Jun 29, 2012

Coach? Xan

Joanne Schneider-Farris is usin' fightin' words, by trying to draw a distinction among the various levels of "commitment" to skating professionals. While she uses the terms "coach," "pro," "instructor," and "teacher," the gist of the article seems to be that you're only a "coach" if you are a serious, full-time skating professional with competitive students.

Everyone else is "just" a teacher.

I have fought this attitude throughout my career as, yes, a skating coach.

Painting with a broad brush, Joanne's definition does not take into account the coach's own motivations, the constraints of the market she's in, or the nature of the students she is best with.

I see what she's getting at-- just being on the ice with students doesn't make you a "coach" with all the connotations of that word. But she then goes on to define the term with almost purely mechanical definitions, and by defining out anyone who doesn't have competitive students.

I did fine on two of her bullet points:
"A Figure Skating Coach Does More Than Just Teach:
• A figure skating coach is more than just a teacher: he or she is a figure skater's mentor, guide, and role model.
• A successful figure skating coach will draw figure skaters to a rink or a figure skating club".
but then, oops!
"Figure skating coaches teach lessons and manage figure skaters' lifestyles and training".
I leave their lifestyle and training alone. This is because I don't teach competitive skaters. I take beginners, special needs, and other kids that a lot of coaches turn up their noses at, especially the "coaches" (by Joanne's definition). I turn them into skaters. I can always see that moment when suddenly I'm not just that adult skater who thought she could teach figure skating. It's when Coach World Famous suddenly notices that the awkward little boy whom he wouldn't have slowed for at a stop sign looks like a skater. And starts offering me tips in the middle of my lesson.

But he's a "mentor, guide, and role model" who "draws skaters to a rink." And also "tampers with an existing coaching relationship" otherwise known as "poaching students."

So how about ethics? Do you get to call yourself a coach if you violate one of the most basic tenets of the profession? I guess so, because Joanne doesn't mention it.

Nor is there a word about credentials, which I consider the marker between a weekend teacher and a committed coach. PSA ratings and ISI judge credentials is the first thing I ask any coach about. An ethical coach takes the continuing education. That Gold at Sectionals in 1994 is great and all, and I honor you for it, but it's time to move on and get some current credentials.

Then there's this one:
"Skating Instructors and Teachers Give Group and Private Ice Skating Lessons [implied 'but'] These people may or may not also take on the skating coach role. "
Oops. That's me again, and lots of other really great coaches that I know. She goes on to talk about 5 a.m. lessons, traveling to competitions, managing the training, and yes, even what they charge. (But no guidance for us mere "teachers" on what we can charge.)

And then there's the real killer:
A Skating Instructor Can Teach Part-Time, But a Skating Coach Must Teach Full-Time:
Nail in the coffin. I do this part time. Of course I work in a market where only the most competitive coaches with the wealthiest students have a prayer of making a full time living at this, but that's just my bad luck. I don't get to call myself a coach. I'm just a teacher.

Fine. I'll wear it proudly. I'm a teacher, who has changed the lives of countless children through my love, skill, commitment and support of the sport. I guess I'll have to stop my students now when they call me, as they affectionately do, "Coach Xan."

Jun 27, 2012

Afraid to fall

Well, I could be snarky and tell you "get over it."

But in fact, it's perfectly rational. Falling hurts. And it's scary. Sadly, it's going to happen. You're tightrope walking on a slippery surface, after all.

In my experience, however, falling is scariest in the anticipation. Once you slip, it's in the hands of fate. What you need to do, then, is learn how to fall, and more importantly, how to overcome the fear.

The first, and most important thing, is to fall. 
I teach this the same way at both ends of the age spectrum--toddlers and adults, who tend to be the most fearful of falling. Sit down, stand up. Sit down, stand up. Sit down, stand up. You get the idea. You want that ice surface to be your friend. If you're skating with a young child, have a race-- who can get down and then back up the fastest (always let the little guy win). Pretty soon, the kids will be throwing themselves to the ice and scrambling back up and having a blast at it.

