Mar 27, 2012

A Junior Coaching curriculum

I know that there are programs that get the coaches' education thing right.

But in many programs, junior coaches are just left on their own: no education requirements (even though there are lots of opportunities from ISI, PSA, and USFS). No mentoring. Sometimes they're put on classes by themselves. Sometimes their own coaches use them as subs-- how would you like to pay for the highly credentialed freestyle coach and end up with the inexperienced junior instead? Happens all the time.

Coaches that I have spoken about this with almost universally tell me (sometimes rather patronizingly) that "kids learn how to coach from taking lessons". So, I've been to second grade, I guess that means I'm qualified to teach second grade? And that's how old some of these kids were when they learned these skills "in lessons".  I remember when my daughter started teaching and came home one day asking, how in the world do you teach a swizzle? Because she had learned it when she was 3--for her, it was like trying to explain to someone how to breathe.

I can't think of another profession where you jump from student to pro with no training in between.

The Professional Skaters Association is working on the problem through programs like Excellence on Ice, where rinks get benefits if the entire staff are PSA members, through the Entry Level Coaching Course and Apprentice Program, and through a comprehensive national education program. But until rinks insist on teaching credentials and not just skating credentials, you might not even know if you've got the pro or the junior.

Several years ago, at the request of my Skating Director, who knew I was interested in this issue, I created a Junior Coaching course. Being able to implement this is one of the reasons I've always wanted that  Master Group credential from the PSA-- so that I could work with young coaches on this. Sadly I never got to implement it, as that SD left and the new one was not interested in training her junior coaches.

But I have continued to tweak the program in hopes that someday, someone will implement it. The basic outline of the course is as follows:

Participants must:
  • Have passed at a minimum the in-class ISI FS 4 or USFS FreeSkate 4 test.
  • Be at least 14 years of age.
  • Have a signed parental waiver.
  • Have a recommendation from a coach.
  • Arrange an on-staff “mentor” among the professional coaching staff.
  • Be an individual member of the Ice Skating Institute or USFS Basic Skills, and join the Professional Skaters Association at the appropriate level.
  • Attend an Orientation Session.
  • Be available for  a minimum of 4 hours up to a maximum of 10 hours per week, including at least one peak class session.
  • Be available for each entire session.
  • Attend at least one ISI, USFS, or PSA training seminar every 6 months.
  • Participate in ice show rehearsals for Tot and Pre Alpha levels in any capacity deemed necessary by the Pro in charge.
  • Work at the annual competition, including trial judging.
  • Clock 10 hours (about 1 session) of supervised coaching at a given level before handling a class at that level on his/her own as a Junior Coach.
I suggested that all Junior Coaches start in Tot and Pre-Alpha classes where the need for additional staff on the ice is the most critical.  Based on hours clocked and mentor recommendations, Junior Coaches could then be assigned to higher level classes Alpha through Pre-Freestyle as they progress.  I also suggested that the mentoring relationship be a real one, with the Junior coach observing their mentor teaching higher level classes, and taking one-on-one lessons in teaching techniques.

Junior coaches would receive Community Service credit hours, discounts for rink programs, and priority in hiring over other similarily-qualified applicants, once they had audited or taught in at least 4 different levels, and had booked 100 hours in any combination of assigned classes or events, private lessons in instruction technique, audited classes, seminars, ISI or USFSA tests taken.

Sadly, I know of only one rink that has anything approaching this comprehensive a junior coaching program, and rumor has it that this much-vaunted program is more honored in the breach than in actual reality.

Does your rink have a comprehensive junior coaching program? 

Mar 24, 2012

How to practice on public skating

There are two kinds of ice: Public, and Practice.

Package ice is also sometimes called "practice" ice, and is run by the club or the rink, but the key point is that it isn't public-- there are restrictions based on skating level, club or class enrollment, and number of people allowed on the ice at any given session (generally fewer than 30, not counting coaches).

In the Chicago area, where ice is abundant, one rarely needs to resort to the public sessions, because the restricted ice is cheap-- generally under $10 an hour, and often as little as $5. It's simple economics--the rinks are packed so tightly that they have to keep this ice cheap to attract customers.

But many skaters have to resort to the public, unrestricted sessions, because of access, schedule, cost or other factors.

And then you're dealing with
  • the unsteady dad carrying his screaming toddler
  • the hotdogging teens
  • the hockey dads screaming at their 8 year-olds to "just plow right through them if they're too slow!" (true story)
  • the giggly high schoolers flirting with the guards (who are flirting right back, thus ignoring the above situations)
and of course, crowds.

So how do you practice on a crowded, minimally supervised session where the mission is, of course, not to accommodate serious work, but simple family fun?

The center area
Even in minimally crowded public sessions, the guards will "cone off" or can be asked to cone off, a large center area that is reserved for practice and lessons. You're probably not going to be trying axels in there, but you can work on most Moves patterns, basic skating, spins, and even single rotation jumps. The people in the center watch out for each other.

