Nov 29, 2012

Is someone cheating?

Here's a great phrase a friend of mine likes to use:
Assume Positive Intentions

If you go through the day under the premise that people basically aren't jerks, you'll be a lot happier.

Granted, people cheat. People especially cheat to get their darlings the gold ring.

Just ask Honey Boo Boo.
Here's a question from a reader:
I was wondering whether a skater who had taken her pre pre Free Skate test in January could compete at a lower level after her test results are posted by USFS. She took the test in January, and the competition was in March.  She is competing at the next competition at no test again, against my daughter's friend. Should I report her?
 Well, no.

Don't report her.

First of all, don't get involved in someone else's fight. Second of all, assume positive intentions.

In a situation like this, you can contact the club that is running the competition and ask for a clarification of the rules. Note I don't say- "tell them someone is cheating and here is why." Just ask what the rules are.  In the case above, it may be that the application and the test just crossed in the mail, it may be that the club had to combine events or age groups because of under-enrollment. What is NOT happening is cheating, because it simply doesn't happen in this way, plus cheating at all at USFS competitions is vanishingly rare, especially at the non-qualifying level. The more common "cheat" is for coaches to sandbag their kids--not allow them to test so that they can compete and win at the no test levels. If this skater is testing, then she is doing it right.

Don't forget that clubs are run by volunteers. Mistakes happen, rule misapplication happens, and kids win (and lose) competitions for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with their actual test level.

The worst thing you can do is worry about who is winning non-quals. They don't count. Their purpose is to give kids experience at competing, and apparent unfairness of this sort is exactly the kind of situation that strengthens them for when they go to the "show."

The only thing a parent should be worrying about  at competitions (and this includes the show!) is whether the kid got enough rest, enough food, enough lead time at the site, and has all her/his stuff in their skating bag.

That's enough to worry about.

Nov 27, 2012

Taking it for granted

We're going to start this post from the premise that middle school girls, even the good ones (and they're all good ones) are little shits who believe that the world was invented specifically to honor their wonderfulness, and that good things, like figure skating lessons, are actually the universe trying to keep them from enjoying themselves.

That said, high level figure skating is a lot to ask of a 12 year old.

Under the eagle eye of the gossip brigade in the stands, your 12 year old (or 9 year old, or 16 year old) is, mostly, working. She knows she'll catch hell on the ride home if she spends too much time at the boards when you're watching.

A lot of parents feel like they have to be in the stands every minute, and fear that if they aren't there, the kids will just fool around.  And I'll say this again-- if your child legitimately wants to achieve her skating goal, be it making it to Nationals, getting a solo in the ice show, or passing tests, fooling around will be a self-limiting strategy.

The thing to watch for is not whether she's using her practice time effectively, or paying attention in lessons, or even if she's falling short of the goals. The thing to watch for is how she reacts when she falls short of the goal, especially if the reason is that she hasn't been working hard. If your skater goofs off and then blames everyone around her when she fails, she's not all that committed to skating, and may in fact be taking it a little bit for granted. If she goofs off and then doesn't care when she fails, you may want to rethink how much you're spending on skating.

If she works hard and fails, even if she doesn't take it well, you can be pretty sure she's not taking it for granted.

In a way, we all take it for granted. Kids, for one, never understand how lucky they are. I hated school until I had to work full time and realized how unbelievably awesome it is be able to spend all day learning and hanging out with peers. I have to remind myself regularly what an incredible gift it is to have the amazing job of teaching figure skating.

I think you have to remember that if you've chosen skating for your child (with the child's help of course), it's not really any different than anything that you feel your child is taking for granted-- the pile of presents at the winter holidays, regular meals, indulgent parents, enough money for treats.

Don't you take it for granted either. Your kid can land an axel, or will. Do you know how hard that is?

Nov 19, 2012

Organizing practice time

Everyone should follow the same basic plan to warming up: ten to fifteen minutes off-ice to bring your heart rate up and raise your core temp before you step on the ice (this is why they call it a warm up). Before skating you want just a light stretch. Don't over stretch cold muscles.

