Feb 15, 2014

The kids who won't go to the Olympics

I've been working with atypical skaters for several years-- kids who have special needs, first as a designated aide, and now as a Program Leader with the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA), part of a national movement of "SRAs," essentially park districts for individuals with special needs.

On Saturday mornings, I teach in a fast growing program called SPICE (SPecial skaters ICE Experience) with 20 kids and 20+ "buddies"-- high level skaters who work one-on-one with class participants.  SPICE was NSSRA's very first program, a couple of decades ago. Here's a typical class:

Staff and buddies are gathered in the lobby waiting for the skaters to start arriving. N, 14 and a huge flirt, has the buddies fighting over him. His regular buddy is absent; we finally settle on him helping one of the older girls to teach a new student.

S walks in with his beautiful service dog, repeating Hi Xan! in his booming voice several times. S is also a popular skater, both because he's a really good skater, and because he tells amazing stories while skating around.

C won't look at me, but I happen to know he's into lions and have brought a hand puppet.

J also knows better than to look at me, because I am really mean and have been making him stand up on the ice (I know, right?). P is usually quite quiet, and needs two helpers to stand on the ice, although he physically strong. Even with typical skaters, it's often one of the biggest challenges to help them understand that "slippery" is not the same as "impossible to stand on this." In fact, T, who was doing great last week, has decided that Dad is a way better option than the skating teachers. Like the hero that these kids often are, however, a few minutes into the class, and with the help of two buddies, his gliding like a pro.

C is complaining, but the lion is proving to motivate him.

M missed the first four classes-- we wondered where she was; turned out her registration had gotten lost. She showed up today, with pink hair! (I knew I liked that kid!) Last session she absolutely insisted that she had to have a pusher, but today she just zipped right past them without a thought.

G missed two sessions as well, for his bar mitzvah. His buddy also missed those sessions, because the kids have bonded so beautifully-- His buddy JG went to the service and party. These are the kinds of really beautiful things that happen at SPICE. G does not stand on his own and has a special adaptive frame so he can skate, with JG pushing. There is nothing quite so joyous as his laughter as he moves faster than anyone else on the ice.

Each class we sort out all the pairings, have a 10-minute class (typically swizzles, backward wiggles, two-foot and one-foot glides and other basic skills) and about 15 minutes of free skating (so that I have time to fight with J about standing up instead of scooting around on his butt).

These are just a few of the 20 skaters that I work with every week. They and their families are literally what keep me skating-- I've thought often about quitting. But knowing the difference I make in these lives, the volunteer buddies that I am inspiring, and the joy that all of us feel from these special classes keep me coming back for more.

Feb 12, 2014

The Olympic Effect

The winter session (generally starting somewhere late December to early February) always has the highest enrollment at most skating schools.

In an Olympic year, it's even more heavily enrolled, and this year in the Chicago area it's on steroids because of all the press about Jason Brown and Gracie Gold.

If you're feeling the Olympic Effect (that is, if you've caught the bug and signed yourself or your child up for skating), here's some basic information for skaters and parents:

What to wear to lessons
Dress for “sweater weather”: gloves, t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt and sweater (but no bulky parka-like jackets), tights and pants or leggings. Dress to respect the sport—you wouldn’t send your child to music lessons in muddy and torn blue jeans; don’t send them skating like this either. I don’t recommend skating dresses for children under Freestyle Two, as they don’t move very fast and may get cold.  Don’t wear large bulky coats, as it gets too hot, and the coach can’t see what the skater’s body positions are. Highly recommended for beginners to wear a helmet; flat-backed skateboard helmets are the best, followed by the “Ice Halo.”

Skates and blades
Fitting skates is not like fitting shoes.  A correctly fitted skate will feel snug, which children may characterize as “too tight.”  You need to know if it is merely uncomfortable when compared, for instance, to sneakers.  Skates may feel uncomfortable; if they actually hurt, try a different pair.  To put the skates on, unlace the boot as low as it will go, and pull up on the tongue to create the widest possible opening (Do the same when removing the skates).  When the skate is open like this, the foot should slide in with just a little pressure.  If it slides in extremely easily or must be forced, it may be the wrong size. You will almost never need a skate larger than your street shoe (although a knowledgeable dealer can help you buy a skate with some grow room).

