Jan 30, 2013


I have it on the best authority-- the father of a 4 year old-- that figure skates make you gay.

This intelligence was offered to me when I suggested that the child, decked out in full hockey regalia for a tot skating class, would be better off in figure skates, as he couldn't stand up in the hockey skates (this is common with very young children, and everyone else). The dad flatly refused, citing the above problem. Of  course I laughed, but no. He wasn't joking. Figure skates at the age of four will fatally determine your sexual orientation later in life.

Who knew.

I just started at a new rink that takes gender segregation on the ice to a whole new level. In my five classes, there are more than 60 girls, and 6 boys.  Four of the boys are in hockey skates, and they are being steered out of the skating classes and into the hockey classes, sometimes against both their and their parents preference.

This switch is promoted as "he'll be happier in hockey," "he just wants to go fast," and of course the tried and true-- figure skating is for girls, and hockey is for boys.

Of course there are also several girls in the classes who would be happier in hockey and just want to go fast, but I don't see anyone suggesting that they try hockey skating.

Because they're girls.

My radical proposal is that going over to the other side be a test requirement at around the Gamma level, or its hockey correlation, the travel team tryouts. Want to take a Gamma class? You have to spend a month in hockey skates learning what that's like. Want to try out for a travel team? Same deal-- a month in figure skates. And then we need to let them choose, to not make the boys feel like they're less than male for choosing the "wrong" sport.

Furthermore, we seriously need to give our boys the ability to choose. I was talking about this with my musician son the other day. He went to a nurturing progressive school where his musical ability was very much honored and yet he apparently still felt pressure about doing a "girl" thing.

We are losing a lot of talent. The boys who go into hockey who ought to be in figure skates don't become fantastic hockey players. They just quit altogether. The girls have a little easier time of it, as a lot of figure skaters switch to hockey in their teens in order to qualify for college scholarships (and that's another whole essay). The beginner girls who ought to be in hockey wash out at the more precise demands of figure skating-- they don't knuckle down, they just quit.

Let the kids do what they do well. Their private parts have nothing to do with whether they skate with toe picks or shoulder pads.

Jan 27, 2013

Cheating judges

In a couple of words, they don't.

Or not much anyway.

I usually stay out of fangirl territory in this blog. There are lots of blogs parsing scores minutely, and offering analysis, some simplistic, and some quite cogent, about elite skaters.

But today there feels like more than the usual sour grapes.

The 2013 Ladies Single podium felt tainted last night-- Ashley Wagner won with a flawed free skate, golden child and media darling Gracie Gold pulled off "only" 2nd in her first senior appearance, perennial crowd favorites Carolina Zhang and Mirai Nigasu had heartbreaking falters.

I think the judges probably held Gracie up a little bit, and they were remarkably kind to Ashley on some questionable executions. They came down awfully hard on Mirai and Caroline (and Christina Gao for that matter-- geez, will you put that girl on the podium already?)

But here's the thing about IJS. For all the #theyruinedmysportwithmath jokes, and avenues for manipulation (levels, component scores), in point of fact it is very hard to cheat at IJS, which was entirely the idea behind the system. There are a lot of checks; there is a lot of independent scoring, like the technical calls, that make it hard for judges to independently prop someone up.

And I don't believe in conspiracy theories.

I also believe in good intentions.

Here's why Gracie didn't win -- she blew the short. And that's where the old adage comes in-- you can't win a medal with the short, but you can lose one.

Here's why Ashley did-- she rocked the short program, and she had a smart, points-packed long so that even if she had some mistakes she would have enough points to recover. This isn't cheating, and it isn't evidence of collusion. It's smart coaching, and it's evidence of a competitive skater who, frankly, spent years being pushed down and disrespected-- by the media, by the fans, and by the judges-- but who knew she had it in her, and made a plan to achieve it.

I'll take that over the latest golden girl any day.

P.S. Shame on Ice Network for its appalling morning after headline: "Wobbly Wagner outlasts glittering Gold in Omaha." You owe Ashley Wagner, first back to back Ladies Champion since Kwan, an apology.