Once you're on the ice have an on-ice warm up pattern. This can be something your coach gives you, or your own plan. It can be as simple as stroking around for 2 or 4 laps, or it can be a combination of forward and backward skating and turning patterns. A great warm up pattern is the power moves from the last Moves test you passed (unless you haven't taken a Moves test. In which case, use the Pre-Bronze/ PrePreliminary test as a warm up). Don't worry too much about skating quality on the warm up.

A specific warm period is important for health and safety reasons, and to get your head in the game, as it were. You want to see who is on the ice, and if you're an adult, exactly what creaks and groans you're dealing with today.

Once this is complete, you're on to the actual "practice." So, how do you organize the actual practice?

A lot of coaches insist that their students carry little notebooks around. These contain teaching tips, suggestions on what needs work, and sometimes very specific practice plans. I mostly observe these being used as an excuse to hang around on the boards.

Move through the moves
This is my own method. I do my warm up, and then skate through all the Adult moves starting with Pre-Bronze and finshing with those skills at Adult Silver that I can actually do. For someone like me, who isn't trying to acquire new skills, this is a great way to fill practice time without clock watching, while making sure that you cover a range of skills and keep moving. I don't jump, but you could also use this method with freeskating skills...

Easy to hard other words easy to hard. From simple stroking through Senior power moves. Waltz jump through your highest jump. Scratch spin to combination spin. Et cetera.

Hard to easy
I encourage my students, on the other hand, to start with the hard stuff. For one thing, this gets it out of the way, so you're not spending the whole practice worrying about screwing up the axel again. You screwed it up early on, now you can move on. Also, if you do the hard skills while you're still fresh, you're less likely to do them poorly, not to mention being less susceptible to injury.  The other advantage of starting with the hard stuff is that it allows you to finish your practice session on an upnote, with skills that you're good at.

5 laps stroking. 5 crossover circles. 10 of each jump. Etc. This is also a good method for clock watchers, or for people who are bad at organizing their practices, like little kids. This sort of thing is also conducive to the notebook. Make a list, and check it off as you complete each item.

This one is for competitors and adults. Work out a practice that keeps your heart rate in the cardio range for a specified period (generally 20 minutes, and usually defined as 60 to 70% of MHR or maximum heart rate for an adult doing exercise, and 70 to 85% for a competitor). Here's a calculator). This basically means a strong warm up period and then continual movement to keep it there.

If you're a competitor, then you need to work run-throughs of your programs into some, though not necessarily all of your practices. Where in the sesseion the run-throughsgo, and the nature of those run-throughs, depends where you are in the competitive season. I'll talk about run-throughs in another post.

How do you (or your skater) organize your practice time?

Nov 15, 2012

My child didn't win because

A parent wrote to me about her disappointment over her child's placement in competition. She was competing at Basic 8, although she skates at FS1 level. First, it is common, and appropriate, to compete 1 to 3 levels below your class level for non qualifying and recreational competitions. For ISI you must compete at your highest official test (as opposed to class test). Basic Skills encourages you to skate at your class level (there is no formal test registration process for Basic Skills), but also allows you to  skate "up." My reader says,
All the girls at her level were doing moves and spins that were far higher than her level. She got last place because she was doing the requirements for that level. My question is should we have put her in basic 6 so that she can get a gold? Or let her lose knowing that most of these other children are in higher levels? Her coach wanted her to do basic 8 because that is the level she had just passed.  What's the rule for these competitions?
First of all, Rule #1 for competitions is follow the coach's advice. (Or as my old mentor Nick Belovol used to say, Rule #1 is 'coach is always right' and Rule #2 is 'remember Rule #1'). The objective is never to "get a gold" but rather to skate a personal best.

Second of all, this parent is speculating as to why she got last place. You cannot tell why a skater placed a certain way at Basic Skills, because placements are based on ordinals, not points. It's equally possible she was just the worst skater. Speculations of this nature will make you crazy.

