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.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

- ether


Practice ice has an interesting dynamic -- I don't mean the mental tete-a-tete between the skaters nor the telekinetics between a coach, her student, and the parent (those are also intriguing though).

The deeply intense dynamic is between a skater and her art and craft. Does she skate the physics, or does she skate the ether of the crowd? Perhaps she sways between one and the other.

A skater has a few different ways to practice stylistically. In one mode she expounds a physical tenor; although she can't see herself in real time she "feels" the moves deductively. Another method is to play to the love of her rink friends: how does this look? You see a lot of this interplay (and politics) during a practice session.

The most interesting method though plays to the ether of the program music and the love from a future audience. When you observe a skater practicing in this mode it's almost like watching somebody who has lost touch with their present world and surroundings. She is somewhere out in a world of her own imagination.

This may be somewhat more difficult to accomplish, yet the gals that can pull off this practice modality achieve a higher level of artistic expression.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

- discomfort


I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise, but like any elite athlete a skater has to put up with a considerable amount of discomfort. It's not just the demands of physical exertion under the duress of awkward postures and strange forces. It's not just cold feet hours inside of those darn boots. It's not even the bumps and bruises from an unforgiving ice. Or the early practice hours, dramatic stress, or clique snubs.

The real discomfort is that skating is strangely isolational. Much like say a boxer, when you're away from your coach you are in a room with people you see all the time, but you are mostly practicing alone.

It's not a lonesome activity however. In fact quite the opposite. When you're in a classroom with fifty students you get most of your thoughts to yourself, as the constantly changing linkages scatters your love. When you're in a room with just a friend however, your love beams concentrate on each other and you become locked into mutual attention, without escape.

Skating practice is like that, and hence the discomfort. Yep, at the rink everyone knows what everyone thinks about everybody else.

Monday, December 3, 2012

- veneer


How important is style really, compared to say landing your jumps? Isn't style just a fancied up veneer? Well yes and no; it depends quite a bit upon who you ask. If you invite a random person off the street into the rink to watch you skate a competition, what do you think they see?

A whir of artists, marks on the ice, costumes flitting sparkly, twirling arms, legs, pose, posture, and grace. Primarily the impression they are left with is, yes, your style.

A novice viewer doesn't much know the difference between a double and a triple, a Lutz or an Axel. Surely the other moves look interesting and distinct, but what gets transmitted and absorbed first and foremost is style. Style is the outer shell, the book cover, the inside flaps and backside testimonial that the audience scans first. For novice viewers this is all that they read.

Sure they can see if you long or short or two foot a jump, but they view this through the lens of whether you are smooth or awkward or confident or upset with your performance. So although Style may be the last thing you work on (occasionally in your freestyle) it is the first thing most non-involved audience members register.

I am curious if this perceptual difference is essentially at the heart of the present controversies over scoring. Sometimes framed as whether IJS scoring makes the sport worse by encouraging non-stylish jumpers, the issue may actually be how the ISU selected an audience: they have chosen to focus on pleasing the cognoscenti -- those inside the sport -- rather than the random non-involved viewers off the street. They have stripped off the veneer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

- sparkling


A fairly wide gap spans envisioning and actualization (actualization being the physical expression of a creative concept). You can't do a great job of actualization however without a healthy dose of envisioning. Hence, the first step of artistic skating is getting those old creative imagination juices flowing.

At its core the envisioning process in skating is similar to how it works for any other creative art. You browse other skaters for what you find appealing. You discern, summarize, invert, invent, extrapolate, generalize, and reframe. You add dynamics, texture, and personality. You expand your awareness and sensitivities. You learn to communicate feelings through movement. You find a muse. You learn to move souls.

At the same time though this imaginative pre-vision mental construct doesn't happen in a vacuum. You bracket ideas of what might be possible by feedback of your own expressiveness, a sense for dramatic "reveal," and by practice in building a story arc.

When it all comes together you sparkle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

- styled


You realize of course that what makes a skating program stylish has a lot more to do with the mode of execution than simply what elements your program contains. In fact I'd argue that any particular element in and of itself is not more stylish than any other element: a stag jump and a Bielman are moves that can both look either amazing or crappy, depending.

Okay so perhaps a Bielman has greater *potential* for stylish embellishment. This is because if you break the move down into quantum atoms, it has more moving parts.

First you lead into it with your pre-entry spin. Then calf up, hand drop, skate grasp. Then a pull upward, other hand grasp, more upward pull while spinning. Then spinning in final posture, added embellishment, and graceful exit. So watch this video.

There you go, what did you see? Of course, a Bielman. Now watch this one.

Okay, same element really, yes? But styled very very differently. Denise has something to say with her move, her approach is deliberate and gentle, she wants to use the move as a vehicle for expression on entry, spinup, and graceful exit.

She's not just doing a Bielman.

Friday, November 2, 2012

- principles


In an earlier post I mentioned how a skater learns to express her personality through the style she exhibits in her moves, her music, and her program. Style is neither a personality trait nor a mood though. Certainly you can have all varieties of moods layered atop all sort of personalities, and you may display (or suppress) this personality to various effect. Yet style somehow mediates this interaction.

How do you establish a style, and how do you develop a reputation of being a stylish skater? Well at its foundation, Style is the outward manifestation of big-C Culture. Sure, you know Culture when you see it -- it doesn't have to be Opera or anything particularly highbrow either (Goth is also a Culture). Not too surprisingly Culture is something that is "cultured" in the sense of being raised with patience, attention, and loving care from its birth as a conceptual meme. It's not something that drops from the sky and lands in your skate bag; you grow into a Culture slowly and with devotional intent.

How do you choose a flavor of Culture? Well at its base Culture is the outward manifestation of big P Principles. If you follow certain Principles of behavior (to either a more strict a more flexible adherence) then you will join the Culture along with the other folks who adhere to those same Principles.

