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.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

- stomach

No matter how you analyze it, spins are all about your stomach muscles. Speaking strictly from mechanical physics, three things kill a spin: misalignment of the weight distribution along the vertical axis, a shifting of that distribution off-axis, and precession.

As you practice your spins you tend to naturally compensate for misbalance by thigh and arm adjustments, but the foundation for all of these torque dynamics actually are based upon the position of your hips, your rear end, and the angle you maintain between them and your spine.

And this is all governed by taught, controlled stomach muscles. Are your spins unstable? Sit ups, my dear.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

- lucky

Something is messed up with the way we plan our practice and our competing. In a word, we somehow expect to be lucky. No one in their right mind plans a major endeavor under the assumption that everything will click just so, and yet as I watch the gals practice their programs that is exactly their approach.

Should you really be pushing yourself to the limits of your skills in your standard competition program? I don't think so; if you can only land a jump half the time in practice then how do you expect to land it when you are under stress and under the eyes of the audience and the judges?

I think you should skate the jumps you already are quite comfortable with; in other words your regular program should be easy, and slightly less than you can actually perfectly accomplish on a lucky day.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

- outside

Skating can be about projecting an imagination. This can happen two distinct ways however. Call the first way "from the inside" and the second way "from the outside."

From the Inside everything happens in your head, you have an idea of what you are creating and sharing that runs through your mind as you practice, and you share this same thing when you skate in front of an audience. It is a Performance.

Imagination from the Outside is different entirely. When you are practicing with your imagination outside, you have an idea, a template for what you wish to communicate, but it isn't cast in stone and it changes depending on the mood and who is watching. You become both connected and interacting with your environment and the spirits around you.

Skating with your imagination on the Outside is more then a performance: it is a Show.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

- classical

I am going to go way out on a limb and propose that generally, almost without exception, you should figure skate to classical music. You can once in a while, very occasionally, skate a popular song for a novelty program or in a show. But skating is such serious work that only classical music does it justice.

Classical music has Sweep, skating has Sweep. Classical music has Drama, skating has Drama. Classical music has sublime intricacy. Skating has sublime intricacy. Skating and classical music were just meant to go together.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

- the snap point

My daughter skates one of the best programs of her career and finishes fifth (out of seven). The judging was rather inconsistent: one judge rated her 3rd, one 7th, but the rest were generally middle ranges. I take the positive tack though: that makes her an average pre-preliminary, which I consider quite an accomplishment by and of itself.

I worry that she maybe felt a bit embarrassed by her placement, although I'm much prouder of her than she realizes. She will likely suffer a bit of soul searching, but I suspect her love of the sport will see her through. It's a long road to hoe, and the only thing that really matters after all these years is that she keeps making incremental improvements. So far that seems to be her direction, so that is all I ask, really.

And that is also what creates an artist: the ability to self-critique and review your own progress in the long run.

This is a peculiar odd sticky-point for me... by all rights, even though /I/ am aware of her progress, she needs to actualize the timeline and see her path for herself. I can support her, but it is not my place to make these realizations for her.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

- breaking free

When I watch an instructor teach, she looks at the present capabilities of her student, both physically and stylistically, and then she mentally chooses a reasonable target for a near-term objective that is reachable along the pathway of what she can ultimately expect from her skater. She then proposes: do "this," or "try it this way."

The skater tends to imbue from these instructions that "this" is the "correct" way to perform a particular move, whereas the coach's intentions may actually be to introduce a physical counter-action to inhibit something the skater is misperforming.

The coach is looking for a path to final perfection. The path itself, however, is not the goal. At some point the skater has to break free of the teaching.

At some point the skater needs to mentally internalize the actual goal, the objected and desired physical, stylistic, and performance effect, and then use all of her accumulated knowledge to create her own way of accomplishing it. She needs to blaze her own path.

The skater never stops learning but after a while she does stop being a student. And after a while her coach becomes less of a teacher and more of a mentor.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

- ice dance aesthetics

Ice dancing always bugged me as an aesthetic, not so much because the dancers aren't aesthetically pleasing (they are), but rather that their interpersonal interactions get in the way of their art. This may therefore seem counterintuitive, but the pairs I like the best skate perfectly synchronously yet with almost no personal interaction outside of what constitutes artistic expression.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

- a tough choice point

This is a fragile time for my daughter. She has numerous demands pulling at her soul and the same time her body is going through it's last major growth spurt.