In basic skills competitions, there are selected restrictions on elements, but generally you are allowed to do most moves from higher levels. Sticking to the passed elements from the current level is a common and acceptable strategy. At another competition, this skater might well have been up against kids who were also skating only moves from their own level, in which case, she might have placed better. But there's no way to know this, so the best strategy is to use a program that the skater and the coach know that the skater does well.

Basic Skills competitions are particularly challenging, because judges have a lot of discretion in the marks; individual elements are not marked separately (unlike in IJS scoring and in ISI competitions), and the rules about acceptable elements are somewhat fluid from competition to competition.

It's alright to have a conversation with the coach expressing your concerns regarding competitions, and just asking why she chose some particular strategy. Make it non-confrontational, and with information,  not "how can we get my daughter to win" as the goal.

Even a child who skates her absolute best doing stuff from higher levels is never guaranteed a win; you have no control over what other kids are skating, how well they do, what the judges are looking for on that day, and tons of other factors. Recreational competitions like Basic Skills and ISI are for fun.

Forget USFS's PR about how "Basic Skills is the path to the Olympics." A sure way to make sure your skater never gets that Olympic bug, or even just a simple desire to succeed, is to create anxiety over non-qualifying competitions at the Basic 8/Delta level. This is like assuming that the C on the third-grade spelling test will affect that Harvard admission.

Nov 12, 2012

Unmotivated elite skaters, Part 2: Now what?

So you've figured out why your skater doesn't want to skate anymore. What do you do about ?

First, be aware that somewhere between the ages of 12 and 16, and around the Intermediate and Novice levels, a lot of skaters do just decide they want to move on to other things. Some of them decide they don't want to compete anymore. This is fine. And you can take it slow; for advanced skaters it's a bad idea to just allow them to cut it off, especially for adolescents, who are discovering all the amazing possibilities open to them, but may lack the judgment to make good choices. If your high level skater wants to quit, make her step it down gradually, just in case she changes her mind.

Here are some of the issues we identified yesterday:

Family issues
You want to make sure your kid hates going to the rink? Have screaming fights with your soon-to-be-ex in the lobby. Yes, he's a pig who sleeps with everything with a pulse, but really, your child's friends and the coaching staff don't need to know this. Kids can feel either responsible for family dissolution and job pressures, or like they should be doing something to help. Reassure them that family issues will not be allowed to interfere with skating. And then make sure that this is true.

Problems at school
Academic and social issues at school can affect a teen's entire life. If the issues are academic, this is the more important problem to fix than the lack of motivation in skating. Improving academics, or at least helping a child get her academics under control, will probably fix her skating motivation as well, by removing the anxiety she's likely to be feeling. But school comes first.

If the school problems are social, skating itself is the fix. Skating rink social circles tend to be non-tangent to school cliques, so a kid who is having social difficulties at school has an alternative place where she can feel comfortable socially.

Social problems: rink
In other words, bullying. If your skater is being bullied (and trust me, skater grrls invented the concept), you need to help her develop alternate social circles that obviate the bully. You can also try moving some practices, lessons or classes to another facility, even over the skater's objection. Let the coach know your suspicions. If it's overt, complain to the skating director. Do not confront the bullies or their coach on your child's behalf.

If the lack of motivation is due to skating issues, try mixing it up. Add a hip hop class for off-ice. Find a rink with interesting specialty classes for skaters at your child's level. Suggest she try something new like ice dance or adagio (which can be done in same-sex couples), or something like Theater on Ice or Artistry in Motion. Especially if the skater is not going to Sectionals or Nationals, this is a great time of year to try new and different skating-related activities.  If you can afford it, look into the winter skating camps-- there are amazing weeklong programs at Sun Valley, Lake Placid and Ice Castle taught by authentic icons of skating like Dorothy Hamill.

While I am leary of encouraging parents to get involved in skills issues, you might try asking the coach if there are particular skills or skating issues (like the ability, for instance, to skate a clean program) that your skater might be feeling discouraged about. Talk to the coach about how you can help the skater get past this. Maybe there are new skills that she or he can add that have less emotion tied to them. Can't get the double axel? Maybe it's time to start working on butterflies as a "reward" during lessons and practice, or some of the older figures skills, like using your blade to draw a tulip or a star.

