This blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences from ten years as a skate dad. For those of you sitting with your jackets in the bleachers, first I salute you, but second I want to give you an honest sense of what you are in for and what to expect. Ice skating is both a trying and a glorious sport, but it doesn't happen without the special group of folks who cheer, support, and console the participants. This is dedicated to you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

- meaning

I like to see skaters who understand and imbue the sport with more than just "it's a contest to get a trophy medal." I want to see something much grander. In your own mind, what's the highest spiritual purpose you could possibly ascribe to your skating?

Make your skating about that.

Monday, February 17, 2020

- jump

In an earlier post I squirmed over watching skaters pop their jumps. I got some pushback so let me try restating my position with a bit more nuance. Obligatory disclaimer: personally I don't skate; this impression is just from inference (and thousands of hours of watching skating).

When you're up mid-spin in your Axel, the muscular work consists of fighting off the centrifugal force that wants you to extend your arms and thighs. This effort consists of squeezing "in." All you have to do is relax and the centrifugal force will automatically take over and "pop" you: your arms go out and your thigh lifts up and out, slowing your spin. The reptile-brain feeling on popping a maneuver is "bah, I give up."

Physics *always* rejects the idea of the body spinning three times in the air. Hence initially jump training must overcome this natural inclination to relax. If you get "used to" a certain autonomic response (strength? balance dynamics?) as a requirement to finish the jump, and suddenly in competition that feeling fights you back and you give up, you pop.

Landing more jumps is about handling the fight-back and small mid-air corrections instead of giving up. The trick is being able to know from experience what you are capable of recovering. Jump 2% off, yeah I can recover this one. Jump 8% off... oh-oh, pop. Skaters who avoid popping consistently work on expanding that percentage of recoverability.

Still though, even the best skaters can't recover a jump that is 5 to 6 percent "off." So most good jumpers get to be good jumpers by refining their takeoff.

Given my many years of rink presence, after a fifth of a second from your liftoff I can discern what is going to happen. At that point eighty per cent of the jump parameters are predetermined: climbing speed (hence height), body slant angle, slant progression (tilt vector), and ice surface vector. Rotational velocity though is still up in the air, so to speak. (It must be odd to sit next to me in the stands and hear me quietly say oh-oh on a takeoff, only to see the tumble a second later.)

So the key to not popping is two parallel tracks: first, better recovery, but ultimately having consistent takeoffs with the "correct" mix of factors for your body type and program.

I don't mind if you have to pop a triple that you can usually make, but are missing due to ice conditions or competitive nervousness that caused you to take off badly. Fine, better to pop it (safely) if it's outside of that five per cent that you might otherwise recover.

I know however that you practice your jumps an hour every day, so by now you have more than a vague idea how (in)consistent you are in your takeoffs. Yes it's easy to "pop" if your takeoff failed. Still I feel it's a cheat to take a jump into a competition when you're so inconsistent on the takeoff that you pop it half of the time in practice anyhow. Thinking that you maybe "might get lucky" and score big if you nail the takeoff diminishes the spirit of a competition. I don't want to see your luck, I want to see your skill.

I'm wondering if you need to stand up to your coach and say "I am not ready for this yet in competition; I am not consistent enough."

Okay that's a lot of preaching from somebody who doesn't actually skate, but I am pretty sure this is what I've seen.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

- styling

How do you go about composing your program's elements so that you can skate with style? Which of your moves are more conducive to expressing your style? A pancake spin is a pancake spin is a pancake spin: since the posture determines the position of your legs and one arm (unless you can somehow hold the position without grabbing an ankle) this leaves only one limb free for embellishments, and how can you be gracefully stylish from a pancake? Well I suppose you can be a tad bit expressive, see for example this video.

Also some transitions clearly allow for greater styleability: a move that is difficult to enter or that requires rapid footwork and body realignment leaves little maneuvering room for expression. How you finish an element also determines your freedom to play: exiting off-balance or with too little velocity will limit your options.

Where the styling happens isn't necessarily obvious from first inspection since it's hidden by coaching pedagogy: nobody actually learns their moves focused on style and then working outwards; this would be an inside out way to learn. You tend to build elements from the "committed" limbs, and combinations of elements by the postural flow or velocity required to make the transitions.

Style proclaims its gracefulness in negative space: you express it beyond the limb postures required with the motions that aren't already spoken for. Style is that part of you that isn't otherwise already committed.

