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.


  1. When I first read the question I thought "perfect technique? What does that even mean? I mean, even elite skaters are not perfect! Then I read further on, and the wording changes to "proper technique".

    Yes! Proper technique should be enforced! Because each level has proper technique for that level. What is expected of a basic skills skaters 3-turns is not the same as what is expected for a freeskate skaters 3-turns, but for both, proper technique is required.

    That said, I'm pretty sure until at least Basic 6 our program passes everybody :(
    I only ever taught snowplow sam, so I'm not entirely sure, but I've never seen a young kid not pass. Well, I take that back- we often didn't pass snowplow kids, but since we just grouped them all into one class, we usually told the parents it was due to age, rather than skill (or the parent could see very clearly that their kid still couldn't glide)

    1. My daughter skates at a rink where you have to pass ALL the skills to pass - she repeated Basic 1 because her swizzles and rocking horse (forward-backward swizzle) wasn't strong enough, yet. A friend of hers is repeating Basic 4, because of weak swizzles on a circle. Another friend repeated Basic 5. I am glad they want each skill solid before moving them up. (That said, I am a bit IRKED that the first Basic 1 class played so much "What Time Is It Mr. Fox", rather than giving DD a bit of extra help with her weak skills. She was the weakest in the class, but with only three kids in the class and two (teenage) instructors, I feel she should have gotten a bit of extra help.)

  2. This is so ironic! On Saturday, we walked away from an ISI skating school my daughter has been attending for 8 years because certain coaches and the director are in colusion over who was going to be tested (and subsequently be awarded a solo in the spring ice show). We have never complained, we simply walked away from an impossible situation.

    There were 4 students more than ready to test FS6, so says many of the coaches at the skating school, but only one has been tested (repeatedly). She finally passed on Saturday, but no one else was tested and no one else has been given the opportunity to try. (That skater is the asst. director's student.) Maybe now that they have advanced the "chosen one" some of the other qualified students will get a chance to test, but unfortunately, there are only 2 more sessions left before the cut-off to skate at a higher level in the ice show.

    The director is known for her "high standards" and she requires more than the ISI standards in order to test (she also requires that if you come from another rink or test at another rink, you have to retest through her program before you can move to the next level, and she has denied some kids from advancing).

    We were told that our daughter had to demonstrate that she could land EVERY double salchow before she could be tested. She has been in FS6 for over 2 years and has never been tested. She has a very consistent double salchow and all the other elements are up to the skating director's standard.

    We have decided to withdraw her from the skating school, go test somewhere else and never return. We've informed the director of our intentions. I can understand having high standards but her standards don't translate into better skaters at that rink. Our daughter skates at 4 local rinks and this rink has the lowest quality skaters of any of those rinks. The skaters don't just have lower test levels but they are slower, have bad posture and body positions and flailing arms and legs.

    So what is the benefit of those "high standards"? Really, I think it just discourages the students rather than benefiting them. There are kids in that level who have been languishing there literally for years without any hope of testing and advancing and without any meaningful instruction. But, they have to continue with skating school if they want to skate in the rink's ice show because it is put on by the Park and Rec ISI skating school, not the USFS club whose home is at that rink.

    If I could substantiate my observations, I'd write a letter of complaint to the ISI, but I know it's impossible to prove. So, I guess I'll settle for spouting a little steam here. Thanks for letting me vent!

  3. A way around this kind of situation is to take a class at another rink, and ask that rink to test *and register* your student. It's one thing for a director to retest a student whose test isn't registered. It's another thing entirely to tell ISI that the registered test isn't acceptable. Member rinks are required to honor the registered test level. And THAT you could complain about and prove.

  4. Also, why do these programs make this so hard and unpleasant?

  5. At our rink we get a report at the 2nd to last class. There is a check list and it the coach checks what was acceptable and what they are still "learning". This made taking the same class for a year "okay". She knew she could do all of the tasks but it was the elusive consistent Axel that kept her from double jump. At her rink though, coaches can move a student at anytime during the session - once she had a consistent Axel she could move to double jump without waiting for a new session. As for testing - her coach arranges that - she creates a panel and does it during a freestyle session. At both our rinks just because you pass Beta class it has nothing to do with being Beta in ISI. You need a coach to test for a patch/competitions. So you could be all the way at FS4 and never have had an official ISI test. ~Meg

  6. I love the level of detail in the description for the forward outside edge - in the UK the requirement is "One-Foot Glide on a Curve – Outside Edge (L & R)" (from the NISA website) - and I have certainly never come across anything official to say what that should involve. Which is where the difficulty comes in - does the rink/coack enforce a count of 2 or a count of 10? Do they insist on a raised leg, or a properly extended leg with a nice soft skating knee?

