Feb 15, 2012

Get it in writing

I make all my students sign a contract. Okay, call it a "coach's disclosure statement"

It includes my coaching rates, ice charges, admonition to practice, schedule vagaries, cancellation policy, lesson rules (like late arrival), and a statement about changing coaches.  It has a liability waiver, for what it's worth. It has contact information for both parties, and the skater's birthday.

I get a copy signed by the parent or adult student at the first lesson. They get a copy to keep.

A second page talks about decorum, parent do's and don'ts, proper attire, competition, and other FAQs.

Such a contract is highly recommended by the PSA, and yet I know for sure of only 3 coaches who do this. I am the ONLY non-competitive coach I know who does this. When I first starting teaching, I asked some more experienced coaches if I could take a look at their contracts so I would have a model. Most of them didn't use a contract; several actively disdained the idea (and used it to add to the myth that I didn't know what I was doing). The ones who had one refused to share it, because it was "proprietary." (At which point I simply went to the parents and asked them if I could take a look. And they showed me. Really, coaches can be such idiots.) I'm guessing that some of the coaches who told me they don't do contracts actually do, but didn't want anyone to know, for some reason that I can't fathom.

All elite coaches (those with Nationals-bound students, generally) have contracts with their high level students. Contract disputes have been behind some famous coach-skater break ups. It's been speculated that a contract dispute is what split Michelle Kwan from Frank Carroll, and possibly cost her the Olympic gold.

Of course, I'm not trying to get a percentage of your future earnings, as I'm pretty sure there won't be any, at least not from skating (not if I'm your coach, anyway, lol). I'm just trying to make it clear to everyone what the deal is.

The coach seems like your friend. She loves your child. She's a gas to talk to.

But this is a professional relationship.  If your coach doesn't have a contract, at least ask her for her rules in writing. If she won't do it in writing, sit down with her, and ask about them and you write it down: fee structure and billing practices, arrival policy, coaching change policy, missed lesson policy, make-up lesson policy, skating attire policy, competition policy, music policy.  Believe me, every coach has a policy for these things, whether they know it or not.

If they tell you "don't worry about it," insist. If they refuse to let you know how they deal with these things, find another coach. (This is not the same as a coach who hasn't thought about it-- many young coaches won't have realized how important this is. That means you can be the one to help a young coach develop her policies.)

Does your coach have a written contract? How did you feel about it? What are some good points in the contract?


  1. My first coach (in another town) had a document (no need to sign) that spelled out many of the things in your contract - absence policy, proper lesson attire, rates for lessons, competitions, tests, non-local competitions, etc. I'm an adult skater so this skating world was totally new to me. I don't like discussing money so having this all written down was nice. Moved away - new coach. Nothing written. So I had to keep asking as new situations came up - what's the fee for a competition? Is that per event? What's the fee for a test? Is there a fee for a recital? I would rather have it all spelled out on paper. My former coach did ask me to keep the policy sheet to myself.

    1. "I don't like discussing money"

      You are not alone. The coaches don't like to discuss it either. It's partly societal and partly due to skating culture in general which thrives on idea that we just do this for love.

  2. At times I suspected my coach charged different people different fees. She can't look me in the eye when she talks about money. When the new price raises went up I checked around. Discreetly. Everyone was paying the same. Because coaches don't post their rates publicly around here, there's some opportunity for charging different rates. I don't like that, but it's the norm.
    The coaches also don't know what the other coaches are charging. I've been pumped for information on what my coaches are charging me by other coaches. I don't like that either. Talk to each other, okay?
    I always make sure I get clarification early on for missed lessons, etc. But I've never had a coach hand me a sheet of paper.

    1. How would you feel about that, if a coach had you sign something?

    2. It is pretty common at our rink for coaches to charge different people different rates. They usually have a base rate they quote, and then they will discount for lots of lessons, or they will discount for circumstance that doesn't allow someone to pay the full price. I had a coach discount for me on the condition that I paid the full month upfront, rather than as I took lessons. He was willing to be paid less, but it was guaranteed income.

      He did have a policies sheet he passed out, the only coach I've had do that (I've had 3 now). It was nice to know what his expectations were. It didn't tell me what his fees for tests or competitions were, but at least I knew the cancellation policy (which actually didn't apply to me, since I paid up front, I didn't get to cancel- I just lost the fee.)

    3. I think Jessim's experience is common. I'll discount for special circumstances, for paying ahead, for joint lessons from a single family (but not for friends sharing lessons), and I also have students that I "comp" because I know they can't afford lessons. If I raise my rates, I usually grandfather my current students at the old rate for 6 months, but let them know the rate is going up.