Too abstract and philosophical for skating? Not at all. Principles with a fixed level of adherence drives Culture drives your Style on the ice. What this means dear is that when we watch you skate, we can infer your Principles. There are no sheathed souls in front of an audience.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

- simple


You know it's very difficult to be right on the money all of the time. Sure you practice your toughest elements in aim for including them in your program when you are at your best. Yet it's self-deceptive to expect that you will always be in top form.

It makes some sense therefore to occasionally practice a subsumed program -- something that is simple, follows your music, and completes most of your ice coverage. One way to look at this (to frame it in your mind) is to imagine the unfortunate situation that you fall ill a couple of days before a competition. Hey it happens.

Say you come down with the flu. Now what do you do, scratch? After having prepared your coach and family, reserved a hotel room, and paid the entry fee? Sure it's unfortunate, but I've known it to happen to just about everyone.

The solution is to skate the "simple" version of your program. No it won't impress the judges, but your coach will understand, and your family won't be left with the feeling that they completely wasted their time.

Once a month or so practice the simple program. If nothing else, it's insurance.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

- gloves


Hair pieces, boot polish, tights, skate dress -- a lot goes into a skating costume. When you get fully comfortable, skilled, and graceful, you can don that last flashy accessory: elbow-length gloves.

Opera gloves are a bit of an aesthetically dangerous garment to add to your oeuvre: without doubt they pull attention toward the completion of graceful arm and hand movements. If you don these before your elements are fully competent though, the rest of your program will appear considerably diminished by comparison.

Gloves may only be appropriate at a narrow band of expressiveness. It's like when a guy wears a muscle shirt with arm cutouts: it's unflattering if he has nothing to show. On the other hand if he's already built like Arnold Schwarzenegger then the arm cutouts aren't particularity necessary either.

Wear long gloves when your hands and arms need a bit of assistance expressing what they can already show reasonably well. Only however after you've already figured out how to shine on all of your other elements.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

- up


Even with the most thorough practicing it can happen: gliding joyfully through the middle of your program, in an unfortunately relaxed moment your brain goes blank. Empty. Silence on the radio. The program music still plays; only if you had a map you could glance around for a reminder of direction.

The phrase I've heard for this is "going up." I'm unsure why it's called that, but in theater it's long been used to signify that you've forgotten your lines.

So now what? Well, it's time to ad lib, or as Sheri says here, fake it until you make it.

Mentally this requires a shift from the playback learning part of your brain over to the playful imaginative lobe of your brain.

I suppose it makes sense that since you know this occasionally can happen, you should also prepare for it. Practicing to ad lib means allowing your imagination to run free, while still keeping time to the music and additionally keeping some semblance of physical control about yourself.

It may seem a bit odd to your coach or the other skaters at the rink that you would spin a whole program just to improvise, but consider the benefit! It's worth a run through at least once each freestyle, if for no other reason than to build confidence and remove the fear of ad libbing when those brainwaves suddenly evaporate.

Monday, September 17, 2012

- dressy


Does your performance dress do anything to help you skate? To say that competing extends to your costume is intuitively correct, but it happens somewhat indirectly from the way that you might think.

Costumes by and of themselves are not a contest. They might be judged as contributive to score in something like ice theater, where extravagant showmanship carries some weight (I am just speculating here; I've never actually seen how they score ice theater).

In competitive figure though your costume may make little direct difference, yet it probably makes a substantial emotional and psychic impact.

Your dress behaves similar to the way a policeman's uniform signifies authority, or a Caltrans-orange jumpsuit says Pay Attention, I'm out here working. Your competitive skate dress says I'm an Artistic Skilled Athlete that knows her stuff: Watch this.

But aside from what it signifies to the outside world your dress is also both a motivator and a reward for your self.

On the one hand you ask your parents to spend the money on something nice because you've worked hard for it and you've earned it. The flip side of this is that since they're paid for it already, you have an obligation to live up to the expectations set by what you're wearing.

Like wearing a nice suit for a job interview, the sequined dress sets up an internal mindset. A nice dress that is appropriate to your program opens up a portal to another dimension. Costume sets mood. Your competitive dress has to be different enough from your practice tights so that when you put it on, you get the feeling of This Means Business, or Showtime!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

- master


Folks who skate nationally and then retire from competing, but who then keep on skating into their adult years, are an interesting bunch to watch.

Some of what makes them captivating is that they have many quiet and intense experiences that they relive through their skating. Some of it is that they are a bit of a throwback to an older era, when the sport itself was different.

More interesting is that, if they so desire, with a flick of the skate blade they can show you more suave, more grace, or more class than most everyone else at the rink.

A rink will often allow for a flight of Master level skaters at an exhibition. If you can by all means stick around to watch: you won't learn any new elements this way, but you'll learn some things that are far more important.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

- addicted


It was my first meeting of the L.A. chapter of Sports Parents Anonymous. I was a little nervous, but as I had read about other Anonymous programs I sort of knew what to expect (okay so this is fiction, just go with it for a minute). When it came my turn I stood, cleared my throat, and said Hi my name is Jeff and I'm addicted to figure skating. A couple SPA patrons gasped mockingly and several folks sitting near me seemed uncomfortable, but an elderly gentlemen up front nodded slowly to show his understanding.

It started when my daughter was six: during one of my weekend visitations she said her mom had taken her skating and now she wanted to take a class. She handed me the school schedule: the Spring session had already started but she thought they would still let her in. We drove down to the rink where we signed her up for Pre-Alpha, rented her skates, and waited for the class to start. Kids trickled on to the ice and in a few minutes the rink hosted about four different sessions: one was a group of ten year olds doing half jumps, two classes were six or seven year olds learning to skate backwards, and my daughter was the eldest in a group of ten little angels, most of them just getting their bearings for how to shuffle around the ice.

Ah sure, old man calls out, they all start out as little angels. A lady across the room with a crazy floppy hat says Skating angels are always the gateway drug. I hang my head quietly for a moment. Well, I continue, they were a motley group of angels, some in jeans, about half in rental boots, a few with their hair all frizzled out. I realized I was digressing; I focused again on my addiction.

