May 29, 2012

Developing a "skater attitude"

Oh, those skater girls. We've talked a lot about the "mean girls" and how sometimes they're actually mean, but sometimes it's just that focused intensity. When you talk to them they aren't mean at all.

Focus during practice isn't the only manifestation of this "skater attitude." These kids also have the ability to accept correction and criticism. And it's not just because they have a coach who isn't mean. I've seen kids put up with a level and style of criticism that I would not feel comfortable with, but the skaters, and their parents, will swear by the coach.

The "skater attitude" is all about compartmentalizing. People who are good at taking criticism understand that comments about skill or output is not the same thing as comments about "you." Skaters need to put the skating criticism where it belongs--with the skating. They understand the difference between "that axel was poorly done" and "you are a bad person."

Some coaches will overtly reinforce this by stating, for instance "I love how hard you're working today, but let's talk about the technical errors that are preventing success at this skill." But some coaches won't sugar coat at all-- "what's wrong with that axel today! Let's fix it!"

So how do you develop that skater attitude--the thick skin that lets you take the correction without ruining your day?

It isn't personal
Your private coach loves you. Your class coach doesn't care enough about you to mess with you. (Harsh but true at the most basic level.) Neither of these individuals will get any benefit from wrecking your self esteem. Criticism of skating is just that. Criticism of skating. Parents, if your child gets off the ice upset, don't immediately blame the coach. Find out why the child is upset; if she's angry at the coach for being critical, reinforce the coach by stating something along the lines of "oh, the coach criticized your [skill/work ethic/attitude]. Make it clear that the coach is focused on the skating, not on the person.

The coach's success is your success
A coach whose skaters fail or are miserable does not get students. The coach needs you way more than you need him. This is just another thing to remind yourself--the coach has no vested interest in criticizing you as a person.

Be self-critical
Remember (better yet write down) exactly what the coach is saying, and then see if you can observe that in yourself when you're practicing on your own. (You are practicing on your own, right?) This will help you own the criticism, or better yet, fix the problem.

Observe the skaters with that thick skin--how do they react when the coach criticizes their skating? Do they argue? Make excuses? Disengage? Or do they listen, absorb, and utilize the criticism to make their skating better?

Some coaches are inappropriately critical
I know of coaches who are fine with the kids, but hideously critical of the parents. The kids pick up on this and it can destroy a coaching relationship. I've heard coaches tell kids that they are stupid because they aren't understanding a technique. I've heard coaches tell kids that they can't skate because they're fat (even to kids who are not in fact, fat). This is personal criticism and it is wrong. Abuse--physical and emotional--happens, and you need to be alert for it.

Day-to-day healthy criticism of skating is not abuse, and you need to be sensitive to the difference. You don't need to develop a thick skin. Just use the one you were born with.


  1. "Observe the skaters with that thick skin--how do they react when the coach criticizes their skating? Do they argue? Make excuses? Disengage? Or do they listen, absorb, and utilize the criticism to make their skating better?"

    After being at this for a few years now and observing competitive skaters at higher levels, I'd say that this ability to listen, absorb, and utilize criticism is by far the one of the most - if not THE most - important indicator of how far a kid will go in skating. I don't care if a child is landing an axel at five years old or winning a few no test competitions or even eking through Juvenile level. For skaters (and parents, let's face it) with any thought of making placing well at regionals (let alone beyond), it's the skaters who can "buckle down", listen more than talk, take in useful criticism, and compartmentalize that will be most successful.

    A the top levels of sports, psychological strength is very often the make it or break it in a competition. I'm not saying these kids aren't kids when they are away from the rink, and that they don't have play time at the rink. They do. But when it's time to work, they work.

    It's a skill that kids grow into, for sure. It takes a while to teach "take your tantrums off the ice", but eventually, the competitively successful skaters learn it. Discipline.