Jan 26, 2013

Where to find skating advice

I get lots of email from kids who want help fixing or getting axels and from moms with club problems.

I answer all of them, and some get turned into posts--always looking for good content!--but some of them I can't deal with, often because of ethical concerns with coaching someone else's student (especially at a distance).

There are places you can find skating advice, so in keeping with my new meme of sending y'all elsewhere (why do I keep doing this), here are a couple of the best forums for great skating discussions. As always, if you know of others, please let us know in the comments.

Okay, I confess, the skating "subreddit" r/figureskating is not very active, but the rest of the site is so fabulous that I think it could be a wonderful place for discussion.  I've been chiming in under a different username, but I just created a Xanboni account, so look for me there! Right now people are posting a lot of current competition videos, but I think we could get discussions going there like we do here, and for a larger audience. One of the real strengths of reddit is that it is the most completely anonymous forum you'll find-- you do not even need an email to join, just a user name and password. If you've got a really sensitive topic and don't want to be traced, this is the place for you.

Skating Forums
I can't remember what this used to be called years ago, but it's a really great forum, with lots of topics from lots of types-- fangirls/boys, moms, skaters, coaches. I think it was the first forum I found online. They hold a place in my heart because they were instrumental in putting this blog on the map.

Golden Skate
Similar to Skating Forums, also a great place for discussions and rumor, which pretty much runs figure skating fandom.

Yahoo Groups
There are lots of these-- SkateFans, coaches, etc. Use Yahoo Group search to find a group that appeals to.

Linked In
Again, tons of groups. There's a group called Figure skating parents, one for Figure skating coaches, USFS parents, several groups for individual clubs and synchro teams, adult figure skaters, basic skills instructors etc. Even better, you can start your own group quite easily, for instance for your club or rink. Completely the opposite of reddit, Linked In is wide open-- not the place for sensitive topics because it is emphatically not anonymous.

Everyone who reads this, feel free to join these groups and send them to your favorite blog post here on Xanboni! /ShamelessSelfPromotion

Jan 24, 2013

Skating and puberty

Figure skating is getting younger again.

For a while, both figure skating and gymnastics seemed to be moving away from the jumping bean sensibility-- those tiny athletic geniuses who had all the tricks by the time they were 11.

After several younger skaters started suffering debilitating injuries, notably Tara Lipinski's multiple hip surgeries, the federations seemed to get the message. The rules were changed to keep 12 to 14 year olds out of the Senior level competitions, although no rules were implemented to keep very young children from training at those levels, and the various national federations still have different rules.

The girls seem to have been held at bay-- I identified only two 14 year olds in Ladies Singles  at the Senior level at Nationals this year (someone correct me-- I couldn't find a complete list that had skater stats) , but the sport has now discovered the boys.

The boys have a self-limiting disadvantage-- the triple axel and the quad anything. You cannot place at Nationals at the Championship (Senior) level without these jumps, and boys simply don't have the muscular strength for these before adolescence, and in some cases much later.

But since the pre-pube girls have become off-limits, the sport has found a way to push that envelope down, and there is now the phenomenon of 9 year old Intermediate and 10 year old Novice boys (I refuse to call them men) with all the triples except the axel. The fans have gone right along with it--Twitter goes insane for kids like Nathan Chen and Tomoki Hawatashi, praising them for being "tiny," "adorable" etc.

Russia isn't helping. They've clearly spent the last 8 years setting up for an all-event podium sweep at Sochi and have been trotting out streams of baby skaters who will just creep into eligibility in time for the 2014 home-soil Olympics. This pressure pushes down the age for everyone else as well, with baby Japanese, baby Chinese, and then of course all the American skaters with one immigrant grandparent skating under you-name-it flag in order to get to an international career. (Note-- I have no argument with this phenomenon, as it opens up competitions to a lot of kids who would be also-rans in highly competitive nations, but I fear the age pressure it engenders.)