I think some of it was the novelty of the skate teachers and the, ahem, skate moms. I felt my face reddening. A young dad wearing a Yankees cap yelled: So are you addicted to skating, or to moms? The class tittered. I actually had to think about it a minute.

Well maybe both to start, but after a year of classes you grow to know the same people, so the novelty of their looks wears off. But an interesting thing happens: you also start to identify and sympathize with the struggles and personalities of each of the young skaters. They work so hard. And when they finally accomplish something they've been struggling with for months, when they finally get the balance or the rhythm of the weight shifting -- when it all "clicks" -- oh my god the look of joy on their faces.

Yes! exclaimed Yankees hat dude, raising a fist in the air and pumping his arm down. You're addicted to living vicariously through the success of others! I had to stop to think about that a minute. It was a bit odd being psychologically analyzed in public, but this revelation seemed to be striking a chord of truth. As my life at that time was generally falling apart it was nice to see success somewhere. But after more thought I recognized that my addiction continued much longer than that.

Okay I said, that was it for a short while, but some time around the third year of skating school that wasn't true any longer. By then I had seen enough little two foot sliding kids advance to gliding backwards, but I was still showing up every week enthralled. Something else had sunk a hook into me.

By the time she was approaching nine, my daughter was starting to stand out for her spirals and her scratch spins. We'd moved up to her second pair of real skates, and she wanted a personal coach. I guess I figured at that point that she had potential: she was showing some real skill and commitment. She wanted to compete, and frankly I was starting to get technically fascinated.

So, said the old guy up in front, are you saying you became addicted to the idea of your daughter becoming famous, or is it just that you're a thinker that gets addicted to complexity? Well, now I'm thinking it's a little bit of all that, combined. The room fell quiet as there was some general mental review and addictive recognition in us all. The facilitator asked What did this addiction do to your life?

Well like all addictions it soaked up all of my time and money, naturally. I'd spend twelve hours a week at the rink or in transit, sixty bucks a week on coaching fees, not to mention the costumes, competitions, and what not. But it was all for my daughter, really. Oh sure, said old guy, And when you're addicted to the big H it's all for the soul of art.

I countered, So you're saying I should have just ignored my daughter's wishes? No way. Why not, asked the facilitator. If she had instead asked for sixty dollars a week in toys and then wanted you to play with those toys with her for two hours every day would you have done it? It's the same thing.

No it's not, I replied, on the cusp of trying to explain why.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

- nine


Being a parent makes you keenly aware of how your child progresses as they grow up through various ages. Without any hard or fast-cut transitions, a child gradually advances from one type of skating to another. A six year old is a considerably different skater than a four year old, but where that change happens chronologically is anybody's guess. But then you get to age 9.

9 is 9, and only a 9 year-old skates this way.

At 9 you are still a petite developing skater; unfortunately your lack of physical mass makes momentum and persistence difficult. Two strong strokes only get you about a third of the way down the ice. Holding a steady spiral is a real challenge. Skating when you are 9 requires tons, just enormous amounts of physical work.

Yet it's also really a special age; you are still normally proportioned, and you have enough grace and foot skills to accomplish most of what you desire. Your delicate physical mass won't interfere to cause inertial or balance issues: you look small, light, and clickety on your feet. You can almost exactly follow the music, you have a great imagination, and you are maturing past acting coy. You have a few favorite pop songs too. You are truly a princess on the ice.

Nine is the magical skating moment, but it doesn't last long.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

- relief


A figure skating competition indulges many odd peripheral circuses that are only obliquely related to the competition itself. At the rink's entry you have the strangely dedicated volunteers attending to the entrance table, checking in competitors, gabbing about the inner club workings, or what they saw on TV last night. They are troopers.

Then you've got entryway vendors. It must be a peculiar lifestyle to travel around to various competitions selling gewgaw. There they sit or stand, in a borderland world all of their own making.

Then you have a handful of volunteer "runners" scheduled to shuffle the music and scores about the rink (well we did this a decade ago, but I see a lot less of this nowadays).

Once inside the rink you recognize the photo and film guys. Talk about a peculiar lifestyle (at least they get to view the events)! But they spend all of those hours upon weekend hours kneeling, bent, or leaning around in a cold rink.

Awards! The placement platform and award photographer! Standings and skating order sheets! Now step outside the rink again and notice the hospitality room for the coaches and judges.

Still the strangest place during a competition has to be the restrooms. Mind you it's not exactly a place where I "hang out" (and I speak only from the experience of stepping in for occasional relief). And of course I can only speak for the men's room.

What do you expect for a small place of semi-privacy and refuge in the midst of a milieu of anxious, harried competitors with complex costumes and extreme pressure? Contortioned costume changes, splashing the face with water, deep breathing, diarrhea, cursing, vomiting. I can only imagine what goes on over in the other female-half of the facility.

Now leave gently, sigh, put on your stage face, stretch, "relax," and go back to sit in the stands with the oblivious siblings and grandparents, or share a wide-eyed nod and acknowledgement of circumstances with the adjacent skate mom.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

- friction


No matter how involved a skating parent nor how proficient a coach and her staff, you're still going to find some friction between a parent and the coach. The basis for this is joint and several.

Some is the natural conflict inherent in loco parentis where every day a coach temporarily transmits some of her value system to a student. Some of it may be a lingering suspicion from the parent that the coach's goals don't align exactly with her own. Some of it may strictly be a cost/benefit complaint. Some of it may be disdain toward the lack of authority or control the parent has over the coach (who appears to primarily be an employee of the rink).

At the foundational level though, all this appears to mostly result from a complicated "agency" problem: several parties stand between the service provider (coach) and the buyer (parent). Analogous to how companies buy health insurance for their employees, a parent buys coaching for her child. This transaction is not perfectly transparent however: few parents comprehend the intricacies of skating and the communication between a parent and her child are often less than clairvoyant.

There also seems to be a moral hazard always lurking beneath the surface: is the coach actually managing your child strictly to retain a long term client? Is that in your child's best interest? Does the coach give you false hopes of grandeur in return for a longer lasting revenue stream? In other words is the best interest of your skating child at odds with the best interests of her coach?

