Nov 19, 2013

I hate my music!

My daughter's father is a musician. You can't imagine how this simplified music choices-- her coaches pretty much trusted us to come up with great unusual music and she mostly skated to things she liked.

Ice show programs were often dogs, unfortunately-- she skated to music that I wouldn't blast at terrorists to get them to give up the hostages.

In which case you just go out and skate your heart out for the applause, because the music is setting everyone's teeth on edge.

There is no standard about who chooses music; sometimes the coach is dictatorial about it , sometimes it's the student, sometimes collaborative. It is not worth fighting over. Coaches will often recycle music-- their own or their students. At the very least, this saves an editing fee-- when I still did competitions with my students, I would charge them $50 to prepare their own music, or let them use something from my library for free. Students were not allowed to edit their own music, because they almost universally did a terrible job. Not everyone's dad is a musician, but unfortunately everyone's dad, or 13-year-old brother (not kidding), has access to Garage Band.

Even if you're using "someone else's music" remember that IJS rules change more often than the weather; your choreography will be your own. Even if you hate your music, remember that program length changes at each level, so you'll have a chance to change it within a year, two at the most.

Coaches will know things about music that you won't-- cuts that allow for proper emphasis on elements within the choreography-- a jump at a dramatic cadence, step sequence that matches the mood, etc. Points are awarded, and deducted, for this. The coach might know that judges reward certain types or even certain cuts of specific music. They will sometimes use music to cue the judges "this is a Brian Boitano-like skater." "I want you to think of Jason Brown when you see this skater." "This skater is new and unique."

To you, it's "I don't like this music." To the coach, it's all part of the drive to assemble the point total.

Coaches do not choose music to be mean, or to make your skater look bad, or to pick fights. They choose the music that they feel will show off your skater's skill in the best light.

Have you had music that you hated? How did you resolve the situation?

Nov 5, 2013

Coming back from an injury- emotional

One of the hardest parts of coming back from an injury is the emotional trauma. An injury costs not just physical prowess, but a level of trust-- in yourself, in other skaters, in the individuals advising you. Adults especially become very skittish after an injury.

The most important aspect of emotional readiness is to be confident in your physical readiness. Don't get back on the ice if you are not 100% sure that your injury is healed (okay, 90% because you're more ready than you think you are). As stated in the post on physical injury, this is your call in consultation with your doctor. Not the coach, not the parent, not the calendar.

Here are some things you can do to regain your confidence:

Safety equipment
Head injury? Wear a helmet, or better yet an Ice Halo*. Children (and I include teens in that) are often reluctant to look different than their peers, and yes, a standard skating helmet stands out on the ice if you're older than 6. Further, it is inappropriate for freestyle. But the Ice Halo is designed for skaters. (By the way, don't use a soccer helmet-- the padding is in the wrong part of the head-- it doesn't protect the back.)

Adults should never feel constrained about wearing a helmet if it makes you feel more secure. The dirty not-much-of-a-secret of adult skating is that the people who feel contempt for you (and they are legion, sadly), aren't going to hate you any more if you wear a helmet. Wear it and be proud (and safe). Get a skateboard helmet that is flat in the back.

Other safety equipment are padding-- knee, elbow, wrist, hip. Wrist and elbow pads or splints can be purchased at your local Walgreen's and are fine. For hip and knee pads, get ones that are designed for sports. Especially knee pads need to be appropriate for skating-- the wide, stiff ones can make it more hazardous rather than more safe.

Take it slow
This is exactly the same advice as for physical recovery. Try it out. Go to an empty session and just slowly skate around. "Get your legs under you" so to speak. You're ready to get back into training when you don't get an adrenalin reaction from just stepping onto the ice.

Skate at your comfort level
Don't worry about getting your axel back. After my third foot injury I just decided that I was perfectly happy with my Adult Bronze plateau. I still "train" but I just do it for the joy of the wind in my hair and the elevated heart rate; I'm not trying to learn anything new anymore. I stopped jumping completely (I barely even do bunny hops anymore.) Think about whether your injury has changed your goals, and then go for it. It's not "settling"-- done right it's a positive, empowering step that puts you in charge.

Skate with someone
After my second (third? who can remember anymore) foot injury, I was extremely skittish about skating. My friend and coach Adam offered to essentially hold me up for about a month. I just skated slowly around with him until I got my confidence back.

Wall crawl
This is in the helmets-are-stupid category. Don't worry about what others are thinking. No one is watching you. (Really. No one is watching you.) If you don't have a solid skating friend like mine, use the wall. I predict you'll get 20 feet down the wall and will feel fine and start skating.

How long has it taken you to regain your confidence after an injury? What helped you? What was harder to overcome-- the physical or the emotional recovery?

*Ice Halo gives a 10% discount if you put Xanboni in the Notes field on their Paypal order form. I do not receive compensation for this- I just really believe in the product.

Oct 27, 2013

Boys and teasing

Two boys suiting up for hockey. One jumps up and asks the other-- hey!!! do you like singing? Isn't singing fun? Second boy says singing is stupid. First boy agrees. Singing is stupid. The parents, who are all there, do not say anything. The parents of the singer (and they must know this child thinks singing is fun) simply allow their child to confirm that singing is stupid.

And that is how it starts. That is why it is so difficult for boys to be artists in our society.

Or figure skaters.

I've seen hockey coaches making fun of the boys in figure skating (who by the way could kick most of their skaters' asses). I have seen many many skating directors push boys into hockey, whether or not the child has expressed an interest.  Even at the tot level the non-hockey classes at many rinks are overwhelmingly female. That's not an accident.

It's common to see figure skating teachers recommend hockey for kids who seem like they'd enjoy that. I have never heard of a hockey coach suggesting that a kid switch to figure skating, although it defies imagination that no hockey coach has ever encountered a child who might be a better figure skater than hockey skater. When I proposed this to a hockey coach once he told me that they encourage the kids who don't like hockey to switch to football or soccer. For real.

My son was a musician from infancy; fortunately so is his father; he also went to a school that very much honored artists whatever their gender so he never experienced the type of input that I observed at the rink between those two boys.

At the rink figure skating boys do not get anything but support within the figure skating community. But at home and in school they need positive reinforcement; the idiots who equate art with homosexuality (because that is frankly at the heart of it) need to be educated. Here are some suggestions, if you have a boy in figure skating:

Throw a skating birthday party for the boys
In addition to making skating seem like a normal thing to do, it also takes the mystery out of it. Let the hockey boys see how well your boy skates. Let the non-skaters see how hard this is. With older boys, a skating party has the additional benefit of demonstrating how popular your figure skating boy is with the girls, because God has not created an individual more popular with the girls than a high school boy who skates well. 

Bring the cub scouts
or other youth group. Figure skating is accepted for the sports pin. Many rinks partner with local girl scouts groups for their badge (girl scouts has an actual figure skating badge); see if you can get your rink to do a program like this for boy scouts, or set up the necessary documentation for regular classes. More about boy scouts and skating here. (Thanks Blue Eyed Cat for the link.)

Create classes for boys
Segregated classes, especially for middle and high school boys, has been a strategy for dance companies for decades.  Older boys don't want to look stupid to girls, and very few middle schoolers want to take a Pre-alpha class with 5 year olds. Boys also have very different pacing and learning styles than a lot of girls-- they need classes that move faster, that have less standing around, and that involve an unavoidable level of crashing into walls (just kidding, haha no I'm not). Further, by middle school, the girls are really good and the boys feel dumb stumbling around in front of them.  The thing is that athletic kids who start skating at 9 or 10 or even older very quickly catch up. You don't have to start skating at 4 to be doing doubles by high school. Get them into boys-only classes and by the time they're in high school they'll be all caught up.

Honor the boys
There are lots of pictures of hockey boys at every rink I've ever worked at. Yet even at rinks where there have been extremely successful skaters there are no pictures of boys in figure skates (we're talking Ben Agosto-Jason Brown level of success. But no pictures). This is partially a structural problem-- the hockey shrines are generally funded by booster clubs, which tend not to exist in figure skating. This is another one where parents of boys need to talk to rink management about making sure that there is an affirmative action plan, so to speak, that gets the boys recognized.

Our society needs to get over its conflating of artistic talent and homosexuality, which is what is at the heart of this. (And not to get cliche'd , but 'not that there's anything wrong with that'). Parents of figure skating boys are the front line in the battle.

What have you done to help promote boys' involvement in figure skating (and this goes for the parents of girls, too)?

Oct 6, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

Just wanted to pop in quickly and say Happy Birthday to Xanboni. I put up my first post on this day in 2009, and I have lots more to say (albeit more infrequently than in the past).

The best part of the blog is the great friends I've made online, so shout out to Blue Eyed Cat, Jeff Chapman (LA Skate Dad), Josette Plank, Maria Mom of 2, a couple of Anons whose voices I now recognize, Jenny from Ice Charades, the late lamented Ice Mom (blog, as far as I know, Ice Mom herself is fine), "St. Lidwina," and many many others.

Let me know your favorite posts from the past 4 years in the comments!



(P.S. Thanks, for the image!)