There is something to be said for teaching kids the advanced skills in early adolescence. Studies, and experience, show that what you learn between the ages of 9 and about 15 will stick with you your whole life. Think about that piano sonata or poem you memorized in 7th grade-- I bet you still remember it.
Pushing that envelope downwards does a terrible disservice not just to the torque and landing forces put on young, unfinished bodies, but also on the emotional lives of these kids. Part of the problem lies in the refusal of the NCAA to add figure skating as a subsidized college sport-- these kids feel (rightly) that they have to get it all done before the end of high school. If you're not at the elite level by the time you're 17, you will simply run out of money and will have to choose-- college or skating. Every other sport manages to educate its kids, allowing them to train and learn at the same time. At every rink you'll see the spring ritual-- up the pictures of all the hockey kids who have gotten college scholarships to play and learn, and down come the tears from all the figure skaters who have to give up either college or skating.

We need to give our skaters time to grow up. We need to be careful with their beautiful bodies and minds.

Jan 21, 2013

Annual repost+: U.S. Nationals and skating terms

I'll be spending as much of the week as possible glued to Ice Network watching the live stream for U.S. Nationals. I'll watch as much as I can and I'll live tweet from the stream (@Xanboni). The hashtag for Nationals is #omaha2013.

 Some tweeters to look for are @lepigeonbercy (affectionate snark), @dougmatthis (insider), @pfcclub (WAY insider), @theboyswhoscore (they try to guess the scores) and @MWskatecast (an actual journalist). If you're a fan, you can find all the skaters twitter names in the right side bar at Axels Loops and Spins (scroll down- caution, multiple videos; site loads VERY slowly).

Most of my hardcore readers here already know how to recognize specific skills, but for the more casual fans, here's a brief guide to skating terms.  Also see my post on understanding the commentators.

I first watched figure skating with the world, so to speak, via social media on Twitter, Facebook, Skype and the SM links on the Olympic site in 2010. I've realized that for the many of us spend our days around figure skaters, former figure skaters, parents of figure skaters and people who work at skating rinks, we all know a LOT about figure skating.

What I didn't know is that other figure skating fans don't know a lot about figure skating. I always figured that if you're a fan you know the difference between a lutz, a loop, a toe loop and a flip. I figured you could tell when a spin is slow, or when a skater has superior edge quality.

But if Twitter is any guide, this is not the case. People are utterly mystified by the scoring because they really don't think of it as sport-- they think of it as art, and everyone knows, as the old joke says that with art, you don't have to understand it, you just have to know what you like.

If you've got friends who like to watch skating, but have no idea what's gong on, here's the original terminology post, from February 2010:

There are 8 basic jumps, in order of difficulty- Salchow, Toe Walley, Toe Loop, Loop, Walley, Flip, Axel, Lutz. We've started seeing single walleys again, in footwork and leading into Flips, because it increases the difficulty. It's a funny choppy little jump against the direction of the edge. I haven't seen a toe walley in decades, so don't worry about them. Skaters love it when performers do walleys, and the announcers will go crazy if someone does one.

Edge jumps lift off the gliding edge. Toe assisted jumps use the toe of the free leg as a vault. On an inside edge the skater's upper body will be facing into the circle he or she is on. On an outside edge the skaters body will be facing out of the circle he's on.

All jumps are described for counter-clockwise skaters who jump to the left (only 1 in 15 or so skaters are cw). For CW, same edge, other foot.

Salchow is an edge jump off a left back inside edge. Toe Loop: toe assisted jump off right back outside edge (RBO). Loop, edge jump RBO. Flip, toe assisted LBInside. A footwork sequence into a flip is a required element in singles skating. Actual back flips ala Michael Weiss, Surya Bonaly and Scott Hamilton are illegal (and I once saw someone faceplant out of a back flip, so I'm with them on this one). Axel, edge jump with forward take off, LFO edge (everyone recognizes this one because of the dramatic forward launch). Lutz, toe assist, LBO. Lutz is a "counter jump," that is it changes rotational direction at the launch. The edge traces a clockwise circle, but the jump rotates CCW. Lutz is the jump with the long entry edge. When you hear someone talking about "telegraphing" a jump, this is the most common jump they're thinking of.

