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, December 17, 2014

- boots


This may seem peculiar for a participant to realize, but after watching skating for six or seven years the habits of my gaze settle directly onto your feet. I still admire your competition dress for the first 30 seconds or so, and during your program my eyes float around to graceful arm movements, a smile, a flash of rhinestones, or a spray of imagination.

But for 70% of your program (when watching in person) I am mostly interested in the interface between your blades and the ice. That is really where you express all of your suave athleticism. Hence, directly at the periphery of my focus: your boots.

For a competition I suppose you really have only two options with respect to your boots: either wear the tights down over them or keep them polished white.

Those other little boot tricks: gold blades? Boot glitter? No thanks -- frankly it's too distracting.

Yeah I know you spend a lot of effort on you hair, your dress, and your makeup. But while you're on ice the old time audience members mostly focus on your skates. It's really bad form to show off the scuffs. Polish or tights over, please.

(repost)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

- pride

More than most other sports, a competitive skating program laces together a series of individual thought-through elements. A skating program comes pre-parsed, if you will: you assemble routines from a varying set of challenging molecular pieces depending upon the skills and moves that you've learned.

One might assume this make the sport easier; in reality however it presents a nefarious and pernicious booby-trap. Since skating is such a curious blend of the quantum and the continuous, a skater may falsely judge her performance (and herself) on how well she executes the individual elements. Did she cleanly land her double? Did she nail her flying camel without wobble or precession?

Danger lurks in both directions. Certainly if you vigorously practiced an element for several months only to fluff it in a competition, it may make you angry, bummed, or disappointed. This may then adversely affect the spirit you inject throughout the remainder of your program.

The true pothole however lies in the opposite direction: if you are a little shaky and uncertain but become fortunate enough to slam dunk a tough move, then you will feel proud. I can't even begin to count how many times I've watched a skater approach the climax of her routine, smashing bullseye a jump, check out with a big smile, only to then simply switch her back inside edge and trip on the ice. Pride after landing a tough jump can distract you enough from your balance that you subsequently miss a simple step.

Pride is the last thing a good skater gets rid of.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

- telegraph


I was a rather average basketball guard growing up, practicing about an hour a day or so. One of my problems was that opponents all too frequently stole my passes. Why? Well as my coach explained I needed to stop "telegraphing." It took me a while to comprehend his advice, but basically he was saying that I was thinking too loudly -- I  contemplated my pass a second or two beforehand, and the opponents scanned my thoughts and hence intercepted my pass.

In figure skating nobody is going to jump in and steal your momentum because you are concentrating on your Lutz ahead of time, but something still looks awry. I sometimes wonder if overthinking your jump reflects badly on your professionalism or distracts you from embellishments you could otherwise be performing with your arms, hands, or attitude to infuse more grace.

It seems to me that telegraphing makes the entry into your jump less natural. It's as if you are setting up your muscles to perform ahead of time rather than allowing for your muscle memory to guide you automatically on the exact moment as the time arrives.

Might it be possible to focus more on grace and less on your takeoff, or would doing so adversely affect your jump? How would you know unless you tried?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

- dedication


I suspect the amount of time a parent spends at the rink may be a regional artifact. I sense in other parts of the country it's not unusual to drop your kid off for lessons and then return three hours later after the coaching, ballet, off ice, and freestyle. In the meanwhile you can do some shopping, clean house, or whatever.

Out here though it's not uncommon for the rink to be a solid half hour drive away -- without traffic. That means a drop-off roundtrip adds another full hour of driving. Spending half of every day at the rink then becomes the more logical choice whether you like it or not.

In the Southwest a parent with a serious young skater practically lives at the rink. I have infinite respect for the parents of skaters out here: it takes a lot of dedication to commit that much time to your kid's sport.

Nowadays when I go visit a competition all the parents seem exceedingly stressed. They also express surprise that a guy would go watch a competition without a skater involved. Why would anyone ever want to spend *more* time at the rink after their kid finishes her skating career?

I smile inwardly knowing that one day they may well do the same.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

- dynamics

At a local competition a few months ago I saw a vast variety of musical selections, with the typical flavors of styles and mix of cuts. One number jumped out at me however, for all the wrong reasons. Once she was in pose her music suddenly blared with full speed and intensity and she was off, jump, combo, bing bang boom, chaining one element to the next. All was going along fine technically, but after the initial pop out of our seats the audience dissolved into a quiet funk as the music settled into more standard fare. By the end of her program we had mostly forgotten what had transpired.

You need to be careful when you clip together the musical phrases of your program: what seems to work best is either a crescendo toward the end or something bimodal (like a two hump camel). This gives you the chance to gradually work into your routine and the awareness of the audience to capture their hearts. It also seems to mesh well with the natural nervousness and flow of energy that a skater traverses in her performance. Plan your musical crescendos to match your energy dynamics.

The dynamics of your skate involve quite a bit more though than just the simple up and down mountain profile of your energy. As in dancing you can frame your movements within a flow of expressive parameters. See for example this page, which details most of the currently standard thinking.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

- transition

Are your transitions just how you get from one element to the next? Or are your elements those pieces of the requirements that you squeeze in-between your transitions? Most likely (and especially for a beginning skater) it's the former: the transitions are how you get from element 1 to element 2.

For the artistic expression of a musical piece however this presents somewhat of an issue, springing from the culture of how skating is taught. You learn a scratch spin, you learn a waltz jump, you learn a toe loop. Then you glue them all together with some transitions in cadence with your music. When it comes time to put together your program you and your coach think "what is a good move to do with the music /here/" and then the next, et cetera. So your program ends up as a bunch of separate moves glued together.

Ideally for the music however, the transitions and the elements blend together into an expressive piece of movement. The transitions can have an underlying thematic element to themselves. The can suggest a growing sense of urgency, or a crescendoing of artistic complexity. Or you can present the transitions as a consistent counterpoint to the mood within the elements. The transitions can be suggestive of how the elements might relate to one another. Your transitions can create an illusion of place, a sense of theme that ties into a storyline of the music. Transitions can even be suggestive of one another, playing off of each other.

When you build a program from the other end, from the point of view of "flow," certain moves will more naturally flow into others. Then the transitions serve a more practical purpose. They help you "set up" for your next element, in terms of body position, momentum, and posture. They also provide signaling to the audience as to where you're heading, both in terms of what is coming up in the next element but also where you are leading them emotionally through your theme. You can also view your transitions as the punctuation, the parenthesis that highlight or otherwise set apart your elements (you can use this approach gently but if you overdo it it quickly becomes rather crass).

Your transitions shouldn't be such a big mishmash of variety to confuse the audience. You want to establish some baseline for a sense of place or style. You should manage the beat (or pulse), accent (or stress), and tempo (or pace) of your transitions to avoid a random affair. You also need to consider the perspective of the audience viewing your transitions: who are you playing to? Is it bad form to play to both sides of the rink?

In whole, your transitions serve as a binding and connecting mechanism that expresses a theme. Even though your transitions seem to be interspersed amongst your elements (or vice versa) they get perceived as a continuous expression of a dynamically planned flow. It is even possible for the net effect of your transitions to have a storyline and a gentle reveal unto themselves.

That's not to say that all of your transitionsal patterns should be alike. Keep a theme within a certain program, but it's perfectly fine (and perhaps even more professional) to use entirely different thematic transitions in each of your separate programs.

Monday, October 6, 2014

- rink design

During this past weekend of 100 degree weather (in October even) I had the pleasure of cooling off with a couple hour visit to the Aliso Viejo Ice Palace, down toward Irvine.  The obligatory row of headshots of the private coaches was posted on one wall. The rink was a curious design combining many aspects of other rinks that I've seen, but with a total blend of features that I had never seen all together in one place.

It was of relatively modern design, with vapor-tight ceiling wrap, spinning color disco lights, northeast transom windows, and a muted color-scheme in a spic-and-span purely functional interior. The sound system was superior -- the pop music was nearly as clear as if I were sitting at a concert.