But kids keep cutting through the center area
And you don't have to tolerate it. Police it yourself, or ask a guard. Every rink I've ever seen has rules posted, and one of them is always "no cutting through the center coned area."

Skating with the hoi poloi
In all but the most crowded sessions, you can actually get a fair amount done even outside the cones--you can certainly work on stroking, and you can get a good aerobic session in. Depending on the tolerance of the guards (which we have established is fairly high), you can work on edges and turns in the end zones.

What about the guards?
I wonder this myself. For the most part, they are high school hockey players who don't quite get the policing aspect of the job-- they can tend to view it as a chance to flirt, hot dog with their non-guard friends, and generally ignore the bloody mayhem around them. At least at places like the Ice Rink of the Damned they receive no training, and I don't think that's unusual. However, if you bring clear rule infractions to their attention (like crack-the-whips, backward spirals, dangerous hotdogging, cutting through the cones, etc.) they will generally step in. There is also often an adult guard semi in-charge who can be appealed to.

Use some common sense
If you show up at a Sunday afternoon session in January expecting to finally nail that flip, think again. Winter weekends are going to be crowded. Don't go, or if you do, don't get all bent out of shape because the people there don't understand that you are a serious skater and they are just wasting your time. Public sessions can be great for practicing, but they are not meant for that.

Alternate times
Weekend afternoons are going to be crowded in the winter. But not in the summer! Rinks are empty in the summer, and even starting around spring break time they begin to empty out. It's an ongoing mystery to me why skaters continue to attend the crowded practice ice sessions all summer, when public ice just sits there.  If you're lucky enough to work or go to school close to a rink, think about using your lunch hour to skate a couple times a week. Most rinks have midday sessions, sometimes restricted to adults even, that are empty all year round.  (Just be aware of school holidays)

How have you made public skating sessions work as practice time?

Mar 22, 2012

My name is Xan and I'm an adult skater

Some people have flying dreams.

I have skating dreams. In these dreams I sail across the ice with marvelous ease; I can do fast, competent turns and perfect flowing spirals. I skate without hesitation; in fact, they are flying dreams.

In reality, I pop mohawks. Yep. That skating phenomenon where your body says "nope!" and refuses to obey your wishes. My brain thinks it knows how to do perfectly lovely mohawks, and I have the test credentials to prove it. But there are days when my body simply refuses to understand the concept of "rotate, step, check."

My right hip is also extremely uncooperative. It knows better than to drop and point forwards. I've told it many many times. And yet it absolutely insists on staying in the "closed" position at the most awkward times. I really wonder who is in charge here.

It's hard to admit these things in public, especially because I can teach them perfectly beautifully--in fact when teaching, I execute perfectly beautifully, in lovely slow motion (I love slow motion). But put me in a skating situation and my lizard brain takes over and tells me that what I am asking it to do is unacceptable at best, impossible at worst, and dangerous in all situations.

But adult skaters, fear not. There is power in admitting your failure. For one thing, if you just avoid attempting certain moves out of embarrassment, you'll never learn them. Plus, the coaches I know who "get" adults find a lot of inspiration in working with us--they feel especially proud when a skittish adult skater finally masters something, and they feel proud when a talented one is really good, and they feel proud when a beginner dares to try!

I've come to terms with the things I'll never do, because I'll never try them, like axels. I know what I've already accomplished that I can't (or won't) do anymore, like the skills in the second figures test. I know the skater that I want to be now, and how far it's safe to push myself. I really know, in my heart of hearts, when it's me and when it's my beat-up old skates holding me back.

I haven't trained in almost four years. I've been on the ice a lot, teaching, but not actually skating. The first day back on the ice was a horrible let down, because I had lost a lot of skills while gaining a lot of years (and weight). But the really solid stuff came back, and the nerves diminished, and my mantra took over, with a caveat:

"If someone can do it, it's possible, and if it's possible I can do it"

Oh, the caveat? "But only if I want to."

Mar 15, 2012

Is "Champion" too narrow a measure?

From the PSA Professional business practices pages, on how to judge a skating coach:
6) Student Achievement/Rankings - This is an undisputable [sic] test of a professional’s worth. Coaches who consistently produce champions and who are able to get the best from each of their students are worth their weight in gold!
But what if achieving "championship" level is not your goal? What if you're just starting out and have no idea what kind of skater you or child will, or wants to, be?

I agree with the PSA--student achievement is an excellent metric for coaching excellence. But the emphasis on champions is too narrow, although to their credit they follow up with "get the best from each of their students."

EDIT, due to some confusion over the nomenclature!
Just to clarify, there's "ratings" and then there's "rankings" in the PSA:

Ratings indicate that a coach has gone through competitive exams before a panel of judges in one or more of 11 different disciplines such as Group, Dance, Pairs, Free Skating, etc. There are 4 levels through "Master" and you can get as many ratings as you want to put yourself through.