Yesterday at a club event in Culver City, she finished eighth out of nine. I noticed while she was out on the ice that she isn't a little girl anymore -- quite suddenly her body size has shifted and she is no longer a girl. She is fifteen now. She is growing into an adult, growing into the body that she will inhabit for the next ten years or so.

It was quite obvious from the gals doing axels on the ice that there is a severe split at this point -- those whose bodies develop into slender enough to do axels, and those that don't. Some of it is just circumstance too -- my daughter is in a situation where it will take enormous self-control for her to limit her food intake and simultaneously get enough aerobic exercise to remain slender.

So if she wishes to proceed into a more professional skating career, she will need to maintain an immense amount of focus over the next six months or so. Especially with her pending ankle surgery and whatever female hormonal changes she is going through, this is going to be an especially fragile time for her.

It's a bit of a tricky juggling act in my role as a father. On the one hand I want to help her through the transition, whether this is a transition of realization (that she just isn't going to make it professionally in the sport) or a transition toward dedication (that she in effect sells her soul to the sport). As a father I am more interested that she makes it through the transition, especially recalling the tough times that I faced when I went to study math at MIT. Facing up to your future is a giant slap in a person's self-esteem.

The point for my daughter, of course, is that what she has suddenly found is that being a professional skater, if that is her intent, involves a whole issue of lifestyle that she might not have considered previously, especially the somewhat tricky issue of food.

I'm not going to come right out and say it to her (I said it to her once, and that was quite enough) and it's not even right for me to suggest the path that she takes. All I'm supposed to do is present it to her as one of many life choices, but it is certainly up to her to make the choice. It is okay with me if she chooses food and a science career over deprivation and a skating career.

I will support her whichever way she goes to the extent that I can. My problem is that I'm not sure how she defines herself -- if she sees herself in her own eyes primarily as a skater, then the awareness that she might face difficulties in that career might come as a rather earthquaking foundation-rattling shock.

(penned in 2003)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

- the perfect spin

Once the skater is accomplished, the thing about spins is this: they allow a subtle expression of artistic creation, a certain mixture of the psychic atmosphere, a twisting dynamic artisanship of grab and release, inward pull and outward explosive color, as the arms and hands trace colored space sculptures and both extend and trellis, making vortexes that twirl and grow at the same time that they are being created, taking the two dimensions of torque and angular position and adding the third dimension of movement across time, and the fourth dimension of the trail itself of what has been.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

- fingers

So what's the deal with the fingers? I realize when you are learning to skate that balance, legs, and feet are all that is on your mind, and shortly after that is what to do (and when) with your arms, but once you start competing it's time to think more about your presentation.

I have no problem if you watch old videos of the top skaters to see what they did with their fingers, but my general guide is to have graceful feathery fingers if you are a lady, and classy fingers if you are a guy.

Feathery fingers? Keep your middle two fingers together, and relax the other fingers. You don't have to remain frozen with those hands, but that is the general idea. Classy fingers? Fingers together with your thumb held back, like you're helping milady up into her carriage, or doing a bowing and sweeping introduction.

It's probably not in the top 5 important things about skating, but appropriate fingers do show your polish.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

- men

At the highest level the men's side of the sport is considerably more "dense" than at the local levels. Locally it is quite rare to have more than one or two capable gentlemen competing. At the top level of course you have full representation.

In stark contrast to the women's side of the sport, the top men skaters are obviously a severe counter-example to what most of the world culturally expects for a man in his mid-twenties.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing necessarily, just that the particular contrast imposes very tight strictures on both the execution and the presentation of the male side of the sport.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

- audience rehearsal

While watching the skaters practice I realize that their efforts have aspects of a musician in a band or of a dancer rehearsing. At some point in the future they will be performing these exact moves in front of an audience, but the motion and the music are a front for something else: the spiritual work of entertaining the audience and diverting them from their pain and sorrows.

I suppose we tend to forget -- once we get caught up in the adult rat race for money -- that children are spiritual beings who are highly sensitive to feelings and matters of the soul. The good skaters, like artists, retain this childlike sensitivity. After watching the practice for a while you will see (amongst the artistic skaters) considerably more than just physical practice.

The rehearsal is the link to the on-stage performance: emotions flow back through time from the audience through the performance and then back into the practice. The skaters shatter the ether as they spin and fall to relieve the suffering future.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

- in and out

You practice your footwork. You practice your spins. You jump, jump, jump. You blend it all together with choreography and nice hands and come up with a fairly consistent program. That is most of what competitive figure skating is all about.

Out here in the stands though I only really need to watch two of the smallest "tells" that reveal whether or not you are a polished pro. They are the most overlooked minute inflections and usually the last elements to receive any detailed attention: the entry into and the exit out from your jump.