Or not
Adults are really really afraid of falling. And they have good reason to be. Most of the injuries I've seen in non-competitive skaters are adults. They fall poorly, and it's a long way down. They come in with more physical deficits, even the healthy ones. So go with that. With most adults, I leave them in their comfort zone, or just barely over it. (The comfort zone of course is a moving target. Once they get comfortable somewhere, you push the bar ever so slightly.)

If you're really not going to let yourself fall deliberately, you have to do everything else the coach says. My favorite skating mantra is that doing the scary, counter-intuitive thing (bend your knee, lean into the edge, turn your shoulders not your hips) makes you safer. If you fight the design parameters of the equipment you are more likely to fall.

Learn how to fall well
Tuck and roll. You want to hit the soft tissue, not the hard stuff. This means chin to chest, hands to tummy, curl your back, hip to the ice. It's better to fall in motion rather than from standing because a lot of the energy will go into the slide instead of your kneecap. Never ever catch yourself on your hand. Whatever position you are in, roll over when you hit the ice. You can practice this.

Do the scary thing
For adults this might mean crossovers. For kids, it's the jumping. The less you practice a skill, the more likely you are to fall when doing it. But don't attempt skills you're not trained for. If you're just learning a loop, you shouldn't be playing around with axels. If you're unsteady on a one-foot glide, what until it's solid before trying crossovers.

Safety equipment
All beginning adults should wear wrist guards. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of head protection, in particular the Ice Halo®, basically a "stealth" helmet that just looks like a really attractive hat. Don't wear bulky kneepads--they make you stand funny and get in the way. A simple sleeve with a soft pad over the kneecap is plenty. If you're in hockey skates, especially beginners, you should have a hockey helmet.

Adults are allowed to cry (sort of). Children are not (sort of). As a coach, I need to know when a child is injured and when they're just scared. If I treat every fall like an ambulance-worthy injury, I'm helping to create the fear. If your child falls, observe her for a moment; she's probably watching you for cues-- "am I hurt?" I have a "no crying on the ice" rule-- you can't cry until you step off, then it's okay. If a student cries despite the no crying rule, I know they're hurt.

Adults need to suck it up. If you pretend you're hurt worse than you are in order to save face, I have to go with that. But you're just reinforcing your own fear if you do this. Accept the level of injury--if it's just to your pride, move on. By the end of the lesson, no one will even remember that you fell.

Try a different type of skating
Some people can't get past the fear. But that doesn't mean don't skate. It really just means don't jump. There's still hockey (nice, padded hockey), ice dance, figures, speed skating and moves. There's also just skating-- come to public and skate around. I am exasperated by people who take lessons and then refuse to learn things because they're scared. If you don't want to learn new things, don't waste everyone's time with lessons. Taking lessons implies a desire to learn new stuff. Just come and skate for fun.

I want to go to Nationals, but I'm afraid of falling
Yes, I have had people say this to me. It is a nonsense statement. If you're afraid of falling to the extent that you can't train, you have zero chance as a competitive skater. If you're a competitive skater, or even just going for the tests, You Will Fall. The vast majority of experienced skaters fall well. Training makes falling safer.

It's like anything. If you practice it a lot, you get good at it.

Jun 10, 2012

Self taught

I love it when my skaters try something on their own because they think it will be cool to do.

I'm less sanguine when they insist on continuing to do it wrong (or worse, when someone barely above their level has taught it to them incorrectly).

Trying things out, believe it or not, is a great way to overcome fear. Adults in particular are not going to try something they feel incapable of doing, so it's self-limiting. Kids need to have fun. But then there's this problem, sent by a reader:
There was a skater who taught herself the Bronze Moves, and she wonders why she hasn't passed it the two times she's tested. She taught herself stuff and thinks she can be her own coach. I've seen other adult skaters try and teach themselves things. It hurts them in the long run usually.
If you are trying to do it by the book, and go through testing, you need a coach. Period. There are very minute and specific "common errors" and proper execution that judges are looking for. It's the rare self-taught skater who is able to overcome or execute these properly, if for no other reason than that no one is watching them, so they can't see what they're doing wrong.

