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.


  1. Hi Xan,

    I think this post touches on a couple of distinctly separate issues -- one is Judging, and the other is a Skater's progress (and maybe a third is the parent's view of the whole thing). It's a triple cheeseburger with onions to chew on.

    Judging / Scoring: I've read all sides of this issue, from the arcane (see here: to the sublime (unabashed plug: Some skaters take it more seriously than others. Likewise parents.

    Progress / Trajectory: I almost think a National-level skater needs a certain personality flaw; some combination of fibre, compulsiveness, emotionalism, attentiveness, drive, discipline, pride, vanity, and urbanity (did I hit all the right adjectives here?). But skating is valuable even if you just skate the local competitions.

    Parents: Parents vary as much as skaters (another plug: Ultimately though the skater drives her progress and the parent gets out of the way.

    Overall I think skating is both bigger and smaller than all of this. Bigger in the sense that the Sport (perhaps like all sports) serves some higher purpose. Smaller in that for any individual skater, the intersection of that portion of their life that is /skating/ with that part that is /living/school/growing up/ both varies by person, and for a single skater varies as she matures.

    Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post!

    L.A. SkateDad

    1. Jeff, I love the idea that elite athletes succeed because of a personality flaw. That is an absolutely brilliant insight. You need to explore that on the blog!

    2. I'm curious as to why Jeff thinks it is a character "flaw" that allows the elite athletes to succeed. Perhaps it is the combination of their particularly unique set of physical and personality traits that allows them to not just focus on the task at hand, but also see the 'big picture' and to break down the steps to achieve their goals in a stepwise fashion, surrounding themselves with the right team, that leads them to their greater successes. I don't see that as a flaw...instead, just the right mix of nurture vs nature and timing.

    3. I agree with Jeff. As a skater myself, I can say that a lot of us tend to be compulsive. I know some people (including myself) who, if they sleep with one leg crossed over the other, will only sleep with the left leg crossed over the right leg because that is air position for (righthanded) jumps. Never the right leg over the left leg. When I am standing around somewhere bored, I turn my feet out and start doing ballet exercises. When my coach was skating, she used to stand in line at the store and do tiny hops up and down on her landing foot.

      Now whether skating helped make us compulsive or whether we were just compulsive to begin with is another question.

  2. I do agree with Jeff that the issues seem to be conflated a bit here.

    As far as comparing skaters... I try not to compare skaters. I try to compare skating. For free skates (not artistic programs)I tend to look at the skater's feet and body position in general. Two-footed landing? You can see (and hear) it if you watch.
    Crappy edges? Scrapey crossovers? That's what I tend to look at. Of course I'm not a judge.

    Along with motivation and trajectory might go natural talent. As I've said before, natural talent only takes you so far, and woe to the skater who has too much of it, because if you run out when you're Novice you are going to have a lot harder time learning how to really work than if that happens at, say, pre-juv.

    1. Natural talent has another pitfall as well-- everyone constantly telling you from the time you're three how talented you are. It not just makes it easier to acquire skills, it also makes a child feel like they don't *have* to work, and sometimes like they don't have to be very nice about it.

    2. Also, when things get tough they're more likely to think ” I'm not good at this” and just quit rather than seeing it as another skill to master with practice.