Sep 27, 2013


Protocol, or protocols, is a system of rules for correct conduct and procedures to be followed in designated situations.  Every system and situation has protocols, some quite formal and codified, and some more "common law."

We tend to think of protocol as a diplomatic thing-- should Americans curtsey to the Queen, for instance, but these sorts of generally accepted rules also guide everyday situations. Do you call your doctor by her first name? How about your child's second grade teacher?  Who gets the last seat in a crowded room, or on the train? We all know these things because of accepted protocols, and we're all offended when they are violated.

Figure skating sessions do have protocols as well, and in fact very specific ones for very specific situations, having less to do with diplomacy and more with safety. So here's a few.

Right of way
Right of way on free skate sessions is very specific, and universal. Lower level skaters have the right of way. Therefore, no stink eye allowed by the Novice level skater toward the pokey, tentative Freestyle 2 skater. Someone running a program with music and the pinney or belt on has the right of way. Someone in a lesson has the right of way. On Pairs and Dance sessions, a team executing a lift has the right of way. 

Other rink behaviors
Don't stand in the lutz corner. Teach from the boards (i.e., coaches should not stand in the middle of the ice while teaching-- this is as bad as anyone standing in the middle of the ice. If you must be out on the ice while teaching, you should be moving.) Pay before you get on the ice, don't make the monitor chase you down. Wear a belt or pinny if you are running your music. Don't wear the belt or pinny until you are running your music. Nothing more confusing than three people wearing markers because "I was next!"

There are lots of do's and don'ts that I'm not sure reach the level of protocol but are more rules or accepted practices that may vary from rink to rink. Many rinks don't allow colored drinks, like coffee or soda, on the ice. While sitting on the boards is universally frowned on, some rinks tolerate it and some don't. There will be rink-specific protocols: which ice door to use to enter/exit, length (or indeed existence) of a warm-up period on each session, acceptable clothing.  Not everyone will do these things the same way.

Don't spread your crap all over the place, and throw away your trash. This does not apply only to skating.

Public skating
Since public sessions are full of people who can't be expected to know skating protocols, the guards enforce what amount less to protocol and more to actual rules. They will be posted and generally include no holding hands with more than 1 person, no carrying children on the ice, the center coned area is for lessons and figure skating practice, no hotdogging (too fast for conditions), everyone skate in the same direction, no sitting on the boards, etc.

There are no universal protocols for program play. Every rink will have set up its own system. The main accepted protocol for music is that if your music is playing you have the right of way. But there are some generally accepted polite practices, for instance, even on a session where no one else is playing their music, for pity's sake don't play it 10 times in a row. 

Hokay, here we go.  Do not walk around to the coaches' area by the boards. I really can't think of anything that coaches hate more than mothers who do this. No standing in the ice door. Now, I'm going to stop here, because other typical annoying parental behavior does not actually violate what I would call "protocols" which have developed in skating around safety and flow issues. So things like "don't scream at the coach, the skating director, or your child in the lobby" is not so much a protocol as just evidence of bad behavior.

Protocols and rules are there to make skating safe, productive and fun. They can be summed up succinctly: don't be a jerk.

What are some protocols or rules that I've missed, or that are specific to your rink?

Aug 27, 2013

Coming back from injury- physical

I have pulled my MCL, had two concussions, broke a toe, broke my ankle, seriously sprained the other ankle, and had major surgery. Only the MCL and one of the concussions happened on the ice, but all of them affected my skating.

In my 21 years in the rink, I've seen two career-ending injuries-- a skater with severe nerve damage from crashing into the boards, and a shattered kneecap (again, skater meets boards).

So here's the heirarchy of who gets a say:
The skater
If you are in pain do not train full out. You can skate, as in make it around the rink in skates, but if you have, for instance, dislocated your kneecap and it doesn't feel good, for god's sake, don't jump.  You probably know the level of pain that feels like injury as opposed to lack of training. Don't let anyone tell you that you're being a wimp, or that you "can't possibly still be in that much pain."

The doctor
This one's tricky, because most doctors I've talked to don't get skating at all, and athletes in general only moderately better. Thank goodness I managed to find a bone and joint guy who was a skater, because the first one I had was a complete idiot, insisting that since I'd been skating, I must have broken my kneecap (a rare injury, despite the above) rather than tearing the ligament (extremely common).  Doctors also often go straight to "quit," not understanding that you may not consider this an option.

If you're uncomfortable with your doctor's advise, or mistrust her expertise, find, as I did, a doctor who gets it, or ask your doctor to recommend a sports injury specialist.

If your doctor has you on painkillers, please do not skate while you are taking them. I once had a parent come up to the judge's booth at an audition to explain that her daughter had fallen on every single jump because she was, essentially, high on painkillers. We were pretty speechless.

The parent
With older skaters, parent and skater need to assess the resumption of training together. With younger skaters, it's the parents call in conjunction with medical advice.

The coach
I almost didn't even put the coach on the list, because when it comes to injury that has required medical attention, the coach is almost not even part of the question. I have received emails from skaters asking what to do when their coach pressures them to train, even though one, some, or all of the people above aren't ready. Do not let your coach pressure you to train at a level you do not feel you're ready for. If you miss a competition, or a test, or a season, then you miss it. Better than crippling yourself for life.

Edit. From the comments, a great link from L.A. Skate Dad:
Have you had a serious injury? How did you resume training?

Aug 20, 2013

Just not getting there

There comes a point in the lives of young athletes where, after another year of investment in time, work and cash money, the child just doesn't seem to be fulfilling whatever potential people keep saying they see in her.

It's hardest for skaters, where the dream of the big time is a realistic one. Unlike, say, basketball players, where getting to the NBA is vanishingly rare, in skating, recognizable achievement on a national level happens to skaters at every single rink. Everyone who stays in skating knows national competitors. It's a small field and yes, your talented kid has a legitimate shot.

Parents of talented skaters often get to that place where they wonder if they're being strung along. A skater who trains and trains but never makes it out of final round...well, it's an awfully expensive hobby for a 14 year old.

So how do you know when you're just not going to get there, or, even more to the point, where "there" even is?

"She's a nice skater, but be reasonable." 
Don't you just wish someone would say this sometimes? But if your skater is just a nice-skater-but-be-reasonable the coach is not going to suggest s/he go to Regionals year after year. This is because bringing an unprepared or unqualified skater to Regionals reflects on the coach as much as on the skater. Just as you are there to get your skater a prize, the coach is there to show how good her skaters are. So, in fact, if your skater is not a potentially national-level skater, the coach is going to say this.

Waiting for the breakthrough
Every kid will have one. For some of them, it's the double axel. For others it's "whoah I hate competing! How about if I test out!"  If you're waiting for a breatkthrough, make sure you recognize it when it comes.

Step it back
Three or four competitions a year is plenty for a child at the Regionals or even Sectionals level. One maybe two serious Club competitions, Regionals and/or Sectionals,  one or two no-name local comps to try out the choreo or the new jump. If your coach is taking your also-ran to more competitions than this, you're competing too much. Remember that training for competition takes time away from solidifying the skills. Counterintuitively, you're not going to get better at competition, if all you ever train for is competing. Some of the training has to be open ended just to work on skills.

Who can advise me?
Many clubs arrange for judges to critique their kids just before competitions, but your coach can also arrange one-on-ones just for her kids, or just for one kid-- your kid. Tell the coach you really want to hear the low-down from a judge in a non-stress situation, from someone with nothing invested in the child, either financially or emotionally. Remember that both coach and parent are emotionally and financially invested in the child. It's important to be clear that you have no problem with this, but feel an objective assessment would help everyone.
Caveat-- do not set up a judge critique on your own. This is a Skating Parent Cardinal Sin. You can initiate the process by asking the coach to set it up. You May Not Contact The Judge Yourself. (I mean it.)

What does the skater want to do?
Sometimes you have to let kids make bad choices. If the skater balks at competing, and her training attitude reflects that, then stop competing. Maybe she'll come back to it, maybe she'll move on, maybe she'll really regret it at 25.  But in the end, it's just skating. If she quits, life goes on.

And sometimes, they make amazing, mature choices and turn themselves around.

How have you or your skater handled this conundrum? Let's hear from some older skaters at Novice or above who had to make such a choice.

Jul 22, 2013

Here comes fall

Only the faithful skate through August, or the seniors, who have one more shot at testing before heading to college.

The Learn-to-Skate moms seem desperate to have their skater pass before heading off to not skate for the next 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 weeks. This has always puzzled me; it's not like not passing 3rd grade. Just re-take the level in the fall; your kid will be really good at it, and will pass at Thanksgiving really strong for the next level.

Here's what to think about for end-of-summer skating, and getting ready for fall.

Test or wait, freestyle
Test. If you're that senior, forget your pipe dream of skating in college and continuing the tests while you're at school. Not even Michelle Kwan could handle this, no way you are going to be able to continue devoting as much time to this while at school, where you have no support group who is remotely going to understand this obsession, and where you don't know the coaches. Step it up and get test ready for that last session at the end of August.

And by the way, pay now, because those sessions fill up.

