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 15, 2013

- xmas

A Christmas skating show always has certain familiar components that make me cry (well tear up at any rate); it also always has some consistently weird strangeness. This year I visited a rink in the, uh, less prosperous part of town, Valley Ice, right up the street from Walmart in Panorama City. I arrived a little late -- the skaters and their families had already been there an hour to get costumed and warmed up. The parking lot is full. I walk in the front and a teen guy and gal are attending to the entry desk (white butcher paper and the ghost of former check in badges and CDs) and I say ah, general admission I guess. $5 please, and a rubber stamp on my hand. Ducking in through the hastily hung blackout curtains I see the rink is packed with the skaters' immediate families, and there's no place left to sit.

The place looks interesting: they've wrapped some Christmas lights around the structural columns and blackouts cover the side glass doors. Since the overhead lights are turned off the ice is illuminated instead with a couple banks of overhead l.e.d. panels, casting large blotches of blue and orange on the ice. Two technicians slide small spotlights into the corners awaiting the next skater.

The female rink announcer smoothly introduces the next skaters (it's a duet) and the spots swing to each side of a large hanging velvet-looking curtain as a young gal emerges from each side and poses. The program starts and it's. . . . wait for it. . . . Christmas music. Okay no surprise there. Shows like this are one of the few places you see skating duets, and naturally Christmas music isn't your usual skating fare. Also obviously these gals have been practicing this particular routine just for this show during the past month. You can see the struggling questioning on their faces as they partially remember the routine and improvise the rest. Still though the crowd applauds in appreciation.

Weirdness one: the holiday show is the only place you'll skate a new routine with 1 (or 7) other skaters, a simple program you barely know to music you never skate to, do a moderate job at it, and still get an ovation from a large audience.

Next up the eight senior skaters step out to the ice and skate (yeah to Christmas music) in a circle that shifts into two lines, everybody doing the same coordinated movements more or less at the same time. Weirdness two: I'm a solo skater; I never have to coordinate moves with anyone. Some take to it easily and others are clearly bothered at being faced with adjusting their natural timings. Big round of applause, mainly to see all the seniors skating together non-competitively.

Next up, a twelve year old takes to the ice and the announcer says ". . . she dedicates this piece to her aunt, who now skates with angels." Ahh first watery eye moment. A fair number of skaters naturally perform in silent tribute to someone; rarely though do we hear the announcer come right out and say it. So we send along our mental condolences as she's gliding along the ice.

Next up we have a little pause as the announcer indulges our patience while "we attend to a slight wardrobe malfunction." After a minute eight little tykes shuffle out to the ice, six girls and two boys, a couple of them with antlers. Also one larger skater, clearly one of the school instructors. The announcer queues a warm welcome for our pre-alpha skaters... teary moment two. Pre-alpha is cuteness incarnate anyhow, so to see eight of them all at once, and all of them their first time in front of a skating audience this size, is quite a pull on the heartstrings. They swizzle a bit and go forward and back half a rinks width, and that is that.

Next a number by the rink's sole ice dancers. Two skaters take to the ice, and run through a standard six or seven element routine around the rink a few times. This is very pleasant and relaxing to watch, as I rarely get the opportunity to see ice dance. They stroke smoothly in near perfect synchrony and I notice when they switch from forward to backward-facing travel how the lady carefully places the heel of the blade from her inner foot onto the other side of her partner. Yikes, I think to myself, how many new male ice dancers get the hard tapered back end of a blade stabbed into their shins that way? Suddenly my respect for ice dance jumps fourfold. They finish their cycle and pose at center ice, but their music continues onward. They have either undercounted their cycles or else miscut their music. It's rather embarassing and they don't know what to do. They skate across the ice and take another bow, then leave the ice with the music still going. Usual holiday show weirdness.

Rink announcer: now the surprise you've all been waiting for. . . he now competes nationally but he started here at this very rink (there's a big murmur and I miss his name) and then a clearly Accomplished Senior skater takes center ice to applause; he poses. We wait. And wait some more. The skater tilts his head slightly down to allow his peripheral vision to glance if the music booth needs some help. We wait some more. Finally a muddled CD starts and then stacato skips. He smiles, breaks his concentration while somebody fetches the backup CD. Finally back into his pose and the music starts (yes, Christmas music).

He does a couple moves around the rink and then preps back for a big Axel. A quad, slightly short but still impressive. A couple more moves across the rink. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the sight of twenty girl skaters' heads popping over the opposite dashers, eyes wide and slack-jawed. Accomplished Senior backs into the next big jump and completely totally nails a quad. Big applause, short program, smooth finish.

Yeah we had a couple other skaters interspersed there too, and now they join everybody else out on the ice for a finale; I duck out a bit early to avoid the traffic jam. Another year of skating, blogging, and joyful weirdness under my belt. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

- choosing

Xan recently posted her thoughts on why you should allow your coach to choose your skating music. After a few weeks of subconscious digestion I recognized that ''music" is only a barometer for a wider issue: how your skater relates to both her coach and the sport.

Naturally the manner that your child uses to make choices gradually changes as she matures. When your kid is little they exhibit definite tastes and won't be shy to express what they *dislike*. At a young age they may not however be fully cognizant of what they actually like -- you can expose them to all sorts of musical styles and most will be "meh" but at any rate all of them will broaden your kid's receptivity to expressiveness. At this point in their education I would follow Xan's advice and let the coach suggest the music, within the bounds that your kid doesn't wrinkle their nose too vehemently upon hearing it.

Once your kid hits around ten or eleven and starts competing regularly they are also going to be exposed to the music from lots of other skaters (and from those skaters' coaches). They will quickly discover that many programs prove more "dynamic" (or fall flat) due to the music. Around the age of twelve you and your skater face a critical juncture with respect to choosing their music. This is not unlike (and perhaps coterminous) with a tad of pre-teen rebellion. Continue along and work with the coach in choosing the music? Or step up to the plate and call your own tune?

