Nov 30, 2011

Should PSA membership be required?

I believe in the Professional Skaters Association.

Especially in a profession that comprises nearly universally self-taught "professionals," an organization that promotes continuing education, defines ethics, and sets national standards is vital.

No membership? You can sit in the stands and watch
PSA, partnering with US Figure Skating, has done an amazing job in the past five years basically forcing membership-meaning forcing acceptance (or at least awareness) of professional standards in teaching, ethics and continuing ed--upon people who coach students participating in the qualifying competitions. They've done this by establishing a credentials system. No membership? You can't get an ID allowing you to coach your student at the competition.

When I started in figure skating, just 13 years ago, and found out about the PSA, most coaches I talked to scoffed at the idea of a professional association for coaches. Thank goodness one of my early mentors was Jimmie Santee, who so believed in it that now he runs the place.

Now, all competitive coaches must be members, and they're working on extending that down to any coach who participates in any way in "sanctioned" activities. (A sanction is permission from US Figure Skating allowing competitors to skate in non-qualifying activities.) This covers local ice shows, programs, and competitions that includes skaters who participate in qualifying competitions.

Which is very nearly everyone.

Easy to sneak around the rules
But it's easy to not be a member. If you don't care about taking your own students to tests or competitions, or if you don't have private students, you don't have to join. I had a coach blatantly and knowingly solicit two of my students; when I called her on it and threatened to report her to the PSA, she smugly told me that she was not a member, so the ethical rules didn't apply to her.

This is how some coaches think--if I'm not a member, I don't have to be ethical.

Many coaches simply have friends who are members sign test and competition forms to get around the restriction. Clubs often don't enforce the credentials rule, especially for older venerable coaches, but or for young coaches if Daddy is a high level coach. Basic Skills competitions can also be very lax, and ISI has no rules whatsoever. I've had to fight off parents at the rink door at poorly run ISI competitions.

Skating directors are even worse. Many of them no longer disparage the idea of the PSA, but I know at least two who think that it is, and I quote, "stupid." Personally, I think if a rink wants its programs sanctioned by USFS, then the skating director should be required to be a member at the very least, and in fact should be required to have either a PSA rating or an iAIM certificate.

So what's the downside?
For elite coaches--the ones with the $125+ an hour fees and multiple students at Nationals, PSA membership makes sense. It professionalizes the job, and weeds out the less serious coaches. It protects you from solicitation at the elite ranks, where it really counts.  Plus, I'm betting that a lot of those coaches are having at least some of their fees covered by their programs.

For class coaches, maybe taking Suzy to a couple of local competitions a year, the benefits are less clear. The continuing education requirement is the main benefit, although nearly every coach I know considers it a burden and a joke. If you're not rated (the closest thing we've got to a degree in skating) the education requirements are extremely minimal-- 3 open book on line courses. Cheating is endemic. And the cost is considerable-- I once calculated that all my memberships and requirements cost me 2 months pay.

If PSA wants to be relevant down here at ground level, they need to have programs that help coaches and skating directors in local programs.  Support for unionization would be a nice start, or rating rinks according to the professional credentials of management, with real downsides for non-compliant programs.  Better scholarships for participating in continuing education, based on skating income and not on household income.  Extending the annual awards to local instructors, instead of just to coaches with a national profile.

I don't know what it's like up there in the Yuka Sato stratosphere, but down here in the trenches the profession is a mess.  Rife with poor management and incompetent instructors and plagued by low pay, completely absent any sort of employment benefits like paid sick or vacation days, pension or health care, you only do this if you love it. We need PSA so that at the very least no one in the profession can hide behind purported ignorance, or, like my colleague, claim that ethics are for the suckers who join.

As the Professional Skaters Association starts requiring more compliance with its rules, it needs to increase benefits to the vast majority of people in the profession.

Nov 25, 2011

Etiquette in group lessons

We've been talking about proper behavior in private lessons for coaches and kids (although not so much parents--stay tuned!)