Test or wait, learn-to-skate
Wait. At all learn-to-skate levels (sorta, see below), you can only benefit from taking it again. I know it feels like failure, and I know you've been working really hard, but if you're not going to skate between the end of the summer session and the fall session, you are going to lose some polish. Sign up for the same level.

Test or wait, Delta
Test. Delta is so boring, I'd say try to avoid taking it again. This does not apply to USFS Basic Skills 7 and 8 (the comparable levels) which have a more interesting set of skills.

Gear up for fall
If you can afford it, double up on privates (i.e. take several over a couple of weeks), in the couple of weeks before the session starts up. This might be enough for a learn-to-skate student to hone those skills and get passed up a level, and will also just get you back into the swing.

Gear up applies not only to your skating, but also to the actual gear. Take out everything and see what needs upgrading. Do the skates still fit? Think about new skates now, rather than suddenly realizing a week before the winter exhibition, or g*d-forbid Regionals, that your skates don't fit, or your blades are a mess.  Get new skating tights, make sure your skating togs fit, throw out the Zuca liner if it's moldy and smelly, and get a new one.

Check the calendar
Know when skating classes and potential lesson ice are. Don't wait until you've double- or triple-booked the fall play, skating and the orthodontist. Remember that skating is not just from class/lesson start to class/lesson end. You have to get there, you have to change, you have to put on skates, and then do it all in reverse at the other end. A free style skater needs an additional 10 to 15 minutes at each end of the skate for warm-up/cool down. A 30 minute class or lesson is as much as two hours travel plus prep.

Talk to the coach
Know what your goals are for this year. A new jump? Regionals? Testing? Auditioning for Synchro? If you are cutting back on skating, know that as well, and talk to the coach and the skater about how to manage that in a healthy way.

Figure out when you can volunteer
Rinks need rink moms who work a whole lot more than they need rink moms who sit in the stands and gossip. Ask the Skating Director how you can help while you're in the building. If your child is at least 10, think about where you can go while your child is skating. There are probably places nearby where you could volunteer, too.

If you're a USFS competitive skater, you've probably already got your music for Regionals. If you don't, get on it, you are way behind. If you're Test-Track or ISI, doing only non-qualifying events, you still have time to change music and choreography, since you're not tied to the calendar quite the same way. Use this time to choose new music and choreography.

What are you doing to get ready for fall?

Jun 26, 2013

Ain't Misbehavin'

As far as I'm concerned there are no bad kids, there are only mismatched (I won't say bad) teachers.

Any group of children, even one with no behavior issues, is hard to manage and control. As I mentioned in a previous post, a 16 to 1 student teacher ratio is not unheard of in a skating class, and there are no chairs to put them in so they stand still. On skates, you can move and a lot of kids really really want to.



Especially boys.

If you luck into a Learn to Skate level class with a lot of sweet girls who stand and listen when you speak, hooray. It does happen, but it's pretty rare.

More common are classes where about half to 2/3s are kids who can focus and stand still even on the ice. The rest of the kids will be what I call noodles (no muscle control), exploding brains (Must. Say. All. Words. Constantly.) and astronauts-- they're in outer space. You have to radio them to get their attention. "Earth to Suzy! Come in Suzy!"

I recently watched a coach explain at length how to create beautiful stroking using the entire blade and stretching then pointing the toe to create power, grace and line. It was a brilliant description of the art of stroking.

Delivered in monotone, with no eye contact, to a group of 8 year olds.

Who all wanted to just watch the tots next door playing some sort of boisterous and obviously engaging game.

I've seen sweet young coaches make kids stand still for 5 or 6 minutes while taking attendance. Five or six minutes is an eternity in a skating class, especially for a child with what I call the "exploding brain"-- they cannot stand still. Cannot. Not "will not." Not "don't want to." They Cannot Stand Still.

Don't make them. Let them move. Give them something to do that isn't "oka-ay. Let's do one foot glides. Oka-ay. Let's do that again. Now lets do swizzles! I'm not going to offer any specific advice for those of you struggling with this, we're just going to keep going back and forth until Xan claws her eyeballs out!"

Like the trope says, you don't teach the skating class you wish you had, you teach the skating class you get. If you get one with an astronaut, two noodles, an exploding brain and a kid with oppositional defiant disorder, you better have strategies ready to keep that class engaging for all of them.

Jun 23, 2013

Baby pairs and dance

If you have a boy in figure skating, sooner or later someone is going to approach you about pairs or dance. If you have the time and financial wherewithall, think about it.

Especially if you have Nationals ambitions, pairs and dance is a great route, because the field is so small. While the rules have recently been changed to make Sectionals more competitive in these disciplines, you're still up against maybe 10 or 12 teams in your level, rather than hundreds (girls) or dozens (boys) of other skaters.

Thank you to Christopher Hyland, national dance coach (and good friend), for help with this post.

Here are some issues you might encounter: 

Ew, girls
Coaches will start eyeballing boys for the team disciplines as early as Delta, but more commonly around FS4-5/Pre Juvenile. When a boy lasts in figure skating long enough to reach low freestyle  he's generally over the ew-girl factor, because he spends all his time in the girl zone.

When do you need a coach who specializes in pairs and dance?  
For beginners, especially if you're doing something like ISI "Couples", your freestyle coach is probably fine for the very beginner skills. For dance you will need a dance coach from the outset to teach the patterns. As you progress, competitive teams will have a multitude of coaches-- personal coach, team coach, spin coach, jump coach, choreographer.  This is because the elements in dance and pairs are highly specialized.  However, at ISI Pairs 1, most coaches with competence through high freestyle know the basic lifts and pairs spins.  Kids that low are not doing throws, but even throw waltz jumps are generally within the capability of many coaches.

How do I know if my coach really knows what they're doing?
Ask the coaches whether they have taught or competed the following elements-- simple pairs/couples spin, throw waltz jump, lasso lift, drapes. Over Couples/Pairs 3 you must have a specialized Pairs coach, for safety if nothing else. Ask for the resume and check the resume. I hate to tell you but coaches have been known to exaggerate their background. If you are competing at USFS Pairs or Dance you need a coach who has either competed or had competitive teams in the discipline.

How does the coaching fee work when there are two kids in the lesson?
 It is typical for Pairs and Dance coaches to split a lesson fee between the skaters for joint lessons. You can expect coaches in specialty disciplines to charge a higher fee than non-specialty coaches (although they don't always). Sometimes a coach will add a small premium of 10-20% for joint lessons, but are still splitting the hourly fee.  I do hear of specialty Pairs/Dance coaches charging full fee to both parties (and thereby getting double their regular hourly rate). I asked Chris about this and he thought it was an abusive practice, and should be questioned, especially if your coach is not a pairs/dance specialist.

You will also still need to continue your freestyle lessons (with the same or a different coach), and will have to work off-ice, either with the pairs/dance coach or an off-ice specialist.

Off Ice training
For dance and pairs, because of the lifts, and in pairs the throws, strength training is an absolute must. Teams will also need to do additional off-ice artistic training to learn the lifts and throws on the floor first, before taking them onto the ice.

I hear stories of Lobby Parents accusing boys of being out of control, of "stealing" the idea of doing Pairs or Dance, as well as crueler insinuations about children's sexuality (really) and more.  And here's the only thing I can say: Stay. Out. Of. The. Stands.  When parents accost you with bullshit just smile and say, "Oh? uh hunh, uh hunh, I see." over and over. As someone said to me the other day, dealing with figure skating parents is like dealing with panhandlers-- do not make eye contact, do not engage.

Copycatting? People say that? Really?
Yes, apparently. But even if you got the idea of doing pairs because you saw someone at the rink doing pairs (or dance), it's not exactly a secret that this is a skating discipline. If you copy choreography, music or costuming, shame on you. But deciding to do pairs because that little team at the rink looked like they were having so much fun is not copycatting, it's flattery.

Issues involved with training are largely concerned with cost and scheduling-- you now have another family to coordinate with, and you've added a discipline that needs its own hours. Some free style time can be dedicated to the new discipline but there is no question that your skaters will be on the ice more.

Where do you find ice?
This is a huge problem, even in large markets. We used to drive our daughter more than 30 miles to the rink that gave us dance ice. Many rinks restrict pairs and especially dance teams-- they're not allowed to work together on freestyle sessions.  Large districts will have dedicated dance ice, usually run by the clubs, but I've never heard of dedicated pairs ice outside a major training facility. Your best strategy is to always be really really nice to everyone--other coaches, club leadership, rink management--so they think of your problem as their problem and work with you.

What about jealousy from other coaches?
This also happens, sadly, and is a harder problem to overcome than jealous parents. Coaches can sometimes try to undermine a team by getting management to restrict the use of freestyle ice, by refusing to yield (a team executing a lift for instance, by standard accepted protocols always has the right of way), etc. This is another instance where being super nice to management and club leadership will pay off.  

Have you considered or done Pairs or Dance? Tell us about your experience.

Jun 11, 2013

Sharing the class

Fifteen to one.

That's the generally accepted maximum ratio of students to teacher in learn to skate.