Professional entry exhibits a smooth seamless trace of your center of gravity. The jump happens as part of a continually flowing procession; it is not punctuation.

And now you are mid-air, thinking of your impending landing and check back. A pro has already perfected and no longer thinks of this, but rather flourishes the landing with graceful arms and hands. The love of artistic expressions upon landing demonstrates that you are already confident in your jump.

Easy in, flourished out. Rather than watch you barely land a triple, I'd love to see easy in, flourished out on the double that you now already know intrinsically.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

- the pep talk

My daughter was feeling frustrated because she couldn't get her spins to work correctly. She was weeping, thinking that her whole career had passed her by. I explained to her that she would need to relearn things again, that as she grew older, her body would be changing, so that skating was always about relearning and adjusting. I also explained that progress would constantly be a roller coaster up-and-down ride... don't expect that she would always improve straight uphill, increasingly better and more confident. I also explained to her that giving up certainly didn't accomplish anything.

I mentioned that there were days when I was running track when I didn't feel like doing anything, and yet I went out and ran anyway. This changed her perspective and allowed her to go back out onto the ice and practice some more.

I realized afterward that I had become the quintessential skatedad, providing emotional support and psychological guidance. They also serve who only stand and cheer.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

- the practice life

It's a freestyle: I sit in the stands and concentrate on writing and staying "small" and inconspicuous. Freestyles are an intense combination of spunk and spiritual expression. These are the serious skaters, the ones who are working on a career. There is maybe a half dozen of them on the ice, and unlike a competition where they are careful, graceful, and showy, the freestyle is a lot of work and "pushing the envelope".

Every couple of minutes somebody falls on the ice; not seriously though, since they are all accustomed to falling. They attempt jumps that they are just working on, more spins than they would have done before, or an entrance move that they are just learning. They concentrate on their center-of-gravity and watch and control their body as gravity, forward velocity, and angular momentum pull at their limbs.

Learning is painful and is part of the process. A new attempt, the center of gravity behaving unexpectedly: a hip bounces on the ice. Up immediately again for another try with a slight shift in approach this time.

When you watch a competition you are seeing the moves that the skaters already know. When you are watching a freestyle though you are seeing the moves that they are just discovering. The difference is like that between ordering the steak tartare off of the restaurant menu versus visiting a friend for dinner where they just open the refrigerator to see what they have so they can "throw something together." In the first case you'll get a polished presentation of a tried-and-true creation, but the second case is quite a bit more interesting.

But there is more happening here -- it is that subtle act of creative destruction, the same that you might witness in an office of computer programmers or at the job site of construction workers. They are building something, they are struggling with their craft, they are moving through creative space and the rigors of the medium to reach the objective that they visualize. They are illuminating the path that leads to their own future.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

- the long wait

Waiting for scores at a local event is different than at the National Level, where all scores are displayed real-time while waiting in the kiss-and-cry, which is painless. Well the scores may sting a bit, but at least the waiting is painless.

Below those levels however the drama is fairly intense, as you typically need to wait all the way until the end of your particular round to hear how you did. Then the scores for all of your competitors, spread across the various rounds, aren't completely available until nearly the end of the competition.

What tends to happen is that you get a bimodal wave interlude, with an upward pressure on the competitors at the end of the event (to the extent that they can remember the previous scores) and a downward slide of sadness from the early competitors as their positions erode.

There's only the slightest bit that you can say about local judging, out of courtesy for the sport. Overwhelmingly the judges are angels with the pure intent of provoking the competitors to their best performance. Judges, even the best, get bothered by their piles after sitting for eight hours. Sorry I'm joking, but only slightly.

Monday, April 18, 2011

- continuity

The top-level men skaters (much more than the women) exhibit a certain nonchalance in their practice sessions. A fair amount of this is due to the greater security in their relative positions, due to the general paucity of male skaters overall. They don't feel the pressure to always be "on" to impress people. Or to put it differently, their competitive bent is more driven by a desire to be kick-ass-best rather than a wish to "impress." They are more inwardly competitive than outwardly competitive.

Also their informality is partly a show of independence: a desire to break free from the artificial nature of imposed "show timings" and space allocations that can happen in the practice sessions.

A side effect of this is that men are much more focused on visualization and individual move skills, rather than program continuity. Mostly this is because -- having a man's brain -- they know without a doubt that they can assemble the pieces together under pressure when the time comes. It's an interesting psychological difference between the sexes that reflects directly in the practice of the sport.

