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?


  1. I've witnessed a coach firing a student because of behavior not unlike the one in this post. The difference was that the coach did it in collaboration with the parent and they supported each other in telling the skater. The skater needed to mature or change and that wasn't going to happen without a 'shock to the system'.

    Firing a skater by text is beyond the pale and unprofessional. It sounds like the coach had someone lined up to fill a slot and just wanted an excuse to get rid of the skater.

    1. Ah, that is a deeply cynical interpretation. I like the way your mind works.

  2. Oh, yuck. That is so unprofessional.

    Obviously I don't know what happened between them but that's horrible.

    Kids do bad things sometimes. If something doesn't go well and she throws a tantrum, it's not that big of a deal. Emotions can run high at competitions and I can definitely imagine someone having a little breakdown. The coach should have spoken to the parents and the student about it and the skater should have been reprimanded, not disgraced. I'm sure she feels embarassed enough about throwing a tantrum in public.

    To be honest, I don't think that being unfocused is a good reason to ditch a student either. Not eveyone is a super dedicated Olympic hopeful.

    Sorry for the huge comment, but behaviour like this is just sad. I hope the girl keeps skating! There are bad people in every industry, she just has to pick herself up and keep going. :)

    1. Thanks H&P! Sometimes that sympathetic fellow-traveler is just what my readers need! And as far as long comments, no worries, you don't even make the top twenty. Write on! ;)

  3. I heard about a situation where a coach admitted to a student they treated the student differently/badly all because the coach could not separate the feelings felt toward the student from those felt towards the parent. Blackballing is a kind way of putting it.

    1. I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I do disagree with the method-- this coach should have told the parent. I have to say, this is a common issue. I have dropped students, on other pretexts (usually "scheduling difficulties")
      , because the parent was so unbearable.