Aliso Viejo was built with just one ice surface with two adjoining party rooms, a snack bar, a game area with snack and coffee vending machines, shoe rental, a small pro-shop, and a bank of lockers. It's located in an out-of-the-way part of town that you might call light-industrial, except that the sheriffs office is next door and the city hall is across the street.

Comparing this design to other rinks I could immediately tease out what works well and what doesn't. Granted that each rink I visit caters to a slightly different audience (in terms of wealth or population density), I'm not advocating that all rinks should be designed to be exactly the same. At the same time many features are functionally supportive of figure skating, or promote a certain mood of skating that should be respected.  So let me skate right into the fray with my figure skating Rink Design Best Practices.

Neighborhood, Parking :: It's supremely weird to site a rink in the middle of an industrial area. Yeah I realize that commercial property is cheaper there, but it means that I can't step outside and enjoy a short walkabout while my kid is between her two freestyles. Better to site the place on the border between light industry and residential, where I can at least take a short walk to a nearby Starbucks. Also how about sufficient parking? It's a drag to park across the street and dodge the traffic with a wheely skate bag; this must be even worse for hockey goalies. Wider parking spaces would help too please.

Windows and Scenery :: North side windows to let in natural light are a must. The nicest mood for practice is to have some outside foliage or scenery visible -- Pickwick in Burbank and the Westfield San Diego rink are both excellent in this regard. If the windows are large enough to provide such a view they do however need blackout shades to draw down during competitions: what works well for practice can be distracting for a competition and too bright for a Showcase.

Sound and Acoustics :: Rinks need higher end sound systems with acoustics that pay special attention to avoiding the echo and flutter caused by a hard flat ice surface. I can't place a finger on the cause, but I have yet to visit a rink where you can both appreciate the music and then later understand the voice of the announcer. It seems to be a tradeoff as you either get an announcer with too much echo, or music that is too restrained in its dynamics. Please retain a building acoustics engineer whilst constructing.

Vapor Wrap :: Few rinks manage to combine superior vapor barrier design with aesthetic roof design. Pasadena Ice does a good job but possibly with the tradeoff of having a less permanent structure. Anaheim ice has a magnificent ceiling but it's likely expensive to maintain.

Colored Lights :: I don't know, I just suppose that my idea for the mood of figure skating should be different than that of roller skating. I'm not against some subtle colors; moving brightness though seems to me to be a bit over the top.

Paint job :: It sure is helpful to have something with coordinated colors to rest your eyes upon while you're not otherwise watching a skater or reading on your iPad. Yeah rinks have a large amount of exposed wall space to cover, and you can only sell so much local advertising or hang so many championship banners. The answer lies in an aesthetically designed paint scheme that can be readily touched up as the rink ages.

Viewing Area and Bench Materials :: This is legitimately one of the more challenging areas of design: how do you make benches that are comfortable to sit upon for hours that can still withstand the constant pummeling from skater's blades? The only fully satisfactory thing I ever saw was a sort of cushioned trex material, where a hard surface sits atop hidden styrofoam that gives way a bit.

I prefer that the stands rise from the same level as the rink; benches at a second-floor viewing level are certainly easier to protect from blade pokes but leave the parents too far removed from skating to provide enough interactive love.

Break room design :: Mostly what I care about here is that it has an adequate view to the ice and is easy enough to keep clean.

Headshots :: Names please (seriously). It seems unnecessarily gauche to add much more than that, as anyone who frequents the rink knows how to look up their coach's accomplishments.

That's a fair amount of design constraints. Yet that's only half of it -- that half I can describe as a figure skating fan and parent. Other folks skate here too though (eh, big guys with pucks and hockey sticks) so they certainly contribute additional requirements. And then the architect has to consider the whole business of the physical cooling plant and ongoing operations. Hey nobody ever said that rink design was easy.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

sit ups pull ups

Any skater who is serious enough to retain a coach to train for competitions quickly recognizes the importance of off-ice training.  Besides ballet, USFSA also recommends strength training; see their general guidelines for strength training here.

Boring as heck, three strength exercises are essential to getting to the next level: sit ups, pull ups, and shoulder presses. Sit ups provide the strength to keep a straight core and properly aligned spine while you spin. Shoulder presses allow you to maintain control over your arm movements.

Everyone though seems to overlook pull ups. The back muscles strengthened by pull ups do more for your posture than any other muscle group.

Once you move up to elite you likely need a more serious and educated personal trainer.  See  for example this article by Charles Poliquin of how he has trained world-class Canadian skaters.

Some basic strength training at the rink or at the gym is infinitely helpful to your competitive skating, but once you get committed at a national level be sure to kick your off-ice training up to the next level.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

- jump practice


I spent a couple hours on Sunday at the Toyota Sports Center freestyles past the Airport, and either by reputation (or because Culver Ice is now closed or both) it was a bit too busy, really. It seems they run "open" freestyles where  anyone can show up with any skill level, so some national caliber juniors were practicing triples along with novices trying to hold a steady spiral. The city power cut off around 9:00 with 10 seconds of total blackout until the emergency lights came on -- talk about a scary situation during a freestyle! Rink designers please pay heed: this makes an excellent argument for a couple of small skylights or high transom windows (as long as they don't let the sunlight shine directly on the ice).

Anyhow while watching the more adept skaters practice their elements I was drawn to the difficulty and disconnect between an Axel during freestyle and actually jumping one during your program. The etiology of the issue is down to your horizontal vector -- the speed you travel across the ice when you launch and when you land your jump. At a busy freestyle you avoid other skaters, look for an open place to jump, and vary your stroking speed constantly. During a program you have the entire ice to yourself, are stroking and keeping time to the music, and trying to get full rink coverage by maintaining an elegant velocity. And hence the rub: if you practice your jumps at a slow horizontal velocity during your freestyles, then you are going to herkily jerkily slow down your program when it comes time to launch. Or if you keep your rhythm and speed to launch faster than you've practiced then you will yaw during your spin and additionally land and check with a pressure on your edges to which you are unaccustomed.

I guess what I am asking, dear readers, is shouldn't you always practice your jumps with the same smooth stroking lead-in and velocity as you are expecting for when you are jumping them in your program?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

- freestyle


When you are a young kid starting to skate you begin with classes at your local rink. Then once you've got your balance and a slow scratch spin (and decide that you'd like to try something more serious) you get the idea that perhaps you can get a coach. Then after you've had some coaching at public sessions for around a year, and you've got a couple spins and a simple jump or two, your coach will want you to attend some freestyles.

Away from the classroom setting, the freestyle is where you really get your eyes opened to what skating is all about. Most freestyles have a few up to around a dozen skaters. Here you get to pay detailed attention to how the other skaters "carry themselves" and present their showmanship.

Once you reach the stage of skating freestyles regularly, it's an excellent idea to attend freestyle sessions at nearby rinks (other than your own home rink) even if you go it alone without your coach. Rinks vary so much in the culture and style of their skaters that you will gain a broader sense of methods and embellishments by traveling around and observing.

Yes it can be a little intimidating to walk into a new rink to spend an hour on the ice with gals you've never seen before. But at heart they aren't that much different from you; be assured that the sisterhood of skaters have way more in common amongst themselves than differences. Go, introduce yourself, relax, make new friends, and expand your horizons. The benefits are well worth the wee bit of initial embarrassment.

Monday, August 11, 2014

- showcase

We had the luck and good fortune of hosting the USFSA National Showcase here in Burbank this past weekend; my daughter and I watched a few hours on Saturday. For those of you without a sanctioned Showcase event in your part of town, allow me to describe it.  Primarily it's geared more towards "entertainment" skating rather than the elite athletic end of the sport. Not to say that the participants don't skate well: many of them do just fine on single Axels and all the lesser jumps and spins. But the focus is more on the artistic ends of costume and expressiveness.  They consist of duets, interpretive (we used to call this extemporaneous), light, dramatic and sometimes team events. Most of the events are skated under spotlights in an otherwise dark rink. So like I said, it's more for the "show."