A parent of a serious skater may need to consider how to incentivize her kid's coaches to achieve the skater's desired results. Should you tip your coach for exceptional accomplishments? Should you have a contract with your kid's coach with performance incentives? Should we be encouraging skate parents to share their feelings about the quality of their coaches?

Yeah it's a lot of questions and I don't know any of the answers. Frankly a parent can be a bit of a cad to bring these up in public to begin with. Still it's something to think about (and perhaps discuss on blogs or on skating forums).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

- literal


Skating with expressive style to a musical piece is a good trick; staying stylish when the background contains lyrics is even more of a challenge.

I'd prefer that you didn't, but if you absolutely must skate to music with lyrics, please avoid running the unfortunate risk of taking the words too literally. Just because the lyrics say "breaking my heart" doesn't mean that you have to clutch your chest, seriously.

Although the music usually gets written as an accompaniment to the lyrics, if we wanted you to skate to the words alone we would ask you to skate solely to spoken poetry.

What makes music magical beyond the lyrics *is* the music. The music is the showy sizzle, the lyrics are the poetic scaffolding.

That rather sets the stage for what we are asking: use the higher level, the music, as the framework upon which to build your performance. The lyrics are still there, so don't controvert their meaning. But it's a nobler cause to skate to the feelings of the music.

And when the lyrics say "he shot her" don't cock your fingers into a pretend gun to shoot. Seriously.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

- ballet


Is ballet training a necessary ingredient to competitive figure skating? Perhaps. In an interesting post (from well over a couple of years ago!) Sheri says:

"For years skating coaches have been encouraging their skaters to take ballet classes to aid in the skater's on-ice performance. Ballet teachers spend hours teaching students correct ballet posture which is the same posture needed for skating. Ballet teaches the skater how to move the pelvis without losing balance or disconnecting the center in footwork sequences, including pirouette turns, jumps and leaps across the floor."

I think ballet augments your skating art in a few important areas. "Core" awareness (center of gravity control and fluidity), spine alignment, graceful movement, and "head attitude" are all valuable lessons that transfer well across the related disciplines. The actual physical application of these skills however when wearing skate boots is rather different than when wearing ballet slippers.

The trick therefore to successfully integrating your ballet lessons with your skating is to mentally grok the intent of the teaching but then to reapply and relearn those same lessons on the ice with your skates on. Ballet translates to the ice in theory, but not exactly in muscle memory. Too much ballet and you won't be able to skate, but if you fail to practice enough ballet you will look uncouth on the ice.

Monday, July 2, 2012

- love


A parent envelops a child with Love, and skating is also all about an observing, supporting, and softly critical Love. Sometimes these competing loves interact in a sublimely complicated fashion.

By the time your kid is seriously skating (say by age seven) life's circumstances have naturally ingrained your parental love: you have already internalized how to balance the love you share between your children, or between your child and a stranger. Occasionally issues arise, but for the most part you have already organically grown into handling them autonomously.

Now throw in the complications from skating love. Make no mistake about it, figure skating is a high love-required, high love-intensity sport. Similar to dancing, coaches have no other way to teach it and students have no other way to learn it except by the transmission of compressed thought packets in real time (okay, call it love then). Conveying a sense of aesthetic appreciation as well as the mechanical body dynamics necessary to cleanly execute a move both require love.

Coaches, parents, and skaters provide this love, and skaters demand tons of love while practicing. How you manage your love at the rink is probably a good half to three-quarters of the influence you have over the skating aspects of your child.

I hesitate to give specific advice for how to handle every situation: matters of your heart are for you and your own soul to resolve. I can however give you a heads-up for what you may need to consider.

At times your daughter may interact with the older skaters. Most of the time they are friendly yet detached; how should you behave if you feel they are acting inappropriately? When your daughter is in session with a coach she will be locked into the coach's love; what should you do in the meanwhile?

Your daughter may find herself in a group session, an ice theater or off-ice ballet, where she strives for attention with many others. How do you behave in this situation toward another hovering parent?

Skaters "clique" and your daughter may develop a close friendship to a couple of the skaters her age. How much do you allow her to dawdle and socialize?

Perhaps the biggest issue is that other serious skaters at the rink also crave your attention. Should you lock your eyes solely onto your own daughter alone?

Finally, as a loving parent, you have in your heart a certain life path you would like your child to follow. You would like to steer her clear from many pitfalls, and although you wish her success in her skating endeavors you also recognize that most of her future may not be about skating at all.

It helps to consider these things a bit before they spring upon you to cause unexpected stress. I'm not saying to be robotically clinical, just considerate. All of the parents at the rink are in the same boat; lead by setting a courteous and thought-through good example.

Monday, June 25, 2012

- fantasy


If five hours of watching an Open skating competition has numbed my brain, sometimes I will drift off to a fantasy of my own routine: the program that I would skate (if I were capable of skating). Being an older man the performance would be more dapper and stylish, yet oozing with class and supreme athletics.

I stretch a bit from the sidewall as my program's music starts, something with a haunting jazzy bass drum beat. I reach over the dasher, grab a top hat and a silver and black cane, tap the hat onto my head, and do a jaunty three turn out to center ice, bowing as a jazzy slide trombone emerges with a slow melody.

I head off quickly down the ice, the coattails of my tuxedo flitting out behind me, and as I reach the end I jump to land a perfect double Axel (to polite applause). On the way back I split jump while tossing my cane with a twirl high into the air, turning around after landing to catch it behind my back. The crowd Ahhhs.

Then I am picking up more speed, a triple Axel, straight down into a sit spin, flipping the cane around on the ice beneath me in the opposite direction to my spin. Then rising up to a full stop I pose, and the music pauses as I dip my hat.

The jazz now picks up to a staccato pace, and I do impossibly fast footwork down the ice in one direction, on the return path a spread eagle while twirling the cane above my head and then twice around my body. Then gaining speed down the ice I jump straight up into a laid-out front flip holding onto my hat as my skates vertically pass overhead, landing gently (on one foot!) right into a spiral, the cane gently twirling between my fingers.