At this point I say encourage your kid to select her own music. If it helps at all rest assured you're not risking damage to the relationship with your coach (although she may give you some pushback). If she's seasoned your coach has already seen a wide variety of student personalities; a wizened coach will reserve her doubts.

When your daughter chooses her own music it will have two major impacts. First it will tighten her involvement with actually listening to the music and its feelings. She'll begin to evaluate what she hears outside of the rink against what she thinks might be nice to skate to. More importantly perhaps it will shift her focus slightly away from competing and more toward her artistic expression.

Where can she glean new ideas for music? Have her create a Pandora station with a couple songs that she's already skated and see where the new suggestions lead. Having your teen skater choose her own music will make her a more independently artistic performer.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

- distressed parents

One of the moms (with a seven or eight year old skater) lugs her homework to the rink with her to study. She sits in the icebreaker lounge amidst five or six other moms, a couple flirtatious dads, the male ballet coach, and six or seven rambunctious kids playing video games, and she actually... studies.

I don't know how she does it. Somehow between buying a snack for her daughter, chatting up friends, and dealing with the clunks and bings of the video games, she manages to learn something: accounting at the moment, I believe. Partly I'm impressed and partly I'm depressed. I am impressed by her ability to concentrate and her drive to be successful -- her eschewing of fun for work. But I am equally depressed that she would feel so driven as to have to endure the distractions.

I sat down to chat with her one day; she set aside her book on Basic Accounting, smiled, and said Good, I needed a break. She told me that she was from Vietnam, that her father was an American G.I. in the war and her mother was Vietnamese. She never met her dad, and her mom died when she was five. She came to the States as a teen refugee, and had a child while unmarried in high school. She didn't know who her child's father was.

Just your typical skate mom.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

- a shame

The empty SWP regionals a couple of weeks ago were rather saddening. The skaters, a member or two of their families, and the judges were there. But aside from me and the immediates, the film crew, some coaches and a couple of vendors, nobody else was present. Maybe 30 people were in the rink total, counting the skaters. Yeah I went on a Monday so that was part of it. Why do they schedule the interesting junior and senior events on a Monday and Tuesday anyway?

Back a dozen years or so ago my daughter and I went to an interclub event (at the same rink, Anaheim ice!) and the place was a zoo. Vendors squeezed in everywhere, hardly room to change into your skates, and maybe an audience of 150, with lots of friends and supporters from the home rinks.

What has happened, is it an "economy" thing? Has it become nearly impossible to justify the time and expense to groom a traveling skater? Or is it a general disenchantment with the competitive environment? Or something else entirely? I do realize of course that the folks in regionals are somewhat on a different "track" than those at a group competition: many drove up from San Diego and a couple were from Arizona. So it's not like I'm expecting all their fellow rink mice.

Maybe it's just that the USFSA has never really "advertised" the regional qualifying events to the general public. They do emplace dasher banners so they must be anticipating /some/ sort of audience, but I don't know how the average fan would be aware of such a thing. Your average fan doesn't go to USFSA's web site to search for nearby events: they just know about what's on television.

An empty rink is saddening for a couple of reasons. l guess for someone who knows skating the travesty is that these gals, the skaters, really deserve better. They have seriously worked their butts off to get here, so they deserve tons of applause for their efforts; an empty rink feels like a snub. But there seems to be a deeper sadness here, an existential sadness.

It feels like a big waste -- like a half vacated shopping mall it's an idea that at one time would have seemed to be popular but now no longer seems to make sense. Mostly the feeling I get is that It's a Shame. It's a shame in the sense that somebody backed into your parked new car. Or that you irrevocably wrecked your favorite suit. It's a shame in that it feels like a waste of time, a wasted thousand hours of practice. It's a shame in that it seems at this point, at Regionals, it should really be so much more.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

- deeper art

In an earlier post I pointed out how along with being athletes, most figure skaters are also artists. They have heightened senses of perception, aesthetics, and sensitivities. And like any artist they struggle with certain challenges related to their creativity, their vision, and wrestling with the tools of their trade.

Boots and blades can be finicky. The ice is never the same one day to the next, and it's different after a resurface. Your own body goes through different moods and it seems your weight distribution gradually changes. Every time you step on the ice it's another relearning experience.

Since seriously pursuing figure skating takes such an inordinate commitment and persistent concentration, a skater is in touch with her craft most of the time. While on ice the repeated physical acts of practice practice practice and adjusting to current conditions can become zen-like in their small adjustments and introspections. After a warm up and a half hour of freestyle a skater easily sends herself into a semi-hypnotic "zone" much like a musician or a painter.

No doubt a skater establishes a certain meditative peace from concentrating on her art. At the same time however a specific mental framework scaffolds this construction: it's almost as if you have your art brain, and your social brain. Your awareness sinks into your art brain while you work; meanwhile your social brain subconsciously ferrets away its tasks for later.

It's not unusual for others to interpret this non-social artistic anti-focus as ''stubborness." And indeed if you're stubborn enough to be a skater, you're stubborn enough for anything. At the same time this obstinance is more or less a critical trait to withstand the long hours you must invest.

Although there is sometimes the perception that a skater's skills evolve from the careful mentoring of her coach, like all artists a skater works within the confines of her bodily and mechanical tools, perceptive abilities, and creative inner life to manipulate an ever changing fractal reality. Careful nurturing from a coach, a coreographer, and a parent are essential, yes, but nevertheless many times the link between a skater's work and her progress is only apparent to the skater herself.

What happens when I lift my heel this way? What happens when I put this arm here on this spin? It's all experimentation and interpreting reactions.