The classification of a couple of the events however leave me a bit confused. In their wisdom USFSA has chosen to specify Light Entertainment as one type of skate, and Dramatic Entertainment as another. What's the difference? A very good question, as in most cases the routines had such a wide range of stylistic overlap that they could go either way. Many of the Dramatic skates were rather Light and entertaining, whereas several of the Light skates seemed to be ahhh, rather quieter and musing. I think drawing a firmer line between the two flavors would benefit both the skaters and the sport, so herewith I gently suggest some guidelines for your humble consideration.

Costume:
A competition dress for Light Entertainment should be strikingly over the top. When you skate your entrance to center ice your dress should make me go Wow or bring me a smile. A couple of examples... on Saturday I had the pleasure of watching the one-eyed one-horned blind purple people eater, a full-body stretch suit with matching purple head hood, and yep... it looked exactly as described. Awesomeness. Also one gal skated in a patriotic red-white-and blue skirt with ruby red skate covers with sparklies that knocked my eyes out.

On the other hand a dress for Dramatic Entertainment should be as pretty as you can possibly imagine. It shouldn't have to be over the top sparkly, but should exhibit unique design with a pleasant blend of a particular shade, possibly with contrasting highlights. When you skate your entrance to center ice your dress should make me say Wow that's a pretty dress.

Makeup:
Light Entertainment has flashy accessories and showy makeup. On Saturday I saw a spitting image of Willie Wonka with the inventive hat, and a ghostly skeleton from Tim Burton's nightmare before Christmas.

Extensive makeup for Dramatic Entertainment however is probably unnecessary beyond what you would normally wear for your short program. I prefer pulled back hair (into a bun or braids) on your Dramatic.

Props:
Around half of the Light programs used a prop. I'm not sure that all props add value to their presentation, so think ahead as to whether you are using the prop just to "be in character" or whether it actually adds humor or spunk to your program. On Saturday a gal did the spoiled Veruca Salt from Wonka: at the end of her program she dropped into a metered box that switched its indicator from Good to Bad; both inventive and cool.

The only prop that should be allowed in Dramatic are chiffon dress sleeve extensions or Japanese hand-fans. Seriously.

Music:
I don't mind too much what you use for your Light Entertainment skate as long as it is well edited and mixed. Some skaters try to glue together different related pieces and the jog between the mix jars my attention. Please use an experienced editor from your rink rather than attempting this at home.

I'd prefer a classical music excerpt on a Dramatic skate. Please though avoid the common and hackneyed pieces that everybody skates too... plenty of other musical variety is out there if you search around a bit. Give me a pleasantly inventive choice.

Program:
Almost all of the Light Entertainment programs nowadays skate to popular or show music with lyrics. Generally I dislike watching the skater mouth the lyrics or sing along. One gal on Saturday not only sang but got into the full character of a performer, with arm and facial expressions to match her singing. And her performance was wonderful. So if you're going to sing, really /perform/ the song. The skate itself should be expressive and spot on the music. I like to see a nice jump or two just to prove that you can, but Light should be amusement, so do moves that entertain in appropriate concordance with your music and costume.

The program on Dramatic should highlight your particular strengths. Some gals have a unique spiral, some a fabulous spin or two, some a peerless aspect of how they can jump. I want your Dramatic program to be hypnotic. I don't expect the full athleticism of the elite skaters, but you'd best show me a variety of spins and jumps so that I know you take the sport seriously. And if you sing along with the lyrics I will cry, and not in the good sense.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

- unpaired


I'd imagine a solo male figure skater faces a constant challenge dealing with the female skaters. As I watch the rink freestyles it's a bit subtle (but also clearly obvious) that many female skaters wish they could transition over to dance skating. They'd like a pair partner.

I would guess perhaps ten to fifteen times more females than males figure skate; due to this highly skewed ratio the limiting factor of forming a pair is always how to find a guy.

All a guy has to do is smile at a gal and she'll inquire if he'd like to try skating with her. From what I've read a fair number of the accomplished male skaters tend to end up being brats, as they can pretty much dictate their relationship with their female partner. If they dislike her other good female skaters are a dime a dozen.

This implies that if a gentleman artist wishes to persist as solo he has to present a rather aloof front (while he's practicing anyway). Or more typically by the time he's eight years old or so he internalizes a pat set of answers, shrugs, and responses to all the standard female inquiries.

It takes exceptional single-minded focus to be a solo male figure skater.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

- fast and slow


In many sports speed and quickness are assets. In fact they are the entire defining elements of the competitive aspect of some sport. I'm sure you can think of several: running, auto racing, and swimming, just to name a few. In other sports speed plays an underlying dynamic role (in all of the major team sports the fastest players enjoy a competitive advantage).

As figure skating is a hybrid between sport and art, speed figures into the mix within the "sporting" components. Speed on the ice is helpful for establishing momentum for your jumps and angular momentum for your spins. And clean footwork requires quickness. On the other hand both grace and class (elements of the artistic dimension of skating) require demonstratively slower controlled movements.

Skaters who fail to appropriately match the fast and the slow look ridiculous however. It's very difficult to watch an accomplished "fast" skater ruin what might otherwise be a terrific program by the herky jerkiness of her small movements and transitions. It's equally saddening when a beautifully graceful skater can't otherwise keep enough velocity to maintain her spiral the length of the rink.

Be fast of feet and reactivity, but slow with expressive movements. The athletic part of skating is fast, the artistic part is slow. I think ballet (for slow graceful strength) and stroking lessons (for speed) are both helpful here, but it's also about holding the proper "split" mindset. The ideation here is graceful speed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

- sequins

Glittery sparkle compliments and enhances your competitive skate (even more so if you're skating in a Showcase with spotlights). As in most performance art however, only a narrow range of use achieves the desired effect without appearing overdone. You should strive for an objective of "highlighting" -- rather than always being apparent, your sparkles should accentuate about a third of your moves.

I've seen three sorts of reflective devices: two types are sequins; the last is rhinestones. Rhinestones are small hard cut-glass crystal reflectors, faceted like a diamond with a metal backing. These glue onto your costume and if your dress doesn't already have enough you can purchase them at many craft and bead stores (or online even, see here and here).

The other two types of sparklies are small flat round pieces of plastic sequins with a tiny hole in the middle (to facilitate sewing onto the costume). One type is metallic and the other is semi-transparent plastic. You can buy these at most fabric stores (and some craft stores too).

Unless they're sparingly used and interspersed with the other two types, the reflective metallic sequins look cheap. I am sorry, they just remind me of store-bought Halloween costumes. The semi-transparent tonal plastic sequins are fine to use on a skating dress though.

Although rhinestones and tonal plastic sequins are both fashionable, they provide quite different visual effects. Crystal glass sparkles intensely as pinpoints of light at multiple angles. Xan tells me that a high-end dress for an elite skater can have 1500 rhinestones, which seems a bit excessive to me but okay, if you're going to be on TV then I say go for it (smile).

Otherwise a third of this quantity in strategic visual swaths is sufficient. Again artistic placement is paramount: if you evenly cover your dress with random crystals you won't get the same effect as if you lay them out visualizing how the eye catches your dress as it spins and angles.

Relative to rhinestones the plastic sequins are very inexpensive, and are usually sewn on by the thousands across large areas. The tonal flat sequins give one uniform sublimely gentle flash when hit at their reflective angle, but are otherwise nice as a gradual contrast shifter. As they have a different reflectivity from fabric they tend to make the covered swatch appear to vary in hue at different angles.

Although I have seen a couple nice dresses that made judicious use of both (in moderation) please avoid combining glass rhinestones and plastic sequins unless you're already an accomplished dress designer.

It's not particularly appropriate to use glass rhinestones on a man's costume (okay, maybe just a handful). Plastic tonal sequins are okay in understated moderation. Just my opinion again.

Skaters will try other modes of flashiness: glitter blush or eyeliner, sparkly hair pieces and hair gel. These may be fine if you're hoping for a camera close-up, but when you're on the ice we don't notice these from out here in the audience dear.

Finally although a sparkly dress is a nice highlight to your program, it shouldn't be the main draw. After all we really came here to watch how you skate.