    I'm very happy for my daughter to be taught to the appropriate standard for her level - it's just not clear what that standard is! At the moment in the UK it seems to be (even for non-beginner tests) that there is a "proper" way of doing things that doesn't allow for the level of the skater - so the proper way expected for the lowest level tests is to skate it the way an Olympic skater would do it - which I can't see is achievable or appropriate.

    Is there an understanding in the US/Canada that the proper way to do something can change with the ability of the skater? Or when you test a single jump does it have to be as high/graceful as one done by someone with all their triples?

  7. P.S. I agree - everyone should be held to the standard - I just think the standard should be appropriate to the level of the skater at the moment, not the level they could do it with another 10 years' experience!

  8. Meg said
    "At both our rinks just because you pass Beta class it has nothing to do with being Beta in ISI. You need a coach to test for a patch/competitions. So you could be all the way at FS4 and never have had an official ISI test."

    I am almost CERTAIN that when I was a ISI coach (it was a brief thing, just so I could judge) there was documents that said that skaters should not be kept in a lower level CLASS because they were missing one element, so they can start taking the Gamma class without passing Beta, but they can't pass the test without that element.

    So I guess the assumption is that they work with a private coach, or just independent practice, but a kid shouldn't be in the same level for many sessions in a row if it is just one element holding them back.

  9. @MKP: in USFSA standards books, it is very clear that the quality of a move for passing standard becomes more difficult as one moves through the curriculum. Thus at, say, Basic 6 (I don't have my book with me, so I'm just inventing the levels for this example), one has to be doing what are called "beginning back 3-turns" while at FS 3 (three levels up from Basic 6), one has to be doing "advanced back 3-turns" to pass. In the adult track tests for both moves in the field and free skate, there are similar descriptions of how steady, how much extension, etc., is required of any given move, such that it is very clear that the standards become higher as one advances. So, my cross-overs as I test for Pre-Bronze will not be expected to be as strong as they will have to be to do the more complex cross-over based moves for the Silver test. (All these tests, by the way, happen in front of a panel of three judges, none of whom are the skater's coach.) This makes great sense to me as a system.

    In terms of moving up in *classes* though, that is quite different and at the discretion of the coaches, at least at our rink. One nice thing they do is run classes for similar levels simultaneously, particularly at the lower levels where moving up can happen relatively quickly. So, when my daughter (who'd already been skating with me a dozen times or more before she started lessons) had mastered the Snowplow Sam 1 skills, she was moved up into the Sam 2 class in mid-session.

    I would like to hear whether other group coaches seem to be "soft" on adult skaters, though. I had skated a little bit as a kid (up to cross-overs front and back), so when I started taking lessons, there were a number of skills I needed to refresh but which came back fairly quickly -- but I found that I really had to push back against coaches passing me on to the next level too quickly. 'Yes, okay, I see you can do a mohawk on that foot; how about the other one? okay fine, move on...' when the whole thing was really a bit wobbly. I felt they were doing it so that they could push me towards private lessons by getting me "hooked" because I'd flown through group classes. When I finally, just by luck of the draw, found a group coach who would make me drill over and over for technique before letting me do the next move, I stuck with her. I'm in FS3 for the second session and very happy to be so, since I can FEEL my technique getting better -- and we're even going back to 3-turns and some other things that I think could benefit from more rigorous criticism. But is it common for adults to have to tell class coaches what they want to work on and how hard they want to be pushed?

  10. Mommy Time nails it. In USFS the passing grade is lower for the lower levels, i.e. the standard remains the same, but the expected level of executive is different. Ditto for the adults-the skill standard is the same; the passing *mark* is lower.

    The problem with passing kids who need just one skill is that unless they are taking private lessons, they are never going to get taught that skill again. You cannot reasonably expect a class instructor to take time away from the kids who have all the requisite skills, in order to teach the student who got the pity pass. And unless "taking private lessons" is a requirement for passing you cannot do that. A class-only skater should not be penalized because she can't afford, or doesn't want, private lessons.

  11. I think it does depend how key the skill is! There are some things that are key - and some which aren't! I couldn't do a teapot (shoot the duck?) at 14 and I can't do it now. But I have a pretty convincing sit spin so it's not holding me back.

    But that opens up another question - should the standard be (marginally) different for adults? I'm particularly thinking of things like spirals where your average child can get into that position really easily and most adults need 6 months of yoga to get flexible enough. If they are solid on the edge and clearly at the limit of their flexibility do you hold them back until they can get their legs horizontal? Yes, if they are competing they need to do that to match everyone else - but for tests/moving between levels?

  12. The thing with adults is that you can ask them--what do YOU want? Adults can choose how quickly or slowly to move through the class levels, and which skills they really don't care about. For something like a spiral, which is an iconic skill, yes, leg over hip is absolutely necessary. If they are testing through the federation--be it UK, CANskate or USFS, then they do have to skate to the passing grade. But for moving between classes-- meh. I barely acknowledge the curricula for my adult classes. Some adults really like sticking to the program, some like to go at different paces for different skills.