For tots it's 8 to 1; for the 3 and 4 year olds four to one.

Some municipalities base the ratio on statutory classroom ratios, some on their own metrics, and some just fill classes until no one else wants to sign up. In practice, most rinks will try to keep the ratio low, with multiple coaches on a single class.

Personally I like a higher student/teacher ratio. I find the class flows better when you have to deal with more kids. (I had 27 all by myself in a PreAlpha class once. That was a bit much.)

Multiple coaches are helpful not just to keep the student/teacher ratio reasonable, but also because if one coach can't be there on any given week due to scheduling conflicts or illness the students still get a "regular" coach rather than a sub. Back in the day, when coaching staffs were larger however, you'd sometimes get the agonizing phenomenon of 2 teachers on a class with only 4 or 5 kids.

It can be tricky to find a rhythm with a second teacher. There are rinks with rigid week-by-week syllabuses (syllabi?), but generally you're sort of making it up as you go along within the general constraints of the USFS or ISI curriculum.

So how do you "share" the class?

If I'm new to a program, or the other teacher is the 'main' teacher, I 'll let them set the stage. Just tell me what to teach, and for how long.

If I'm the main teacher, I'll sometimes tell the other teacher what to do, or just turn the class over to them for some period each week. (I'm really bad at this; I always want to jump in.)

Double Act
When you've been on a staff for a while, you start to know the other coaches well enough to really develop a rhythm, and they know enough to trust you. This is the best way to share a class; where  you understand each other's strengths, and know when you can jump in and when you should hold back.

Once the kids are skating, competent teachers, however many there are, will simply move from student to student and give personal advice. If I start to see common errors or questions, I'll stop the class and bring up the point for everyone to hear.

Student teachers
At rinks with serious student teaching programs, you get to teach the student teachers as well, letting them know when to jump in, when to help kids individually, and when to take over.  I feel that from the stands, parents should not be able to distinguish student teachers from staff coaches by the level of involvement-- every coach on the ice should be engaged in the class.

Hang on, have to pick myself up off the floor, where I fell down laughing. You could actually sit down with your co-teacher and create a syllabus, although I've never seen this happen in the regular classes. (I actually do have syllabuses for every level through FS4, which I pull out mostly when I'm teaching a level I'm less familiar with, or when I have a class that's struggling.) In specialty classes like dance or power, however, this is fairly common.

Do the classes at your rink use more than one teacher per class? What successful (or failed) strategies have you used or observed?

May 27, 2013

Just how short IS short?

Dresses that is.

Here are some issues I encounter among adult skaters:

It's amazing how often I talk about underwear on this blog.

Really make sure you can't see through that white dress. A quality skating dress, in any color, will have an understructure made from a sturdy illusion, with the "fashion" dress constructed over it.  If you have a white or light colored dress that you really must wear, but it's see-through, you can have a seamstress add such an under layer (it's complicated but not hard), or get a flesh-colored (whatever color your flesh is) leotard to wear under it. Make sure that the leg openings and the straps of the undergarment are undetectable.

Too short?
Entirely your comfort level. Personally, I think skating dresses on anyone should cover their buttocks; with adults I'd add the word "dignity."  My preference  is no shorter than just above mid-thigh in front, and at or below mid-thigh in back.

Too long?
For adults, knee-length is not too long, but if you go with a dress this long, make sure the skirt is made of a very light weight fabric like chiffon so that it moves. Adults sometimes skate very slowly. A heavy skirt is just going to sit there, exaggerating the effect. Don't make it longer than knee length in the back, as this can risk catching the blade.

Yes please. Pants are very classy on adults, with a light loose shirt that moves when you skate (see above). The shirt can be shorter than your butt cheeks.  Make sure the pants are narrow and LONG-- they should hit the floor at your heel when worn barefoot. Make them black. Colored or jeweled stripes down the side seam, or appliqu├ęs at the ankle are very nice. Don't wear those Chloe Noell pants with the spiral stripe that all the girls wear.

No real reason, I'm just sick of them.

I live for sparkles. And you really do need some jewels even for testing. Again, it helps with the illusion of movement, and sometimes with adults movement is all about illusion, because we don't move all that fast.  However, you don't want to be weighted down like the Virgin Queen.

Are you on the Russian World Team? If not, please do not wear gloves for testing or performing. It looks silly. (It looks silly on the Russian World Team, too, but they all do it.)

Boot covers and over-the-boot tights
Boot covers only with pants, and then only in the same color as the pants. Please do not ever wear over-the-boot tights for testing or competition. They do NOT "make your legs look longer." If you're wearing them to disguise your beat up skates, here's a news flash-- you can polish skates with shoe polish.

For adults-no backless, no plunging necklines and definitely no cleavage. Anyone with a bounce, if you know what I mean, should look for good supporting undergarments (ones with real support, not those stupid "sports bras" that just mash you flat without really dealing with the bounce problem). Judges really hate bouncing boobs. Remember the word "dignity."

What are your favorite do's and don'ts for adult skating garments?

May 17, 2013

Struggling with a deadline

Here's a multiple choice pop quiz:

Which of these is a reasonable deadline:
     A. Inside 3 turns by June 1
     B. All the singles before her next birthday
     C. All my students have their axels by age 7
     D. None of the above

If you answered D, you are correct.

But I have heard all the other three, and similar ones, and that's just in the past couple of weeks.

As I told one of these people, it's common for skaters to get stuck on specific skills, and deadlines like these are most notorious for being missed.  If you, or your coach, are setting deadlines, make sure that they are in your skater's control, and not either misplaced psychology, or something for the coach's ego (that would be answer C, and yes, I know a coach who brags about that. Guess what happens to the kids who ruin her record.)

Ineffective psychology
It is good to set goals as a way both to motivate and to benchmark progress. But deadlines have a way of superseding the actual goal, which is the skill itself. Especially for a skater who is struggling with a skill, that looming deadline can make it worse, not better. "Land the axel" is a goal. "Land the axel by Christmas" for some skaters, is a burden and a threat. I'm not completely opposed to calendar goals, but they should be used cautiously, and not arbitrarily. For instance, "all the singles by your Xth birthday is not a reasonable goal for a 7 1/2 year old who is struggling with back 3 -turns and scissors her waltz jump (i.e. lands with her free foot behind her). It's arbitrary, focusing on the date rather than the quality of the skating.

Damaging psychology
Comparing your skater's progress to that of other skaters, or setting up the coach's needs as the primary motivation is a terrible thing to do, especially to a young child. It removes her from the equation; the important thing becomes not her progress, but how her lack of it reflects badly on others-- her mother, her coach, her program. This is how you make children hate skating.

More damaging psychology 
"Your child can be a champion" is coachese for "I think you have a lot of money for lessons." "I want to make your child a champion, but she has to land her axel by age X" contains the unspoken threat "Or I will dump her" and is particularly egregious when coming from prestige coaches. This sort of thing sets my blood boiling.

Why is that skill so important?
There are skills that inform everything that comes after-- in particular edges, mohawk turns, inside 3s back spin, axel, all  must be perfected in order for other skills to follow. But focusing in on a single skill and placing a deadline on it can obfuscate the real problem, especially with kids who have blasted through the basics (which, in my opinion, is another mistake a lot of parents and coaches make-- the idea is not to get through basics as fast as possible, but to get the basics as good as possible).

Difficulty with axels, for instance, can often be traced back to a lousy back spin which can be traced to lousy edges. A coach who is too focused on that "axel by age 7" for instance, may let the skater get away with a bad back spin. Watch a skater who is struggling with the axel enter a back spin sometime-- I'll lay even odds that she's spending too much time on the entry edge and then spinning on her inside edge for 5 or 6 rotations before "catching" the proper outside edge. Slow to get into proper backspin position? Axel is not going to happen, I don't care what your deadline is. Can't do a flip? I'll bet you anything that skater has a spinny salchow and can't check her turns (i.e. closes her free shoulder right after the turn).  Rushing to the "sexy" skills on deadline often means cheating the critical basics.

Anyway, it's not your problem
If you're the parent, your child's skating deadlines have absolutely nothing to do with you. Let her/him talk about it if they want, but don't impose deadlines on them, or dwell on those deadlines if the coach has set them. You can't fix it, and you can't motivate or advise your skater into fixing it. Best to sit back and let your skater and the coach work through it.

There are other skills, you know
While axels, or flips, or three-turns, or whatever it is that's holding you up are important, there are so many skills to work on. If you're stuck on a skill, set a certain amount of time to work on it, per lesson or per week, and then move the bleep on. Spending an entire lesson being told, essentially, that you're a failure if you can't do this one skill is pretty much like signing a contract in the blood of virgins to keep you from getting that skill.  Double loop giving you trouble? Do ten of them and then practice spirals.

Have you or your skater gotten stuck on a skill? What helped you work through it?

May 14, 2013

What I wish I'd known to ask

Things I learned the hard way:

What's involved in competitions?
Both the obvious things like dedicated/extra cost, travel, extra practice time, how to get music. But also what happens when I get there? What's the parent's role? How many should we do?