Friday, July 4, 2014

- prop

So let's say that you're going  to skate something entertainment related, in a Showcase or some-such event, as a solo or a duet. You'll sport a novelty costume, perhaps a hand prop, and then comes the big question: are you going to slide a "stage" prop onto the ice?  I don't /think/ anything in the light entertainment rules requires a program to have a stage prop (readers please correct me otherwise). Still it seems like half the entertainment programs that I watch use a stage prop. I think that a lot of the impetus for this is seeing other kids use one, and so it's in your competitive spirit to do the same.

I have rather mixed feelings about this whole business: the tricky part is the assessment of whether or not a stage prop adds anything to the entertainment value of your skate. You do get the "ahhh how cute" factor when we first see you slide it out onto the ice. Maybe if it's a decorated bench or chair you can work some moves in to interact with it in your program. But otherwise once the visual originality wears off the prop isn't going to do any skating by itself: it just sits there in one place, yes?

I have seen some real cuties though. Most of my favorites are beach or toy related: large inflatables or big cuddly things.  The props that seem to work best show some aspect of exaggeration about them.

How much effort should you put into creating the prop (in terms of time and money)? How expressive should you make it? Clearly you must decorate it /somehow/ -- please don't just slide a bench you bought at Home Depot onto the ice! On the other hand if you get way too complicated and over the top then you'll run into a different complication.

The problem with props that are way over the top is that they actually detract from your skating. Instead of looking at you I'll keep glancing over at the computerized flashing lights (or whatever). I suppose since many coaches view the entertaining prop as a competition unto itself, they risk ever trickier contraptions.  I can't even begin to tell you though how many times I've seen way over the top props fall down during a skate, or how often I've watched the skater spend three minutes struggling to drag it out to the ice and set it up in the first place.

Unless you're with the ice theatre employing some professional prop guys, keep your stage prop simple and easy to drag out to its position on the ice. Parents: your kid's prop should either be light enough that your skater can easily lift it and carry it out to its place by herself, or if it is heavier it needs to be distinctly bottom heavy (so that it doesn't topple over). Your prop must easily slide so as to be rapidly pushed by one person. No bulky, boring, awkward props please. And please take your prop to a freestyle well before the event and test it out a couple of times to verify its maneuverability.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

- choreography


May I relate my opinions about choreography? Your coach shares her ideas, or if you've been competing a while then you employ a separate choreographer. Fine. Briefly suspend your preconceptions to contemplate these feelings from a long-time skate parent and audience member who has admired thousands of hours of figure skating. This is the eloquence us folks in the stands yearn for, the skating we desire expressively from your performance. This is the reason we watch you skate.

Absolutely, please express yourself! Choose music that moves and touches your soul, and then expound upon those feelings. Also though be the angel that fosters those feelings in the audience. Your performance should flow from your heart but also from our hearts.

Be flexible about the interpretation: let your personality shine through! We want your read on the music and your insight about these feelings. I don't like coyness or melodrama: just present your own honest personality. Still though we'd prefer some boundaries: don't mock the music, the lyrics, the audience, or the skating. Be a performance artist and stop being a show-off.

If you choose a piece with lyrics, primarily skate the meaning of the lyrics first and then skate the feeling of the music secondarily. Avoid a piece with a chorus of more than two occurrences (as this reduces your originality).

Speaking of that, show some ingenuity! Try a new leg or arm sweep, clap your hands, stomp a foot, wiggle your shoulders. Once is interesting. The second time you use the gesture for emphasis, but if you dare repeat it a third time then it is no longer cute but rather boring me to death.

Stay on the music... don't lag a half beat behind it and don't telegraph your move a half beat ahead either.

Does your program tell a story? It should have a lead in, build to a climax, and then finish gracefully or with a touch of class. Strive for a graceful overall presentation (or if you're a guy aim for a classy presentation).

And finally, keep us entranced. Keep me hypnotized throughout your program without distracting thoughts or fallouts. When you finish I should have that shocking feeling of rediscovering myself in an audience of hundreds of people, where moments before I was your virtual partner on the ice.

Personality, Expressiveness, Lyrics treatment, Appropriateness, Novelty, Ingenuity, Timing, a Full story, Grace (or class for a man), Hypnotism. Is all that too much to ask from your choreography? Exactly.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

- accessorized

It's not unusual to bring along an accessory to enhance a dramatic skating program. A hat (top or beret), a scarf (or two), a cane (or a baton), an umbrella (or a parasol), a twirly ribbon, an Asian silk folding hand fan, a fake microphone (or a megaphone), I've seen all of these. Sometimes it seems that the skater brought the prop along just to support the mood already established with the theme of the music, but I've seen a couple of devices that when used actually do add a bit of glamour or some other interesting flavor to a skater's elements.

I can't say though that skating with an umbrella or parasol adds that much to the panache of your performance. Unless you can manage to spin it in the opposite direction over your head as you execute a fast spin (and good luck with that) a parasol just doesn't have much graceful glamor to it.  Plus skating with an open umbrella seems like a particularly difficult task, as the air pressure provides such uneven resistance depending on your direction and the umbrella's tilt.

Skating with a cane or baton is easy enough, and a good little trick is to attach a leather band to the handle to make it easier to twirl. If you're going to carry a cane about the rink then really use it though!  Tap it here and there, twirl it some, use it as a pivot in a move. Please though don't throw it into the air to catch it. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've seen the timing on a program royally screwed up by a dropped baton. And even if you can toss and catch it 90 percent of the time during freestyle, your chances are only about 30 percent during the competition. And if you set it down for some other elements just be sure that you don't lose it in the process -- back gliding over a dropped cane can result in a fairly serious injury!

Many times I've seen somebody skate with one or two small collapsible accordion silk hand fans. You know, the kinds with drawings of Asian bamboo or flowers or dragons. Fans add quite a bit of expressiveness but it takes a bit of practice to control expanding and collapsing them effectively, especially when you're on the move. They are also easy enough to tuck into an elastic band to secure them in place when you want them hidden (stage trick: Velcro).

Skating with hand-held scarves or gauzy trailing things can create some nice visual effects (you know what I mean, those ribbons of lightweight floaty fabric that you hold in your hands or tie to your wrists).  I'm not talking about the ribbon that gymnasts are fond of using for their routine, a long narrow tape on a stick. Although you can use one of those too if you'd like. The real issue with skating with a gymnasts ribbon is that to be effective you really need to keep it moving the entire time, as (aside from dropping it on the ice) there's no convenient way to get the thing out of the way. So that means if you use one, your entire routine is pretty much about the ribbon.

Most popular though seems to be ribbons or swaths of gauzy fabric, but these though aren't without their own problems.  Solid props are much better behaved as they go where you place them; anything with fabric though tends to have a mind of its own.  This is especially a problem on any kind of spin. I was at one event where a skater managed to unintentionally wrap a rather wide chiffon around her head during a spin, and then had to grapple it away before moving onward.  If you're going to skate with something gossamer you need to plan ahead for every spin and jump and decide how you're going to secure the thing, either with some attention to wrapping it around a body part, temporarily scrunching it, releasing it for later, or holding it far enough away that it doesn't become an issue.

Finally, one of the nicer effects I've seen is to attach a somewhat wider swath of chiffon to the tines of a fan.  That way you get a more controlled and sustained width of fabric fluttering about. Again though this makes stowing it away a bit of an issue.

Whatever prop you use, plan the trajectory of its use carefully across the length of your program, and be sure to use it in a way that really adds value to what you're trying to present.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

- hands


Skating embraces pretty much your entire mind and body. During practice the physical focus is on your legs, ankles, feet, and body core; during program development your focus likely switches to the mental aspects such as timing, expressiveness, flow, and grace.  Well and trying to remember how the whole thing fits together. You probably spend most of your time though primarily thinking about your feet, ankles, boots, blades, and everything down at that end. Okay fine.

So what about those extremities three quarters of the way up that stick out to your sides? Hands! What do they have to do with skating? Can you visualize any other sport that is *less* dependent on hands? Okay, soccer. Anything else? Nope. And yet your hands /do/ play a role in figure skating, mostly for expressiveness and grace.

