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.