Then a final bow, hat in hand. Standing ovation.

Meanwhile back at the actual rink the pre-preliminary group A takes to the ice for their warm up.

Monday, June 18, 2012

- factors


Does it really take a specific coach to create a skater of national quality? When I evaluate all of the growth factors that I attribute to a skater, a coach, a ballet teacher and the skater's parents, I'm somewhat unsure that the coach contributes as large an impact as we all think. If I were to graph it piechart-wise I'd say Primary Coach: 20%; Specialty coaches (combined total from 4 of them): 25%; Involved parent: 15%.

Gee that only adds up to sixty. And the remainder? Yeah a full 40% is solely due to the natural abilities, the developed skills, the dedication, the body build, and the injury avoidance of the skater herself.

What's the difference then on the actual development of a skater overall between the best possible and the typical average coach? Well if the worst coach is zero and the best is 20%, then from average to best works out to half of that, or around ten percent. Heck yeah at the elite level this is tremendous, but at the local competitive level guess what? It's mostly irrelevant as it becomes overwhelmed by the other factors.

Now mind you I'm not saying that you can get by with a coach that is a competent lout. You should strive to find a primary coach that your daughter finds *inspiring*; this is the key trait to discover, and it involves having that right "chemistry" between your skater and her coach.

Make sure your skater is comfortable with her everyday coach, but as long as the coach is competent and inspiring don't fret if she's not the best at the rink.

----

Bonus: check out this retrograde duck: pretty much impossible on the ice, but on wheels.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-sAJ2PBFBI

Thursday, June 7, 2012

- median


One quickly recognizes what makes figure skating unique among human activities. A hint: it's rather like pole vaulting, but it's distinctively not. Another clue: it's analogous to the ballet, but it's notably not. Pole vault ballet? Yeah sure that's it.

But no, rather seriously, figure skating is the only human activity that lands precisely at the middle of physics-dominated sport and soul-dominated art. Well, it did at some point anyways. Back sixty years ago or so it was primarily about cutting figures in the ice (hence the name figure skating); at that point it was much more like ballet.

In the 1980's and 90's though -- when I did most of my watching -- it was exactly at the median, smack dab at the center, exactly between art and a sport. It's the only enterprise that was. Nowadays one could argue it is leaning a bit more toward being like pole vaulting.

So as art addresses the soul, so too skating. Yet as a sport dominated by physics, a skater concentrates on arcane physical postural timings.

Inside a competitor the view spirals into this essential conundrum: how to blend the demands of slippery ice physics with the touching grace of art to the soul? It's the clash between choreography and skills coaching. And only the skater glides across this schism.

Friday, May 25, 2012

- care


I see quite the full spectrum of parental involvement at the rink; I suppose that's to be expected: after all some parents are just along for the ride. They nag their kid to hurry and pack the skate bag, drop their skater off at the rink, go run some errands, and then come back and sit in the ice lounge the last fifteen minutes of class. Afterwards they may congenially ask their kid how the lesson went.

My friends, this is not truly a skating parent.

A skate parent reminds his kid when she is packing to make sure that she brought an extra pair of tights. On the way to the rink the parent inquires when the last time his daughter had her skates sharpened.

The skate parent holds the doors open for his daughter as they enter the rink, wraps the scarf around his neck, and assumes his usual seat (with back support) down by center ice. He sets down his thermos of coffee and takes up his pen and video camera.

As his daughter skates he takes notes about her form and style. A skate parent presses his face up to the crack between the panes of Becker plexiglass to yell out how to improve a move. Occasionally he calls her over to a door opening to chat about something different and more expressive that his daughter can try with her arms.

During a break he accompanies her to the heated lounge and buys her a snack, and they chat about skating, school, or friends at the rink.

After practice the skate parent makes sure he thanks the coach, verifies that his daughter remembered her skate guards, and drives her out for a bite to eat. On the drive home the parent lets his daughter watch her practice on the video camera.

A skating parent is indeed crazy to spend this much attention on his daughter if it does no good. But whether or not it makes her a better skater is somewhat besides the point. A skating parent behaves this way because his daughter loves skating. And a skating parent loves his daughter.

Friday, May 18, 2012

- venues

Baseball is an interesting sport as much for its ballparks as for its players and contests: each park has its own personality that colors the experiences of the fans and participants. Once you get out and about in the competitive skating world you will find the same is true of ice rinks -- they range from the sublimely ludicrous to the sublimely astounding.

Sometimes when you walk into a rink you get the distinct impression that it's there by luck and chance, left behind from the remnants of some former activity. The rink near my apartment (here in Van Nuys) is adjacent to a tiny factory that sells ice (cubed, block, snow) and it looks and feels like an old small repurposed ice warehouse. The rink in Simi also has that warehouse repurposed feeling to it. The rink out in Oxnard used to be a gigantic Ralphs supermarket that appears to have drifted into a commercial zone.

I once walked down two long flights of stairs to a rink beneath a San Jose mall that, for all I can figure, must have at one point been a bomb shelter. The old rink in Pasadena (just decommissioned late in 2011) used to be a historic ballroom, complete with chandeliers and tall skylights. All of these places, although slightly weird, had their mundane charm.

Then you get the rinks that are strictly business: they specifically serve the need to skate or earn revenue. At Worlds in Los Angeles next to the actual venue at Staples Center, they cobbled together a steel and Plexiglas makeshift full Olympic size practice rink inside the middle thirds of a cavernous room at the Convention Center. Another interesting pop-up rink appears in October in Woodland Hills: a small outdoors revenue generator in a vacant parking lot by the Westfield mall. Pop-up rinks are good for what they're good for, I suppose.

Then you get that grouping of pop-up rinks that are, well, something slightly more. The new Pasadena Ice Center looks like a simple v-shaped fabric tent structure, but once you're inside you recognize that it's the highest end technically perfect inexpensive rink possible. Staples Center ice seems to professionally pop out of nowhere (from underneath a basketball court?)! Folks created both of these rinks to meet very specific design ends.