If feet are the sport's skill, then hands are its suave. And like shoes and socks, skill and grace compliment each other so significantly that it's bombastic to have one without the other. When you have to watch an athletically accomplished skater perform a routine without any thought about her hands it's like catching a Ferrari race down the street caked in mud. You don't have the whole package until you've got the hands.

Hands and feet operate in different universes on different time scales.  Much like a pianist plays a separate rhythm with the left and right hands, your feet and hands need to be able to operate independently. Whereas the feet become fully fixated on the variable speed execution of elements, the hands need to flow continuously throughout the expressiveness of your program's music. It's a left brain right brain sort of thing. Or maybe a front brain back brain sort of thing.

Hands should portray the story of the music. A fine line though separates telling the story from overselling it. Hand use in skating is like that Ferrari design: sure it needs to be both impressive and well thought through, but the suggestion of expense is better than outlandishness. No need for diamonds around the license plate on your Ferrari, sweetie. And with your hands the key concept is to be symbolic rather than to overtly describe.

Unless you are deliberately striving to be outrageously over-the-top, you want your fashionable hands to be appropriately understated. Yet as in choosing the car you drive, how you present your hands may depend strongly on your personal viewpoints and yield for whether you favor a demure versus a sparkling approach. I've always felt you should cultivate somewhat lyrical hands, but not necessarily hula-Hawaiian expressive. Your target should be slightly less than fully lyrical hands.

Finally, suggestiveness works best when unbroken. Continuous hand fluidity is quite a challenge, but it demonstrates real polish if you can retain your hand postures between elements and upon exits. A practiced skater lets her hands flow continuously sub-lyrically throughout her whole story.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

- popped


Nothing in skating bothers me much more than seeing a gal pop a jump in a competition. It's hard to put a finger on why this is so upsetting. I full well realize that a skater may be on the learning edge of a particular jump and hence only be hitting it seventy per cent of the time or so. She'll add it to her program as a somewhat unessential element -- an extra bonus -- and then she'll see how it feels.

As soon as she lifts off she can pretty much sense if she launched her jump with the correct posture and balance, and then react accordingly. No good? Pop.

I suppose my discomfort has to do with a behavioral expectation for a competitor. I know you run through your entire program four times every day in practice, and I am perfectly fine with your popping a jump then, during the practice session.

You should treat a competition however as much more than just another repeat of your practice with a bit more audience. It's supposed to be a different "standard." You'll earn far more respect from me if you try and fall (safely) in a competitive jump than if you pop it.

It's kind of like picking your nose: okay in private or discreetly in your car, but not in front of an audience, okay?

I also recognize of course that this behavior mostly results from a force of habit. When you're on practice ice it's natural to experiment at your limits; popping is a safe way out during that long ramp up the learning process. So after a while it may become a second nature way to escape.

Now I am no expert on sports psychology (my skating daughter studied it quite a bit so maybe she can comment) but I am guessing that one way to fix this is to create two "modes" of practicing your program for yourself, "poppable" and not. When you queue up your music for practice think ahead of time, what mode will I be skating in? If you choose poppable, okay fine you may pop an uncomfortable jump.

But if you choose "competition" mode then when you initiate a jump and it's floundering you have to decide either how to two-foot, fall safely, short, or otherwise recover it.

Becoming habituated to the rigors of competition imply occasionally practicing with a competitive mindset. Some of this mindset is to always complete the jumps that you start. If you can't complete it when you're in "competitive" mode, you shouldn't start it when in that mode in the first place. Well, that's my theory anyhow.

----------------------------------------

Hi Dad,

I agree that popped jumps are quite a disappointment, but the fact remains that they will always be a part of the amateur ranks. A couple of things:
_____________

Although I've never been a coach, it's evident from their style that there are two types of coaches:

Some coaches agree with your view that students should only perform skills that they can routinely complete within competition. Students of these coaches will usually be the top places of their level, and seem to be living dual lives in practice, dividing their time between polishing their program and learning new jumps and other skills.

Other coaches disagree with your view, and believe that students will be most driven to practice that difficult jump if it's included in the program (hence why the difficult jump is often choreographed to be directly in front of the judges: added pressure). This definitely raises the stakes for the student and may change the way he or she practices.

The competitor who wins an event with the difficult jump in the program experiences a different kind of joy than the competitor who plays it safe. Ultimately, competition is about being able to pull through under pressure; there is nothing safe about it. _____________

In my opinion, it's nearly impossible to predetermine two different "modes" of practicing. Due to the extremely risky nature of jumping, each jumping pass is a unique combination of physics, psychics, and muscle movements that can only be controlled in a very limited way. If a skater takes-off and doesn't feel right, there's a chance to fall and break an arm or fracture a tail-bone. Of course skaters always try to fall "safely" when the only choice is to fall, but there's only a limited amount of control that you have over the situation. It's better to not fall at all and pop a jump which gives the skater more control over the landing and a better chance to avoid injury.

Hope this helps!!

Love, Karline

----------------------------------------

(repost)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

- home


A parent's view of Sport is as different from his child's as the view of an eagle is from that of a flying squirrel. A skater approaches her sport as a mix of social challenge and self disciplined excellence. For a parent though arriving at this point in time was an up and down roller coaster through a social circus, a dating jungle, the medicalised and worry-prone years of birth and then raising a toddler. By the time a parent achieves the point of getting a kid into a sport, they have essentially already been an evolutionary success (in the sense of accomplishing the purpose of our specie). So it's not unusual that a parent views sport as a surrogate to introduce their child to simulated challenges that parallel and prepare them for the actual life they must still encounter.

A surprisingly large part of this parenting happens on the road. I already did a couple of other posts (here and here) about the amazing preparatory experience of packing, driving, and arriving at the rink. The trip home after a tough competition however is a whole 'nother animal. More than anywhere this drive home is where most of the "heavy parenting" occurs.

If it's been a tough or frustrating day your role should be to lend gentle support, as well as offer solace for any physical requirements (stopping for food along the way seems to be a common desire).

Even so love typically dictates that you avoid speaking directly to onerous issues: it would be both crude and counterproductive to ask "what seems to be the problem with your camel spin today?" A much more useful conversational opener however might be "How are things going?"  If your kid says "I'm having lots of trouble with my camel" then certainly listen, but don't cross over the line to pry with "maybe you should blah blah blah." The point is to help her discover her own path, whatever that might be, not to step into the skates of her coach. "What do you think" or "how could you find out" are great prompts to advance your kid's thinking along.

Parenting after a competition can really be quite a sublime challenge from another dimension. Individual parenting styles may be quite dependent on personality. I'll try to describe my own way of addressing the post-competition drive in some detail, yet I don't claim a "right" way in the matter. Frankly each parent has their own approach grounded in their personality, so this is just mine.

My underlying premise is that a child faces nearly as much danger if you falsely build up her ego as if you recklessly tear it down. You want to buffer your kid to any feelings of frustration, to encourage her to overcome and find the strength to persist and continue to strive forward. Yet you don't want to invent an imaginary environment where you might be deceiving her into thinking she will falsely be able to entertain a range of experiences beyond the actual capabilities within the realm of  her physical ability.

In other words, always aim for balance. If your child is feeling overly proud, gently take her down a notch or two. If she seems to have lost hope, encourage her to persist.
If you're in the car with flowers and a first place trophy then gently congratulate, "that was a cool skate," and allow your daughter time to savor the joy for a while. Later in the drive though bring up some of the other nice things you saw at the competition, so your daughter won't feel so smug and self centered. You are gently letting her know that she did well and that you are happy for her, and yet this is just another step on a very long path. There will always be better skaters and more techniques to learn.