Why should my skater do this particular competition?
I somehow got the impression that there were required competitions. I had no clue what that there was a thing called "non qualifying competition." No one ever told me what "regionals" was-- I thought you had to be invited, because our original coach never brought it up, and the mothers of the kids who went lorded it over us. Ask your coach why he/she does certain competitions, and what the value is in going to them.

Why do those kids go to different competitions?

Why don't I see the rink's best skaters at the competitions that my skater goes to?
 It might be that you're just not seeing them. It might be that your coach is taking you to crappy competitions, for reasons unknown.

How do you get to Nationals?
By which I mean, know what the path is, not whether you're talented enough.

What is "moves?" (or any other technical class)
Another thing I didn't learn until I started coaching.

Why should I join ISI-- what does that mean?

Why should I join USFS and does it matter which club?
In a small market, there's probably only one club. But in a large market like Chicago there are a lot of them. Our coach had us sign up for the "prestige" club, but frankly it was all in his head. This club had a terrible testing schedule, punitive fees, and arrogant skating moms in positions of power whose sole purpose in life sometimes seemed to be to lord it over the "lesser" skaters by withholding information and being generally unpleasant.

What questions do you wish you had asked?

May 11, 2013

A community ice show done right

"Done right" is perhaps a little unfair.

I've done ice shows at many different rinks. They are universally adorable, inspiring, and lots of fun for the kids. They're even fun for the coaches, although you'll seldom hear the coaches admit it.

They make the programs a little money, and they give kids in the recreational side of a very lonely sport something to aspire to.

And then there's Northbrook On Ice.

If you're a coach or skater in north Chicagoland, you know about Northbrook. Their kids win all the competitions. Second place to their Synchro team kinda counts as first place because Northbrook always wins. Their class standards are legendary.

And they brag about their ice show. To which everyone just rolls their eyes and says, yeah yeah, Northbrook whatever. That and a buck fifty will get you a ride on the bus.


I have to say, I'm about as cynical as you can get about local ice shows but I just saw "NOI" last night for the first time and wow.

It's a tight, professional production with great skating and great choreography and everyone in the show smiles.  This is worth pointing out because getting kids to smile during ice shows is like pulling teeth. In fact, I think most kids smile more when they're getting their teeth pulled.

But I'm not going to talk about the gorgeous costumes, well-rehearsed numbers, superior choreography, tight tech, superior production values, or the fact that the finale was actually an interesting, well-choreographed extra number.

I'm going to talk about all the things they do to make those kids feel incredibly special, things that I've never seen at any other ice show, however well done.
  • Their graduating seniors get their own marquis display with a huge poster portrait, plus a page (each of them) in the program plus a special step out number. This is such an obvious thing to do. When I suggested this at a different rink (which shall go unnamed) I was laughed at.
  • The Synchro girls made dresses for American Girl dolls to match the costumes of each Synchro team. Beyond adorable.
  • All the group photos are prominently displayed in the lobby. (In fairness, Northbrook has a huge facility with lots of display space, which is rare in municipal ice centers. However, the fact that they spent the money to have that display space I think says a lot.)
  • Their specialty group is called the Icettes, and you have to audition. In September-- and then they spend a year making these kids feel successful and special. It's freakin' Girl Scouts on ice.
  • They send parents and coaches frequent, concise, informative emails about what to expect, when to get there, where to park, who to talk to. So even a newbie like me didn't feel completely at sea.
  • They announce the soloists by name during their time on ice. So you don't have to try to read the program in the dark.

And finally,

I have not heard one child being yelled at. Not for forgetting choreo, or freaking out over quick change, or missing a cue, or falling, or any thing else.

The show's theme is "social media" and I would have live tweeted the whole thing last night (look for #NOI to see what people were saying), but I can't get a signal there with my crappy phone.  There are three more performances (you have to buy tickets in person) twice today and once tomorrow.  If you're in Chicagoland, drop the cynicism and the parochialism, and go see it.

What is your ice show like? How do they make the kids feel special?

May 8, 2013

Hedging the cost of skating

Two classes, one or two lessons, public skating pass, a couple of practice ice times.

Skates, practice clothes, bags, gloves, book covers, blade guards.

Year end pizza party.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money. How do you keep your husband finding out what it costs pay for it all?

At some rinks, they'll trade volunteer hours for practice ice coupons. It's not exactly "free" because it costs you time, but it's a great way to cover practice ice cost. (Let's hope the IRS doesn't catch on.) Do me a favor and be righteous: don't sell your free coupons to non-volunteers at a discount. (Here's how you can tell someone is doing this-- they monitor FAR more than the number of sessions their skater is actually using.) Don't take your free coupons but not actually show up for your monitor time.  Don't show up and "monitor" when there's already a monitor there. Don't sign in as a monitor and then sit in the stands. (Don't ask where I observed all these behaviors.)

"Skating" job
Concession stand, junior coaching, really coaching, working at the local skate shop, rink guard, even babysitting.  Many skaters, teen and adult, take the edge off the cost by taking on extra jobs specifically to cover skating expenses. Parents will sometimes do this as well. It's a lot to do for your kid, but it's better than putting everything on the credit card, or cashing in a 401k.

Junior coaching
Sometimes pros will have their older or higher test students teach or supervise their younger students, and will knock a little off the bill for this.  This also helps the parents of the younger students, who may (should) be charged a lower fee for that time.

Ask your pro if your skater can share lesson time with other kids at her/his level for some lessons.

Set asides
In other words, a special "fund" just for skating.  This might be an extra $5 or $10 or $15 a week. It might be that every time you pay a skating bill, you stick $10 in a box. Or make it a dollar each time you go to the rink, or a hundred dollars every time your skater is in a test or competition. You'll be amazed at how quickly this will add up.  This is a great way to make sure you have the funds when you need new skates, or for an out of town competition, or that pesky synchro bill.

Putting the kid to work
Not really helping financially, but a lot of skating families make younger kids "earn" their skating time.  They put specific monetary values on extra household chores and pay the kid in private scrip, redeemable for lessons, skates, practice ice, etc.

How do you help cover skating costs?

Apr 30, 2013

Skating camp

Most figure skating programs now offer summer camp.  These may be half or full day, be solely focused on figure skating, or be more traditional "day camp" that includes a figure skating component either specifically instructional, or just as a regular activity in a more "public skating" sort of mode. In a camp that is focused on figure skating, with a couple of hours of ice a day, your skater can pass a couple of tests easily over the course of the summer, as well as just achieving a solid comfort level on the ice and improving their basic skating.

Camps are generally divided into Learn to Skate levels (beginner through Beta/Basic 5 or Gamma/Basic 6) and Freestyle levels, usually starting with students in Delta/Basic 7 (because those students will achieve freestyle levels during the course of the camp). The exact division will vary from program to program.

Less common are rinks that allow staff to form their own private camps.  I ran such a camp at a prior rink. Any camp will offer some combination of the following components.

At Xanboni camp freestyle students (although I never had many of those, by choice) learned USFS Moves-in-the-Field patterns for the Pre-Preliminary and Preliminary Tests. For Learn to Skate/Basic Skills students I used the "moves" periods to work on strong edges, crossovers and stroking, as well as learning basic skating patterns like periphery stroking.

Skating skills
My camps were small, so all classes were mixed level, but in a regular facility-run program there are usually enough skaters to divide students into discreet levels.  The skills classes will be pretty much exactly the skills classes in an after school program. They just move faster because the kids are on the ice so much. Skating skills classes will also generally include skills from higher levels and so-called uncaptured moves (an ISI term for tricks and skills that are not included in the testable curriculum).

Stretching, cardio, outdoors games
As a personal philosophy, I do not condone dedicated strength training for children under the age of 10, and frankly consider it a little pointless for kids in a recreational program. And calisthenics can be boring. This does not mean strength training and calisthenics can't happen-- you just need to find ways to make it age appropriate and interesting.  Lots of really fun activities, like Dance Dance Revolution, soccer, races, touch football, et cetera, give you all the benefits of cardio and strength training, at a level that young children enjoy. Sometimes I did off-ice on the playground, with the only rule being that the kids had to use every piece of equipment at least once.

Crafts and story telling
Even at a sports camp, engage their creative and quiet side for part of the day. Read them a book, or do "round robin" stories (where everyone contributes part of the story, line by line), or drawing, sewing, etc. One of our favorite activities was sidewalk chalking.

Field trips
Look for programs with extras like occasional (or regular) swimming, or rolling blading, museum or theater trips,  a skating show, or the beach. (Make sure you have lots of parents helpers and a signed waiver, by the way). All skating and no play makes Susie a dull girl.

Private lesson time
While most camps will not specifically offer private lessons, many work lesson time into the day so that students who have private coaches don't have to make a separate trip back to the rink for their lesson; it's simply arranged as part of the camp day.  In some camps these are designated times; for others the student may be allowed to take their private lesson instead of any given camp activity.

Other ideas
For older kids, see if your program offers a weekly or bi-weekly "how to teach" session to train future coaches. Look for camps with a supervised practice session, so kids get time to organize their own practice without being told what to do every minute.  Over the years I've been teaching, I've observed kids getting less and less able to work on their own. I have no idea how they get through college, let alone a job. Some programs will offer kids a chance to learn a program, or get a taste of a specialized skill like synchro, dance, figures, or couples.

