Aug 30, 2015


Reposted by reader request.

Figure skating is way behind other youth and recreational sports in not only developing, but even in tolerating safety gear.  I have had coaches contradict me in front of parents when I have suggested safety gear as rudimentary as gloves and hats. Adults who wear knee and wrist guards are ridiculed and often, as happened recently, feel compelled to apologize for using this basic protection. Padded boards are not even considered because of the expense, and yet padded boards would have prevented two career-ending injuries at the Ice Rink of the Damned. So I guess two crippled children is considered a reasonable trade off.  All national and international events now have padded boards. (Write your local and state elected officials demanding padded boards at ice rinks.)

Anyway, all polemics aside, here's a guide to helmets.

Hockey helmets
Many rinks require helmets for skaters in hockey skates. If you're going to be playing hockey, then go ahead and invest in this. If you're just in hockey skates for spit and giggles, any helmet is fine, but you really should be in a helmet if you're not experienced in hockey skates.

Bike helmet
Never wear this type of helmet for skating.
Pointy back bike helmets like the one pictured should never be worn on the ice. If you fall on the back of your head the pointed extension can force your neck forward, adding whiplash or worse to your woes.

You also need to wear it properly. Wearing a helmet too far forward or too far back is pretty much equivalent to not wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet that is too small or too big is also pointless. Never wear a hat under your helmet, even outdoors. I always wonder, when I see a helmet precariously perched on top of a hat, if parents are expecting heavy objects to drop directly onto the top of the skater's head, because that is the only scenario in which this makes any sense.

 Skateboarder's helmet
This is the best type of helmet for skating, largely because it was designed for, well, skating. Google image search gives you the idea.

Soccer helmet
I've seen some kids wearing these lately; I suppose they like them because 1. they're discreet and 2. they've already got one. They're for head shots (see? other youth sports have figured out that head injuries are a bad idea and should be mitigated.) But unless you get the full-head ones, they don't really do the job, because they have no padding on the back. These are getting the idea, though. Skating falls do not tend to be the 20-foot projectile falls you're getting with bikes and skate boards. They're head knocks--you've already fallen and need something for that last 4 inches of air between your head and the ice.

Ice Halo
This is currently the only commercial helmet created especially for the ice. I've been wearing one for several months and can attest that they are comfortable, reasonably cool, and attractive. I think they're great. I don't get any remuneration from Ice Halo, but you  can get 5% off if you mention Xanboni when you buy one.

"Oh, but Johnny won't wear a helmet," says helpless mom. Fine, then Johnny doesn't get to skate, just as he doesn't get to play hockey without gear, or baseball without a cup, or soccer without shin guards. Really, folks, grow a pair. You're bigger than them.

Originally posted January 2012. 

Aug 20, 2015

The Trophy Controversy: how figure skating gets it right

My friend Josette Crosby Plank set off a firestorm by defending "participation trophies." I wish you could see her Facebook page, because it's been dominated by this since it went up. I've pretty much taken a vacation all week to keep up with it.

All I can say is, don't read the comments.

The issue at hand: youth sports that hand out trophies, ribbons, and medals like candy, regardless of skill or outcome. Pro? Make sure all the players feel like part of the team, and keep kids in youth sports. Con-- Special Snowflake Syndrome, wherein children are led to believe they are the center of the universe and deserve, if I may use internet parlance, All The Things.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the only child on my hockey team who did not get a letter or trophy, because I had not "earned" it. I did not then and do not now know what it was I was supposed to have done-- scored a goal? (I did, I played wing and I was good.) Make every practice and/or game? (I didn't, but I'm pretty sure other kids also didn't.) Blow the coach? Seriously, I have no idea.

What I do know is that I never attempted to play another intramural sport and started cutting P.E. Clearly they didn't want me, so why even try.

Figure skating has long had two tracks-- USFS, with a performance metric (i.e. the goal is to win*), and ISI, with an experience metric (i.e. the goal is to be there).

