't talk about it- their reputation speaks for itself.

  2. Jessim, I apologize; I'm thinking in terms of large markets. Yes, if you're in a smaller market with fewer tests, then you have to adjust your schedule, or your costs (because you'll need to travel) accordingly. But in that case, rather than pushing a single test that may not be ready, I'd work to try to pass two Moves and a FS test all at once. With a six-month window, this is probably doable.

  3. Great post, Xan, and another I can link to when people start downplaying the time, effort, and accomplishment of testing.

    Testing out is a big deal.

    Just watching kids build up the stamina to skate a Senior level free skating test makes me tired, let alone adding in jumps and spins. And the judges don't give "consolation" passes.

    And when people rib me about the money I'm spending for kiddo's skating time and testing, I remind them that a Moves/Free Skate gold medal is a resume line for college, as well as for a real job at rinks and in the "real world." That's not why she's doing it, of course, but it does tend to make people outside the skating world think twice before downplaying the accomplishment.

  4. Do they have to take all the test starting at the beginning or are there multiple entry points to the test structure?

  5. How would things differ for someone like me who is only testing (adult) moves? I expect to avoid spending large amounts of time practicing jumps, for one thing, but what else?

    Anonymous - I believe you must begin at the beginning. I read of a newly formed pairs team (already senior freeskaters) taking all the pairs tests in the same summer.

  6. Anonymous, you have to start at the beginning, but I have seen experienced skaters do three low tests in a single session, so if you've never taken a test you can start pretty late in your skating career. As AMS says, this happens often with pairs as well as dance teams, who often start the team discipline when they're at Intermediate or higher already--they'll run through multiple free skate tests at once to get up to their level.

    AMS, Adult Moves must also be started at the beginning. And yes, avoiding jumps is a huge benefit of deciding to take Moves tests as an adult. Adults, also, can choose to do Adult track or Standard track. (Adult track is the same moves, but with a lower passing standard, i.e. you don't need as many points to pass).

  7. Setting testing goals for an adult seems like a really good way to keep motivated too. But if you do the adult moves (or adult freeskate) track instead of Standard in testing, does that put restrictions on you in terms of entering adult competitions in the future?

  8. I applaud skaters who are determined to test out, it's a lot of determination! OTOH, if the process takes 4 years on average, does it mean the skater gives up hope on qualifying competitions as early as 8th grade? The gap between competition standards and test contents is so ridiculously big, testing up high probably means placing badly in competitions?

    I hope there will be changes to the spiral pattern in adult silver moves. Seriously, how many middle aged adult onset skaters can realistically pass it? (I admit I like to pick and choose what to work on, and it normally does not include the whole test level!)

  9. I see a lot of competitive singles skaters "testing out" in moves - or at least progressing farther than their competition level. That is, there are Juvenile level skater out there who have passed Novice moves (sometimes even up through Senior.)

    I'm not saying it's a easy-go for that level skater to pass USFSA Senior Free Skate in four years - or that it's in any way a given - but I also don't think one has to decide in 8th grade to dial back their competitive goals, depending on their competitive level (and goals) at the time.

  10. If you're an 8th grader who hasn't tested at all, then you have a very steep hill if you want to make Nationals as a Senior by your Senior year or gap year. Here's the scenario (nationals are in January):

    • Senior year of high school or gap year: Nationals
    • One year at Senior (Senior year)
    • One year at Junior (Junior year)
    • One year at Novice (Soph)
    • One year at Intermediate (freshman)
    • 8th grade: test PrePre, Prelim, PreJuv, Juv, moves and free skates

    And it's very rare to spend just one season at a level unless you medal right away (then the rules force you up, depending on the level).

    If you're already at Juv or Intermediate, then you have plenty of time.

    And testing out does not mean not trying for the brass ring, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying it's a worthy goal in itself, worthy enough to replace the goal of making it to Nationals if you run out of time. It also drives me crazy to see all the kids suddenly rushing to pass one more test before the go off to college, because they haven't taken testing seriously. You want to see some terrible tests? Go to an August test session some time. Kids and coaches will throw any old crap out there.

    Lots of skaters finish all the Moves tests by the time they're taking the Juvenile or Intermediate free skate. I think this is a really good strategy, because Moves are time consuming.

  11. Oh I forgot free is contingent on moves but not vice versa. Yeah it's great to get all moves out of the way asap then. If a skater has realistic chance passing senior free and did all moves already, is it normal to pass multiple free tests in one session? Say novice and junior on the same day?

  12. I suppose it is theoretically possible to do two high level freeskates in a single test session, but it would be unbelievably grueling, plus the difference from Novice to Junior is not so much the type and difficulty of the skills, as the level of maturity and polish expected of the skater. So you wouldn't want to test the Novice one unless the Junior one was ready to pass, in which case, why not just have tested the Novice when IT was ready?

  13. What about those who are not capable of testing out by the end of Senior year? I'm 15 and am testing Pre-juv moves and Prelim free next month. My ultimate goal is to pass my Senior tests, (though I'll compete along the way- getting ready for Prelim comps with dbl loop/axel) and obviously that's not happening within the next three years. I'll probably still be skating to 20-22ish. Is this doable? I believe yes- what do you say?

  14. Anon at 5:50- absolutely! We've got two coaches in their mid20s rights now who are working really hard to finish their tests.