Higher level skills, including moves, but especially jumps, should be learned under expert advice because of the potential for injury. I have a very gifted young student right now, who always wants to do the next thing; a lot of her lessons right now are focused on making her remember the safe way to do the skills she wants to do.

In the long run, though (even in the short run), teaching yourself complex skills is, as I say, self-limiting. Someone who hasn't done the work of learning edges and proper upper body control simply is not going to be able to teach themselves the higher level skills. And if they try to test, it will catch up with them quickly.

What have you taught yourself to do? Did you figure it out properly on your own, or did a coach have to fix it?

Jun 7, 2012

I'm jealous of my daughter's coach

The title was a phrase from the keyword search, but I could immediately relate.

I raised both a high level skater, my daughter, and a high level musician, my son. Never for a moment did I ever feel competitive with my son's orchestra directors or piano teachers. But I confess that I sometimes felt usurped by my daughter's figure skating coach.

What is it about the coaching relationship that makes it so different and so special? How do parents cede the control over this relationship to a stranger?

The sport's physical and emotional demands and the safety concerns compel the student to endow the coach with a significant level of trust. Because of this, the coaching relationship is a deep bond, nearly parental in its intensity. It is not just a trope to say that I love my students.

The coach often represents a child's first emotionally intense relationship outside the family unit. And a coach has access to the child that other beloved adults--teachers, soccer coaches, etc.-- do not. They have a lot of one-on-one time, and a shared knowledge and culture that excludes the parent.

It's insultingly easy, on the other hand, for a young student to leave a coach. I know that I've had students who loved me very much--who cried when I left, or their parents moved them. The first couple of times you see them after, they throw themselves in your arms. In a month, it's "Oh hi Xan."

It's hard to remember down in the trenches that you do eventually climb out of it. Even highly successful competitive skaters will eventually leave the coach; careers end after all, or move into a phase where a coach is occasional, or even superfluous. The coach eventually becomes a friend. But there you will still be, still the parent; the bond that need not ever be broken.

Have you ever been jealous of your child's coach?

Jun 4, 2012

My coach doesn't care about me

Who's had this experience: you, or your child, is in a lesson, but the coach seems focused on his other student, leaving you talking to the empty air?

I'm happy to say it's a small minority of coaches who behave like this. Most of them know which side their bread is buttered on, and focus on their skaters like a laser. The really good ones are thinking about the skater even off the ice.

The best thing you can do if you feel like your coach is ignoring you during lessons is say something. The coach may not be aware of her own behavior, or, if she is, pointing it out will fix the problem. Simply telling the coach "HEY! I'm over here!" (Okay, telling the coach "it bothers me when you take time out of Suzy's lesson to focus on another student" might be more diplomatic) will usually solve the problem.

If it persists, try simply leaving when the coach loses interest in your lesson--just skate away. When the coach follows, tell him that you figured the lesson was over since he started teaching someone else (and that the bill will reflect this).

To some extent, this situation is your fault. I can think of a couple of coaches with whom this is a persistent problem, and yet the parents keep putting up with it, and new parents keep signing on. And then complaining about it. Everyone knows what these coaches are like, but because they are the "prestige" coaches (whatever that means in a non-competitive rink), they get away with it. Coaches get reputations for a reason. This is one instance when listening to the gossip is a good idea. Then observe the coach; if you spot this behavior consistently, stay away.

The other problem is coaches that phone in the lesson. This one is harder to mitigate, because it's less obvious. Ask the coach what you can be doing to keep the lesson interesting for both of you.