All these are fine and well, but they don't hold a candle to the feeling you get at an establishment with the full skating experience forefront in its development. My daughter used to compete at Pickwick, a lovely garden-adjacent full size slab of ice with large wooden grandstands to seat a thousand. The ice rink in the San Diego University Center Mall has a fair amount of seating and is also viewable from the food court, with mesmerizing outside landscaping.

East West Ice in Artesia has an actual purpose-built glass enclosed gym attached at an upper level. Both the Valencia complex and Anaheim's Disney Ice have two full Olympic surfaces and grandstands. Valencia also has an arcade game room, a snack shop, and a small bar. Skaters Edge in Torrance has an entire hockey-themed restaurant attached visible through adjoining windows.

And yet even with all these accoutrements, the small outdoor rink at Yosemite still is the only venue I know that comes with the attached scenery of a National Park.

Because sometimes skating is about more than just the skating.

Friday, May 4, 2012

- judging


Judging figure skating is confoundedly frustrating. To start with one has the abstract sense that "to judge" another's efforts is innately evil... after all, it makes you "judgmental." Heck a skater practiced incredibly hard and is doing the darn best she can out there on the ice. Alone! In front of people!

Another confounding thing about judging is that the metric itself, a "score," is too narrow to reflect upon what a skater brings to the ice. She brings spins. She brings personality. She brings beautiful stroking, incredible flexibility. She brings stamina. She jumps! She balances in impossible configurations. She displays audience presence, she entertains! And no two skaters bring forth a similar mix across all of these skills.

When you judge a local competition you get immediately struck by how unfair the whole process seems. Well maybe "unfair" is imprecise: it's more like scoring local skaters is totally inappropriate. As an exact measure of how well a gal skates, scoring misses the boat by half a mile. It's okay as a rough approximation: the top half of a given group are clearly better than the bottom half, yet individual comparisons fail.

When you watch with judge's eyes the thing that rather immediately stands out is the fragmentation of skills: one skater can have amazing blade control yet no jumps, another can have all the expressiveness in the world but no center of gravity control. It makes it seem a bit unfair that you have to give a final numeric quantity: each skater has her own strengths.

And all of this is aside from the fact of how imperfect judging can be as we allow our emotions to sway ourselves too much (or not enough).

Yeah sure a skater wants to be judged (as this gives her some goal to grow towards) and we rationalize our judging because something about "competing" is just a part of human nature. Without the judging it is no longer a competition, it is just an exhibition.

So what can it possibly mean to "judge" such a combination of disparate traits? It's totally confounding. Maybe we need a different way to rate the local competitors based upon something simple and totally subjective: grace, improvement, expressiveness?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

- act


An audience contemplates your skating in a slightly different fashion than how a judge scrutinizes your program. A judge watches your blades, how they cut the ice, if your spins precess, if you rotated too short to a landing.

The audience though absorbs your presentation: are you projecting work, fear, or enjoyment? Did you telegraph your jump? The audience tracks your center of gravity, your arm positions, and your facial expressions. An audience observes your thoughts.

One consequence of this is that the audience has entirely different expectations for you when you are skating a novelty program than for when you are skating technical.

We don't mind your slightly suppressed smile when you nail a tough jump, but otherwise those of us watching your technical program expect to see something sublimely reserved, stylishly graceful, and professionally polished.

A novelty skate however is another matter entirely. The audience would actually like you to move your head about and signal some emotion, perhaps four times in a novelty program. Don't overdo it and be a crass wiseass; rather share your emotions gently, matching them appropriately to the theme of your program. Be the cat, or the spy, or the film starlet your program deserves.

You know, out here in the audience, we love you.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

- shoulders


If you have gathered your only experience of figure skating from watching TV, you would naturally assume that the "arms up" pose of the skaters is an inherent consequence of the tradition of poise and balance. It just seems to come instinctively to a skater.

So now get up from your computer, stand in the privacy of your own living room, and hold your arms up for three minutes. It's a pain but not impossible. Rest a few minutes and do it again. Rest, and then again. Repeat twenty times.

There now you have just performed the arm and shoulder portion of a freestyle practice session.

Mind you I have always appreciated the graceful athleticism of figure skaters, but it wasn't until I was the parent of a skating student that I recognized half of the strenuous challenge to the sport prevails from the shoulders.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

- respect


I distinguish the sport of ice skating from the exercise of -watching- ice skating. The two are completely, distinctly different. My daughter skates; indeed she is in love with the sport of skating. She buys knickknacks from the events, she knows all of the famous skaters, she reads about skating, and eats, breathes and lives the sport. Me though, I just watch.

When I happened across ice skating as a kid, say because it was filler on "Wide World of Sports" (in between two things that I /did/ want to watch) the whole thing left me unmoved. Ladies were gliding around gracefully but certainly not in any way particularly inventive, say from a modern jazz dance perspective. It didn't seem to really be art. Occasionally a pairs routine might interest me due to the rather remarkable synchronization aspects of it more than anything.

Mostly though it was interesting to watch as a curiosity, as something to be slightly diversionary. Why did some of the skaters appear so clumsy and unable to do what they were attempting? I mean geesh, how hard could it be?

I know precisely when I fell in love with watching ice skating: when my daughter started doing laybacks. Always one of the more gracefully entertaining things to watch, the trouble my daughter was having getting any kind of technique on the matter left me bewildered. After examining her for a half hour session I figured out what was uniquely difficult about the maneuver: it's a question of angular momentum and torque versus moment translation.

In other words, spinning in an L shape causes unequal forces of stress on each lateral side of the body. This doesn't seem obvious from the outset, but it was clear that my daughter (along with the other beginners) was tightening one side of her dorsal muscles more than the other, and hence was short of laying back with her shoulders flat parallel to the ice.

Based solely upon her feelings, her own sensations, she /thought/ that she was flat back with shoulders equidistant to the ice. It took the video recorder to convince her otherwise. To employ some illustrative thought direction I told her to imagine herself with her leading shoulder slicing back through water.