Naturally often the road is frustrating and progress seems elusive, but periods of plateau and quietude are standard fare for any creative person. A skater must keep working during these fallow times as an artistic refresher; often she makes important discoveries while working on the routine, even in hindsight.

Art is about trying to put together ideas, feelings, and techniques -- skaters can plan work up to a point but must always be open to change. A skater must stay attuned to what is truly their expressiveness in the moment, otherwise they risk entering automatic processes that appear hollow.

Finally no matter who you are very few tangible (monetary) benefits are likely to come from figure skating; there seems to be barely enough funds to even keep the sport going. And sure, money might make things easier for you, but it doesn't really do anything to enhance the art in your skating. As skating riches are not a motivation, your satisfaction has to come from the creative process itself.

Figure skaters are solo artists constantly working in a grouped artisinal environment. Persistence, sensitivity, and originality are what set each of them apart. When you finish your program and feel our applause, deep down you'll know what it is all about: we are applauding for the artist that is you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

- palms

Okay one last niggling concern about those parts of your body that don't actually skate: the palms of your hands. I'll accept three positions for your palms while stroking (when you aren't otherwise moving your hands about). Palms down, palms up, or palms forward. Each position expresses something different, yet most of the skaters I watch choose the simple default, palms down.

Palms down is like a plane flying, or a bird soaring. Good for when you want to describe "speediness" or a quiet smoothness. They are also probably easier to manage when you are still working up your shoulder strength. Palms forward (with feather fingers naturally) is like you are catching the wind, trailing a bouquet of colorful streamers. Palms up, the most difficult of the three, is a celebratory showing, carrying two golden orbs, a "ta da."

When you are stroking about the rink for your program take a few moments to consider your palms; what is the music trying to express here? Your palms should match.

Palms in a spin are really a great source for creativity. You can slice the air, you can tangle the wind, you can lift and arise, plus any combination of these. If you're very careful you can rhythmically flutter. Don't feel that you have to constrain yourself to a palm position frozen by the axis of your spin: you can slowly move your palms from one position to another.

Since jumps tend to already push the limits of the possible, palm expressiveness in a jump nowadays is rather an extravagant bit of glamour. If you back off a notch on your rotations however you can then inject some sparkle with your palms. This is easiest on the exit but if you're very careful you can meld them into your takeoff or even your apex. Don't get too crazy here. . . any palm expressiveness at all on a jump is certainly enough.

Edges, stroking, face thoughts, takeoff, timing, grace, arm movements, fingers, palms. Geesh is that enough to think about on the ice? Ya think?

Monday, September 16, 2013

- sharpened

Sometimes as a parent I found myself frustratingly in the dark on the whole equipment end of things. Down in the weeds it's all about the boots, the blades, and the sharpening; when it came to the technicalities of sharpening I figured that my role as a parent was just to assure that my daughter did her own "homework." Since it was her sport she was the one who had to be "up" on the technology. So here in two referrals is all the gory technical details:

Even so I still felt a deep lingering uneasiness with this whole sharpening business -- it seemed that my daughter's success or frustrations could depend inordinately on some gent I barely knew with a couple grinding and polishing machines in his garage. Yeah he had testimonials and connections, and my daughter found the fellow from checking with other gals at the rink. But how could I tell how much he really knew, or how well he actually performed his duty? He would chat with my daughter about how she was skating, and seemed to listen intently to her concerns. Was he being sincere though or just going through the motions? I couldn't quite tell. What if he saved his best work for a couple of his favorites and then just glided through the rest of his sharpenings? And in my paranoia I even wondered if he wasn't maybe playing on my fears to manipulate me to a higher fee. I harbored my lingering suspicions.

I'm wondering now if this might be one place where the sport couldn't tighten up a bit. With advanced technology nowadays I'm surprised that somebody doesn't make a laser measuring device to display the sharpness and various curvatures along the length of each blade. It seems that you should be able to plop your boot into such a device at your local rink and know immediately if your blades are due for a honing, or if the quality of the job your sharpener did was up to snuff. Anyhow that's a small business idea for you mechanical engineers out there.

My other bright idea is that some skating website should take the opportunity to reduce the information assymetry in this relationship. You know, something similar to Angie's list or 1-800-dentist where a skater and her parents could find a list of local sharpeners along with testimonials and a five star rating. And speaking of ratings. . .

I really wonder if skaters, parents, and USFSA shouldn't push for some sort of licensing, standardization, or certification of sharpeners. It's one of those grey areas: few sharpeners make this their full time profession and yet aside from a small handful of other sports I don't know of many places where "equipment tuning" can play such a significant role.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

- interview

Back a couple of months ago I had the pleasure to watch Courtney Hicks compete at the LA Open at Pickwick in Burbank. After she saw a tweet where I complimented her we managed to get together to arrange for this email Q&A. Special thanks to All Year FSC and the USFSA for their clearance on this interview.

> Hi Courtney! Hey I noticed you have a web site to enable sponsors to help defray the costs of competing -- this seems like a great idea. Do lots of skaters do this and is it helpful?

I think a lot of skaters do. . . and it has helped over the past few years!

> You have many unique flourishes to your moves. How does a skater stand out, and what are the plusses and minuses of such creativity? Where do you get ideas for these moves?

Thanks! A skater can stand out by doing things that other skaters don’t, even if that’s just great edge quality or fast spins. Simple things help judges remember a skater and leave a favorable impression on them. Skaters can also come up with different moves or transitions that are new and different.

Some of the plusses are better recognition, better PCS scores, and getting the crowd more interested in your skating. Some of the minuses are that the jumps can become harder to do, and you might lose speed during your program.

A lot of the moves that I’ve done were just random things that I thought would be fun to try; my Twhicks spin was something my mom thought up during practice one day.