    I gotta say, knowing what I now know about what it takes to be a competitive skater at a high level, as an employer or working in college admissions, if I saw "Placed sixth in final rounds at Regionals in Novice level" or something similar on an application, I'd at least give that kid careful consideration. Very few skaters get to that level who are hand-held or given easy outs. From deciding that "I'm not a morning person" doesn't fly any more to organizing and time managing school work to maintain high grades, doing what it takes to be successfully competitive in any skating discipline is a major achievement and commentary on strength of conviction and commitment to getting a job done.

  2. Great post Xan. I think most competitive skaters will choose a coach that has already been through most of what they expect to encounter, and hence they **respect** the coach for her experience. Lots of times a skater follows the coaches instructions on faith alone: if the coach once figured out how to do it then her instructions and criticisms represent positive mentoring. Otherwise there would never be flying camels (grin).

  3. I wonder if it not so much as a skill kids grow into as it is a reflection of support they have been given from early on.

    I've noticed with most activities that over critical parents can make skaters emotionally weaker/more sensitive to critiques.


  4. As a teacher (admittedly, not of ice skating), I also think that the reverse of Meg's point is true: kids who are over praised also develop much more sensitivity to criticism. It's good to know when something is improving, but not every essay/math equation/one-foot-spin attempt is brilliant. As such, the rote repetitions necessary to get to the point of excellence should not, in my humble opinion, be praised to the skies. It's important for any kid to learn that to succeed at hard things takes work, and that the effort itself leads to the reward--rather than the effort needing to be rewarded. Kids who learn this early tend to work harder and to value praise more because it is more rare. They are also better able to take criticism and really listen to how to improve. I think this holds true whether the skill at stake is essay writing, learning to ride a bike, learning the times tables, or working on a salchow.

  5. I don't see a real need to judge my skaters skating -with praise or critiques. She has judges and coaches who do that for her. I do recognize perseverance, strong work ethic, respect, skating with joy and personal responsibly.

    I think for some skaters a switch to USFS is a real shock (it was for us!). Large flights of skaters and only 4 medals. It's not soccer or tee ball anymore where everyone gets a participation trophy. It's how you help your skater deal with that disappointment that helps them deal with criticism (in this case that from a judge and a coach). When she had her first comp at the prepre level, it was very hard to deal with last place - esp when she skated her best. :D It is a good lesson to learn to tell the other girls congratulations when they just want to go home and cry. And one skating poorly rated performance isn't everything.

    I know it may be semantics, but I don't like to think of coaches as criticizing their students. Criticizing is often a negative opinion, Your Axel sucks. Critiquing is an evaluation, You're popping out your skating hip.

    A coach saying, "Your Axel sucks" is not really helping because then the skater may be hurt, defensive and closed off to hearing what makes it better.

    1. I love this idea! So obvious, and yet so true-- don't judge your skater. That's what the judges are for! (Blog post in 3..2..1...)

  6. The "skater attitude" as you call it, is IMHO one of the best lessons that skating can teach anyone. It's a great life skill that will take a person a long way in life. Focusing on results, willingness to listen to feedback and critiques and apply them, and of course work ethic and focus are all things that make a person successful in pretty much anything.

  7. One of the things which continues to help my teen girl skater (and yes, putting teen+girl+skater together is a hormonal drama fest some days, no matter how cool-blooded these kids can be most days), is to have her watch videos of other great skaters at their worst moments.

    Midori Ito jumping into the camera pit at 1991 Worlds.

    Johnny Weir's DISASTROUS 2003 Nationals LP.

    Kiira Korpi smashing into the boards at 2009 Euros.

    Mirai Nagasu battling back after a four inch growth spurt in one year. Lucinda Ruh having to relearn all her jumps after a huge growth spurt.

    Of course, Janet Lynn.

    The videos of many skaters who miss a spin or have a fall but still fight through the program, sometimes to win. All the instances of not giving up or stepping back on the ice after a bad program, even a bad practice.