This process taught me that the physics of the moves is not straightforward, and furthermore that the skater's perception is quite different than the audience's.

Out of curiosity I asked my daughter what she saw while she was doing her spins. She said "mostly a blur." She said that she could keep relative track of where she was in the rink by noticing some particular object as she was spinning, say the blue line of the hockey rink (the offsides marker), a member of the audience wearing an unusually brightly colored jacket, or a "spotter" (a friend standing on the ice).

As I watched her do more complicated moves I recognized that to accomplish them in a manner that was graceful to the audience, she had to learn contortions and sequences of muscle activity that basically don't make sense in any other environment.

This was the defining moment for me; after layback training I suddenly recognized the incredible amount of practice and sublime, intricately-timed adjustments my daughter made to arrive at such movements. Now I have nearly infinite respect for a skater on the ice who can actually perform something dynamic and graceful, perfectly attuned to the audience.

(-- repost --)


Saturday, March 24, 2012

- humility


I suppose it is okay to be proud of the moves you have learned and that you can perform with some skill, grace, and panache. So yeah in your program you are showing off, a bit. After all, your program is a beautiful blossoming flower. At the same time however, a graceful skater recognizes that she is still just sprouting, forever climbing up the long skating-career trellis. Your program is in no way the only blossoming flower, and hence we gardeners request some humility.

How do you demonstrate respect for the sport and deference to the judges? Well for one thing, don't show off so much. Avoid doing a split jump directly in front of the judges. I am sorry but up close this looks ridiculous: it is like a flower spritzing a burst of pollen in your face. Off toward a third point of the ice works just fine.

Performing your best and most difficult jump directly in front of the judges is quite a risk: if it's perfect you are showing off, yet if it is imperfect then you are so close that imperfections are what the judges will remember. A wonderfully colorful and symmetric bird of paradise blossom may look gorgeous from fifteen feet away, but up close the tatters in its leaves are visible.

Treat the judges and the audience equally overall. Unfurl your jumps with a sprinkling around the rink so everybody receives a good view. Share the bouquet with everyone. Perform your spins in the central half length of the ice, centered across the width.

Smile, but it is also okay to acknowledge how much effort your program importunes. Finally when you finish, courteously curtsy to both sides of the rink. And smiling with a slight wave to your dad in the audience is cool too.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

- watch


Sometimes I watch skating as a parent, sometimes as an audience member, and sometimes as a judge. The effect is as different as drinking tea, soda, or hot cocoa.

The tea of observation is to watch skating as a judge. This requires discipline, strict methodological routine, and intense self awareness. The simple knowledge that you must "score" a skater imposes a fabric of criticality before your eyes. You zoom in to minutiae, the very discreet, skate edges, jump rotations and checks, verticals and parallels.

You are so attuned to the performance that you don't dare drop your eyes to the score or otherwise allow your focus to stray, lest you miss an important fault. Internally you store a fast growing list of accomplishments, likes, and errors. When the skater finishes you then immediately dump your mental recording into the scoresheet. As you are in the midst of this the next skater takes the ice, waiting for you to finish. You get about a five second breather as she cues up before you renew this process all over again.

Watching as an audience member you get to savor and enjoy the expressiveness of each performance. You signal the level of your appreciation after each skate by your vigorous (or polite) applause, and chat with friends during or in-between the performances. This is the hot cocoa of watching; it is fun and relaxing. You can get up in between skaters and grab a treat or step outside to warm up a bit.

Watching as a parent however is another matter entirely. You are both courteous and curious as you observe the other competitors, but your heart is always with your daughter. Even though you can't see her you can sense her warming up off ice. When they announce her name your heart leaps into your throat. As she skates to center ice and poses, pride tickles your tongue. Your heart skips a beat with every slip of balance, and when she nails a jump you clench your fist and go "yeah."

Observing your daughter skate is the soda pop of watching: sometimes the soda goes down the wrong pipe and makes you cough, other times the fizzy bubbles shoot straight up and tickle your nose. It's never a dull moment.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

- ouch


Well as a parent you'll watch all levels of skaters with various skills; some possess a more consistently stable set of skills than others. Regardless, small unfortunate things can still happen on the ice: a blade can nick a hole that waits there in ambush, or a stray sequin can wedge into a micro crevice and patiently skulk as a tripwire.

Skaters fall on the ice all the time of course. When they are little the shorter distance to the ice and a child's mass combines to mitigate any risk. As skaters grow and mature however, a fall can become rather serious.

I was in the audience at a local competition in Burbank. We were around midway through the second day, a Sunday, and the adult ladies (silver) were skating their free skate.

An average build, 5 foot 6 brunette takes the ice, poses. The music starts and she glides with grace and experience. A split jump, some light footwork, a toe loop. Then a nice spiral with a small bit of shimmy. Now a wide spread eagle sliding back, arms graceful. Then she three turns, toe loops, approaches the audience side of the rink, Axel.

But something cocks up her landing, and she suddenly strikes the ice flat or her side like a fifty kilo sack of potatoes. The audience gasps. She gives a tight grimace, but stays absolutely motionless. Ten seconds pass. The audience is numbingly quiet. The music continues on for a few more seconds, then the booth fades the music. Another small tight grimace, still no movement.

Is she conscious? Did she break something? Another twenty seconds pass. Everyone in the rink seems frozen in a sepia photograph of shared pain, worry, and lost dreams. Something needs to happen. "Help her," somebody yells from the stands. The audience murmurs, a couple people stand. Why doesn't anybody help?

Another thirty seconds pass as she lies motionless on the ice. We see her thinking and crying inside, her whole skating dream is over. We have all just witnessed the end of a young lady's career. We are somber and concerned at the same time. Silently, many of us are praying. The passing seconds each seem like minutes. A door in the boards opens and a younger skater and a rink employee step onto the ice, the skater rushing in a beeline to the downed gal, the rink employee following reluctantly lagging behind.

