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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

- skate personality stew

Many of the young teen ladies at the rink get torn between their art and their desires to achieve certain technical aspects of their performance. This conflict seems to span four dimensions. On one axis you have the battle toward artistic expression, on another vector you get the strivings for technical accomplishments, on the third axis you have the whole issue of body shape, and finally you encounter the issue of fitting in with society's expectations for a young lady (at their age mostly their parents' expectations, but there can also be peer "drama" here as well). It is a rather complicated formula of flavors, and the most successful skaters have a lot on their plate.

How does the mixing and matching of forces create the personality of the skater? The big popular shows with hundreds and thousands of viewers -- the finals that you see on TV -- really don't do anything for the skaters. It is art of course, and it is a performance with all of the inherent issues of performance-art. But it is too big and noisy for the skaters to gain much critical value out of the process for themselves.

The small practice sessions though (the club events in front of the parents) are really where learning and social processes transpire. For one thing, the club events are small enough that the skaters can pay attention to the thoughts of the audience. They get immediate feedback about the impact of their performance. But more important is the peculiar characteristic of the audience itself: these observers see hours upon hours upon hours of skating. They know every move and they pay attention to the flexing of every muscle and the impact of every jump on each joint and bone. They are not easily impressed and they aren't distracted much by costuming flash... they comprehend the amount of effort and practice that goes into each and every move. And they all have the skaters' best interests at heart.

How the skater interacts with this smaller audience then influences her choices, which then determines her path. Each skater faces a choice of focus between art and technical merit. It isn't exactly a trade-off one-for-one; it is possible to advance both (and in fact the best skaters do advance both). At the middling stage though -- that point where a skater has reasonable control of her body, a fair number of moves and skills, and some experience performing on the ice -- you quickly see that a skater tends to drift toward one seasoning or another.

They can drift toward the flavor of being technically competitive, where they battle each other to see who can spin the fastest or do the most complicated laybacks or be the first to land a triple Axel consistently. Or they can drift to the aroma of showmanship, where they provide graceful entertainment to the audience.

Sometimes a gal is "pre-selected" for the competitive bent, either by her body build or by the influence of her parents. The more robust girls -- the large-boned -- have natural impediments to achieving much of the technical expectations. And yet they often are adequately compensated by being blessed with a certain amount of grace and artistic expression. Some of the more lankly gals don't have a lot of grace, but their physics allow them superior technical ease.

So all in all it’s a big complicated stew.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

- smoothe

While watching some intermediate skaters in Pasadena, I was most impressed by a particular gentleman who stroked more smoothly than I had ever seen. I will see if I can describe it in enough detail to give you a sense of the effect of this approach. The technique seems to extend somewhat beyond what one would learn straight up in a stroking class. I saw an article about this type of skating once by a Russian ice dance team (it may have even been called Russian stroking), but I can no longer find its reference. In any case let me describe the impression I got and you can take it from there.

If you were to take a high-speed camera and some LED lights marking an outline of a skater's boot on a single solitary stroke, and then graph them onto a piece of paper, I expect (for the typical skater) you would see a slanting line extending downward at more or less constant velocity, of approximately a fixed angle of descent. It would look like a wedge, or the hypotenuse of a triangle, until the skate hit the ice. This is well and good and is rather what one would expect from managing the leg muscles at a constant rate of extension. I doubt it is mechanically optimal and it doesn't look particularly elegant.

Now picture a graph of a curve that starts more steeply and then gets shallower, approaching the floor axis more and more gradually. In math we say that the curve has an asymptote, like a graph of y = 1/x. Is it possible to have each stroke appear this way?  In my lifetime I have seen perhaps two people in person skate like this, and it is quite a striking visual effect. It makes it appear that they are achieving very high transfer-of-energy productivity to the ice, with little or no wasted impact friction. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

- a fix

Once in a while I get to thinking about the state of the "sport" and although I am now actually outside looking in, I do still get somewhat cheesed off at skating today compared to my recollections of its grace and class when l was younger. At the same time, aside from joining the cacophony of bloggers who feel the same and create electronic messages that flow into reader's brains, is there much else that I can do about the present morass? Well yes, unfortunately so. I could found an alternative to ISU.

As I am by profession however a software geek and nominally by free-choice a writer, let's consider this for now just a thought experiment. Would it be possible, what might it achieve, and where would we encounter the major challenges. After reading this if you, as a studious parliamentarian, feel so motivated as to actually carry out these tasks then you have my blessings (and more power to you).

So I hereby propose the Youth Performing Skaters Organization -- the YPSO if you will. Its targeted beneficiaries are youth aged 8 to 20 who regularly skate artistically in front of an audience. Its charter is to promote the long-term comfort, safety, and satisfaction of the participants (including their parents, coaches, and audience members) and to guide the harmonization of rules and services promulgated by the national level skating organizations that may overlap in scope.

Yeah I know, boring bureaucratic hogwash. Yet it's focused to specific ends that the present hierarchy isn't. So say that you're all on board with this. Now what? Well to actually establish such a thing you need to bootstrap a group of relevant and interested experts and participants and create some actual bylaws. I suppose you could do this with a Kickstarter project or some such tool; say you set a funding goal of having a hundred prospective members each providing $1000. Donors who agree to abide by the charter and who pass a certain amount of vetting become "charter members" and get to create the bylaws.