It matters if the skater takes off on the correct edge, because it changes the difficulty of the jump. It matters if the jump is under-rotated. It's not a triple if it doesn't go around 3 times, just like a touchdown doesn't count if it doesn't cross the goal line, no matter how long the run or the pass was, or how elegant the player.

If you get good at watching, you can tell what jump is coming up by the skater's body language and positions. One of the wonderful things about YuNa Kim is that you cannot tell what jump she is going to do, in fact sometimes you can't even tell that she is setting up for a jump. Kwan had this ability as well; it's one of the things that makes their skating look so "easy."

A jump combination is two or more jumps in a row with no connecting steps. A jump sequence is any number of jumps with connecting steps between any of them. The little half and whole rotation hops that skaters do don't get points for jumping, but are counted as footwork and transition.

Edge quality
Edge quality refers to the skater's control of their blade. Someone with good edge quality skates with minimal snowy curves, no ankle wobble or stuttering, and steady-as-a-rock upper body. You can really see this on the ladies' spiral sequences. Good edge quality also gives you clean turns and steps (no scraping sound). Edge quality is the defining skill of a high level skater. You don't get the big jumps without the edge quality. As I like to tell my little skaters, my 90-year-old granny can jump, but she can't hold a back outside edge all the way around a face-off circle on a single push.

Quickie on spins
There are three basic spin positions: upright, camel, sit. Upright includes those leg stretchers (sometimes called a martini glass or if you're extremely rude, a b**ver), and Biellmans (the upright backbend). That hideous spin where the skater bends at the waist FORWARDS and grabs a foot (butt is now sticking up in the air- called an "A-frame") is actually an upright spin, as is a layback. The camel is the one in the arabesque position.  A sit spin only counts if the skater's hips are below their knees. Otherwise it's an upright spin.

Skaters wave their arms around and keep changing the g*ddam position because the scoring system gives them points for multiple "features" i.e. waving their arms around and changing positions. UPDATE 2011: Since I first wrote this a "feature" has been added to allow skaters to maintain a spin position for 8 rotations and get extra points for doing so.
UPDATE 2013: the 8-rotation feature has now been limited, but a new feature has been added for inserting a jumping change or entry within a spin, so you'll see a lot of spins with a jump change this year. I'm pretty sure they stay up nights to change spin features just to watch coaches' heads explode.

The other disciplines
Pairs skating is mostly singles skills with the addition of lifts and throws, which makes you wonder why so many failed singles skaters switch to pairs. Man, if you can't do the singles, you're not going suddenly be a genius at pairs. One of the biggest problems with U.S. skating, in my opinion, is that we don't move enough strong Novice and Junior Men into Pairs. (And our general societal homophobia keeps us from training boys in figure skating in the first place.)

Ice dance focuses on partnering and edge quality. UPDATE: It used to be the most demanding from a training standpoint, because dancers had to master four programs a year-- 2 compulsories, a short program (the Original Dance) and a long program (the Free Dance). Now it's just Short Dance and Free Dance at the Junior and Senior levels, although Juv, Intermediate and Novice still have to do the pattern dances. The ISU chooses which compulsories will be skated; everyone trains the same ones. Don't get me started on how Code of Points has ruined ice dancing, we'll be here all night.

U.S. Nationals 2013 run all week, with all skaters in Novice, Junior and Championship (Senior) streaming on Ice Network, and NBC jumping in for the payoff on the 26th and 27th. You can get the live stream for a not-unreasonable fee, or watch the finals free on broadcast. The full schedule is here.

Jan 8, 2013

Tales from the front

My friend Bree posted this amazing "note" on her Facebook page today, and I had to share it.

I skated like sh*t today.  Then the 2 year olds made everything ok again.

