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.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
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
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, August 8, 2013
Many of the young teen ladies at the rink get torn between their art and their desires to achieve certain technical aspects of their performance. This conflict seems to span four dimensions. On one axis you have the battle toward artistic expression, on another vector you get the strivings for technical accomplishments, on the third axis you have the whole issue of body shape, and finally you encounter the issue of fitting in with society's expectations for a young lady (at their age mostly their parents' expectations, but there can also be peer "drama" here as well). It is a rather complicated formula of flavors, and the most successful skaters have a lot on their plate.
How does the mixing and matching of forces create the personality of the skater? The big popular shows with hundreds and thousands of viewers -- the finals that you see on TV -- really don't do anything for the skaters. It is art of course, and it is a performance with all of the inherent issues of performance-art. But it is too big and noisy for the skaters to gain much critical value out of the process for themselves.
The small practice sessions though (the club events in front of the parents) are really where learning and social processes transpire. For one thing, the club events are small enough that the skaters can pay attention to the thoughts of the audience. They get immediate feedback about the impact of their performance. But more important is the peculiar characteristic of the audience itself: these observers see hours upon hours upon hours of skating. They know every move and they pay attention to the flexing of every muscle and the impact of every jump on each joint and bone. They are not easily impressed and they aren't distracted much by costuming flash... they comprehend the amount of effort and practice that goes into each and every move. And they all have the skaters' best interests at heart.
How the skater interacts with this smaller audience then influences her choices, which then determines her path. Each skater faces a choice of focus between art and technical merit. It isn't exactly a trade-off one-for-one; it is possible to advance both (and in fact the best skaters do advance both). At the middling stage though -- that point where a skater has reasonable control of her body, a fair number of moves and skills, and some experience performing on the ice -- you quickly see that a skater tends to drift toward one seasoning or another.
They can drift toward the flavor of being technically competitive, where they battle each other to see who can spin the fastest or do the most complicated laybacks or be the first to land a triple Axel consistently. Or they can drift to the aroma of showmanship, where they provide graceful entertainment to the audience.
Sometimes a gal is "pre-selected" for the competitive bent, either by her body build or by the influence of her parents. The more robust girls -- the large-boned -- have natural impediments to achieving much of the technical expectations. And yet they often are adequately compensated by being blessed with a certain amount of grace and artistic expression. Some of the more lankly gals don't have a lot of grace, but their physics allow them superior technical ease.
So all in all it’s a big complicated stew.