If your coach seems to be tuning out during the lesson, make it your responsibility to keep her interested. Ask for homework. Come prepared with specific questions that you want him to deal with--give him a reason to be engaged. Let him push you to the next level. Especially with adults and once-a-week skaters, coaches often feel like they are teaching the same lesson over and over. It is very difficult to stay focused when the student makes no attempt to improve on their own.

Be an interesting, engaged, demanding student and the coach will respond.

How have you gotten the coach's interest back?

Jun 1, 2012

Summer Skating! (Annual repost!)

Originally published April 11, 2010

It's always puzzled me that in the winter when it's freezing cold outside, everyone goes to the freezing cold ice rink, and in the summer, when it's steaming hot outside, everyone goes to the steaming hot beach.

Ice rinks are great in the summertime. Nice and cool, and often, empty. They often turn over the ice to the figure skaters all morning and the hockey players all afternoon (or vice versa), and you can basically spend all day in skates. Many rinks run skating camps, at both learn to skate and freestyle levels, or you skate on your own; take your coach's summer program if she or he has one, sign up for one of the many sleep-away skating camps, or just come once in a while for fun.

For skaters who want to compete, summer is pre-season, one of the most critical training periods. You want to make sure you're at the correct test level, start solidifying the new programs, make sure you have all the latest rules updates incorporated into your choreography, and strengthen your newest elements. Serious off ice endurance and strength training starts building up in the summer too.

Even for non-competitive skaters, you can use summer as your pre-season push. Maybe there are synchro or ice show auditions in the fall, or you're trying to make it up a level or two in class. This is the time to learn a new jump or spin, even if you're not planning to compete, just because there's so much ice available.

By May you're going to want to have had a conversation with your coach about your goals for the summer and the coming year, so you know how much ice to sign up for and what the training arc is going to be. Find out which competitions the coach is expecting you to do, what costumes you're going to need, and what the requirements are for your various goals. Here are some of the summer skating options:

Sleep-away camp
Like any sleep away camps, there are serious highly competitive ones for "career" skaters like Ice Castles (although anyone with the cash can go if I'm not mistaken) or USFS camps for the current Team Envelope members. But there are also many many quality camps for skaters from serious to recreational. Ask your coach, club rep, or local USFS or PSA area representative how to find a skating camp that matches your skater's goals and level.

Local skating camps
Many rinks have both interim skating seminars and summer-long camps, ranging from half to full day. These camps usually consist of on ice and off ice components and may include things you won't get during the school year season. At my own rink we offer ice dance, figures, moves, and choreography as part of the summer program, as well as off-ice components that include ballet and jazz dance, pilates, soccer, arts and crafts and field trips to do things like roller blading or swimming. These camps are extremely cost-effective; often you don't have to sign up for the entire time, or even for every day, but can create your own schedule according to your vacation schedule, finances, and other activities.

Coach-led camps
Many coaches will set up their own summer programs, if their rink allows them to. You'll pay the coach a retainer-type fee based on the number of participants and hours, plus you'll pay the rink directly (in most cases) for ice time. Depending on how many skaters your coach gets involved, this can be the cheapest option, and easily incorporates your private lesson time into the ice schedule. Not all rinks allow coaches to do this; if your regular rink does not, you may need to follow the coach to a different rink for the summer. Many coaches will allow only their own students into these camps, even if you are not taking from someone else.

On your own
You can also set up your own training schedule without a supervising camp structure, but I would recommend this only for older and very self-directed kids. It is extremely difficult to maintain your own  practice when you feel like the odd one out, where everyone else is in a program and you're just on your own. A couple/few times a week it will be just like school year skating, but if you want to try to skate every day, I would recommend finding a program to be part of, for the social aspect and the supervisory safety if nothing else.

Just for fun
Summer is also a great time to just take a break from structured lessons. At many rinks, practice ice is much emptier in the summer, and at every rink public sessions are very very sparse. Just come and skate for fun. Then go to the beach or the pool, where it's hot and sunny.

Me? I'll be waiting for you in the nice cool rink.