But then I went to teach at a different rink and there were 30, that's right, count 'em, 30 tots the first class between 2-3 yrs old. I love this job. It is hilarious and makes me feel so much better about all the bullshit. Those damn kids are so awesome. There's at least one character at every rink, and usually they are the little boys who want to play hockey. I still remember my first teaching gig ten years ago and this little boy in my class was just sassy. I kept telling them, "stop on the balls of your feet" and he goes, "the only balls I know about are the ones down there." I was in high school but I was supposed to act like I was an authority figure and be good. I had to put the clipboard over my face to keep from showing them how hard I was laughing. And then I waited for like half a minute and was like, "honey; that --- is, inappropriate!" oh, my gosh. I really just wanted to tell him that was so clever and I was mad I didn't think of it first.

So things usually aren't like that now but sometimes my favorite part of teaching, well, always, what can I say, is when little kids want to just tear up the ice and go as fast as possible and I end up just playing tag and chasing them around and letting them chase me around. There's this little boy, cooper, at national sports center, and he comes all decked out in his hockey gear every week, even a mouth guard, so I can not ever understand a word out of his mouth, but he is super chatty and loves to go fast. We'll be doing some skill and going really slow and he'll just randomly take off and yell, "let's go!!" and be off and running. I don't ever get upset. I love it. I try to rein him in until there's only five minutes left, just so they sort of learn and retain something useful, but man, when you are a kid that age, you don't even really need that much discipline in sports--- just time and fun.

Then there's those days we just hang out at maple grove and throw the ball around with tots for half an hour. Just chuck that sucker as far as it will go and then go chase it down and do it again. Sometimes I'll get the limbo stick out or do a bean bag toss and we'll "go fishing" (or, "go tishin'" as Olivia calls it), but mostly just make huge messes on the ice with toys and go whirring around cleaning up for half an hour increments with kids. It's awesome.

So one night, I'm hanging out and this little boy at maple grove, porter, is chasing the ball with me. He stops real abruptly and puts his hands on his hips, turns, and faces me. "What's up, porter?" he looks thoughtfully up at me. "You know somethin’? That jacket makes you look really tough." "You think so?" "Yeah. You look like a power ranger!" "Well, thanks porter. You know that was kind of the idea."

Tonight was no exception. Usually week one of a session is hell week because tots don't like skating sometimes and want to be with their mom and dad.

This little boy, Brayden, is so cute. He comes every week, on time, in his helmet, Spiderman jacket and snow pants. He wears good hockey skates and matching black Spiderman mittens. And he can actually skate out on the ice by himself, march to the middle of the ice with no help, and then what does he do? For 8 weeks he will do this little routine and then just sprawl out on his back like he's sun bathing in Cancun. He's happy as a lark doing it though, so i can't really be mad. I go over there and peer over him like a giant, say, "Brayden, what's up? What're you doing over here?" and he just smiles at me with this mischievous, goofy, all knowing grin.

 We sing this goodbye song every week at new hope. I love it, these damn corny songs. And i cannot sing or carry a tune in a bucket. Those poor kids. But i will sing and do the little hand motions and stomp my feet and shake my tail feathers because kids eat that shit up. They love crazy grown ups and i would say i safely fit that profile. ;) so we sing the song and played blast off tonight, which basically teaches kids to go backwards but they don't know it until they did it already. It's so slick, i love it. So i told the kids they could go home and tell their mom and dad they learned how to go backward. And Libby comes up to me and tugs on my sleeve. "I don't have a dad," she whispers. I kneel on the ice next to her. "Well, that's ok, honey. Do you have a mommy at home who loves you?" "Yes." "Well, that's all you need then." and she puts her wings out and i fly her to the door to meet her mom. Before she goes, I set her down and face her to me. "Oh, Libby. I'm so happy to see you again. I missed you." I give her a big hug.