Coaching issues
This is where your observation of the coach is important. If you observe any dynamic with the coach that you think is off, ask the skater in a non-confrontational way. "Do you feel like your coach is helping you with your goals" not "Wow, I can't believe your coach is ignoring you like that." "I had no idea how much the coach has to actually touch you to help you with those positions" not "I'm calling child protective services on that pervert."  Let the skater tell you if there is a problem. Please note that a coach touching a student is rarely because the coach is a criminal; this does not mean that all skaters are, or need to be, comfortable with a coach who handles them.

As everyone knows, switching coaches is extremely fraught, especially at poorly run rinks, so tread carefully around coaching issues. Keep lines of communication open, and never make accusations you aren't willing to go to court over.

Drugs and alcohol
I have observed many young teens who start losing interest in skating because they are developing drug or alcohol problems. If you suspect this, keep your child skating with a whip and a chair if need be, and talk to your school counselor about how to address a problem like this. If this is an issue, you will also see symptoms in your child's academic and social spheres as well. (In fact, you're liable to see it there first. Skating can be an island of sanity for a child who is dealing with such problems.)

Saving face
The other thing you can try doing with a competitive skater who is unmotivated, of course, is nothing.  That's right. Because losing motivation, and therefore not working, has its own guaranteed outcome-- lack of skating success. And frankly, you can't make the skater want to succeed. If she's going to sabotage her skating, then she's the one who suffers, if that's what it is.

Which brings me to the final point.

It's possible that the unmotivated skater does not want to disappoint you. She's done skating, but is afraid of your reaction. So she stops working, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What did you do to help with a skater losing motiviation?

Nov 11, 2012

Unmotivated elite skaters, part 1: Why?

A few months ago, we talked about how to motivate recreational skaters.  But how do you motivate an unmotivated competitive skater, especially when you know s/he doesn't really want to quit?

This is especially critical at this time of year, when 1,500 elite-level singles skaters start competing for just 360 spots at Sectionals, and only about 130 spots at Nationals/Junior Nationals.

That's 1370 mighty disappointed kids.

Of course, most of those kids understand that they really don't have a realistic chance even at final round at Regionals, let alone making it to Nationals. But even if you just count those with "a shot," say the top 30-35%, that's still a few hundred really sad kids who didn't land the double axel when it counted. And face it, sometimes kids (and coaches) are delusional, and even a predictable loss comes as a shock and a giant demotivator.

If there isn't an obvious issue like disappointment over competition results, you need to look a little deeper.

The first thing to do is identify why a formerly enthusiastic and currently ambitious skater stops working. Is there an injury that they haven't fessed up about? Are there social problems at the rink or school, or personality (or more ominous) issues with the coach? Are there family issues that you as the parent don't realize your skater is concerned about, including money, stability, etc.

Coaching issues are a little harder. First, tell the coach about difficulties you're having getting your skater to the rink. It's possible that she's giving you grief, but then is fine once she's at the rink. The proper solution to this is the patented parental eye roll when she starts up.

If that's not it, then drop in at lessons and practices unannounced (because you are totally not hanging out watching every single practice and lesson for your high level skater, right? RIGHT?) and observe the coaching and on-ice dynamics. Does your skater appear distracted?  Is she using her practice time poorly (i.e. hanging out at the boards, getting on and off the ice, poorly organized approach)? Does she appear isolated from other skaters? Do skaters seem to be interfering with her practice patterns, beyond the general chaos that is a freestyle session? Is her coach focused on her (and she on the coach?) Observe in as non-judgmental a way as possible, and then ask neutral questions about what you think you're seeing.

All well and good to figure out why your skater is unmotivated. What do you do about it? Tomorrow, we'll explore some of the things you can do to help your skater overcome her loss of skating mojo.

How did your skater show a loss of motivation?