    The book The Second Mark, about the Chinese skaters who skated for seven hours a day on frozen lakes and brought along their own ropes to pull out the kids who fell in. About Elena Berezhnaya who was paralyzed after a skating accident, relearned how to walk and then to skate, and went on to win the Olympics.

    Kids who fail for the moment are in good company, and there are a lot of great role models for how to fail and be recognized as a champion anyway. A lot of examples of heart and soul and what focus looks like.

    1. Here's one of my favorite examples of no-nonsense fighting attitude by a young skater. Listen to the commentary throughout. It's spot on.

    2. Yeah "The Second Mark" made my jaw drop to the floor in several places. Joy Goodwin also spectacularly describes the ambiance around a high-level competition; her description of the warm-up crash was astounding.

      I'd be really hesitant to recommend this however to young skaters (or their parents) as it maybe sets the bar impossibly high.

    3. Excellent points, Josette. Also Michelle Kwan's disastrous LP at Nationals in 1997. Follow that with her fight back in her LP at Worlds a few weeks later. She also writes about the experience in her autobiography.

    4. It can be a tough book to get through, but I think that most skaters who have been a year or two in IJS have had a dose of reality as to what what kind of time and financial commitment it takes to get skaters to the highest levels, an begin re-adjusting their sites and finding other meaning in competitive skating besides "I want to go to the Olympics."

      I think a young teen could handle the material. My 13yo daughter read the book and was moved by it. I think knowing the work she puts in at a comparatively cushy rink and then reading about what these skaters went through gave her a new appreciation for just what it took for these skaters to get where they wanted to be. At any rate, she stopped complaining about piddly stuff for a while. ;-)

      Michelle Kwan wrote a fabulous book entitled "The Winning Attitude" that I would recommend for skaters about 4th grade reading level and up. Lots of great life lessons regarding commitment, discipline, working hard toward a goal even on the days it's not fun, etc. She talks about skating, but connects the lessons learned to any goal.

    5. Alissa Czisny this year at World's is a very good example of fighting. She had more falls than I've ever seen in a program, but she went for the triple everytime. Many skaters would have started going for doubles after the third, fourth fall...

      Every skater has had a tough program. You need to learn how to handle it. One of the girls at our rink yesterday had three falls in a run through, the first, she bounced back up and continued, the second, she took longer, getting well behind of the program. The third, she stayed down on the ice and stopped trying. Her coach shut off her music and called her over. She laid on the ice in a ball, refusing to get up. Thankfully it was an uncrowded session, but after about 2 minutes on the ice, another girl (a friend of hers) screamed "get up or I'm running over you". It took her another few moments to stand up. This girl is used to being at the top (of our rink, not at regionals) and has no idea how to handle not being the best.

  8. My daughter's first private coach was selected simply because my daughter liked her in group lessons. She only lasted a few months with us because not only was the apathetic, she appeared to dislike my daughter. Add to that billing for 15 minute privates and delivering 7-8 (not once but consistently) and denying it when I called her on it and we were done.

    My daughter only told me recently how unkind this coach was to her during privates. Apparently Coach A suggested that she must need glasses since she clearly wasn't doing what the coach was showing her. My daughter told me (still clearly hurt by the comment) that she was watching and listening but that Coach just did the movement in front of her and she didn't understand what she was supposed to do differently. That's not constructive criticism and I have no interest in her having to deal with a grown up bully.

    Her new coach is lovely and my daughter's ability has just blossomed since we made the switch. Her new coach offers fair and balanced criticism. We've recently added a dance coach and he is phenominal. He's very focused and extremely precise and expects the kids to work hard. Some at the club are afraid of him or think he's mean, but my daughter just adores him. She says that he explains things very well and that she likes how high his standards are. When he gives her a compliment, she knows she's earned it and is thrilled to bits. When he tells her what she needs to work on or that this element isn't up to snuff yet, she knows it isn't to be mean but is because he wants her not just do ok, but shine in testing.