> How do the hours in your typical training week break down by activity?

I usually spend about eighteen hours on the ice and six hours doing off ice workouts at home or with my personal trainer. I also spend about 3 hours a week stretching at home.

> You have "jumper's thighs" . . . you are probably one of the three highest female jumpers I've seen in L.A. Do you think you were just born with good genes or did you develop your thighs from focused exercise? Is there a down side to this... does it impede other moves?

I think it was a combination of both! I’ve had high jumps since I was little, but I have done a lot of strength training to make sure my legs could handle my big jumps. I have very tight quads and hamstrings, so some flexibility moves are hard for me. I’m not sure if my average flexibility is from having strong legs or if it’s just natural, but I have to stretch a lot to maintain the flexibility that I have.

> Is Hurd video really everywhere? Do you ever buy video tapes of your skating?

Hurd is definitely at all the Southern California competitions, at least! I’m not sure about other places but they’ve been at every local competition that I’ve ever done since I started skating. I buy my competition videos every once in a while.

> What type of off-ice training have you found to be the most valuable, and why?

I find that workouts with my trainer are the most useful to me off ice because it builds and maintains the necessary core, leg, and arm strength needed for skating.

> Since skating is so physically demanding and everyone looks pooped out after their free skate, should skaters do more endurance training, like running a mile? Or might that be counterproductive?

The best thing I found that helped my endurance was sprinting up the hill to my house. I used to run 3 miles almost every day, but that would just make my shins hurt and I never noticed it helping my skating (it actually usually made me more tired for skating). I think running a really fast mile or running as fast as you can up a hill is probably the closest to doing a program. Anything much longer than that and I feel like you are just overworking yourself.

> Besides a coach, choreographer, and ballet teacher, what other trainers have you found valuable over the years?

I’ve never really had any other trainers than those, but I’ve found that getting a massage once a week is REALLY HELPFUL because I get tight so easily and then I have a lot of pain.

> Do you follow any sort of special training diet? Do you consult with a Nutritionist?

I avoid carbs like bread and rice, and I also don’t eat junk food like ice cream or candy. My mom is basically my nutritionist! She researches everything and knows a lot about what’s good and what’s not good. I do get a meal each week with whatever I want though!

> How does a skater balance her focus between athleticism and grace?

I’d say that athleticism can be shown through grace. It’s always important to move beautifully, but you can still be fast and powerful with athletic movements and still carry those movements gracefully. It makes it look effortless.

> What books have you found to be the most motivating?

I thought that Mind Gym was pretty good. It helped me realize how heavily the mind influences what you do.

> Should we (not specifically you but American skaters in general) try to skate style-wise more like the Japanese?

Even though it’s probably good for every skater to have the flow and ice coverage the Japanese have, I think it’s more important for each skater to find a style that fits them; they need to find the most beneficial style for themselves.

> What are some of the more interesting elements you've seen?

I think a hydroglide is really cool and I wish I could do one! I also think cantilevers look really neat. The skater does sort of a sitting spread eagle and leans back all the way with their back parallel to the ice; I want to do one so badly!

> What are the biggest things to consider when deciding if you want to strive for being a National skater?

Definitely the cost and the effort. Skating gets really expensive as you get better, and it also takes a ton of effort and time. Basically, you have to be totally committed to skating and training full time.

> Plushies or flowers?

Ooo, that’s hard! I love plushies but I have sooo many of them! They’re awesome and I love stuffed animals, but they take up so much room! I also really love flowers and always try to take home the ones that I get at competitions.

> Do you care about audience size? Do you have to prepare differently mentally when the audience is large?

I always love big audiences. The bigger the better! It’s great to feel the energy from the crowd and it helps me perform better too. I don’t really do anything different for larger audiences.

> After you finish a big national competition, do you get to have fun? Share some of the silliness.

Always! When I was in Omaha, some of my family was there and we went to the zoo. I was climbing around on vines and monkeying around; I also held a butterfly! We also always go out to eat somewhere after I compete, but since the competition was over so late in Nebraska we ended up using the drive through at McDonald’s and eating in our hotel room.

> How often do you buy new skates? Do you have to time the purchase to your competition calendar?

I usually get new skates every six months. When the old skates break down I always try to have a spare pair handy so that I don’t have to use duct tape until the new ones arrive. Lately I’ve had some skate issues and been forced to use the "spare" pair immediately when the new ones got finished. One pair buckled in three weeks!

I don’t really time purchases to my calendar because I break skates in so quickly -- I could basically get new skates a week before competition and still be okay.

> We used to drive an hour to a certain guy in Arcadia to get my daughter's blades sharpened. Is a private sharpener worth it and how do you find a good one?

It’s great to find someone that does skates really well! I only ever go to one person for my sharpenings and other boot/blade issues. It helps because after a while the person that deals with your skates knows a lot of your issues and can have a better idea of how to fix any problems you might have. The best way to find somebody is probably word of mouth. Ask around and you’ll probably find someone really good!

> What are some of the strangest rink environments you've skated in? Are there certain things you wish more rinks provided?

There’ve been a few rinks where it gets really foggy inside and it’s like skating in a cloud. Those are definitely the weirdest because it makes it hard to see the barriers and other people, plus it’s harder to breathe! It is kind of fun though just because it looks really cool. It’s always nice when there’s a warm room for skaters to put on their skates. It’s a lot easier to stay warm and ready to get on the ice when you’re not sitting in the cold for ten minutes.

> Okay shout out time: who do you want to acknowledge? Websites we should visit?

Well definitely my family! I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without my sisters, Kylie and Kelsey, and my parents Gene and Nelisa. Same goes for my aunt, uncle, cousin, and Baboonya, who’ve been to every U.S. Championship with me.