Rental skates are usually perfectly fine for skaters through the Alpha or even Beta level.  Rentals are always the best choice for children in the Tot classes, due to cost and foot growth. Ask a pro (not the office personnel) to check the boot and blade condition.  At Robert Crown Center, if you find a rental skate that you particularly like, note the shelf number (as opposed to the size) and always ask for that pair of skates by number.

Used skates can be purchased at many pro shops and used goods stores.  Get a good fit—never buy a skate that is too big; some growth room is fine, but seldom more than a half size.  The ankle should not be too creased and the interior padding not too compressed. Don’t buy more skate than you need.  Beginning skaters need to learn to bend their ankles, which they cannot do in a skate that is too heavily constructed.  Buy a leather boot—molded plastic boots are not flexible enough and may lead to injury. Watch out for rusty or heavily nicked blades.  It is a good idea to get fitted at a reputable figure skate dealer; fitting does not obligate you to buy from him.

New skates are often the last choice for beginning skaters.  Children’s feet grow so fast that they often don’t get to the broken-in stage before they need a new size.  Some brands are so stiff that it interferes with learning.  The new “comfort skates” (Sof-Tec or other brands) that look like sneakers are a wonderful first skate for a beginner. Always go to a knowledgeable dealer to get fitted for new skates, even if you end up buying them at Sportmart.  The dealer can help you learn what to look for and will be happy to do so, as he’ll figure you’ll be back for accessories and future pairs of skates!  Be honest about your child’s skating level—don’t say you have a freestyle skater if you have a Gamma skater—it will make a huge difference in what the dealer recommends you buy.

Are you new to skating (and to Xanboni?) Tell us why you decided to start. All my fans-- tell your friends who've jumped in the deep end about the community here and on Facebook!

Feb 10, 2014

I'm supposed to watch the edge. Um, what's an edge?

Forget the edges. Forget the toe picks. Forget flutzing.

If you're watching the Olympics and can't tell what jump they're doing, here's some advice:

Don't worry about it.

Seriously, unless you're planning to become a fan, and watch all the time, and look at the protocols (never mind), it literally doesn't matter what jump they're going to do. They all look alike in the air. This is because they all ARE alike in the air. Once the skater has achieved orbit, the position and rotation and landing are identical for every jump.

Okay, incipient geeks, yes I hear you-- some skaters rotate to the left, some skaters rotate to the right. This changes the dominant side, but not the basic position. 'K? Can I get back to my post now?

Ditto the footwork-- 3-turns, choctaws, counters, rockers, brackets, walleys, twizzles, I could start making up words at this point and you'd have no clue.

But it doesn't matter. Just enjoy.

Now, that said, if you really want to know what's going on, forget about edges and toe picks. You have to watch a lot of skating to be able to pick up on this in the fraction of a second in which it occurs. You want to watch the entrance.

We'll start with the easy one. Everyone recognizes the axel because it takes off forwards. (Skating geeks shut up-- I know that all jumps take off more or less forwards. You're just confusing the issue.) The axel has no backwards set up. In fact, doing a challenging backwards pattern before entering the forward take-off edge will earn you points. (Listen for comments about "difficult entry to that axel.")

And this is the secret of recognizing jumps. You'll often notice that the commentators know what the athlete is going to do before they do it. This is partly because they have a cheat sheet, but also because they know the set ups-- they are primed to watch for a certain jump because the set up is part of the skill. Skaters who don't "telegraph" their jumps (Yuna Kim, Jason Brown, Patrick Chan, and Michelle Kwan come to mind) are a lot of fun to watch because of this; it is also one of the things that makes their programs flow so beautifully.

Technically a toe-assisted counter jump off a back outside edge. Forget it. Watch for a long shallow edge, usually the longest entry edge of all the jumps, and skaters tend not to precede it with footwork. This is because it is a "counter" jump-- the rotation is in the opposite curve of the entry edge (for people who jump to the left, it will be a clockwise entry edge and a ccw rotation). This is changing, because any difficult entry gets you points. Again, listen for the comment about difficult entry.

Skaters often put the lutz in a corner, to give them the maximum entry distance. One of the things that used to make Yuna Kim's lutzes difficult to spot were short entry edges, and she would place them in the middle of the ice, where no one ever does lutzes.

The lutz is the jump where skaters put one or both arms over their heads, the "Tano" or "Rippon" positions. I've also seen this done with the axel.