Does your skater go to skating camp? Tell us about it!

Apr 20, 2013

Using IJS

I created a twitter hashtag during the last U.S. Championships:


Well-known for creating inexplicable outcomes, the International Skating Union Judging System, or IJS (also known as Code of Points or COP) has replaced the overly subjective and equally (though differently) impenetrable 6.0 system with a nearly impenetrable table of "protocols" that parse out the art into minute judgements on technique.

For fans, it's infuriating.

But for skaters it can be an incredibly useful tool, because it allows you to see what the judges are focusing on for you.

Personal best and seasons best
Know these scores. First of all, it gives you an instant idea of how you did, and whether you should be happy or disappointed. Second, your season's best score tells you how this program is doing. If you keep not matching your personal best in a given season, you may want to rethink the program. IJS not only rewards/punishes skating skills, it also rewards good choreography. If you consistently miss your personal best, it might not be you. It might be the choreo.

Using knowledge of points to know your prospects
First of all, you can use your own point history to judge how  how well you are likely to do. If you know your personal best and season's best scores you can have a pretty good idea of what your standing is going to be throughout the season (taking a lot of the agony out of waiting for the judges sheets). You can look at your competitors scores and know when you're going to have to blow it out of the water to win (and it does happen-- look at Dennis Ten at the recent World Championships).

Component scores
As far as I'm concerned, for your own skating, the component scores are where it's at. These tell you how good the judges think your basic skating skills are. While these scores are notorious in elite skating-- there have been indications that judges are pressured to score skaters based on their "seed" or standing-- at local and qualifying competition they can be used to help you understand whether judges just think you skate well, regardless of your performance on specific skills that day.

Don't just look at your own protocols (judging sheets). Look at your competitors as well. See what kinds of scores are being achieved by skaters you admire.  Where do they excel; where do you best them?

More on personal best
Personal best is to IJS what Judge 5 was to the 6.0 system. By which I mean, skaters used to look at their rankings and say "well Judge 5 placed me 2nd!" (somebody loves me.)  Now you can look at your protocols and see an overall personal best, or most positive GOEs (see next), or increased PCS. You can even take it down to the individual skills-- you can have a goal to get the maximum point value on a specific skill, or achieve a given Level on just one skill, or a set of skills.  Because IJS is so detailed, you can really use the scoring both to help you figure out what to work on, and to say "well at least I did something right."

Evan Lysacek won the Olympics by putting together a program in which he could achieve the absolute maximum points, even if he fell short on various individual skills.  Supposedly a battle between the "technical" Plushenko and the "artistic" Lysacek, they actually had identical PCS (the "artistic" score). Lysacek won it on a brilliantly conceived choreography that maximized technical point value.  Your coach and choreographer should know how to play this game-- whether to go for the higher base value of a Level 3 or 4 or triple jump, or the better GOE of a Level 1 or 2 or double jump. Where to place jumps. How to maximize the value of the footwork sequence, etc.

In this same way, IJS helps you set goals.  Achieving positive GOE, getting the full point value on a skills, increasing PCS base values, getting a higher level on footwork or a spin.  The goal no longer has to be "beat skater X" or, worse, "win." Goals can now be really fine-tuned to an individual skater's needs.

How have you used IJS to help you understand or improve your, or your skaters', abilities?

Apr 17, 2013

Having fun in beginning skating

Ask any skater what they love about skating and they won't give you a skill. Nobody skates because they like brackets, or axels, or spirals.

Skaters like speed.

They like the wind in their hair.

They best thing a coach can do for beginning skaters isn't teaching them how to swizzle or balance. It's just letting them skate.

I sometimes tell beginners' parents to skip the first year of lessons. Just buy your child  pair of skates and bring them to public once a week for a year. It will cost about the same.  If you really don't feel like they'll do anything without instruction, then hire one of the rink rats to babysit on the ice every Sunday afternoon. Just let the kid have fun.

But you can have lots of fun in class too, as long as your coach isn't asleep at the switch, or consider themselves too good for Pre Alpha (and therefore checked out of being an engaging coach).

Back and forth
The worst thing you can see in a beginning skating class is the kids just skating back and forth and back and forth and back and forth doing the same thing over and over. Especially in a class with really slow or really fast kids, just putting the kids on a circle instantly makes it easier to manage and more interesting. Or just switch it up-- sometimes back and forth, sometimes circles.

I'm not saying the kids don't need to drill. They really do.  But drills don't need to be boring. Have them count how long they glide on one foot, and let them count super fast. Make them start their one foot glide as a specific marker (this is very challenging for beginners and requires a lot of concentration, which also keeps the boredom at bay). Offer a challenge: have them see how many of a given skill they can do--how many dips, how many swizzles in a row, how many 5-second glides, or anything else you can think of.

Even the beginningest beginner knows more than one skill. So make up a pattern that combines several skills. And if you only have three skills, or the skater moves so slowly that the pattern only takes them a couple of feet, add a clap, or a stomp, or  jazz hands.

Hard stuff
There are all sorts of higher level skills that lower level skaters can learn. Pre Alpha/Basic 1-3 skaters can do pivots and spins and two-foot turns. Alphas/Basic 4 can do lunges and backward dips; betas/Basic 5 can do bunny hops, gammas/Basic 6 can do shoot-the-duck and backwards two foot turns. The coach needs to know the critical element that makes a skill possible. If you can do a one-foot glide, you can do a modified lunge. If you can swizzle, you can pivot. If you can march, you can spin. (This is one area where Basic Skills gets it right-- it puts choreographic skills in the curriculum, instead of relying on the coach to not be boring, for instance, one-foot spins in Basic 5.)

So here's the coach's oath: First, do not bore. (yourself, or anybody else)

Apr 14, 2013

It doesn't have to be boring

There is nothing worse in the day of a figure skating coach than 15 minutes before the end of a Pre Alpha class.

More than any other level, Pre-alpha (Snowplow Sam 4, Basic 1) is going to have wildly divergent speeds and engagement from the students.

Once they get into the true Learn-to-Skate levels, most kids can at least "keep up"-- that is, move at the same speed as everyone else.  By the time they get into low freestyle, they've self-selected to just kids who are really motivated to skate.

But at Pre Alpha there are days when you just know you shouldn't check the clock because you have another 15 minutes of trying to get the whole class across the ice together.

As far as I can tell, it's worse for the kids.

They get this glazed look.

They start looking wistfully at the Beta class next door that seem to be having so much fun.

They have to go to the bathroom, or give their hat to their mom.

They're tired.

And the classic clue that you are being boring: "how much longer?"

Here's the thing-- if coach is bored (boring), the kids are bored.

And why do that to yourself?  There is simply no reason to run a boring class. Every time I'm helping in a class with a teacher whose lesson plan is "okay one foot glide, right foot. Okay, let's do it again. and again. Couple more times! Now let's do the other foot." For. Forty. Minutes.

I want to poke my eyes out with a skate.

Put the kids on a circle. Have a contest. Make up a pattern. Play a game. Do a challenge. Sing a freaking song.  Make up a program.

It's not only boring to the kids. It's boring to you-- if you're boring them you're also boring yourself.  Being boring, or disengaged, or unimaginative is not going to make Pre Alpha class go away. So you might as well have fun.

Have you had a boring coach? What has a coach done with basic skating that made it interesting?

Mar 28, 2013

Comparing skaters

The International Skating Union Judging System, or IJS, was instituted to attempt two goals: first, to reduce the appearance of collusion and, yes, cheating, among the judges,  and second, to reduce subjective measures of judging as much as possible.

In other words, they're trying not so much to stop comparing apples to oranges, as to find the commonalities between apples and oranges and to judge those objectively.

One of the most common parent conversations at skating practices goes like this:
Parent A: I see Mary has her double lutz.
Parent B: Yes, but look at those legs. Of course she's landing that jump, whoever saw thighs like that on an 8 year old.
Parent C: Her folks can afford four lessons a week, too. If I had that kind of money, Johnny would have his lutz and then some.
In other words, we're looking at all those apples and attributing their success to the fact that some of them are actually oranges.

Lots of factors go into success as a skater.  You can't really compare them, which was the point of IJS-- ranking skaters to choose a winner was inherently unfair. How in the world do you compare Michelle Kwan and Surya Bonaly, two brilliant skaters with nothing but the framework in common.

But compare them we will. We'll go ahead and ascribe positive motivations to the people that came up with the IJS, and try to figure out how to compare our own apples and oranges, from the stands, without the catty comments (okay, maybe a few catty comments).

Age is less a factor than you might think in actual skating ability, as anyone knows who's watched the little 6 year old dynamos who keep crushing your talented 9 year old at Regionals. It's better, both for your own ego and as an objective factor, to consider a skater's maturity.  A 9-year-old who cannot focus on a lesson or direct her own practice is going to be less successful than a 7-year-old who can.