Skating for style therefore requires you to plan a program differently. Since you express style with your free limbs this requires that you use more "open" moves, with as much attention paid to exits and transitions as to the elements themselves.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

- jump practice

I spent a couple hours on Sunday at the Toyota Sports Center freestyles past the Airport, and either by reputation (or because Culver Ice is now closed or both) it was a bit too busy, really. It seems they run "open" freestyles where  anyone can show up with any skill level, so some national caliber juniors were practicing triples along with novices trying to hold a steady spiral. The city power cut off around 9:00 with 10 seconds of total blackout until the emergency lights came on -- talk about a scary situation during a freestyle! Rink designers please pay heed: this makes an excellent argument for a couple of small skylights or high transom windows (as long as they don't let the sunlight shine directly on the ice).

Anyhow while watching the more adept skaters practice their elements I was drawn to the difficulty and disconnect between an Axel during freestyle and actually jumping one during your program. The etiology of the issue is down to your horizontal vector -- the speed you travel across the ice when you launch and when you land your jump. At a busy freestyle you avoid other skaters, look for an open place to jump, and vary your stroking speed constantly. During a program you have the entire ice to yourself, are stroking and keeping time to the music, and trying to get full rink coverage by maintaining an elegant velocity. And hence the rub: if you practice your jumps at a slow horizontal velocity during your freestyles, then you are going to herkily jerkily slow down your program when it comes time to launch. Or if you keep your rhythm and speed to launch faster than you've practiced then you will yaw during your spin and additionally land and check with a pressure on your edges to which you are unaccustomed.

I guess what I am asking, dear readers, is shouldn't you always practice your jumps with the same smooth stroking lead-in and velocity as you are expecting for when you are jumping them in your program?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

- applauding growth

At local events one encounters a huge variety of participants. When I visit a competition to watch my daughter skate my role is mostly to cheer for these other skaters. When the little kids hit the ice -- the ones that are six through eight -- they have only been competing for maybe two years. While their parents, grandparents, and extended family cheer in the stands, they are still intently working on their own self-esteem. No matter the quality of their performance, once they finish I gently clap courteously.

Even at starting levels I can tell which kids have natural ability, which are just skating for diversion, and who is on the ice because their parents want them to be involved in sports. Of the twenty tots skating a local competition one or two will clearly stand out as passionate. They may not yet have skills, balance, or grace, yet you can still see they have the heart to practice seriously and to study the art. These are the kids that extend a bit beyond their natural capabilities, when they fall they get right back up and continue onward. These are the tikes that garner my heartiest applause.

The middle age group -- kids nine through eleven -- are an interesting bunch to watch, and they skate all over the map. Some are beginners who struggle with their balance or edge work. Many have already been skating for five or six years and are just now reaching their point of frustration. Both the late starters and the frustrated earn my courteous applause. This is also the age though where several of the skaters bloom with their grace and class. Some display an inkling of audience awareness, or might use their hands to express feelings. It is quite clear that a select few of these skaters actually "have it". Even without a firm set of jumping skills, these skaters with class or grace merit my hearty applause.

This is also the age where most skaters develop some semblance of physical maturity: their bodily proportions approach the components they will manage for the remainder of their craft. This can be a rather painful realization; ineffective leg muscles hinder a lanky eleven-year-old boy from progressing to nationals (no matter how hard he practices). I still clap enthusiastically for the teenage skaters with challenging bodies and lots of heart, even though I sense they will only attain the mediocrity of where their bodies leave them stranded.

Very rarely though you spot the nine, ten, or eleven year old that has the appropriate skating body matched with blooming grace or class. It is as plain as day that the skater has national "potential." I expect more from them -- clearly, if they have the native ability and talent, I want to see that they have devoted enough practice to their balance, expressiveness, and skill, and that they have honed their craft. I judge them more harshly because I know that in their future they will face a tougher appraisal of their skating. When they nail a challenging element though I will often compliment them off-ice. "Hey, that was a great toe loop." They'll say thanks and be proud that a total stranger appreciated their efforts.

Then we get the group of the serious older skaters, twelve and above. In a local competition you see a definitive split in talent: the kids either skate for fun, or are daily skaters striving for a national rating. I am courteous to those skating for fun, but the committed regulars receive my especially supportive scrutiny. I am judgmental in a way that aims to improve their execution. There's an ongoing mental communication with these serious skaters -- that was a nicely centered spin, that was an especially expressive layback. If I see them off-ice I will compliment them with a nod and a smile. At this level they know what they are doing and tend to be overly self-critical against their adversaries; my role is to boost their self esteem in a way that doesn't swell their head.

Being a conscientious skate parent is a lot of work. The trick is to keep the kids actively engaged in the sport in a neutral-buoyancy fashion. It's about the humble acceptance of a quiet, non-dramatic, and equaniminous glamour.