I don’t really visit any websites in particular to help with skating or anything, but it’d be great if you could check out my website! It’s

> Awesomeness. Actually I have some questions for your mom too! Hi Nelisa, say I used to always get terribly nervous before my daughter competed, maybe even more so than her. What do you do about your nerves?

I usually am good and calm until she leaves to go compete. Then when I get nervous I walk out of the rink and try to go to a place by myself.

> Say a few words about how to cope with the hardships of skate parenting: tricks of the trade.

I don’t really have any; I like to keep it real. This sport is not easy and we all know it. We believe in hard work and a lot of prayers.

> Once your kid gets on the cusp of skating nationally, how do you prep yourself and your family for what lies ahead?

It seems to be a natural progression. It’s very exciting, but I believe that setting goals to achieve really helps. The whole family does have to be onboard with it too. At times the whole family changes their schedule to accommodate what is needed.

> What are the biggest things to consider when deciding if you want to strive for raising a National skater?

I didn’t strive for this -- I just told Courtney that if she wanted to do this sport, or any sport, there were going to be some work requirements to stay in it, whether she made it nationally or not. I think if you are going to do something you work hard and good things will come out of that.

> How much influence should a parent exert over a skater, compared to the coach?

I believe it is a working triangle; each person is important to the overall goal. Sometimes a parent can see something the coach doesn’t because they are with the skater all the time. It definitely is best when everyone can work together.

> Thanks so much to both of you for taking some time to share your thoughts with the blog readers and me! We love to watch you skate.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

- stuck

On her most excellent skating blog, Xan recently offered some pointers for what to do when your skater appears to be reaching a plateau. Her post has a couple of intertwined ideas that I'd like to unravel to examine. The first concept is if and how a skater may be "fulfilling whatever potential people . . . see in her." A second concept is more Tony Robbins inspirational, platform changing. And perhaps a third concept is how a parent, coach, and skater each have different preconceptions of a life path for the skater.

Frankly this business of "potential" is frightening stuff. It plays directly on the pride of being a parent. It's the same marketing approach that Phoenix University employs to lure students -- Achieve your potential: spend money on our courses and we'll help you get there. It seems to be pandering to everybody's ego of how good they think they can become.

You know there's natural talent and there's hard work; put them together with good coaching and you'll get what you get. Along the way there is luck and misfortune and a constantly changing body.

Dreams of grandeur are motivational, but they also lead to great disappointment. Listen when somebody compliments your skater -- smile and say thank you -- but judge your kid objectively against other skaters her own age and avoid having your ego "played upon."

Having said all that though I've seen plenty of instances where a skater isn't going anywhere, then they take off the summer, and then they come back as completely different skaters. What happened? Did something "click?" Special off ice training? A new attitude? Who knows? It does seem to me that skaters pass through some magical discontinuous skill points, rather than just gradually getting continuously better.

Finally, "stuck" is a life lesson. It's one that parents already know about and skaters will learn. Everybody goes through it whether you're a chess master or a basketball jock or an aspiring guitarist. Indeed for a parent part of the value in skating is to teach their kids that yes, people are all different and each possess various limits. Most parents recognize that their kid won't be making a career out of skating.

Yet all parents also know that their child must recognize this for themselves.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

- longing

Maybe it starts as a dull longing, a sense that it really is time for me to pay a visit. Not so unlike a slowly surfacing awareness of a nagging dietetic mineral deficiency, or a sense that it's been a long time since I've seen my aunt. I need to go watch some figure skating in person. So I check an online schedule, see that Valley Ice has two hours of freestyle at 9:30, fix my hair, shave, and toss a scarf into the car. It's a ten minute drive. On the way I stop for a Starbucks espresso and spend a few moments of writing in the coffee shop, pondering over the nature of this psychic hunger. Deep down inside I know what it is but I am unsure of how to capture its bones into an essay, plus I fear that once I share the beast I may end up killing it by exposure.

I hop back into the car and drive the last minute to the rink. As I enter the smell of the cold air spins my brain: ice rinks have a scent that instantly binds me to all their common memories. I gently take a seat on the bench where I always sit, at center ice. The skate moms cluster on the bench twenty feet to my left under a space heater. Today I'll be able to sit quietly and observe by myself; this is a bit of a relief as when I sit with others inevitably a nearby mom asks "who's your skater?" When I say l have no kid skating the next question always seems to be "Why are you here then?" The person asking seems to imply that watching a kid in their junior level sport is more of a parental obligation. Outsiders must be suspicious weirdos.

I shrug and give a short excuse for my answer: my daughter used to skate and I thought I would duck away from the heat and enjoy some inexpensive entertainment. Why just this simple excuse instead of the truth? It’s because sharing the hard truth is both nakedly revealing and too embarrassing.

The hard naked truth is that back twenty years ago my daughter's figure skating saved my life. Oh we all go through various phases in our lives, childhood, teen angst, mating, raising kids. In my mid-thirties I found myself divorced, in poor health, lonely, and broke. But I did have my daughter's skating to look forward to. It seemed like several times a week I sat on the hard bleachers, or slowly ambled about the rink, or warmed my hands around a cup of coffee in the heated snack cafe. I watched tiny tots shimmy on the ice, six year olds proudly don their first club jackets, and eleven year olds hone their Axels. I witness coaches with seemingly infinite patience teaching the same skills repeatedly to an endless stream of students.

And from this I recognized that hope springs from hard work, patient practice, and constant learning. Success comes from dedication, strength of personality, creativity, and avoiding pitfalls. My life would turn around with these same principles. As I spent more time at the rink I saw what enabled all of this: it was the love from the coaches and the skating parents. As I became a more proficient observer the skaters would love me for the insight I provided to their shortcomings.