Body Type
Not a factor, unless your body type is "40 pounds overweight." There are certainly some physiognomies that help a skater-- flat bosom, long waist, bow legs-- but we've all seen enough body types to understand that there is no body type that actually precludes skating success. Body type complaints and kudos (think Rachael Flatt and her supposed problems because of "sloping shoulders," or the positive but frankly racist assertions about Asian body types) are about aesthetics, not athletics.

A kid who is not aiming for Nationals is not going to Nationals. I don't care how talented he is.  To achieve a goal you have to set it. No one gets into elite skating by accident. You can't compare your recreational skater, who likes to try new stuff, to the 30-hour-a-week phenom.

Motivation pretty much equals Maturity + Trajectory. You have to know your goal (elite skating, International competition, Gold level tests, a certain jump, a solo in the ice show, or whatever), and then manage the steps it takes to get there. Without motivation, the game is over. And mom can't supply it. Further, motivation doesn't just mean "motivated to win competitions." Kids are motivated by, and toward, different outcomes. Don't compare a kid who's motivated to win Nationals with one who's motivated to landing the axel before graduating high school. Both are worthy goals; comparing them is pointless.

Even given talent, motivation, and trajectory, a good coaching match is the single most critical factor in a skating career, whatever the goal is. And yet it's not one of the things you commonly hear parents comparing, or praising. You hear lots of praise for coaches-- "we have the top coach," "our coach has taken xx number of skaters to nationals," "he has the most students," etc. But the most important factor-- that wonderful coaching relationship-- is often ignored.

Don't even. If your Jennie is in Freestyle 1, and "rival" Susie is in Freestyle 5, why do you even care. Everyone goes through the levels, at their own pace. I do not want to hear skaters compared based on their level. Sh! I mean it!

 Out of your control. If Mary can afford four lessons a week, good for her. Work with what you've got, and don't teach your child to make excuses based on external resources.

Mar 25, 2013

Triples at 9

You'll see me complaining a lot on this blog about pushing kids too hard, too young.

To a large extent that's because I like to focus on what ordinary kids can get out of the wonderful sport of figure skating, and also to help parents keep in perspective exactly how extraordinary their kids are (or, ahem, are not).

But some kids are extraordinary. We've seen the phenomenon over the past few years of elite boys pushing the age envelope downward, with younger and younger kids winning at Intermediate and Novice before they run up against minimum age restrictions at Junior.

As an email I received queried,
"What if you're talking about a reasonably talented 6 y/o with solid single jumps and axel and there seems a bit of time yet to worry about triples but they've been bitten by the competition bug. ... Do you go with that and delay and possibly limit progress or do you pull them away from competing so they make hastier progress but barely compete for the next few years?"
In fact, I had this exact question from my Alpha students this week. They all claimed to "be really good" at cross overs. And y'know, they are really good at cross overs.

But their cross overs can be better-- more confident, more advanced.

And that's really the crux of the matter.

Whatever skill you're working on right now-- whether it's simple cross overs or a double axel-- it can be better.

So the first answer to "why not move on to the next thing" is actually another question, namely, are you properly identifying what the next thing is? If you've got all the doubles, is the next thing really the triples? Or is it consistently landing all jumps in competition, or improving your GOE, or landing more difficult combinations, or improving the technique?

I like to point out the brilliantly managed career of Jason Brown, a skating phenomenon who was one of those 9 year-olds with all his doubles. But, knowing that he had tons of time because of his young age, his coach has parsed out his milestones. The goal was not "national champ by 17" which he arguably might have pushed for, but rather to hit specific measures-- land the triple axel in competition, then land it in a major competition, then skate a clean program that includes a triple axel, etc. Jason's going to have a long, injury-free career because his coach understood that his youth was not a goal in itself, but rather a gift that allows them time to develop a brilliant skater.

Skating skills in and of themselves are not the goal. They are sign posts along the way. A child with doubles at 9 is certainly going to be landing triples by the time they're done with high school.

The reader asks, essentially, "do you delay their progress or do you have them compete with their age group."

I ask, in return, what, exactly, do you consider "progress?"

What choice have you made, or would you make, with a skater who pulls ahead of their age restrictions in competition?

Mar 4, 2013

Getting into coaching, Part 2- learning to teach

There are several routes to getting credentials and experience as a coach.

Actually having a clue how to teach a skating skill is something else.

I recently stood in a Beta class and had to listen to the young coach tell the class that there are three pushes in a backwards cross over. (There are not. Imaginary Internet Points for telling me how many pushes in a cross over.)

Here are some ways to learn how to actually impart the skills.

Re-teach yourself
Literally go onto the ice and figure out what a swizzle, and a stroke, and a cross over are. Most coaches have been doing the lower level skills since they were 4 or 5 or 6 years old. They don't know how to teach a swizzle or a one foot glide, because they can't remember not having that skill. So pretend you're just learning and break down those basic skills.

Work with an experienced coach
Many ways to do this-- either just shadow a coach (essentially apprentice yourself to them) and observe their teaching methods and tricks. Do this at the tot and learn to skate levels. These are no less difficult to teach than high level jumps, and you'll find kids who have had good coaching at these levels have a much easier time higher up the levels.

Another thing you can do is join the PSA and actually contract with a Master rated coach to be a formal apprentice. This gets the Master coach educational credits that they need, and gives you the right to receive actual instruction, and not just observation. Some Master coaches will do this for free (thanks, Nick!), some may charge you a lesson fee.

Hire a coach to teach you how to teach. I did this-- actually took private lessons where the coach taught me teaching techniques. This also reassured that coach that I was serious about learning proper technique; she remains a friend and advocate to this day.

Student teach
If you've already been hired, think of yourself as a student teacher and ask for classes as the assistant with a coach whom you admire.  Some rinks actually have formal student teacher or associate programs. I frankly don't understand why EVERY rink doesn't have a program like this, but then they never seem to consult me about this stuff.

Coaches' continuing education
ISI, USFS Basic Skills, and the PSA all run local, regional and national seminars, which you can find out about from the various websites (see the Resources page). You do not always have to be a member to attend (although you will pay a premium if you're not). Many are free to members. Coaches love to gripe about these, but I've never been to a continuing education event where I haven't learned something. Always be open to hearing new skills, tricks, and teaching techniques. If you didn't grow up skating in the district where you're teaching, this is also a great way to meet the coaches, and skating directors, in your area.

It's teaching, not skating
So many coaches do not understand this. When you're on that ice at the head of a class, you are not a skater. You are a teacher. Being a good skater and/or having a really good grounding in skating technique, do not make you a good teacher. There are class management and student psychology skills that are as important as the skating technique. Look for seminars, read books about classroom teaching, talk to teachers.

Don't be arrogant
You are not God's gift to skating, even if you're Tarasova. Listen, learn. Don't snub the new coach, or the adult skater who's gotten into coaching. They are all resources. Assume that your first five years of coaching are your apprenticeship, and allow yourself the time to become a great coach.

Mar 3, 2013

Getting into coaching, part 1

In the late 90s, when I was still just a half-committed recreational skater, I was in a freestyle one class and was having murderous difficulty with the jumps. Years later a coach who was actually paying attention figured out that I'm a lefty jumper, but no one in that FS1 class was paying close enough attention to notice this.

Who cares about the stupid adult after all?

One day I asked the coach if she could help me figure out why I was having so much trouble with this jump. She asked me to demonstrate it, so I did, badly, and asked her if she could tell what the problem was.

She shrugged.

That was it. She shrugged.

I stood there and literally thought "I could not possibly be a worse teacher than this."

And that is how I started thinking about coaching.

Most people get into coaching because it's a pretty lucrative gig for a college kid who's spent her whole life inside a skating rink. This is the easy path-- many kids end up teaching at the rink where they grew up.  Move to a new city and there's bound to be a rink that needs a moderately credentialed coach.

And there's the rub. As I've written about before (although it's getting better since that was written), credentialing for coaching is a sad joke, namely, that you don't really need any credentials to be a coach.

Before all the coaches and PSA spies on here go ballistic over that statement, here's the rundown on steps to take to get into coaching.

Through at least Intermediate, Moves and Freeskate, or ISI FS6.  If you test through Senior/FS8, that pretty much guarantees you a coaching job. In markets where practice ice is run by the local club there will sometimes be a minimum test level, usually Intermediate or ISI FS6, to be allowed to teach on the club ice. However, you don't need to be a "good" skater to coach-- plenty of less than stellar skaters pass these test levels, and I see lots of funky technique at coaching seminars (pot, meet kettle).

While I was originally hired by a quite visionary (some would say crazy) skating director who had a "hire the smile" philosophy, my route into coaching was very unusual, as I actually did not have any reasonable qualification. If you are a low skater (FS3 or under) and want to teach, I highly recommend going the PSA Ratings route as I did.  Ratings are expensive to pursue-- I basically stopped testing so that I could afford the ratings, which is why I topped out testing at PreBronze/Prelim Dance, Moves and Figures, but you will learn how to teach through the seminars and other opportunities, and rink management like rated coaches.