After chatting about this a bit with my daughter we realized an unintended residual affect: in actual competition most men's programs tend to be weak at the end. This is due to the men failing to establish enough stamina, since they don't continually skate their programs all the way through during the practice sessions.

Friday, April 8, 2011

- the first Axel

My daughter did her first Axel for me today. Well, I presume she has landed this a couple of times before. This is the first time though that she has ever done it with me watching.

Now this requires a long and involved backstory. On the surface, no big deal, an Axel. But this is what separates the amateurs from the gals with potential: this is the quantum step up in figure skating. Landing your Axel means that you are now ready to seriously compete. And it takes pretty much the full several years of building skills to get to the point where this executes.

The whole point of the initial spins is to make sure that the gal has her "center" and has mastery over it while in motion. The whole point of the first jumps is to make sure that the gal has her spring, her leg muscles, her balance while in the air, and her confidence and ankle strength to land on one skate.

Finally, after years of practice, put the two together. Jump, spin, land. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing takes a more arcane set of muscle control, timing, and coordination.

My daughter is back on the ice, and I turn on the camera and start filming her back-scratch spins. She has a couple that are quite fast, quick revolutions, and then a couple of nice check-outs. Then she lines up on the center-ice line, arms extended in front of her in preparation for her standing Axel. I watch on the two-inch viewfinder as she tries and two-foots, tries and throws out early, tries and lands awkward. She seems though to be doing just slightly better than last week.

Then after seven or eight near misses, she jumps, full spin, one foot landing, check back. Yeah! I say audibly, the camera recording my cheer. She turns up from the ice, smiles at me, and raises her arms over her head. I blink back a tear from the corner of my eye. She's got it. Yep, she's got it!

When my coworkers ask me tomorrow how my weekend was, I'm going to have to reply "bittersweet. My daughter landed her Axel." They will look at me somewhat unknowingly of course, and I will have to explain: "this is what separates the skaters from the novices. Watching her land an Axel is like watching your kid graduate from college."

It represents a watershed, there is no going back. I know now either that she will break my heart if she fails or break my bank if she succeeds. Of course, I pray for the latter, but there is no turning back now -- she has crossed over, she landed her Axel. I feel happy and proud and like I have given up control all at once.

Friday, March 18, 2011

- repeat repetitively

One thing that stultifies the participants (and the spectators as well) is that the artform enforces itself through relentless repetition. More than anything the repetitive practice, demanding in its tedium, separates the pros from the pretenders.

To seriously critique the sport you have to spend entire days ... in a row ... watching. Mostly this is due to the unusual competitive dynamic that you don't find in any other sport: since the skaters compete one at a time over the couple minutes of each program, the whole competition stretches for days.

This tends to incur a "live, breath, and eat" mentality in both the participants, the skatemoms, and to some extent the fans.

One big side effect of the repetitive nature of the sport is that, for the serious fans, it induces a sublimely entranced pattern of imagination. It is almost as if the sensory deprivation of the enforced attention to music and whitebooted skating feet creates a meta framework for using your imagination to visually enhance the music.

Sit for a couple of hours with a hot coffee and your jacket and the sklish of white boots on ice, colors and patterns, swirling and sparkling to the music. Repeat repetitively.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

- a pleasant surprise

I suppose a lot of the practice gets dedicated to the standard and expected competitive moves, but the more amazing things for a parent are the individually unique endeavors. I suppose a good deal of the creativity of the skaters happens under the radar, behind the scenes during practice.

Sometimes they see and get ideas from one another, and a lot of times they just experiment around, either individually or in small groups. Once in a while my daughter will practice a move that catches me completely off-guard. I'll see her go through a three turn, enter into a standard spin, and then gracefully catch her foot and move into a position that I've never seen before. Wow, where did she get that?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

- sparkles

The competition today is in Anaheim at Disney Ice; it's one of the largest competitions in Southern California with five or six hundred skaters spread across five days. My daughter skates a short program in the morning and then her long program that afternoon. To avoid the locker room crazies she puts on her performance costume at home. As we get in the car before sunrise I ask the usual checks: do you have extra tights? Your music?

What with all of the preparation, coaching, skate sharpening, clothes, filming, practice tights, transportation, snacks, photos, music, ballet instruction, stretching, makeup, hair scrunchies, and performance costumes, it finally all comes together as we head down the I-5. As I drive she applies the final touches to her makeup in the passenger visor mirror. The clouds clear and the sun rises, reflecting off of the sparkles in her sequin dress, filling up the interior of the car with thousands of small moving rainbows. Deep breath.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

- between good and great

The other day I was watching my daughter do a strange kind of spin with her foot out to the side. I asked her what it was called and she replied "a broken leg sit-spin." Okay. But I told her that the arms weren't correct: they didn't look right. I was clueless on how to refine them, but I also wanted her to wait until after her ankle surgery (and recovery) before working on the maneuver's arm detailing.