The downed skater now moves, whimpers, presses herself up sideways on one arm, grimaces hard again. Her friend reaches her and whispers something in her ear, then puts her ear up next to the panting injured skater. Half the rink is crying. The rink employee reaches the downed skater, kneels and asks her some questions. He places one of her arms over his shoulder, and she lets out a small painful gasp as they stand together.

She holds one leg slightly up and glides on her other skate as the employee and her friend propel her to the boards. The audience stands, both applauding and crying. We are applauding for all the years she has skated, for her entire life. The injured skater exits the ice and sits on a bench, her mother rushing over.

The announcer calls out the next skater, a smaller blonde gal. She skates out to center ice, blinks back some tears, and poses.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

- balance


It's a curiously entrancing dynamic, watching a coach teach the seven year old gals to skate backward along the center ice circle. The coach already has years upon years of her customary sense of centering and balance, but the seven year olds are cronked between their desire for the same grace as the coach and responding to their own internal millisecond body signals of muscular imbalance.

The coach focuses on teaching them arm position and yet their natural instinct is to use their arms (rather than their trunk muscles) for balance. Maybe that's the first unusual thing to observe when the skaters are just starting out: the sport generally requires arms out, or arms posed, whereas from infancy the natural inclination is to lift your right arm in immediate response to an unexpected body tilt to the left.

As if keeping balanced on one foot over an eighth inch wide blade of steel isn't already hard enough, we ask the young skaters to furthermore ignore using their natural tendency for having their arms help them balance!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

- vapor


After your kid has been competing for a while you get a pretty good sense of the variety of ice rinks. Aside from the big mix in amenities and heating for the parents in the stands, you soon recognize that all rinks share a sublime difference that has more of an impact on how your kid skates. At first you may think it has to do with the Zamboni or the rink's temperature. Somehow they must be affecting the ice's surface. But after years of sitting in a wide variety of rinks I suspect the difference is something deeper, more sublime, and environmentally holistic.

Consider this: over the lifetime of an ice surface, in between complete melts, a couple years of running the Zamboni a couple dozen times over the ice daily, probably deposits a good 20 feet of additional vertical surface above the freezer pipes. Yeah it also scrapes off a bit of the snow on top. Still, how come the ice doesn't rise right up out of the building? The answer my friend, is that ice evaporates.

Natural ice sources, like a lake, have a resupply of water from underneath. The rink however has to always add water on the top. So what influences how the ice evaporates? I am sure there must be some lengthy technical article about this in some trade publication (is there such a thing as Rink Maintenance Monthly?), but my guess is that rinks strike a balance between four variables: temperature, humidity, dehydration rates from the mechanical air conditioning, and the quality of the rink enclosure's "vapor barrier."

Although I can never quite come up with a simple rule that ties them all together, I am quite confident that the vapor barrier is the key determinant to good skating. Compared to a building that has been "repurposed," modern rinks specifically designed for the sport are hence both fifty times more comfortable and have much better ice conditions. It's all about the vapor.


ed note: After writing this I did a bit of research and found this PDF, which explains a lot.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

- jumps


One of the things a parent rather quickly gets an education on is the terminology for the individual figure skating moves. Many are quite distinct in appearance and once you know their names they are easy to spot: a split jump, a sit spin, a spiral, a camel, a layback; all of these you will know right away. I found however that I was always getting confused over the standard jumps. My daughter sat down with me one day and we came up with this (for a right handed skater):

* Skate Dad's Guide to Jumps *

Waltz Jump -- used for warm ups, a simple half rotation, taking off forward

Toe Loop -- turns going in, pick and jump with left, land on right

Salchow (pronounced sow-cow) -- turn going in, jump with left (no pick), land on right

Loop -- turn going in, jumps with both feet, makes "shuush" sound, land on right

Flip -- turn going in, pick and jump with right, land on right

Lutz -- no turns going in, straight back with big trigger and kick on right pick, land on right

Axel -- forward takeoff, one-and-a-half rotation before landing

:: With a pick kick to jump ::
-- Left foot jumps: Toe Loop
-- Right foot jumps: Flip (turns into), Lutz (straight bkwd into)

:: No pick to the ice ::
-- Left foot jumps: Waltz (in forward), Salchow (in bkwd), Axel (in fwd, one-and-a-half spin)
-- Both feet jump: Loop (shuush)

Well it helps a bit, but I still don't have the eye to get them correct completely.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

- school


One of the big decisions for a skate parent is what to do about school. Not skating school: every parent recognizes their kid will go through several years of skate school followed by many more years of the more expensive lessons with a personal coach and off ice specialists. That's all just part of the sport.

But what the heck do you do about the "three R's" the regular boring state-mandated curriculum? If your kid is at all a serious skater she will be spending three or four hours every day at the rink or an off-ice session, and it is simply impossible for a parent to juggle this around a regular school schedule, public or private.

Inevitably then, the serious skaters also home-school. My second daughter skated, and as we had already done a bit of home schooling of the first, for us it was no big deal. For many parents though this can be a deal breaker.

Here in L.A., the district runs a parallel institution (www.cityofangelsschoolk12.com) for home schoolers where the kids check in with a teacher once a week and do the rest as independent study. Around half of this happens at home, but my daughter found the best strategy was to lug a couple books to the rink every day and study during session breaks, in between coaching and class times.

This also has some social implications for how your child is raised: it means skate parties instead of football games. And it's a big part of what causes the sport to be so clique.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

- windy


One thing my daughter told me that should have been obvious: skating is windy. You are moving at fifteen miles an hour or so, therefore the effect is of a moderate-speed cold wind blowing upon you. You can see this in the frillier costumes as the edges flutter.

This makes for peculiar body heat dynamics: you are fine when you're exercising and moving, but the moment you stop you get suddenly hot and sweaty, then cold as you start up again. Plus this happens to different body parts on different time scales.

Nose, ears, body, hands, and feet, each going from one temperature to another on their own cycles staggered from your efforts. When you get off the ice it takes a full half hour to feel like a normal person again.