This boy Keene wears a baby blue Nike sweatshirt and a hockey helmet and is legitimately talented. He is a good little skater and I love it because he is fearless. He falls but he will like, somersault as he falls, and then I'll be like, "whoa, Keene! That was so cool!" and he'll look up at me as he pops up onto his feet and just grin from ear to ear, giggling. It's so good to be a kid. I love their free spirits and i love they don't care how they look.

Jan 5, 2013

How to get a glide going

If you managed to glide the first time you stepped on the ice, you are what is called a "natural."

Seriously, that's all it takes.

You'd be surprised at the number of people who can't figure out a glide, or who fight it when one starts.  Here's some tips to getting up a glide on the ice:

Don't try gliding right away. Frankly, if you figure out how to move on the ice, the gliding takes care of itself. A lot of people try to "stroke" (pushing back with the side of the blade) before they've figured out balance, and down they go. This is because they don't shift their weight off the pushing foot. So march, like a soldier. After about 10 marches, just put your feet side by side and relax. You should have built up enough inertia (the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion) that even though your feet are still, the low-friction surface will translate it into a glide.

There are three types of marches that work: "big" marches, with high knees, fast marches, and loooong marches.

Kids who still can't glide after marching are often stopping the glide-- they'll pigeon toe, or just press down so that they don't glide. Their experience is "if my feet are still then I am still" and so they make that happen. So I'll face a child, take both their hands, and tell them "don't move your feet and don't pull back" and I will tote them like a little wagon, then let go. They already feel the glide, from pulling, so they're more likely to let it happen solo. Once they know what a glide feels like they're more likely to be able to do it from marching.

I don't do this with adults or older kids, because they generally react in one of three ways-- they pull on you, even though you've told them don't. They'll let you pull, but won't let their fee move. Or they'll push you away.

I let beginners push with their toe picks. Yeah, you heard me. This is because it seems so logical. Why else are those things there, anyway? To trip on? Pushing with the toe pick instinctively tells the skater "glide forward." Again, if you're expecting it, it's easier. Plus, toe pushes are an easy thing to fix later.

Not kidding. Of course, you're not really running. You're "fake" running, ice-style. Get down in your knees, bend your elbows, and pretend run three or four or five steps. The second you stop feeling safe, stop "running." You will glide.

A lot of kids get a glide going by subtly letting their legs go wide, in other words, the front half of the swizzle. This is a push and is a perfectly acceptable way of finding out what gliding feels like. The only problem with it is that if you keep pushing out, eventually your legs are going to be really far apart, which looks silly and is hard for a beginner to recover from.

Now do it on one foot.

Jan 2, 2013

Cake or death?

Just said that to get your attention. If you don't know what I'm talking about (caution, language).

The choice today is take a beginning class or buy your own skates?

I think this is pretty much as easy as cake or death, where your own skates=cake and rental skates=death.

Most people who can't skate in beginner class would be just fine if they had skates that hadn't been ruined because budget cuts at public rinks, and profit margins at private ones, means that no one ever replaces their rental skates anymore. They just grind the blades into dust.

You can tell a bad blade-- it will be narrow at the back end, instead of square. The bottom edge, which should have a curved hollow and two clear edges, will be flat. The "profile" (the side view, essentially) will be wavy.

Then there's the "we're out of 9s, here's a 10" problem. Badly fitted skates don't just mean loose, or tight. It means the blade is the wrong length for your foot, making it harder to balance properly.

So where were we? Oh, yes, cake or death.

The problem is that beginning skating class costs about the same as decent recreational skates. So people think "well, we'll see if she likes to skate, then we'll get skates." Problem is, she's not going to like skating if the crap rentals are preventing her from standing up.

I believe it is in the PSA Manual that says that coaches shouldn't tell students that the rental skates are no good, because it reflects badly on the rink, and sets up possible liability. I have also been told by at least one rink that telling people their rental skates are no good is grounds for dismissal. Really. So your coach may or may not tell you if the skates are part of the problem.

I say, spend the money on a pair of skates and go skating together once a week for 6 months. THEN take lessons.