  3. @Anonymous 6:33. There might be many reasons someone is reluctant to meet one's eyes during monetary negotiations, not all of them are "shifty." She could be like many other females who have a reluctance to "ask for what we are worth." It's a common thing. Not ideal in a professional, but happens. I have a really tough time with money issues and spend a lot of time worrying about how to talk to a client about things that come up, or even my rates. Even with a contract, things still can be difficult if you are this type of person. Glad that your coach wasn't charging different rates anyway.

    We don't have a paper contract, though DS is just now getting to the Novice level and all the bigger competitions. I would imagine we might get one if/when he gets really competitive at the higher levels.

    Though I remember one conversation that we had with Coach a long time ago where he said that even with a contract, your skaters can leave you at anytime, no one can stop them. It's just a part of the business you have to get used to.

    We are not charged for the once in a blue moon time that DS misses a lesson for some stupid reason (without warning), but then again, we don't get all worked up if Coach over-sleeps once in a blue moon. Both sides are very respectful of each other's time. We maintain a professionally friendly relationship and that works for us.

    Yes, a contract would make it easier, but I won't leave our long time coach just because he lacks one.

    We did however eventually leave one coach that charged us for a missed lesson (without a contract or warning). I can't remember what the reason we missed was (could have been oversleeping), but we had been very faithful for at least a year, and then I found out that she didn't always charge people for missing lessons. I think that was what frustrated me the most. Why charge one family and not another? We didn't leave her for that reason, it was just something I never forgot.

    But then again, I have a contract and cancellation policy and I am such a softy when it comes to charging people for late canceling. Life just happens and yes, if I have someone abusing my time I will charge, but not every single time. I'd rather get paid for services rendered. Probably why I am not rolling in dough LOL.

    1. Your coach is absolutely right about the non-binding nature of these. It's why I amended the term "contract" to "disclosure statement." I too will fudge the rules on missed or late lessons for students who are otherwise reliable. It's the ones who miss chronically for whom you need to have spelled it out upfront, and upfront you don't know who those people are.

      I don't rely on my skating income for my livelihood, but for people who do, missed lessons can mean having to choose whether to buy groceries, or pay the electric bill.

      DD had a parent once tell her that "if we have to pay for missed lessons (this was after missing four lessons in 6 weeks without any notice at all), then if YOU miss a lesson that means we get a free one."

      Unclear on the concept.

      Every coach I know is incredibly liberal with policy, accepting notice as little as an hour. Righteous people don't make it an issue. If they miss a lesson with no notice, they apologize AND pay. The point of paying for missed lessons, is that the coach was there. She met her side of the contract, even the unwritten, unspoken one. She should not have to forgo her income because the student couldn't pick up a phone.

  4. We've never been asked to sign a policy disclosure or contract for privates. We have been given a rate sheet by 2 coaches, which I really appreciated because it was helpful in budgeting. However, DD has had 3 coaches who never provided a rate sheet or policy disclosure. The most "pretigious" coach we hired was also the least professional in both demeanor and business practices, which really surprised me.

    The only contract we have signed in skating was a synchro contract and that was a joke. There was not full disclosure on their invoices just vague charges like "competition expenses" and "office fees". Our monthly fees only included ice time and coaches fees (which were never disclosed or discussed) and so everything else was ala carte. We guesstimated that our actual monthly bill would be roughly twice the monthly fee but it was often 3-4 times that amount. Most parents were irritated/concerned by this practice but were hesitant to say anything because they didn't want their skater negatively impacted. After 3 years of synchro, we pulled our daughter from the team and I told the coaches that we needed to have more control over our skating budget, so synchro was no longer an option.

    1. I hear this over and over from synchro parents, both on the blog and from the parents at local teams. If it's a USFS team, write to USFS and complain. Synchro teams who compete USFS are obligated by their relationship with USFS to adequately disclose fees. Contact info for USFS is on my "resources" page.

    2. This is Anonymous 6:33. As commented above, the coach did have social issues regarding talking about money. I figured it out after talking to other students. She was even more vague and hesitant with them.

      The fact that the coaches kept their fees secret made it more difficult for everyone. But the rink and the skating director won't publish bios or fees.

  5. I've had 6 coaches in my skating "career" and trial lessons with another 6 or 7, and only one of those had any kind of policy handout. Fortunately by the time it mattered (3rd coach) I knew what questions to ask re: missed lessons, testing fees, comp. fees, etc.

    I always pay for my lessons in advance, twice a month (next lesson after I get paid). I have to say all of my coaches have been very professional. I guess I've been very lucky (blessed!).