  13. I barely acknowledge the curricula for my adult classes.

    This is really good to know. I wondered if the coaches I've had were the only ones who did this or not. As a teacher myself, I find it somewhat disconcerting, when in the position of being a student, to be asked what I want to work on: I figure the teacher should know better than I what I need to do next. On the other hand, I VERY much appreciate the flexibility to keep moving forward with the jumps and footwork at a reasonable pace even though my spins are horrific. If I were a child, I would be stuck in whatever level of Basic gets you a decent one-foot spin. (Then again, if I were a child, I wouldn't be 5'9", or quite this dizzy, I supposed.) Thankfully, my coach just keeps working on spins with me periodically, having me practice them as much as I can, and is willing to let the spins get infinitesimally better each month even while the other things are easier for me. Obviously, we both know this would change if I ever wanted to compete, but for now, I have something really hard to work on, as well as some things to work on that make me feel like I'm actually progressing, which is nice.

  14. Excellent timing for this post as I have been wondering about when is the ideal time for moving up a level. With my daughter's coach, I feel like she moves the kids slower through the levels. I go back and forth wondering if this is a good or bad thing. The good side is my daughter knows the basics extremely well but I also wonder if this is holding her back. Is there a typical timeframe that kids, who show lots of talent/potential, advance through the ISI levels? She is currently in FS1. Is it going to hurt her in the long run to be kept at a lower level longer or should I just be patient?

  15. I just saw in the USFS Magazine that came to my house yesterday that USFS is coming out with a Skills Apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad in the coming weeks. Download "US Figure Skating Coach" apps from the Apple store

    This collection of 12 Apps is supposed to contain:
    "a digital basic skills manual complete with video demonstrations"

    "the fact that coaches, parents, skaters and officials can have access to videos of over 400 skills being executed properly which is really an indespensible teaching tool, especially given the portability factor"

    I'm really glad to see USFS on the same page as I am. I remember a few years ago when my daughter was in basic skills learning how to do crossovers and I was leaning my iPhone up against the plexiglass of the hockey barrier with a video from You Tube of a skater doing the skill she was trying to learn when I took her to practice between lessons.

    She watched and tried and we played it again and she watched and tried a few times and then She Got It!

    This will make it really easy for parents to "see" what their child should be doing and compare to the video if there is a question whether or not the child is ready to move up.

    Nowadays I am often at rinkside with my iPad shooting video thru the glass when she practices (days when she is without her coach) and she will come over and look at it. I don't have to venture an opinion about whether she got low enough on her sit spin. She can see for herself on the playback.

    If this set of apps becomes the standard of reference there will be a lot less confusion about whether a child is ready to move up. Just compare your video to the one on the App.

  16. Anon 12:47, I love that you are embracing the idea of an app as a practice tool. In the USFS event that I attended where it was announced, there was near universal disdain from the coaches present. Some of the comments "why wouldn't you just demonstrate the skill yourself" "Oh, so now EVERYONE can say they're a coach" "Who's going to carry their phone around while practicing". I'm almost tempted to get a smart phone so I can review it for y'all.

  17. "Who's going to carry their phone around while practicing".

    (Xan, I know this isn't YOUR statement, just onne you are quoting)

    Our boards are LINED with phones. Skaters text between elements while blowing their noses, they plug the phone directly into the music cord so they don't have to keep a CD. We rock out to playlists on the phones when no one is doing a program. I personally use mine to video tape myself. And often my coach has pulled out HIS phone to video tape me, or ALL of us in group lessons. Phones are incredibly helpful training tools. (Coach has also said "here, I have my phone in my hand. Just do the loop, and I'll call 911 right away if something goes terribly wrong" as a joking attempt to calm my fears)

    I don't have an Iphone though, but an Android, so it doesn't sound like this will be available to me.

  18. I have an iPod Touch, not an iPhone, but these apps will work for me as well. I'm not sure how useful they would be for me since I'm not a basic skills skater.

    My coach and I use my iPod all the time to video me so that I can see what he's talking about. It's a very useful tool.

    Mark Fitzgerald coaches at one of the rinks I skate at, btw.

  19. I love the detailed description the edge skills you quoted, Xan! Where can I find this "USFS Skills Book"??? I was a recreational skater in teens, and I find the short descriptions in the "USFS Record Book" confusing on some of the skills. It seems to me a major shame that these are not easily found the USFS web site!

  20. It's in the instructor's guide for Basic Skills, only available to instructors, but also, I believe in the Basic Skills Lesson Plan Manual, a wonderful $5 book which you can order from USFS. Order form is here: (scroll to "How Do I Learn to Skate, click on "Basic Skills Order Form." )