Of course you'd want to assure a fair mix of representative interests: singles skaters, pairs, dance, ice theater, and their respective coaches. Some trainers and sports medicine folks. A couple language and cultural boffins. Some marketing and media types. A few rink owners, a renewable energy representative. And some skate parents, naturally.

So there you go, now you have a group of folks to work with. You next need to mutually create and agree to the bylaws that specify how YPSO will run, keep and suspend members, organize standing committees, hold meetings, resolve problems, yada yada. A good six months of wrestling with best practices and attorneys, certainly.

Then comes the real work.

YPSO will need some initial regular fundraising, with all the politics that implies. It will need to deal with the rules and legalities for a disciplinary committee. It will need to develop a scorekeeping methodology and scoring software. It will need to handle contract negotiations with vendors and media. It will need to establish accounting for startup travel costs and justification for a future budget. It will need to handle auditing and credentialing, copyrights and IP legal matters, and create policies that promote comfort, health and safety. Finally it can think about curation and musing of the art form.

Heck I'm not saying it would be easy, and after the bylaws are established you've still probably got a solid two years of work before you produce anything influential, but it's a start. Of course it's easier to blog concerns and flay one another with comments, but when blades scritch ice the Doing will trump the Writing. Just saying.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

- comedy

A comedy routine is one of the most difficult light entertainment routines to skate. Several factors contribute to this difficulty. For one, you will understand the basis for comedy either from your innate personality trait -- if you're the class clown -- or you will develop it from a keen sense of pratfall and irony (as few class clowns take up skating this means most comedic routines develop from pratfall and irony).

And one of the tougher things to do is to "pretend" to muff a skating move. Seriously, a mistimed pratfall on ice is dangerous. And skating irony tends to be very "inside" -- it relates to plays on existent moves. Only a narrow window of side possibilities exists however to parody a skating move, although often props come in handy here. Yet skating with props also present their own difficulties: props tend to either dynamically alter your center of gravity or confound speed dynamics by adding wind interference. In any case skating a comedic routine means dealing with physics outside of the ordinary; it expands the range of what you might otherwise attempt and rather forces you to stress the boundaries of your familiar physics.

Despite the challenge of skating a comedic routine, it is valuable in how it broadens your aura. First it opens you up to self ridicule -- it destroys the common fault of taking yourself too seriously. One of the first steps in accepting others is to admit your own imperfections. Making a fool of yourself is a sure way to get there. Once you obsess less over your own activities you become more observant of the little foibles of others, and hence become more able to refine yourself.

Finally, skating for laughs improves your audience awareness. Unlike a dramatic program where you are concentrating on expressiveness and performing to the music, you need to tune a comedy routine in front of observers. How else do you know if you are being funny? One thing you learn rather quickly is that we each are rather poor at assessing how entertaining we actually appear to others; a part of developing a sense for this awareness comes from learning to "love" a different part of an observer's brain. Once you become unfixed on your own self obsessions you grow into more social, sociable skating. And it's the most difficult things you do that help you grow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

- not baseball

When I visit local competitions, nobody is in the audience outside of some parents and a few skaters from the club. This makes sense if you view a local meet the same as say, a little league baseball game -- the little league stands are also just filled with parents and siblings. There's a little league game every weekend, the sport is there to burn off energy and teach the young kids good sportsmanship, and if you miss the game this time you can go next week and it will still be the same.

But a skater attends a local competition maybe three or four times a year. It takes months of practice to reach reasonable competency on a skating program, and there's the added expense of coaching and a skating costume. Practicing for the event is a five-hour-a-day endeavor, six days a week. Sorry, even a local skating competition is much more like a college baseball playoff game than like a little league weekend scrimmage.

The other place where this analogy breaks down is that the skill gap between little league compared to MLB is magnitudes wider than that same gap between a local skating competition compared to, say Worlds. For example I've attended some local Open competitions where a budding elite world-class skater would show up and skate, either to get in a good competition-mood practice session, or to motivate the friends in her club. Can't say though I've ever heard of a little league game where Kershaw pitched an inning or two.

A great deal of this difference in the sports naturally flows from the paucity of participants in figure skating (compared to baseball), and the compressed timescale over which competitive participation is viable. Skaters and little ballplayers can start at five and six years old, but you don't see a lot of Grand Prix skaters past the age of 25. A good number of MLB gents are in their late 30's.

Also different from baseball, there are no minor-league clubs in figure skating: everything is based upon individual athletes who affiliate with a local club forever (until the USFSA sponsors them globally). Ashley Wagner skates for Wilmington when she is a twelve year old novice as well as when she is the national champion runner-up. As a skater, this puts you in the "big leagues" pretty much as soon as you qualify for Nationals.

So why are local skating competitions so poorly attended? Besides simply a lack of marketing I can understand several other reasons: it's because watching the competition is cold and boring, it takes so long, there isn't enough variety, and the seats are hard without a backrest. If you're not an aficionado then there simply isn't much to see here.  Frankly, in the United States figure skating's present appeal as a sport is rather limited.

It didn't always used to be that way. Back fifteen, twenty years ago you would get a reasonable crowd at the local competitions. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and neighbors a short drive away would all show up to enjoy the music and skating. It was more like coming to watch an inexpensive amateur Ice Capades. People could spend a couple of bucks for a couple of hours of artistic entertainment.