When I enter the rink and catch the unique mixed scent of exertion, frozen mildew, and skate leather, I am reconnecting to everything that we build to be better people. Sure my short answer is that I'm here to cool my heels and be entertained a bit; the long answer is that skating is my church: it reminds me of what it takes to be a good human. That nagging longing is for the skaters' love to get there.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

- style

How do you learn new elements and still develop a style of your own? Surely it's easiest to learn by watching another skater as she performs a move, ask your coach to teach you the technical execution, and then strive to copy them. When most of the skaters follow this course it leads to a "fashion," whether that be a Bielman or a butt-up spin. (Sidenote: I never saw butt-up until a couple years ago and now half the gals try it. You know what? It look farcical: it turns you into a paper clip. Please don't do this move).

Mimicking an elite move is different though from replicating a style. Physics fairly limits the full set of possible elements, so mirroring an elite move isn't necessarily unoriginal. When you try to imitate somebody else's style however you come off as "phony" -- you need to express your own personal style.

To some extent, style is what you tack on top of a foundational move. Additionally though you reflect your style in the type of music you choose, the programs you like to skate, the fluidity of your movements, the projection of your attitude, and your treatment of fellow skaters.

I've seen skaters express a full range of personalities using their arms, their footwork, hand embellishments, their carriage, facial expressions, costume, and attitude -- they can be unselfish, silly, eager, rustic, coy, daring, decorous, droll, demure, mirthful, virtuous, stimulating, wise, elegant, and winsome (to name just a few traits).

Your skating style is more a reflection of your personality combined with methods that you've developed for how to express it.

You should strive to make each move your own. Watch for variety and allow novelty to impress you when you happen across something new to your eyes. The goal however is not to mirror the elites' style: it's to be graceful, inventive, and to express your own spirit.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

- bouncy

Yesterday I floated by the public session at the Westfield UTC rink in San Diego (yeah a rink mezzanined below a mall's food court) and sure enough amongst the weekend noobs hugging the boards an actual nine year old Skater with a Coach on ice was polishing her double Axel. Although still somewhat inconsistent her talents were immediately obvious: she had that magical combination of bubbly personality with tight center of gravity control. After ten minutes of Axel she switched to practicing her flying camel.

I smiled to myself while thinking Ah someday a national competitor. Yet as I watched her skate her set-ups and non jumps with their implied stylistic flourishes I also recognized her largest challenge. And it's not just hers. . . this seems to be the toughest sub-component for nearly all competing skaters. Managing the vertical bounce.

Grace derives from many components, most of them inherited traits of demeanor and personality. Yet a good solid thirty percent or so of gracefulness is actually a physical spoof -- how you manifest your awareness of carriage. I recall a certain children's story where the aspiring princess walks about balancing a book on her head; it's sort of like this. In skating however the dynamics of movement require a more complicated management of "flow."

Novice skaters manage this in one physical dimension: sideways. They work on consistent shudder control. More advanced skaters add the second physical dimension, accelerative smoothness: they strive for "seamlessness." Since a sheet of ice is only two dimensional one would think that handling velocity and shimmy should be sufficient. Counterintuitively though the flatness of the ice tends to enhance the contrast to the third dimension you travel, your vertical movements.

I've seen skaters manage this vertical 3rd dimension to various ends. Some treat it as irrelevant, as they randomly bounce around the rink. Others track it on the small scale, thinking in terms of softness and transitions. Some handle it dogmatically, keeping their center exactly at a fixed height while somewhat boringly executing a flattened pattern.

The third dimension should have a studied dynamism, a path that is purposeful and yet sublime. It should be like the movements of a swans neck. The third dimension should be gently managed as its own story.

This is how you separate the competitors from the pros.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

- blue and gold

When you spend a lot of time at the rink with your kid, you also get to spend loads of time with both her peers and the skating coaches. While sitting quietly and watching the interaction of brains, the flow of love, you will find that the coaches have quite a different dynamic from the skaters.

The skaters feel exciting: they are exploring the new moves, emotions, and feelings attached at the edge of their envelope. They are observing, absorbing, and showing off a bit. They are learning both physical and social skills. They can see and imagine a future path to some glory and critical attention.

The coaches on the other hand watch the skaters with the quiet reserve of a teacher's eye, also with both some nostalgia and some pathos. For many of them watching a student brings back memories of a heartbreak. Or you may see a half smile fleetingly cross her face as a flashy student maneuver reminds the coach of one of the high points of her previous skating career.

Many times a coach will fall into a quiet glumness, realizing that she is "stuck" coaching, that her students' glamour is ahead of them but that her own is behind, that as a coach she is a cog in the process of growing teens. Coaches recognize the actual future of their students and how different it will turn out from their students' dreams.

If not for the love from their students, a coach would mostly prevail through a melancholy life.


Monday, June 10, 2013

- a ghost of continuity

One component to any sport that seems sublimely lurking to the new initiate is its sense of history. Naturally when you start out you know of people who have gone before and made certain achievements. Arguably this is one of the draws: you wish to emulate somebody whom you admire. As you start out you may know about some currently famous skaters, for example those you've seen on TV.

Visiting Pickwick for their annual Showcase reminds me that rinks and skating clubs have their own histories as well. This is Pickwick's 40th year of Showcase, and it's quite a production with four spotlights, dimmed rink overheads, dasher thread LED's, an on ice walled-off warm up area, and a show by one of the premier ice theatres in the nation. LAFSC is strong on tradition; it has its regular cycle of annual competitions and shows and a certain pattern of how they raise their skaters.

After several years you recognize that the coaches are in touch with this longer and broader history: they seem to have connections to how the sport "runs." The ghost of figure skating whispers through their unseen chats and backroom staff meetings.