But the vast majority of skaters don't take private lessons. They skate in classes and on public ice. So what are some etiquette pitfalls to avoid for classes? What are common missteps on the part of all parties?

Arrive on time
Especially at rinks where several class levels do a joint warm up, there can be a tendency on the part of coaches to think that they can just wander in when the "real" class begins. And to some extent it's true. The skaters will not have a demonstrably worse experience if one of the coaches isn't there. But you better believe that the coaches who make the effort to be on time for, and to run, the warm up are silently fuming about your arrogance and lack of professionalism. Further, if you are off the ice because you're out in the stands soliciting privates and generally shmoozing the parents you'll be lucky not to find your tires slashed.

I don't even have words for coaches who arrive so late that they miss part of the actual class session. Oh, wait, sure I do. Arrogant. Disruptive. Unprofessional. Childish. Rude. (And, with any luck, Fired)

Be part of the warm up
Don't stand on the boards gossiping while someone else does all the heavy lifting

Treat your students, and their families, like they matter
Seriously? You can't learn the names of 15 kids in 8 weeks?  Here's a clue--take attendance. Greet the parents at least a couple of times during the session, even if you're sure they aren't going to take privates. And, hello. Can we stop with the racist asides? "Oh they're East Asian. Why do these people even try, they don't know how to skate." (actual quote)  How about not telling adolescent girls they're too fat to skate? (Another true story). Here's a good one--everyone in class paid the same price. Not just your students. Not just the "good" students. Everyone is entitled to instruction.

Stay in your area
Know where on the ice your class meets. Make sure your kids stay in their area and don't wander into the neighboring class. Use traffic patterns that keep everyone safe, moving, and engaged.

Arrive on time
It is no less arrogant and disruptive for the students to be late than for the instructors. If I see you sitting in the lobby and you can't be bothered to get on the ice for the beginning of the warm up, I shouldn't even let you into the class. Now, sometimes the kids don't have control over this; if your parent or your school makes you late, call the rink and ask them to inform the coach. (Seriously) If you can't, then apologize to the coach and the class when you do get there.

Be part of the warm up
Aside from being important for health reasons, it is simply rude to consider yourself above any part of the instruction. If you're not going to participate, please don't come.

Be respectful of the coaches
You are the student. Your opinion on technique, choreography, class management (except in the case of a violation of #3, above) is not salient to the moment. If you have a serious disagreement, bring it up, respectfully, outside of class, and in a way that does not challenge the coach's professional authority. This means not whining to your mother because the coach told you that your language or dress was inappropriate (you can tell I'm talking about teens here).

For younger students, the ice class should be treated like a classroom. This means no wandering off without permission, engaging in the activity presented, and no talking when the coach is talking.  You know, all that "everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten" stuff.

Share the ice
Especially in the warm up, remember that this is class, not Sunday afternoon public skate. This means you're warming up, not socializing. No hotdogging. No getting on and off. No food. No gum. Watch out for the little guys and the beginners.

Arrive on time
Sigh. And don't sign up for a class that you know you will be habitually late for, or absent from. This is not rocket science.

Don't be part of the warm up
Sit down. Take a load off. Better yet, help keep the rink open by going out to the snack bar and spending some money. Do not under any circumstances stand by the glass, or worse yet in the door shouting at your child. If your child is too young to handle a class without you standing right there, then they are not ready to be in class. I have had parents stand in the door yelling at their child to pay attention to me. Well, they would be, if you weren't standing in the door yelling at them.

Let the coach be the coach
Don't tell them how to do their job. Don't tell them what your child is like*, don't assume miracles the first day. Accept evaluations; please don't go to a different coach for an evaluation if you don't like the outcome from the class coach. This undermines the coach among his colleagues and teaches the child a very bad lesson. Plus, it will give you a rep that you don't want.

*Special needs
Please please please please tell the coach if your child has been diagnosed with a special need. Tell the coach exactly what it is, but don't expect a class coach to be an occupational therapist. If there are specific physical, pedagogical or therapeutic needs then this needs to be shared and dealt with before the child steps on the ice. Municipal rinks are generally required to provide an aide for special needs kids, and some coaches, like me, welcome and are trained for them. But we need to know upfront to optimize the experience, not only for your child, but for every child in the class.