Rankings indicate your competitive success, starting with Level 1-- has students in recreational and nonqualifying competitions, through Level 10- multiple world medalists.

One is an indication of commitment to continuing education, and one is a measure of your success as a competitive coach. I would say that a coach with one or more ratings at the Senior level plus a mid-level ranking indicating that they've taken students to or through Regionals or beyond, would be a pretty good bet as a coach who takes instruction seriously.

I believe that all coaches should have, or be working on, a PSA rating as a minimum requirement to employment, but that ranking is a less important measure based more on your overall goal.

So what's the broader way to look at this metric?

From the outside, it's hard to judge the success of a student. A student who isn't competing by definition isn't going to be a "champion." Does that mean that coach isn't any good? You might look at a coach and think "her kids can't skate, I don't want to work with her." Or "he's only got the one really good student, he must be putting all his effort there and neglecting everyone else."

What you're not seeing are each student's goals, and where each one started. That teacher with all the "terrible" skaters? Maybe they were kids in trouble, who are now spending afternoons in the rink instead of on the street. Maybe that one really good student is a star, but the other ones started with time, money, or talent deficits that this coach is working with, to get "the best from each" of them.

A better "undisputable" test of a professional's worth is the focus and commitment they exhibit in the lesson. Is their attention on the student like a laser beam? Are the respectful and firm with the student? Do they have a good relationship with the parents? In a funny way, coaches who can turn out champions are a dime a dozen. But if you don't happen to have, or want, a champion, the firm, engaged, respectful, affectionate coach is the rarer bird, and the more desirable one.

Human beings
As in, you want the coach who is teaching her skaters to be good people, and not just good skaters. That coach with all the fabulous but cliquish, snotty ones? Forget him. Go with the sweetheart whose students volunteer to help with the tots and the special needs kids.

In other words, get the stars out of your eyes, and find the coach with her blades firmly on terra glacialis.

Mar 1, 2012

Are the good skaters mean?

As a follow up to the "Snotty Skater Girls" post, I think it's important to wonder why some skaters seem so mean.

It's a trope of the sport, ubiquitous in skating movies--the coach who sabotages the competition, the mother who destroys reputations through gossip, the "in" clique who haze new members and cruelly exclude all but the anointed ones.

Sadly, it's not entirely fiction. I'm particularly touchy about it because at the rink where my daughter grew up there was a so-called "top skaters" clique who in fact played all the 7th grade psychological games well into high school and beyond. It worked because of one skater whom everyone, including, oddly, the management, were afraid to offend. (We're talking about a little girl here. I'm not kidding.) Unfortunately this skater is now a coach and is encouraging the same behavior from her students. However, Synchro to the rescue--she doesn't have nearly the impact she used to have, because there are now Synchro teams which form instant "in groups" of their own.

But does skating have to be like this? And even more--is skating like this?

And I don't think it is. I truly believe that people are nice, and in fact what I've observed is that the really focused kids, both the competitive ones, and the ones just skating because they love it,  are actually really nice, and so are their parents.

There's a difference between "mean" and "focused"
The focused kids won't talk to you on the ice, and will skate with that "snotty skater girl" posture. They'll huff and puff if you get in their way. They may even kick the boards every now and then.

But they'll come up with the extra quarter you need at the concession stand. Their parents will be at the boards or in the stands with an eagle eye on the coach and touchy about every broken rule that gets in their skater's way, but they'll always be the first to volunteer, or introduce themselves to the new family.

Think about a business context--who's going to get ahead? The guy who makes fun of everyone, or the guy who brings coffee for the receptionist every day and always cleans up the kitchenette?

How does mom contribute?
I'm not sure that I think that parents can have more than marginal impact on the formation of cliques, but they can model proper behavior--helping newbies, volunteering, leaving the attitude at home. (People who know me are rolling their eyes, because I'm not best known for leaving the attitude at home). You're not there all the time, and it's hard to remember how important acceptance, even by (mostly  by) the mean girls can be to a 12 year old.

In the worst cases parents can exacerbate the problem by forming their own mirror-clique and never talking to other parents. You'll often see parents who only talk to "their" coaches parents.

Coaches can have an impact.  Allowing destructive behavior from your students--encouraging ice hogging, segregating them in the lobby and locker room, having a lot of exclusive events that you let everyone know about, "but you can't go, it's just for my students" are all ways that coaches foment this destructive behavior. In fact, I've even seen management play into this, through what I call "management by cronyism."

And all for what?
I am a firm believer in speaking truth to power. (You may have noticed this.) I have no problem pissing people off over stuff that matters--safety rules ignored, unfair judging, biased assignments, bad management. But making people hate you just so you can claim to be the "top clique" has never made any sense to me. People who derive their sense of importance (especially adults) from how many people they can exclude are just sad.

What's your experience? Do you have destructive cliques at your rink?