In local USFS competitions (called "non-qualifying"), each "flight" or group of competing skaters is competing for Gold-Silver-Bronze. Flights can be as small as 5 and as large as 15; some competitions put multiple flights at stake for a single podium. In the big competitions–Regionals, Sectionals, Nationals–the end game is those three medals at Nationals. Essentially, 50,000 kids competing for about 400 medals in the 4 skating disciplines at 6 skill levels.

In ISI, anyone who signs up "qualifies," even at the Worlds and national competitions. Everyone who skates walks away with a ribbon or trophy. Flights are limited to 8, but 5-6 skaters is more common, so you cannot possibly do worse than 6th, and Auntie Sue is going think that's pretty damn cool.

I think it's pretty damn cool, too, and apparently so does USFS because a few years ago they introduced something called "test track" for kids who aren't going to be competing for those 400 medals. Compete as a test track skater and you get that "participation" trophy.

But the really interesting thing is that, unlike other youth sports, kids can keep competing in ISI through a very high level-- the hardest test in figure skating isn't USFS Senior. It's ISI level 10. Kids with quads compete at ISI.

The kids absolutely understand the difference. Under 10, they like to win, but they like the hardware when they don't win. When they start getting good and/or ambitious, they universally switch to USFS, where the trophies have a different meaning.

And there's the rub: ISI trophies say "good for you"  in a meaningful way. They reward hard work and focus. They both reward and encourage motivation. USFS figure skating trophies say damn you're good!

It doesn't have to be either or: you can reward both winning and work. If figure skating can figure it out, the rest of youth sports can too.

*I actually don't believe that at the lower levels of USFS the goal is winning, however, top performance is the driving motivation. At the qualifying level, personal goals may vary, but the general idea is you want to win.

Aug 16, 2015

Will my coach blackball me?

This really happened

A lower-level skater just switched from ISI (where she was very successful) to USFS. She’s pretty young, and a bit of a social butterfly,  unfocused in practice, and prone to blow-ups. At her first USFS competition, she had a bad experience, complete with tantrum. The coach dumped them a week later via text, telling the mom she was a terrible parent in the process, and to forget about USFS, the kid should stick with recreational forever. The kid came through like a champ—acknowledged the inappropriateness of her reaction, and pledged to practice more effectively in the future. She wants to keep skating, but the mom is afraid the coach will “blackball” them and no one will want to take her on.
What happened. What to do.

This is what the kid is like. 
Deal with it. Literally.
You don’t get to coach the type of kid you want. You get to coach the kid in front of you. If a coach has a child who can’t focus, who won’t listen, who wants to chat either with the coach or with her friends, it is the coach’s job to give that kid a meaningful lesson that diminishes and does not reward these behaviors. If she keeps doing it, it’s not because she’s unteachable. It’s because the coach isn’t teaching her. And if the coach can’t teach her, he needs to tell the parents honestly that it might be a bad match, and help the parent find a different coach. (Hahahaha, I'm the only coach I know who has ever done this.)
But she’s kind of like this outside the rink, too. 
Kids have a personal style and some kids are not naturally focused. That said, if it's interfering with school and extracurricular stuff, you need to address it. I like using mindfulness exercises-  ask the child to tell me what he’s planning to do. Ask him to describe what he did after he’s done it (both positive and negative actions). Ask his permission to talk to him. You’ll be amazed at the response when you say “I have a suggestion, may I share it?”.
Parents with supposedly difficult kids should also try watching other kids to reassure themselves that theirs is not that different.