On the other hand, do NOT tell the coach this unless you have a medical diagnosis.

I know your child is special. They're all really special. Good manners helps everyone honor that.

Nov 18, 2011

Review: The Forgotten Art of Skating Etiquette

I purchased the new DVD published by the Professional Skaters Association, The Forgotten Art of Skating Etiquette. Complaints about skating etiquette are probably in the top 3 queries here--along with coaching changes and, lately, weeks-long discussion on underwear (just kidding).

The DVD hits all the standard rules: skating patterns, spin area, right of way, off-ice behavior. It talks about neatness, avoidance of cliques, proper attire and coaching suggestions. It's got some nice bits of humor and the kids in it clearly had a lot of fun making it. There's a great scene of a locker room tantrum, someone violating the 5-second rule (yuk), and a dreams-of-glory moment when one skater pushes another one over on the ice.  We've all wanted to do that.

The host is a young woman with a sincere delivery (although she needs to learn how to use a teleprompter without looking like she's reading) but I would like to see a host with more gravitas. Specifically, I think Jimmie Santee, the Executive Director of the PSA and the writer of the DVD, should have been the host. It would give the whole thing more a tone of "I'm sick of reading the grievances about shit that could be fixed with a little courtesy and common sense."  The younger, unknown person leading the DVD just makes you think of some sweet new coach who, gosh, just wants everyone to get along, 'kay?

Some of the common etiquette lapses it misses is dealing with divots, lefty skaters, and high and low skaters sharing practice sessions. It also entirely leaves out group lessons. I guess we don't have to be nice to each other in group.

It also doesn't address non-collegiality among coaches. I have seen coaches deliberately stand in the line of sight between another coach and her student; talk on cell phones during lessons, ignore class skaters whom they do not teach in privates, ignore private lesson students if their star student is also on the ice (or worse, ignore their own private student to watch and discuss someone else's star). I've seen coaches stepping off the ice to go talk to a parent (of another coach) or to talk to parents during a group class that they're supposed to be teaching.  I've seen group lessons in the lutz corner on practice sessions (in fact, large group lessons on practice ice at all), and coaches who refuse to discipline their own skaters, including a coach making jokes about one of their skaters injuring someone. You get the idea.

Not to mention trolling innocent bloggers.

What's missing from the script is any suggestions for fixing a program where etiquette has given way to every-skater-for-herself. Having just left a program like that, I can tell you, having everyone watch a DVD isn't going to fix problems. Every coach and high level skater I know understands these rules. The PSA should be helping coaches and programs with ideas to fix problems internally, and should be stating how the PSA can support coaches and skating directors who try to clean things up.

The package would also be stronger with printed materials-poster-sized print outs of the suggested practice patterns that are used in the video, and blank sheets for rinks to create their own (the practice pattern at my rink, for instance, is slightly different than the one proposed). A small booklet with the common-sense rules from the video would also be a nice addition; or even several, so any coach buying this could give one to each of his or her students.

This video is a great idea, and PSA is exactly the right institution to promote it. I call this a great start. The content needs to be more comprehensive, with some print extras, and it needs to be backed up by an actual project of the PSA to improve courtesy on the ice.

Finally, at $15, this 10-minute video is a little pricey.  I think the PSA would better serve the problem--the increasing loss of civility and common sense on practice sessions--by simply sending these out free to every coach in their membership as they renew.  That way, everyone in the industry would know that the PSA is serious about returning collegiality to the rink.

Nov 14, 2011

How do you quit?

No, this is not more drama about the rink. This is about how young people move on from the intensity of training.

Even serious recreational skaters train at a level and in a way that is very different from other youth after school activities like student government, drama club or team sports. If you've been a competitor it's even harder, because you're also giving up prestige, and a great big chunk of your identity.