This is the jump with the most "edge calls"-- taking off from the wrong edge-- because the counter rotation can force the foot onto the wrong edge at the last minute if you don't time it just right.

The flip is a toe assisted jump from a back inside edge, but watch for a long forward edge and/or a short (two-three moves) footwork sequence before the skater does a quick turn for the back take off.  Ironically, after judges starting really hammering skaters for "flutzing" their lutzes (flipping to an inside edge at the last moment, which makes it a flip), skaters fixed that and started "flupping" their flips-- turning to an outside edge, making it a lutz. The only reason you care, is because a take off from the wrong edge is one of the things that mysteriously lowers the scores.

Outside edge jump with no toe assist. However, you want to watch for another longish entry, on a much tighter curve than either the Lutz or the Flip. Skaters will often cross their feet and appear to be lifting off a crossed two-foot glide. This is also a common second or third jump in a combination.

Toe loop
Same entry as the loop, but with a toe assist. This is one of the hardest jumps to spot, as most skaters find it easy, so they throw it in willy nilly, especially if they've missed an earlier jump and need to add points. It's a common first quad jump, and also common in the "bonus"-- the second half of the program where you get extra points for every jump. Another common jump in combination.

A common "warm up" jump (the other is the double axel), that is, a jump in the first few seconds of the program to get the feel of the ice. This is another "edge" jump, with no toe assist, often telegraphed by a very curvy entry edge and an upper body wind up. This and the toe loop are generally the only quads you'll see (this has to do with the actual number of rotations in the air, which is fewer than four, trust me.) Matthew Savoie used to do a triple (quad?) salchow out of a back hydroblade position. Amazing.

Footwork sequence: jumps
Walleys, bunny hops, albrights (also called scissor and mazurka), splits, falling leafs (falling leaves?), Russian splits (Jason Brown anyone?), and this year one of the women has a one-foot axel in her footwork. (Can't remember who it was, but I almost dropped my coffee.) These generally don't count as jumps; they're calculated in the necessary turns and changes of direction for the footwork.

Footwork sequence: turns
WHO CARES. This is the part of the program where the skaters generally have the chance to create some art, to connect with the audience, to sell the program, to tell a story. If they aren't doing this, if they're just "technical" skaters with the requisite number of turns, edges, changes, etc. then they are doing it wrong.

Any questions?

Why I do this

Overheard at the class next to mine:

Skater to coach: How do you have such good ideas!?

Coach: Oh, I guess just because I've been a teacher for a long time.

Skater: But they're so good!

Coach: Well, why do you think they're good ideas?

Skater: Because it's really helping me! 

Feb 8, 2014

Choosing a skating camp: What to look for

Choosing camp isn't a terribly linear endeavor; it's more of a matrix of cost, goals, and needs. I firmly believe that the place to start is with the cost. Don't research the ideal camp, get all excited about it, and then discover you need to take out a second mortgage to afford it.

Remember to consider all the factors likely to draw dollahs from your wallet-- basic tuition, room and board, travel, spending money, extra coaching, uniforms, books or equipment, etc.  Some camps have a basic package, and then charge extra for specialty classes, private lessons, celebrity guest coaches, etc.

Know what type of skater you have (and be honest with yourself)
National trajectory? (Novice test and triple jumps at age 12 or so); strong recreational skater (planning to test through Senior by end of high school, does some competitions); competitive (planning to test through Senior, goes to qualifying competitions); recreational skater (favorite activity is the ice show, but still committed to testing and improving); social skater ("what's testing?").

That said, a good summer program has the ability to move your skater onto a different track-- from strong recreational, for instance, to competitive, or competitive to national ambitions.

How much skating will my kid put up with
A recreational, half-day program is going to have an hour and a half of ice in two 45-minute sessions. Skating this much every day is going to result in improvement, but it's not going to get you to nationals. On the other hand, a more high-powered program with 4 to 6 hours of ice and off-ice training every day is not going to be a fit for someone who's in it for the social scene.

Who is coaching
Don't be dazzled by a name, nor dismiss the unknown coach. Check out who their students are. A coach with multiple competitors and zero recreational skaters is not going to be a good fit for your recreational skaters. (Many highly competitive coaches also teach tot classes; I'm not saying competitive coaches are terrible recreational coaches, but that coaches who don't like to teach recreational skaters are not going to be good with a recreational skater just because it's your kid.)

