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.


  1. Nathan Chen has a triple axel. His coach made him wait for awhile to do it (I think until he was 12?), but he's done it in competition this year (not at Nationals, since he was sick.)

    It is really bizarre to see so many young boys dominating. Men's skating used to really be that- a men's sport. I always thought there was something about the boys body that prevented them from mastering skating (or gymnastics) so young, but maybe it is more that boys don't start traditionally female sports until later in life that has kept the little kids out of it?

    It is nice to see that ladies are ladies, and not little girls. I worry about the strain on the bodies, and it seems skaters are getting injured a lot more than in the past.

    1. I've seen Tomoki working on the 3A, too, but I think it's still a challenge for boys that young to pull it off in competition. I think there also might be rules restrictions against it in the lower levels. Again, the restrictions are only in regards to competition. There are no restrictions about training.

  2. We have a skater at my rink going to nationals. He's 10. He looks 8.

  3. Great post Xan.

    I think other physical and sociological factors constrain figure skating to pre-pubescent, beyond just a lack of NCAA sanctioning.

    There just aren't a whole lot of opportunities for professional individual athletes... a few surfers, a few runners, a few tennis stars, a few golfers. You don't see a lot of professional gymnasts, for example.

    Basically it only works when TV media can sell advertising to the masses who are watching the individual pros (weekend surfers, runners, tennis players, and golfers).

    Gymnastics and figure skating don't attract a lot of casual weekend athletes who will spend big money on equipment (when was the last time you saw a Riedell add on TV)?

    All of the gals who were cohorts with my daughter gave up skating and chose College (smile).

    1. Jeff, really excellent insights as always

  4. Skating is so bizarre in the encouragement of young athletes learning such intense skills. The pressure it puts on your body is insane - think of the pressure their little hips and knees and ankles and backs feel from jumping. I skated in the REC STREAM as a kid and my hip hurts. I can't imagine how some of the competitive kids end up feeling. There's a pre-pubescent girl at my rink that has had major injuries in both of her feet and both of her knees. I'm not talking sprains - I'm talking injuries that will cause her issues as she grows and into adulthood. And I'm betting that every single rink has a similar kid. Yes, it may be easier to learn these skills as tiny little things, but it's certainly easier on your body long term to learn them as not such tiny little things. Let me tell you, if this was MY daughter, and I saw her developing bone issues that would make one leg grow longer than the other (or any other sort of major issue) you can bet I'd have her switched to girl scouts ASAP.

    Here in Canada, Skate Canada has tried to create a Collegiate Skate program, but it's still not recognised at most institutions as a 'sport' (ie: funding). And synchro teams are usually also not 'sports' at the University level (what college student has 4 grand for synchro???). I know at my U, I simply couldn't afford to join the team while the U funded track and football and soccer and, of course, hockey (and a host of other sports).

    I can deal with rink gossip and 'mean girls' and whatever. But this issue with little girls being trained like this is soviet russia is a really touchy subject for me.