If you find yourself in the car with just a skate bag and a sad little girl, then respect her private thoughts, but don't throw in the towel either. You most know yourself in your adversities; the kernel of disappointment teaches her as much as the daily struggles to understand the physics of her body. Make a nice comment or two about the highlights of her program, letting her know that "the blah you did was one of the best I've seen you do," and listen to her concerns. No, really listen. Life is larger than skating, and this is where it all comes out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

- questions


In a recent blog post on Blazing Blades Janet Lynn was asking hypothetical questions for the next USFSA president. Naturally she takes a viewpoint very much from her own experience of the sport (which might have little to do with the USFSA's internal mandate, unfortunately). Although it seems somewhat brash to be doing this nevertheless in the spirit of the times, if I could ask leading questions of the governing body (from a skate parent's perspective) it would be:

1. Can you establish standards for ice rinks that ensure the comfort of the casual observers and parents during the freestyles?

2. Can you make an effort to rate rinks' comfort, costs, and ice quality online? Incorporating this with Google maps would be awesome.

3. You could add in some sort of calendering so I could log in to just one place to find out who has freestyles in the next 3 hours within a 15 mile radius of my house.

4. How does my kid's coach rate? When was her last accreditation tests and how did she do?

5. Can I view free online videos from all of the sectionals and regionals?

6. Can you promote a parallel non-competitive track that still has awards and such?

7. What about injury incident reporting? Something that could be used for epidemiology -- maybe certain rinks / ice conditions / blades / boots / sharpeners are prone to a greater frequency of injuries?

8. How does my sharpener rate?

9. Tributary carpooling or bus rental for events?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

- select


The expense of figure skating produces some unique personality oddities. As a parent you should be well advised that skating is one of the more expensive sports, see for example this comparison, or for a real eye opener this PDF from a decade ago. Yes lessons, coaching, skates, costumes, travel, and ice fees are all pricey, but the sport's pathology goes well beyond that. The truly costly part of figure skating rests upon the purely implied sanctuary of the facilities: constructing and subsequently cooling and dehumidifying an ice rink. Building a new dual-sheet rink costs upward of five million dollars; add in debt service and monthly energy costs (not to mention the payroll and insurance) and. . . well there you go.

Since building and operating a rink is so expensive (compared to facilities for other sports) rinks are relatively few and far between. If my kid played little league baseball how many teams could she join here in metro L.A.? Maybe 400. Plus every high school and most parks have baseball diamonds. But figure skating? We can drive to maybe eight rinks, max.

To draw enough customers to recoup their costs rinks must disperse geographically where they can attract a clientele base that isn't already committed to another nearby locale. Now think of what this implies for the culture of the sport. Since a skater has so few local coaches to choose from, every individual coach has considerable power, and they can get away with charging less competitive fees. At the same time since so few new positions open, obtaining a coaching job is incredibly difficult. That means unless your kid is good enough to skate nationally it's unlikely that she'll ever make a decent living from the sport. (Well to be honest this holds true for nearly all sports, I suppose).

Since rinks are far apart I suspect that acquiring judges for competitions becomes quite a chore; it wouldn't surprise me if the availability of judges restricts the quantity of sanctioned events that a rink can conduct.

All these peculiarities have to do with the expense of maintaining an ice rink. Still though figure skaters are like orchids in a forest: although one of the more elegantly colorful parts of the foliage, they don't play an exceedingly large part in the biome's carbon cycle. Skaters scarcely shoulder much of this implied operating burden: the rink managers I've chatted with say that hockey brings in about 85% of a rink's revenue. Without hockey there likely would not be any indoor rink figure skating at all.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

- challenge


Oh man, you want real moxie? Try skating to an extemporaneous challenge. A flight of six or seven gals take to the ice for a short warm up. Then after a couple of minutes the judges play the popular song that they've pre-selected; the skaters have no idea what it might be until they hear it. On the spur of the moment they need to come up with a routine to match the music. Then they play the song one more time with everyone improvising through a second try. Okay, now clear the ice and individually, one after another, show your stuff again to this same song.

This is an entirely different experience for a skater, a parent, or a random audience member. It's quite a chore for a novice audience member to sit through, as normal programs spoil us with the entertainment value of the skating, the costuming, and the variety of music that we hear. To listen to the same song played eight times consecutively gets a bit trying after about the fourth repeat. It detracts enough from the performance that by the time the last competitor takes to the ice you are ready to scream for earplugs.

For a skater this type of event is quite a mental challenge. You already know the variety of moves pressed and hanging at the ready in your closet; the first trick is to associate the mood of an element with the various themed passages of the music to figure out what to "wear". The second challenge is to match the length of the elements and the transitions to both the timing and the rhythm of the music.

Then to compound the complexity you get the luck of the draw: if you were unfortunate enough to be chosen to lead off then those two practice runs were all you got. If you're late in the flight then you can mentally run through your routine with each replay. But if you're toward the end your leaders further challenge you to better all the other skaters that you've already seen.

A parent views this whole bit rather differently; after the first two playthroughs the song disappears as you internalize the concepts of its expressive components. Each skater then immediately strikes you by their approach: some clearly try to shoehorn their signature moves as best they can into the music. Others do a remarkable job matching the rhythm of the piece but don't spend much effort demonstrating their skills.

You'll be lucky if you get a skater in the flight who has both a breadth of interesting moves and the skilled awareness of timing to throw together something moderately impressive. When it happens though you suddenly are watching magic.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

- styling


How do you go about composing your program's elements so that you can skate with style? Which of your moves are more conducive to expressing your style? A pancake spin is a pancake spin is a pancake spin: since the posture determines the position of your legs and one arm (unless you can somehow hold the position without grabbing an ankle) this leaves only one limb free for embellishments, and how can you be gracefully stylish from a pancake? Well I suppose you can be a tad bit expressive, see for example this video.

Also some transitions clearly allow for greater styleability: a move that is difficult to enter or that requires rapid footwork and body realignment leaves little maneuvering room for expression. How you finish an element also determines your freedom to play: exiting off-balance or with too little velocity will limit your options.

Where the styling happens isn't necessarily obvious from first inspection since it's hidden by coaching pedagogy: nobody actually learns their moves focused on style and then working outwards; this would be an inside out way to learn. You tend to build elements from the "committed" limbs, and combinations of elements by the postural flow or velocity required to make the transitions.

Style proclaims its gracefulness in negative space: you express it beyond the limb postures required with the motions that aren't already spoken for. Style is that part of you that isn't otherwise already committed.

Skating for style therefore requires you to plan a program differently. Since you express style with your free limbs this requires that you use more "open" moves, with as much attention paid to exits and transitions as to the elements themselves.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

- jitters


Preparing for a competition feels like it's more than half of the battle. Although the day before an event is often entrancing it can still be quite a strain. Worries abound: are my boots presentable? Are my tights spotless? Is my costume copacetic? Do I have all my hair stuff? What time do I warm up tomorrow? How much time should I allow for prep? How long will it take for travel? Is my coach on board?

So many things have to come together and yet these mundanities keep distracting your mind while in the meantime you run through your programs over and over (and over again) in your creative imagination. Checklists are a big help here, if for no other reason than to provide you with some peace of mind (so you can sleep soundly the night before you compete).

Then having set your alarm, be sure you awaken early enough to have a healthy breakfast, do most of your makeup, and then pack (using your checklist!) and hit the road.

The time on the road driving to an event feels like the suspended animation of when Wily Coyote goes over the cliff and spins his feet mid-air before gravity takes effect. This is where high sports psychology takes hold; you do need to be conceiving your events -- quietly running the mental tape loop -- but you want to avoid psyching yourself out. Here's a good link to a Competitive Edge article that details this positive projective thinking.

It helps to have dad put on some nebulous background jazz or easy listening, and to busy yourself with some more of your makeup. Have a bit of small talk or read a magazine or two that you brought along for the drive.

If it's a place that you've never visited before, the worst part of the jitters may happen as you walk into the rink. Maybe the way to force a positive perspective on this is to frame your visit in terms similar to general leisure travel; see for example this post on Whole Living.

Once you're inside the rink everything is magical: sure you still have the heebie-jeebies, but lots of people you know are here and they have stomach butterflies too (or else they've already skated and now have that warming unburdened face of freedom).