Switching from ISI to USFS 
It’s a very different culture, no question about it. But in neither is the emphasis on winning. The emphasis in USFS is performance, the emphasis in ISI is experience. Coaches need to prepare kids for the difference.
Why did she come in last?
Who knows.
Who cares.
The better question is, did she meet her personal goal for the skate, why or why not, and what can she do to correct this. If she didn’t have a goal (other than “win” which is not a good goal), then why not? (I’ll tell you why not–bad coaching).
Other good questions: did he skate as well as he usually does; did he have as much content as other kids in the flight; did he have any missed or illegal moves? And really, the coach should have talked to the skater about all the possibilities. The parent and the coach should encourage the skater to talk about expectations and goals-- the goal can NEVER be to win, the goal is "land every jump," "have a personal best," "watch 25 programs" etc. You reach for the things in your control at this level. Jason Brown can have a goal of “win the world championships.” Your kid just needs to land the double salchow in competition.
Parental nightmare: the public meltdown, or, kill me now. 
Don't engage, don't criticize. Just tell her "you're really upset" (i.e. acknowledge the validity of her feelings without approving of them) and then remove her from the location. I used to tell my kids "you're not allowed to have a tantrum here, it's against the rules, let's find some place without that rule." I would wait until later to talk about the correlation between practice and accomplishment. Kids aren't rational when they're melting down.

Fired via text, with an extra helping of I’m a terrible parent 
So much wrong with this. First, for a coach drop a kid via text, or worse, by simply not coming to lessons (this happens) is beyond unprofessional. For a coach to blame your parenting (or even bring it up) also beyond the pale.  Complain to the skating director.

Should she stick with USFS. 
She should stick with the goal she has set. If it’s compete in USFS then yes. But a bad experience with a coach can really damage a child, especially if she’s been told or it’s been implied that it’s her fault. But if you don’t have a coach you can’t do competitions.  After a bad experience, I’d leave it be while looking for a new coach. You might have someone in mind, or you might try doing only classes, no privates, for one session of classes at your rink-- still have her practice, but switch her lessons to class-only. And take whatever classes are offered in your area, as many as 3-4 a week with different coaches. What you're looking for is a coach that your child really connects with. That's your new private coach. Don't worry about the coach's "credentials" for now. Young kids need a coach with a heart, not one with a resume.

Can I be the coach? 
But you can help her learn how to work effectively on her own and in class.
Practice on her own should be set up with goals that she decides on herself. Every practice has a goal, even small silly ones "only talk to friends once while I'm on the ice" (make sure she has a funny thing to say to her friends so that they don't get mad at her, or make them a part of the pact); "only get off the ice twice," “Do every skill I know at least once”, “make up a sequence that uses every jump I know”; “try something new”. You get the idea. With my kids who have trouble focusing, I tell them one thing-- you have to stay on the ice and keep moving for 20 minutes. I don't care what they do with that time. They can skate in circles for all I care, the problem is not the skills, it's the attitude, so the thing to fix is the attitude.

One of the mindfulness exercises that I like is to announce your intentions or ask for help, i.e. at the beginning of class, have the skater tell the instructor "I'm hoping to pay really close attention today, can you help me with that" or make a skill-based request, “I want to land my loop today”. You get the idea. Again, she needs to lead this--if you set the goal or announce it for her, it's not going to be as effective.

And by the way don't talk about the practice or the competition on the way home in the car, unless the kid brings it up. Ask any former skater: this will be #1 on their list of things they hated the most.

The coach is going to blackball us. 
If he tries, again, it’s very unprofessional. And anyway, coaches need income, they're not going to care what this guy says. Blackballing is a myth at the lower levels. Further, coaches also have reputations. It's extremely likely that he's done it to others, too, and believe me every coach in the district knows it. Finally, gossiping, much less vilifying, students is in direct violation of PSA ethics so if something like this gets back to you, complain to your skating director and/or the PSA. 

At any rate, I'm not saying coaches don't talk about their students, but it's very rare to hear coaches really dumping on a kid.

It’s not about the Olympics 
At least, not yet. Right now it’s about using skating to give kids good experiences. Any coach who uses a bad experience, or a bad reaction to it, as an excuse to place blame is not a coach you want. Good riddance.

Do you have a horror story about a coach dumping you? What did you do?