After long enough you sense the slide and the gradual shift in how a tradition expands and its flavor changes. New instructors lend their personality, people move on, skate clubs change their shape or perhaps even switch home rinks altogether. Rinks flip ownership or modify their focus and occasionally even a new rink pops up out of nowhere.

Something vaguely more historical however still lingers. A sport has a past containing venues and skaters yet also has something independent of its places and participants. Maybe this is what it means to soak up the "culture" of a sport: you begin to attach to its history, you merge your flow with a larger continuity.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

- personality

When you saunter into any rink right off the bat you field the sliding scale of personalities. Some gals are clearly here for socializing and team spirit. They hang out by the boards, frequently skate adjacent to their friends, and even when skating alone seem to always have an eye on what somebody else is doing. They are the gals that are here to "perform," glittered up and in costume. They grab your love. These are the skaters that attend all the weekend show scrimmages, the group practice sessions. If they get really good they may end up in a traveling ice show and even make a little money in the process. They are the ice entertainers.

On the other end of the spectrum you'll catch the gals that skate alone. They occasionally chat at the dashers but mostly they focus on personal achievement. Instead of weekend group scrimmages, they spend the early part of every weekday morning at a freestyle session with half a dozen of their peers in shared isolation. They gladly accept your love and adore you for it. These are the athletes. If they get really good they may travel with a parent to distant competitions, but aside from the very top one or two national skaters, nobody makes any money at competitive skating. These are the soul inspirers.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

- begin

I went to the LA FSC open today; it's been about a decade since I last went. And you know, outside of the judging technology not much has changed in ten years. Perhaps a paucity of vendors, but that may just be an economy thing.

While perched up high behind the judges jungle, my critical aesthetic eye was drawn to that initial schmooz of impression, that initial flash of professionalism that each skater exhibits as they take the ice. You know the routine.

The next event will be the ladies intermediate short program. Skaters you make take the ice for your warm up. Skating in the intermediates is...

and as the announcer reads your names your heart jumps a little as you step on the ice behind a couple of the skaters, make a few nice long strokes, and then a waltz jump. So here then comes the first bit of amateurism: as they all break apart into their own warm up routines, I watch with dismay as a couple of skaters press themselves to see if they are ready for their double, triple, or whatever the most challenging part of their program will be...

...and, nope, they are not ready, and they clunk on the ice. So what did that accomplish? Professional rule number 1, use the warmup for warming up, not for testing yourself.

Skaters you have one minute left in the warm up.

This is where you should begin to seat your soul into the feeling of the rink, smile at the judges, and relax.

Skaters this concludes the warm up, please leave the ice. Now skating representing the L.A. Figure Skating club, and they announce a name.

A professional gracefully skates out to center ice with her arms up, perhaps passing to acknowledge one side of the rink and then the other, and then she gracefully takes her position. Second bit of amateurism: now, with all eyes on you, is not the right time to adjust your costume. Don't pull down your skirt or adjust your shoulder straps.

Put on your game face, get into character, pose. Let the show begin!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

- canadian champ

Shout out to Vladislav for a very nice interview with Kaetlyn, the 2013 Canadian national champion.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

- judging questions

In an earlier post I spouted a bit over the dilemma I face about skating judges: bless them but for me personally, no thanks. My daughter stopped competing a decade ago, so I no longer have skin in the game. I do still though have a couple handfuls of questions I wish some figure skating judges would answer. Anonymous answers are just fine too.

My daughter felt assured that the judges paid attention to the warm up, and grant some slack to a skater if she muffed a jump in the program yet landed it in practice. True? How much traveling do judges do? How many competitions do they judge a month? What does it pay? How do you reconcile your aesthetic feelings against the rigid scoring methodology? Does USFSA have seminars where judges get to vent their concerns? Do they pay attention and make changes? Do judges have any influence over general rink conditions? Should they? Do clubs request certain judges (or related: how do judges get chosen for an event)? Can a judge refuse to work with another judge?

There, that should keep you going for a while (smile).

Friday, April 5, 2013

- special coach two

As I scrutinize my daughter skating her latest routine I appraise it for artistic merit. I weigh the style of the presentation, gauging the flow between the moves, watching the overall presentation of her spins, how she carries her center of gravity, and how she displays her arms in expressive embellishments.

Overall the routine looks pretty solid and only one thing concerns me: she came out of a back sit spin with her arms lackadaisical, devoid of any flair at all. The rest of the program was fine though. I motion her over to discuss this. Can you try it with one arm up? She does, and it looks better by a hundred percent. What about the other arm, should it be palm up? She tries it, but it looks worse. How about a bent elbow, I inquire. So she tries that... that was interesting.

And that is what makes a parent-skater relationship special. I fill that tiny piece between the actual coaching and the choreography; I'm the guy that handles the polishing and patching of the expressive holes. Then when my daughter -- in full competitive regalia -- does that special little thing with her arms or her hands on one particular spin, we smile to each other knowing that /that/ was Daddy's move.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

- intensity

I experience quite a flux of emotions while I watch skaters: my feelings overflow. Pondering how these feeling arrive it occurs to me that most of this intensity results from an identification with what the skater herself is experiencing. Although certainly I am moved by the spirit of her music or the expressiveness of her arms, deeper down I am watching what she is thinking.

In anticipation of her jump landing I will connect to the space between her thoughts and her muscle memory -- that spot that is constantly adjusting -- and watch as she reacts to anticipate physics. While she glides a spiral I see the tension between her stillness and her balance over microscopic bumps. As she spins I observe the nanosecond center of gravity battles she fights with the torque.

Naturally much of this derives from my daughter having skated, so I know what too look for: I know where to focus. So it's rather a sublime intensity. I feel every sigh and held breath, every victorious and disappointing moment. I feel the skipped heartbeat on a spiral that almost face plants, or a jump that rotates way too far. I feel the inner pride when a skater skates her entire program without a serious fault.