Friday, April 4, 2014

- applauding growth


When I watch my daughter compete mostly my role is to cheer for the other skaters. At the local level one encounters a huge variety of participants; when the little kids hit the ice -- the ones that are six through eight years old -- they have only been competing for maybe two years. With their parents or grandparents (and often the whole extended family) in the stands cheering, they are still working intently on their own self-esteem. No matter the quality of their performance I gently clap courteously once they finish.

Even at these starting levels I can tell which kids have some natural ability, which are just skating for diversion, and those that are on ice because their parents want them to be involved in sports. In a local competition of twenty or so skater tots even at this young age usually one or two will clearly stand out as passionate about their skating.

They may not yet have skills, innate balance, or grace, yet you can still tell that they have the heart to practice seriously and to study the art. These are the kids that extend a bit beyond their natural capabilities and even falling, get right back up and continue onward. These are the tikes that garner my heartiest applause.

The middle age group -- the kids who are nine through eleven -- are an interesting bunch to watch, and they skate all over the map. Some of them are beginners who struggle with their balance or edge work. Many of them have been skating for five or six years already and are just now reaching their point of frustration. Both the late starters and the frustrated earn my courteous applause.

This is also the age though where several of the skaters bloom into their grace and class. You can just barely discern an inkling of audience awareness, or how a particular skater may use her hands to express her feelings. It is quite clear that a select few of these skaters actually "have it". Even without a firm set of jumping skills, these skaters with class or grace merit my hearty applause.

Unfortunately this is also the age where most skaters develop into some semblance of their physically maturity: they begin to achieve the bodily proportions that they will be working with as the tool for the remainder of their craft. This can be a rather painful realization; ineffective leg muscles mechanistically hinder a lanky eleven-year-old boy from progressing to nationals (no matter how hard he practices). I still clap enthusiastically for the teenage skaters with challenging bodies and lots of heart, even though I sense they will only attain the mediocrity of where their bodies will leave them stranded.

Very rarely though you spot the nine, ten, or eleven year old that has the appropriate skating body matched to the blooming of grace or class. It is as plain as day that the skater has national "potential." Many times these skaters still only receive my mild applause. Partly I expect more from them -- clearly, if they have the native ability and talent, I want to see that they have devoted enough practice to their balance, expressiveness, and skill, and that they have honed their craft.

I judge them more harshly because I know that in their future they will face a tougher appraisal of their skating. When they nail a challenging element though I will often compliment them off-ice. "Hey, that was a great toe loop." They'll say thanks and be proud that a total stranger appreciated their efforts.

Then we get to the group of the serious older skaters, twelve and above. In a local competition you see a definitive split in the talents at this age level: the kids clearly either skate for fun, or are daily skaters striving for a national rating. I am courteous to those skating for fun, but the committed daily skaters receive my especially supportive scrutiny.

I am judgmental in a way that aims to improve their execution. There's an ongoing mental communication with these serious skaters -- that was a nicely centered spin, that was an especially expressive layback. If I see them off-ice after they compete I will compliment them with a nod and a smile. At this level they know what they are doing and tend to be overly self-critical against their adversaries; my role is to boost their self esteem in a way that doesn't swell their head.

Being a conscientious skate parent is a lot of work. The trick is to keep the kids actively engaged in the sport in a perfectly neutral-buoyancy fashion. It's about the humble acceptance of a quiet, non-dramatic, and equaniminous glamour.

(repost)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

- scorekeeping


After the Sochi Olympics everyone who watched skating had scorekeeping on their mind, so LA SkateDad and Figure Skating Advice had an email conversation about the subject. Well not specifically about the Olympics' scoring, but more about scorekeeping in general. (Both of us published this on our blogs).


FSA > Did your child ever compete under the 6.0 system, and if so, how did you and your kid adapt to IJS?

LASD > My daughter skated from around 1993 to 2003 primarily under 6.0; they were just talking about IJS toward the end of that time. She seemed a bit anxious about the change but didn't really experience it as she stopped skating to dedicate herself more to her school studies. Even under 6.0 I felt the judging paid slightly too much attention to element detail. I tended to compensate by discussing stylistic concerns with her rather than element execution "correctness."

I notice that many local events still score some flights on 6.0 with others on IJS. Do you think it's okay for a less competitive skater to just skate the 6.0? When you switch to IJS do you have to relearn everything and change your program?

FSA > It's absolutely okay to only enter 6.0 competitions; not everyone has the aspiration, time, or energy, to pursue the more competitive form of skating IJS. Switching to IJS competitions does require that you optimize your program for it, but if your coach is well versed in the IJS rulebook it shouldn't require more than a week of your training to reorganise things. You don't have to re-learn everything: the skating skills that you have mastered will stay with you for your lifetime (isn't that a lovely thought?!) and IJS isn't about learning a new way to skate. It will help you push your boundaries though, because as you aspire to higher levels IJS confronts you with elements that you may not have had the foresight to attempt previously. (I remember the first element I started training when IJS was rolled out was changing edge in a parallel spin, which seemed impossible on that very first practice session!)

LASD > What's the right thing to do when a skater feels that the judges scored her unfairly? Should her parents do anything? Did you ever complain to your coach or mom about your scores?

FSA > I'd say the first thing to do is go home. Unless you're at a high level competition with a complete panel of IJS judges and technical specialists, you most likely won't be able to contest the results of the competition that you just skated in. You need a clear head (and heart) to be able to objectively analyse the scores you were given, and you can't do this standing in your glittering dress and sneakers while the competition is still going on. Get together with your coach and go over the score card. If you scored a -3 GOE on an element that you feel you executed quite well, go back to the rulebook to understand what constitutes a -3. Sometimes you might receive a score you didn't deserve – GOE gives judges wiggle room. This is the eternal plight of an artistic sports athlete, as it were.

With regards to parents doing something, this depends. My instinct is no, because you'll get a name for yourself (or your child) and these kinds of political tactics can come back to haunt you (especially on the smaller circuits where everyone knows everybody else's business). If anything is going to be done in an official manner, the initiative should lie with the coach. However, I do admire skaters who speak out for blatant injustices at the top elite levels; we need skaters who are in a position to raise attention to any problems in our sport... but don't expect it to come without a price.

Of course I complained to my coach and mum about my scores! I don't think I ever met a skater who didn't. Artistic sports are subjective and even with the IJS system trying to be better at this, GOEs and component scores still leave room for personal interpretation. The advice they gave me was almost always "train harder and come back stronger," although this didn't necessarily help me feel better at the time (it's a great life lesson though). What did you do when your kid felt that she was scored unfairly?

LASD > Well mostly I would just shrug my shoulders. I guess I was more interested in giving my daughter a wider perspective, and dealing with the vagaries of how folks judge you is a part of your whole life (not just skating). In some sense I think IJS scoring may be harder on parents to shrug off as it gives (maybe the false) impression of being more ''objective" and less to the whim of the judges. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised though to hear parents comment all over the spectrum on this; I've run into many parents who were much more high-strung about scores than their kids were!

FSA > Were you able to understand your child's score sheets?

LASD > Even under 6.0 competitions I didn't really understand the scores they posted. It seems they showed relative ranking by number of judges or something like that. I would generally agree with around two thirds of the final standings so I didn't have any strong complaints overall. In IJS the USFSA is pretty explicit about the whole scoring process, see for example http://www.usfsa.org/New_Judging.asp?id=289. It does seem highly involved but I guess given the complexity of the sport that makes sense.

When you were practicing for competitions did you focus more on what you thought you might score, or were you guided more by creative expression and showmanship? How did you balance the two?

FSA > To me, skating is a performance: it should tell a story and convey a mood or emotion. It should be just like going to see a ballet or watching a great actor. I wanted to give the audience (and judges!) a moment of profound emotion, whether that be intense passion (to a Chopin sonata) or just pure fun (I skated to a Queen medley in my last competitive year, and hope the audience enjoyed watching it as much as I enjoyed skating it!) Showmanship was incredibly important to me not only because it allowed me to "tell my story" (or that of the character I was playing) but also because it offered me complete escape into my passion. However, no skater prepares for a competition thinking "it doesn't matter if I place last". Everyone wants to do their best, so naturally strategic planning influences a program's design. I balanced the two by first of all laying the foundations with my coach – making sure we maximised all the elements to the best of my ability – and then I let loose on the "artistry". It was quite enthusing to think that with IJS scoring you'd get graded on your program in a very precise way (of course that adds a bit of a scary element to things too!)