A reader asks:
How do you help your child leave the sport? Mine has started talking about it in a very calm way recently. I think she is concerned she will lose her identity and her friends, but she just does not have the same drive she used to and never seems happy to go to the rink anymore. I feel like I am taking her to some after school math session every day. Only this one is really expensive.
The organization Team up for Youth, studying girls in team sports found the following:
"While many girls play sports in their younger years, most drop out during adolescence. Why? Research shows that girls may face overt or subtle pressure from their peers and families to ‘feminize,’ or to take on responsibilities (e.g. studying, taking care of younger siblings) that prohibit their continued participation. One researcher describes adolescence as “a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle” in which girls “lose their assertive, energetic and ‘tomboyish’ personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed.”* The girls who continue to play through adolescence and beyond are usually those who have developed an athlete identity. Being an athlete is a part of who they are. These are the girls who say, “I am a basketball player!” rather than, “I play basketball.” These are the girls who see sports participation as a non-negotiable.
(full pdf here)
 With girls in solo athletics like skating, tennis, skiing, et cetera, the change is even more fraught, because of the competing social scenes. People at school may barely be aware that the student is even an athlete. My own daughter tried to participate in after school activities in high school, only to be told that no absences would be tolerated for non-school sports. She eventually simply shifted her entire social identity to the rink, but other students may find that they feel pressure, either internally or externally to make the opposite choice.

Skating adds another dimension, because a lot of people don't consider it a sport, and/or don't consider recreational skating to be a worthy pasttime. Some equate recreational skating with failure. The single most-frequent question we would be asked when people found out my daughter was a skater was "oh, have you been to nationals?" This from people who had no way of knowing the answer was "yes." Society doesn't assume that every high school football player is going to the NFL, but this is a common misperception about figure skating--that it happens only at an elite level.

The thing is, there is very little downside to either choice. The tricky part is finding your way through the morass of emotion that is the adolescent, especially adolescent girls. As the reader asks, how do you support this decision?

I'll add a corollary as well--how do you support the decision to stay? This can be just as difficult, because of the social demands on adolescents, and because of the more demanding training as you increase your level.  There are issues as well even if the skater just wants to keep skating--there is a lot of contempt among some coaching staffs for kids who plateau, even the ones for whom that is a choice (adults get this a lot too).

I'm going to pull a page from the late great IceMom here, and throw this back to you. How do you help your skater make the choice to stay or to go, to improve or to plateau?

Nov 8, 2011

How good is good enough?

A reader asks:
Should you enforce perfect technique at lower levels (and hence hold people back until it is perfect) – or should you accept that there are differences in acceptable technique depending on your level? My local rink has started insisting on proper technique for even for the lowest levels, such as properly bent skating leg and properly extended free leg for the outside curves (UK or USFS Basic Skills Level 4, ISI does not have a corollary to this), rather than passing them if they can just hold the edge properly for a set time. What they seem to want is the easier moves at the lower levels to be done at the standard they would be done by someone who had passed the top levels.
So what should a passing standard be?

All the curricula: ISI weSkate, USFS Basic Skills, UK Levels, and CANSkate, have very specific descriptions of passing standards for each skill, right down to "fall and get up" and all the way up to triple axels. Here's an example for the edge skill above, from the USFS Basic Skills book:
Forward edges held two times the skater's height, right and left forward outside. The edges are skated while moving in a circle. After balancing on two feet, begin the edges by placing the skating side arm and shoulder forward with the free shoulder held firmly behind. Pick up the foot on the outside of the circle and glide on a forward edge in a balanced position over the skating side for two counts (instructor will count)[NB- I gather for the UK, the skating foot must be held back in a stroking position]
Pretty specific and clear.

If I had my preferences, a strong skating director willing to hold the line with parents, and a culture that supported it, absolutely, every single skater should be held to the standard. There is a reason for it, namely that the next skill up (cross overs in this instance) requires mastery of the prior skill or it will be too difficult. I'm working with a hockey skater right now who has never been required to balance on one foot. Needless to say, he's having difficulty keeping up in games and drills.