Find the coach who teaches kids like yours, or like the skater your kid wants to be.

Conversely, a coach who has never had competitive success is unlikely to start with your kid. Doesn't have to be Frank Carroll, but some competitive record is a good indicator. (For the most part. All coaches have to start somewhere.) And camps are a great place to network-- both for your skater and your regular coach to start making those very important connections.

Camps will publish bios of their faculty, generally on the website, but read between the lines. A coach who has really had international competitors will generally specific at least the competition, if not the name of the skater or skaters. Professional Skaters Association rankings are another good indicator of how honest a bio is. If the coach is claiming multiple high powered competitors but not noting their PSA ranking (not the same as rating), take the bio with a grain of salt. 

Who goes (or has gone) to this camp?
Check your goals-- national competition? Senior test? Pizza night?-- and see which program has students that share them. Programs that have famous "graduates" will promote this. I would rely less on endorsements, as those can be, literally, bought.

Feb 5, 2014

Choosing a skating camp: types of camps

I was reminded by a fan message on Xanboni Facebook that it's February-- time to sign up for summer camp.

The skating magazines are full of shiny ads and the Lobby Moms are judging you (you know they are-- they question is, do you care?) and your kid wants to go to sleep away skating camp (and soccer camp and eco camp and theater camp, too. What do you mean I can't do all of them?)

How do you choose. I think I need a flow chart for this (where is St. Lidwina when I need her), but here's a list instead.

Day camp or sleep away?
All about cost, really.  The boarding camps are expensive on their own, and astronomical if you add in private lessons, which are not always included-- check the literature. If privates are available with a celebrity coach add a couple of zeros to the cost.

Home rink camp
Most rinks will have a regular programs run and promoted by the rink and staffed by skating school staf. These might be half day or full day; they might incorporate other sports, crafts, community services, etc.

Celebrity Day Camp
If you're in a large metro area, chances are there's a prestige coach running a summer program near you, saving you the boarding cost. This is basically super-home-rink camp (hey, it's someone's home rink), with a premium for the prestige coach. (Who may or may not have all that much face time with your kid. More on that in the next post)

Coach camp
Depending on the rink, "Coach camp"  can be run on regular ice run and promoted by individual coaches, and sometimes restricted to their private lesson students only; or on purchased ice, where those participating have the sessions to themselves. (This happens mostly with high powered coaches, and/or at rinks that don't allow coaches to run their own camps on regular ice.) I ran Xanboni Camp for several years, with 75 minutes of ice, 40 minutes off-ice and an hour of craft or story time. It was a blast.

The cheapest option of course will be the rink camp. Don't let coaches tell you coach camp is cheapest; some will try to disguise the cost by billing you only for the group coaching time upfront-- you'll have to pay for ice and privates separately.

However, it's not only about the cost. So what do you look for in a camp? First, you need to know your goal (as all good readers of Xanboni understand). Here's some reasons to go to skating camp:

Gotta park the kid somewhere
Rink Camp. 'nuff said.

All her friends are doing it
I say this somewhat facetiously, but it's actually a factor. Skating is  hugely social endeavor, more, I think, than team sports, because kids are on their own during practice so much. If all her friends are doing a particular camp, and it's one you can afford, then sure, choose that camp. Just be aware that skating may not be the central motivation!

Summer is a great time to work on a test, a new skill, or a new program. This means you need to choose a camp either with a coach that knows your skater, or one that specifically promotes skill development or testing.

I don't judge. If working around skaters training at a high level, attending the "name" rink, or working with a celebrity coach are important to you, and you can afford it, then go for it. I have never heard anything negative about Little Suzy from Spokane at places like Ice Castles. These programs get good reputations for a reason-- they're good.

If you can honestly say you have a skater on a national trajectory, talk to your coach (TALK TO YOU COACH) about programs where s/he and the coach can meet people-- judges, officials, other skaters, specialty coaches. The coach will know which programs these are, will have preferences for various programs because of the connections s/he already has, etc. Families do sometimes pay some or all of a coach's expenses to basically go to camp with the kid. Check with the program to find out what the arrangements are for guest coaches.

But I'm an adult!
Oh good heavens, save your pennies and go to adult skating camp. There are lots of them, with great adult-sensitive coaching for all level skaters and I universally hear wonderful things about them from friends who have gone.

Next: what to look for in a camp.