Somewhat frustratingly I often find a few folks seated adjacent who don't quite share my involvement. Perhaps they got dragged along to drive or chaperone a small child. Without a mental connection to the skater they seem lost by the ooohs, ahhhs, applause and sharp inhalations from the rest of the audience.

I think a lot of the pleasure of watching skating stems from these feelings. For me though it's actually so intense that after a couple of hours I can't watch anymore as I become too emotionally drained. All the skaters' ups and downs become my own.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

- sectionals

Skating is so "inside;" when I sit at a coffee shop across the street from Sectionals and spy an attractive slender lady, we briefly share an unspoken connection that is more than just interesting strangers. Even though I've never seen her in my entire life and can't put a direct finger on the attachment, only two hours later I will see her in the stands at the rink wearing a competitor's neck card and we'll both nod and understand.

Sectionals is a ton of nerves out there on the ice. This must be absolutely the worst event to have to skate: the ticket to Nationals. Yeah if you ever get lucky enough to make Nationals you'll be nervous when you step out on the ice there too, but at that point it's just a competition (in front of way more people than you're used to). Still you are faced off against the other competitors, and you will place where you deserve.

Sectionals though is an *elimination*. It's fish or cut bait. More than any other time, this is less of a skills-test than it is a mental nerves test.

Down to every last gal, they perceptibly shake while assuming starting position. Every single skater who has never been at Sectionals before perceptibly thinks "holy shit." Even those who have been here before inhale a deep breath and think "here goes nothin'."

I think at Sectionals it's really the strongest personality gals that do their best. This is where your confidence built from how hard you have practiced really surfaces and shines. This is where your spirituality matters.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

- audience

If you happen by some quiet private ice it's a good opportunity to watch the ladies practice the sections of their program. Watch closely and you'll immediately notice two classes of skaters.

About two thirds of the skaters have a future audience on their mind: they are aware of both a need to impress and a need to achieve. One third of the folks are there however just to, well, skate. Maybe they are older now and used to compete and performed many years ago, and now they skate just to stay in shape. Or they skate to reminisce. It's not that one class is better than the other, it's just that they are distinctly different.

What is it about having that future audience that makes so much of a difference? When a gal skates for herself you can see her think through the moves from a bodily-awareness perspective, with the point of view of limbs traveling through space.

But a gal with an audience does this and something more: she is calculating the reaction from her viewers. What will the viewers think of *this*? The difference is as great between blueberries and blueberry pie. That added step of separation and projection is what turns the skating from physics to performance. It is that power of love.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

- parental guilt

Sometimes at the rink when I'm not otherwise engrossed in my reading or my writing, I'll watch my daughter skate and she'll surprise me with a move that is particularly artistic or technically difficult. This opens up my eyes to the possibility that if she really stays resolute to her practice she has the potential to actually be world class some day; when she gets off the ice I'll compliment her on the quality of her expressiveness.

Thinking of this makes me almost as equally anxious however as I am proud. Hers is an artist's striving, and to the extent that it satisfies her needs for expression or attention then it's fine. It is such a drain on her time and energies though that, unless (by some quirk of fate and luck) she reaches a level of fame achieved by only one or two skaters a year, in the long run I wonder if it is a liability rather than an asset. What if the accomplishment doesn't pay off in any tangible form that benefits her life overall?

I worry that she risks great disappointment should she not advance as far as she could be capable, either due to her own circumstances or my hobbled financial resources. This final possibility is particularly poignant for me... the last thing that I would want would be to get in the way of something that my daughter loves.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

- I'm just humbly filming

The most peculiar part of my involvement (once my daughter is fairly accomplished) is that she actually does moves on the ice that are too fast for my vision to discern. She is beyond my ability to perceive what is happening and my understanding of the physics involved. She spins and jumps in her own world of expertise, that small and specialized group of people who understand their moves by feel, and who have their own language that they share amongst themselves to describe their craft.

Now I can only lend a hunch, be a sounding board, and operate the camera. This is actually rather humbling. Okay, it is extremely humbling. I tape her, keep her centered in the frame and zoomed in appropriately, but when I'm done she comes by, watches, presses the pause button, and takes her own comments seriously. She knows what she is expecting to see -- her archetypes are beyond my gut feel, sense of style, or sense of managing a torquing center of gravity.

And yet she knows what she sees, and I can tell as she watches herself that she is critical and making small mental adjustments and annotations. The most flabbergasting part of watching a good skater practice is that their feelings now innately understand their physics.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

- soakers

I wrote an earlier post about an item that only insiders see (shooting the duck). Here's another little morsel of inside fun. Naturally skaters lug around their skates and costumes. But surprise, there's more inside that wheelie bag.

Hidden next to the skates is the young lady's alter ego, that little spark of her personality that shines through her program. If you want to view her alter ago in it's full unadulterated concentration -- a hundred per cent full strength -- just watch her unpack her skates.

As she removes them from her bag, hey what's that colorful cloth thingy at the bottom where the blade should be? Soakers. She'll remove the soakers immediately and replace them with hard plastic skateguards, tossing the soakers back into her bag (where they will patiently await until the very end of her practice).

Did you see them? Did you happen to catch a glimpse? Perhaps because they are at heart simply utilitarian (a soft terrycloth loopy interior to absorb stray moisture) this allows the outer facing the freedom to be whatever the skater can imagine.

I've seen florescent orange and black tiger-striped soakers. Shiny sparkly snakeskin soakers. Psychedelic tie die soaker. Fluffy fuzzy caterpillar soakers. You name it; there's no end to soaker craziness.

The next best thing to watching a skating competition is peeking at the soakers.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

- first performance

A shout-out to Sarah for her first performance skate at an exhibition!