I know that there are rinks that are able to hold the line, but this is what happens out here in reality:

Blame the Skating Director
This is where it starts. If the skating director caves when a parent complains, rather than backing up her staff; if she lets one coach pass according to that coach's standards (this also happens with coaches who are too strict; it works both ways), then your rink effectively has no passing standards.

Blame the Coach
This is the number one reason why rinks start getting reputations for poor skaters and low standards--coaches don't care enough to hold a kid back. They pass a kid on because they don't like her or because he's a disruptive student (not kidding). They pass their own students up, sometimes skipping multiple levels, as a marketing ploy, or to consolidate all their kids in a single level for their own scheduling ease or ego-gratification. Some coaches are just incompetent, and don't understand the passing standard, or can't teach it properly. Coaches should not be allowed to skip students without an objective panel, preferably comprising people who don't know the coach OR the kid, agreeing to it (even in recreational programs).

Blame the student
Each of the curricula have about 6 to 9 skills to master per level. Often, a student will perfectly master all but one of them, and I'll tell you it is really hard, in a recreational class situation, to not pass a clearly superior student because their t-stop sucks even though you know it's going to come back to haunt them.

Blame the program
Sometimes the student will be just skimming the passing standard--they need 2 more weeks, not 3 more months at the level. This can be dealt with by splitting every level in an A, B, and even C sub-level, but not all programs have the creativity or will to do this. As far as I'm concerned, this is the obvious solution--you feel like you're passing and you get a little ego boost. Rinks don't need to have entire separate sections for the As, Bs, and Cs; they can all be in the exact same class, just working on the skills at a different standard. Which brings us to...

Blame the curriculum
Rinks routinely divide up the cross-over levels (Alpha and Beta, or Basic 4-5-6) into sublevels, but for some reason stop doing this at the higher levels, which is just mystifying. If rinks would divide FS5 (Axel) for instance, into as many as four sub-levels, kids would not be complaining they are "stuck" because they'd be passing something. This would get rid of the parents' complaints that a child couldn't pass. It would allow softy coaches to pass a student who's just too cute to leave behind.

If the reader's rink or federation has decided enough with the fuzzy passing standards, good for them. I hope they can hold the line.

Nov 6, 2011

Why does it matter how I look

The recent posts on What to wear and What not to wear sparked a lot of debate, mostly along the lines of "why should it matter." I've written about this before, but it bears repeating.

This is a huge issue with figure skating and the other artistic sports, gymnastics and dance. Strangely, in the most artistic of them, dance, the body-type restrictions have started to be overcome through such forward-thinking companies as the Joffrey in Chicago, whose founder specifically sought out non-typical body types. They have had squat, and heavy, and bosom-y, and most notably non-white dancers in the company since their founding.

Inevitably when following a Twitter discussion, or just listening to the live media comments, at some point someone will bring up the costumes. If I had a dime for every time Dick Button mentioned that so-and-so is "a beautiful girl" I would be a rich woman.

These sports rely, for both scoring and enjoyment, on how they look. The problem comes when we overlay cultural definitions of beauty onto the successful execution of the skills. This is not the same thing as costume. For me, I want costumes to be neat, I want hair to be simple and safe, and I don't want to see undergarments, even on very young children.

The bigger problem is that while we consciously get indignant over costume--as one commenter put it "why should my daughter's undewear have anything to do with her skill"--we are unconsciously not even considering the fact that the judges are selecting, through gamed scoring, for specific body types. While judges tend to be pretty fair in testing situations, I maintain that even at the lower levels they will favor the look over the skills, especially when all other things are equal. The thin, flat-chested pixies start getting held up because judges like thin, flat-chested pixies.

We had an amazingly talented skater at our rink who grew a beautiful, full bosom in her mid-teens.

At which point her coach told her she was done, because she was now "too fat." Trust me, the ONLY fat on that girl's body was in her breasts. She still had the jumps, she still had the art. But her coach, and the judges, decided she didn't look right, and that's how they scored her.