She skated another half hour or so, and as I walked around the rink I realized *ping* how the arms should be. I revisualized a memory of something that I had seen a pro do some time long ago. After my daughter got off the ice and changed into her street shoes I called her into the ballet room and showed her (in private) how the arms should be: stretch over to the side, torso tilted sideways. It's meant to be a big horizontal sweeping motion. She commented "well if the arms are wrong I can always work on them separately and then change them later."

But what I realized the next day (and didn't tell her) was that, no, for some moves the aspect of the arms and body posture are integral to the move. In fact they define the effect more than the leg positions. I also realized something deeper than this though: the best skaters use all of their body parts as a means of artistic expression; they visualize what they are trying to express first and then see if they can accommodate it into the physics of skating.

My daughter is still looking at it in terms of discrete moves to accomplish: sit spin, back camel, Bielman, double Axel. But I recognize that what separates the famous skaters from those just temporarily at the top of their sport is that the famous skaters transcend the moves -- they master them, but then they move on. They incorporate the moves into their intended communication and effusion, rather than trying to imbue the individual moves with their expressions.

In other words rather than using expressions that they apply as a toolset to their moves, they instead internalize the moves and then use them as the tools of their expression.

Well, I don't even know if it's proper for me to discuss this with my daughter -- it actually has to come from her own soul. And it also has to happen after her surgery. And it's also dangerous: it creates an environment where expression can get ahead of physics and result in crashes.

So these were all of my thoughts, but I never said a word more to her about them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

- pair oddities

Pairs skating has some almost impossible demands upon modern men: throws require that the strength and size of the male partner be significantly greater than the female. But this causes severe stress during synchronized moves. It's one of the great mysteries of that particular event. Plus, more than any of the dance events, pairs end up with the greatest mismatches within the skill levels of the partners. Partly because of the rigorous demands on the male, but there is also a very subtle interplay in the mechanics of "partnering"... the hooking up, if you will.

Monday, January 10, 2011

- immersed in the coldness

As I fasten the top button on my collar to ward off the cold, I watch my daughter out on center-ice practice her sit-spin. She's been in the rink for a couple of hours by now, but I just wandered in about five minutes ago. I don't fathom how she can stand the cold; I guess it's because she is active out on the ice. As she spins and sits I think to myself "keep your hip up" and she does, then getting almost all the way down she switches the down-foot, spins for a while, and then clumsily arises while running out of torque. She skates a couple feet over to her right and then looks down at the ice to inspect the spiral marks from her skates.

I sit next to one of the skatemoms. That's what we call each other: the skatedads and the skatemoms. It's always the same folks, sitting on the enclosed boxed-bench for the hockey team or, depending on the rink, up in the stands. After a while we recognize each other by our jackets. Our kids are out on the ice in tights, a skirt, and a short sleeved blouse, while we're bundled up in a jacket while our legs and feet freeze. We backpack our skatemom accessories: a videocamera, a book to read, a laptop computer to occupy our time. We cradle cups of hot chocolate.

Usually it's just one of the parents at the rink. For some kids it's always the skatemom, and the dad is never there (this is the usual situation). I figure the dad is off at work or home watching TV. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have both of the parents there sitting around, so most of the time it's the skatemom. But a couple of us skatedads make an occasional appearance as well.

The skatemoms usually sit around the rink the whole time their kid is on the ice... they'll chat amongst themselves, or talk on their cell phone, or talk to a coach. The skatedads tend to wander around.... they'll appear for a little bit and then wander away, maybe go to a coffee shop, or go back to work for a little bit. Then they'll reappear again and observe for half an hour before they need to take their kid home.

Sometimes when I'm sitting by the ice watching my daughter, I'm really struck by how cold it is just sitting there. I'll notice it first in a general feeling of chill, and I'll zip my jacket up to the top, and then button the top collar button. After another ten minutes or so the cartilage edging my ears will begin to tingle. I'll place my hands over my ears -- a monkey in a hear-no-evil pose -- while my ears warm a little. This saves my ears from being in too much pain for another five minutes or so, but then I'll have to retreat over to the shelter of the heated Icebreaker Lounge, complete with it's video games and pre-packaged pizza.

We freeze a little so that our kids can warm their souls.