Skating is one of the few youth sports where volunteer parents do not dominate coaching in recreational programs. That said, if you are a strong recreational skater, call up the skating director and offer to volunteer in tot and PreAlpha classes, or for ice show rehearsals, which always need extra hands for bathroom breaks, non-gliders and boys who can't stand still.  I volunteered at the Ice Rink of the Damned for three years before they hired me, which is how I learned how to teach.

These three routes give you the resume you need to be credible in applying for a coaching job. Getting the job is the easy part. Part 2 will discuss how to actually learn how to coach.

Feb 24, 2013


Readers, I need your opinion! (Usually I just want your opinions.)

There has been a significant income change in my household, so I am considering the idea of adding advertisments, Amazon Affiliates, and seeking sponsorships/direct pay ads (as opposed to pay per click like AdSense).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how this would affect the blog, what your levels of tolerance are, and if you have any ideas about other ways to help the blog pay. I'd especially love to know if you have a "monetized" blog.

I am not committed to this idea, just exploring it for now!


Should I "monetize" the blog?

Feb 21, 2013

A clean sheet of ice

Little kids like to watch the Zamboni.

I suppose it's the novelty of a large vehicle driving around indoors, or the funny shape, with the driver perched on the back like a hood ornament with agoraphobia.

I like what the Zamboni leaves behind.

A fresh, clean, untouched sheet of ice is a magical place. Midday, the rinks are empty, and the sheet stays clear. If you're the first one there, or the only one, your movement is imprinted. You see how you unconsciously match stroke for stroke. You start to consciously trace it, counting laps.

Once around, twice, three, four times around and the strokes line up without your really trying. On a clean sheet of ice you can feel the glide and hear the push and empty your mind, so that your mind is a clean sheet as well, with nothing but the rumble of the blade to hear and the print of the blade to see.


I like to trace the first 5 figures-- outside circle 8s, insides, threes to the center, serpentine left and right. Lay a figure, trace it twice, step over a blade length. Lay the figure, trace it twice, step over a blade length. And again, again, again.

When you're done, on that clean sheet of ice, you've laid a skaters' spirograph of traveling circles, clear and obvious on the shiny, untouched surface. Skill and error clear and obvious.

Standing on the fresh surface of an empty ice rink is the closest thing to infinity this side of orbit. The walls are far away, the ceiling immaterial, the white shiny surface blending into the boards and the glass barrier. You'll never have this much interior space to yourself anywhere else. Three quarters the size of a football field, and yet you can race all the way around in a few seconds. You'll feel the wind in your hair and on your face, but there is no wind that you don't bring yourself. Stop and the wind stops.

Except that when you stop, you don't stop. You keep gliding forward, leaving behind, just a trace.

Feb 16, 2013

How much is too much?

Late summer: major Club competitions, like Broadmoor, Detroit, DuPage.
Fall:  qualifying competitions (Regionals and Sectionals)
January: Nationals

That's the competitive schedule.  Spring through early summer is time for learning new programs and skills and taking qualifying tests; late summer is for gearing up conditioning and perfecting the program.

EVERYBODY takes a break after their final competition, be it Regionals, Sectionals or Nationals.

But below the top couple of hundred skaters, who make it past Regionals, or the several dozen who make it past Sectionals, there are lots and lots of local club competitions.

Lots and lots.

I hear about skaters doing 7, or 8, or 12 or 13 local competitions, plus Regionals.

And all I want to say is: are you insane?!

Most coaches will have a competition circuit-- the several competitions to which they always take their skaters. My daughter used to do 3 to 5 non-qualifying competitions each year.

If you are doing a competition a month, when are you learning those new skills, or preparing the next test, or improving conditioning and strength? All you'll be training is the program.

In academic parlance, you'll spend all your time teaching the test.

If your non-elite Juvenile through Intermediate child makes it to Sectionals, he should not be doing any competitions between Regionals and Sectionals. If he makes it past Sectionals, he should probably not be doing more than one local, low-pressure competition before Nationals. Here is the U.S. Figure Skating recommendation for "periodization" or annual training arc.
So what do you do if your coach is constantly scheduling competitions?

If you have a coach who is encouraging a heavy schedule of non-qualifying competition, make him tell you why.  What is your child getting out of it? What clear progress should you expect from the activity? What are the coaches' goals for all this competing? Younger coaches in particular might be more susceptible to feeling like they have to have kids in every competition, partially because they're still finding out which competitions they like, or because they think they should, or because that's what their coaches did.

Also ask the skater-- does she like competing this much? Sometimes kids will just go a long to get along and will start to passive-aggressively check out: by resisting practice, deliberately throwing competitions, non-deliberately throwing competitions (i.e. missing solid skills, because they're stressed), etc. Remember that a lot of kids won't complain about a heavy schedule. For one thing, most kids trust the adults to know what they are doing, and are unlikely to question an authority figure. (Unless they're my kids, who somehow never got that message. I wonder why?)

Ask parents of other coaches and find out if they have similar competition obligations. (Yes, you can talk to parents of other coaches about anything you want.) If it's wildly different, ask your coach about this.

Aside from the impact on skill acquisition, there is considerable cost-- costume, travel, time lost from work or school.  Your coach should not get to make financial choices for you. If your coach isn't hearing your despair, pull the money card. Give her a competition budget, and tell her you can do competitions within that amount, and not over, without an extremely compelling reason.  (In fact, if more parents just had a skating budget, instead of just coming up with whatever the coach demands, there would be a lot fewer unhappy skating parents.) 

What are we missing?
Is there another activity that you or your skater would like to do that is being squeezed out by "extra" competitions? Cross training, after-school activities, academics, "me" time are all lost in a packed competition schedule.

Competitions, even the "serious" ones, can be fun, or they can be a chore. Don't make it a grind.

How many competitions does your skater do each season? Is there a plan?

Feb 13, 2013

The coach with the best skaters

I recently watched a painful transition.

The parent of a supremely untalented child switched from the nurturing beginner coach to the competitive popular coach.

Who spent the next year complaining to other coaches about how much she hated teaching this child, and trying to pass her off to someone else, but without telling the parent that she didn't want her. She basically tried to get other coaches to solicit the family away.

My guess is that the parent switched because she believed that this other coach, with all the great skaters, was a brilliant instructor who could get anyone to skate like that.

The truth is this coach is brilliant at attracting talented skaters. They come to her with the chops, the money and the time already in their favor.

The coach you want for your skater is the one that works best with your type of skater. A coach who only works with talented, motivated top performers is not going to turn your child magically into one of those kids. But a coach who works well with workaday skaters, or timid skaters, or skaters with limited time, just might be able to get your skater performing at a top level. Conversely, the workaday coach with all the Pre Alpha students (that would be me) is not going to get your highly motivated, supremely talented jumper to Nationals.

Don't look for the coach with the best skaters. Look for the coach who understands kids like yours. Be honest about it, because deluding yourself about your child's level of talent will land you with a coach who complains behind your back about how awful your child is.

How did you choose your child's coach?

Feb 10, 2013

Another soliciting post

Or, can the coach even talk to the parents of someone else's student?

In a word, yes.

And no.

The Professional Skaters Association  does not actually have an official definition of soliciting or tampering. They have examples, and admonishments not to do it, but nowhere in their Tenets of Professionalism can I find an actual definition.

I'll give it a shot-- soliciting is seeking to acquire a student who already has a coach. Tampering is seeking to undermine an existing coaching relationship (in other words, soften 'em up before moving on to soliciting). These are done clandestinely, as opposed to simple promotion or advertising, which are things like this blog, ads in programs, fliers or listing yourself in the PSA directory.

Most of my email comes from parents concerned that a coach is soliciting their child (or flattered that a coach seems to be soliciting their child). They want to know what to do about it.

And frankly, don't do anything about it. Below the rarified air of medal contenders, parents really have no obligations beyond getting the best coach for their child. You are not bound by the ethical considerations of the coaches. While you don't want to be seen to be constantly coach-shopping, there is nothing ethically stopping you, the parent, from talking to anyone, about anything.

No other teaching profession has rules against trying to get students, even someone else's student, and no other teaching profession makes the parents feel like they have to police it.

A coach who engages in the following types of behaviors-- telling other parents/coaches that she'd take on your kids in a heartbeat, constantly telling you how talented your child is, having her parents tell you that your coach is teaching Skill X wrong-- is definitely soliciting or tampering by the PSA non-definition.

A coach who is teaching your child in class and tells you that your child has technique problems is not soliciting or tampering, unless he goes on to say that you should switch coaches. He is also your child's coach and is entitled to an opinion.

And yes, coaches who seek other people's students are obnoxious slime. But here's the thing.

You cannot solicit a skater away from an unwilling parent.  If you don't want to switch coaches, then don't worry about what other coaches and parents are saying. If you are at all susceptible to the talk, then you probably aren't 100% happy with your coach anyway. The reasons for this don't matter. You might think the relationship could be better. You might notice that your coach doesn't have the best skaters (careful with this, there are lots of reasons for it). You might feel more secure with a popular coach, or a "top" coach (no judgement-- these are legitimate reasons to choose a coach).

And if someone is talking behind your coach's back, I would just not get involved unless you really want to switch.