I maintain that Rachael Flatt is a perfect example of someone repeatedly criticized not for her skating, but for her body type. A lot of the discussion was "no one knows how to dress that girl [to hide her sloping shoulders and thick middle.]" But what was meant was that she didn't look like our image of a skating champion. I really believe that consistent underscoring by judges was a way for them to get rid of this young woman who just didn't look right.

A generation ago they did the same thing to Surya Bonaly and Debi Thomas, who had the audacity to be black. The irony there, of course, is that the person who beat Debi Thomas at the Olympics was Katarina Witt, whom I used to call "hope for fat girls everywhere." Sometimes the talent really does trump the look. But like women in the board room, they had to be head-and-shoulders better than the sylphs they were beating.

The unfairness of this is maintained by the scoring system--where there is a tie (rare in the IJS but common under 6.0)--the performance marks break the tie. If the technical mark broke the tie, as it should, you would start seeing a wider range of body types, and probably more consistent skating as well, as skaters and coaches started realizing that they couldn't rely on the more subjective component (i.e. the artistic) score.

Children should not be fat, but frankly if we stopped excluding the fat ones from praise for taking part in the beautiful sports, maybe some of them would start feeling like they could be fairy princesses on the ice too.

I still don't want to see their undergarments, by the way.

Nov 1, 2011

Master Rating in Recreational Skating and Beginners

No, there isn't one.

But there should be.

I've been struggling ever since I received my Senior Rating in Group Instruction from the Professional Skaters Association, about whether I should continue to the Master Rating.

There are compelling reasons why I should: personal satisfaction, confirmation of the levels I've achieved, the necessity to really stretch myself and my abilities in order to achieve that level.

But there are equally compelling reasons to stop at the Senior Level. Senior Group takes you through Freestyle 4/PreJuv Moves skills, which is also the level up to which I've taught a lot. At FS 5 and up I simply haven't had the face time that gives you glib comfort with the teaching techniques (and you need to be on point and very very glib and articulate at the Master exam). Part of this is cultural--most rinks operate on a seniority level, and I don't have the seniority to get assignment to these classes. Because I never tested these levels, to qualify for the rating I need to have a minimum number of hours teaching them. Some rink managers, supporting my desire to increase my skating knowledge and teaching ability, might be inclined to help me out by assigning these classes, but on the other hand, they have no obligation to accommodate my unusual needs when there are plenty of already-qualified instructors at hand.

Further, I don't really want to teach FS5 and up. It's neither my interest nor my strength. And in order to take the rating, I need to teach these higher levels, which would reduce the teaching time I'm able to devote to my first love: the beginners.

However, that Master Group rating is really the only Master level available to me. There are no other PSA Master levels that make sense for either my teaching goals or my personal satisfaction, or that I could qualify for based on my test history or students.

So where do I go?

I would like to propose the Master Rating in Recreational Skating and Beginners. This would encompass private and group instruction, some program director skills, knowledge of equipment and promotion, as well as some child psychology and pedagogy. It would cover all low disciplines: tots, learn-to-skate (thru the equivalent of USFS FS5), low dance, beginning hockey (including rules of play), low couples, speed skating, and team skating like synchro and show numbers. It would encompass both group and private instruction.

In other words, all the types of classes you would find filled at a typical recreational program.

To qualify for this you would need ratings up to the Senior level in two other disciplines, of which one must be one of the group disciplines (i.e. Registered Moves plus Senior Group, or Certified Group plus Certified FS or Senior Synchro plus Certified Choreo). The rating would have just two levels--Senior and Master.

There is a pervasive attitude among figure skating professionals that if you don't teach the highest levels, you aren't a good coach, or a "real" coach. This would be understandable if skating was like other youth sports, where parent volunteers make up most of the beginning coaching cadre, some with no training or credential other than that they played themselves as kids. But figure skating programs pride themselves on having professional staffs.

Since the vast majority of skaters are in the recreational and beginning levels, wouldn't it make sense to have a Master rating specializing in this? And in case anyone from the PSA is reading this, I would be thrilled to serve on the committee developing it.

Do you feel that a coach's PSA rating, and the discipline in which they are rated, makes a difference to their teaching and to your program?