LASD > How did you and your coach negotiate what elements to include in a program? Does she say "this element is easier but you'll score better on it?" How do you feel about that?

FSA > We used to negotiate by a) knowing my skating abilities and, crucially, my limitations, and b) trying out new things. If I really wanted to go in with a level 4 spin, then we'd compromise: we'd place the level 3 spin in the program, and I'd train the level 4. When it came to submitting the paperwork for the competition, we'd re-evaluate the situation and make a decision. Sure, she'd sometimes say "do this easier element because you'll score better" and I would almost always agree. This didn't vex me in the slightest. The first rule of mastering your performance is knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

LASD > I think my daughter also was partway assertive in what elements she liked to skate; I remember she had a couple strengths that she liked to incorporate. At the same time her coach was definitely pushing her to include new elements that she was learning if my daughter was comfortable with them.

Do you think that IJS scoring has too large of an influence on skaters' style?

FSA > The short answer is yes. But this isn't necessarily the fault of the IJS. If anything, IJS has perhaps helped introduce variation and expression into skating performances because these now carry points. The one thing that's always bugged me right up to top-level skating is how few athletes treat their programs as true performances, preferring to "go through the motions" from jump to jump. I think one of the easiest ways to see how IJS promotes individuality is to watch the spins in high level competition. Back in 1999 when I saw Plushenko perform a Biellmann spin at the Euros in Prague, he was the first man I'd ever seen who did something other than camels, sits, and uprights. Now the scoring quasi-demands Biellmann in the ladies' category, and it's pretty standard fare in the men's competition. But my prevailing feeling is still that IJS throttles artistic creativity. Some of my favourite skaters (those who move me and touch my soul with their art) have never climbed that top step on the podium at major events because they couldn't "do the jumps". To me this shows that no matter which way you wrap it up and tie a nice bow on it, it's always going to come back to how many jumps you can land in 4.5 minutes. What do you think?

LASD > Well IJS certainly delineates the sub details of the components in finer slices. Overall though it seems to make skaters try to cram too much into their program. You never see a skater spiral across the length of the rink in a competition any longer because the time is too precious. And I'd agree with you that it seems that the top level skaters aren't as inventive and experimental as they used to be. Well a couple are, but for the most part you've got a triple, a 3+2, a short spiral, a donut, sit, Biellmann, footwork, and a flying camel. Maybe a couple sweeps of the ice. Somehow musical expressiveness and flow dynamics have been lost.

FSA > Did you feel confident that your child's coach "knew what she was doing" when it came to IJS skating? Did you carry out any coaching changes to try and maximise your daughter's scores?

LASD > I always felt that choosing a coach was more in my daughter's domain of expertise rather than my own. I think a lot of how well your kid learns depends on the chemistry between her and her coach, and it probably takes a few months to get accustomed to one another. When my daughter did become competitive she chose her coach because she had a record of coaching up skilled skaters and her style was one that she respected (some coaches were known for yelling at students, and her coach was not one of them). It seemed that each coach had their specialty, whether it be jumping, edge work, or choreography, so most skaters employed several different coaches for different areas of skill development.

FSA > Did you hire a separate choreographer to deal with the "choreo" (and indirectly the transitions) components of the score?

LASD > I was very fortunate that due to the location of my daughter's rink (Burbank -- we're talking entertainment city here) that all the coaches were well versed in at least some choreo. But choreo is only about 50% of transitions. In other words choreo is "this element will look nice after that one and it fits the music nicely" but it isn't the intimate details of the interim arms, attitude, hands, and flourishes from the first element to the subsequent element. I used to spend a lot of my own attentions on my daughter's transitions.

Do you think skaters have enough input (like feedback) into the methodology that judges use for scoring?

FSA > I don't think that skaters or coaches should necessarily have input into scoring methods, because they aren't judges. They aren't tech specialists. Each role has its own specificities. Allowing these parties to provide feedback to the judging panel or governing body about those things they don't understand however would be incredibly constructive, and provide a platform for skaters and their entourage to try to air their frustration that they may feel after a disappointing result. This would need to be very well designed though, in order to avoid the feedback from becoming a rant-form.

I do feel that the creation of scoring methods should be more transparent: a decade after the ISU rolled out IJS a lot of skaters still don't fully understand how it works, or how or why the ISU designed it the way it is. I think this is dreadful; the more understanding each and every player in the skating community has about what they are doing, the better off we'll all be. Having said that, the way the 6.0 system worked was even more of a mystery in many ways, because the scale of scoring could vary enormously from one competition to the next; at one competition you'd score between 2.8 and 3.6, and at another you might score between 3.8 and 4.6, which made tracking performance and progress through the season (and across the years) very difficult.

LASD > Thanks Gigi, these were great thoughts and it's been good hearing from you. I look forward to our readers' comments!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

- crash dynamics


Somehow as kids grow up through the ranks of learning to skate -- as they go from swizzles to stroking to spins -- they gradually gain a sense of rink and positional location awareness.

Skaters seem to crash into and clip the boards more frequently than they run into one another, but that latter possibility is always looming. It seems to weigh more on the minds of the parents though than the skaters.

Of course falling on the ice is as much a part of skating as lacing up your boots. Indeed part of the learning process is also learning how to fall safely, without causing too much damage. Naturally it is best to learn this skill when you are little.

Once you grow into a competitive skater you spend half of your time skating backwards. This makes for a bit of a challenge if you want some ice time in a public session amongst the newbies and the amateurs.

As a parent it seems I spend a good one third of my time telegraphing concern about an impending crash; I haven't a clue if this is actually useful to my daughter, but it is part of the crash dynamics, and it seems to be the general background concern of most of the newbie parents at the rink.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

- tribute


For variety I like visiting other rinks: it's not only different scenery but also for the different culture. The kids at each rink tend to reflect the attitudes of the surrounding neighborhoods. Some are more serious, others are more recreational. A couple times a year I hop over the hill to visit Culver Ice, a rink that feels like a mid-50's design. It's been on Sepulveda as long as I can remember. The covered entry porch is topped with a nine foot Sonja Henie and the old asphalt parking lot sprawls in the back. After entering the front click-lock glass door and passing through the plastic hanger vertical freezer slits you are in the rink proper, greeted by the powder blue and white color scheme, beat up dark green wooden bleacher-style benches, and white acoustic soundboard ceiling tiles.

My daughter had skated here in competition a couple of times. Hearing that they had lost their lease, I ventured down for a final visit yesterday. It was a full house at the Culver Rink, no spots were left in the parking lot, and the folks in line out front had bittersweet feelings all around. Lots of them were reminiscing with sad hearts. Most people were taking photos. Last photos. I bought a Culver Ice T-shirt for 20 bucks from a table outside.

Inside the rink most of the older skaters were sitting quietly with their private thoughts and a tightly controlled velocity of reminiscing so they wouldn't break out in tears. This tempered though with a quiet joy for what they had here and the future joy of the little tikes on the ice who don't know any better.

In the gloss-white warm up room the theatre on ice suits up for one last go of it. I wonder and worry about the skate coaches here, their head shots still smiling on the wall, as to where they will go. The gal at the skate rental counter is glassy eyed. The rink handyman with the brown round wool-knit skull cap gives me a nod of recognition.

After a very packed public session the announcer invites us to stay for a tribute performance. Zamboni resurfaces. I can't say the theatre is a high production affair -- just some inexpensive costumes and a few run throughs of some formation skating. Four or five groups take to the ice one after each other, grouped by age and skill. A local news cameramen stands on the ice to film. At the end of the show they unfurl a large banner of We (heart) Culver Ice signed by all eighty some skaters. After all the skaters take their final bow the choreo director says a heartfelt thanks, her voice breaking with emotion.

They clear the ice and open up for another public session. Many of the theater skaters join the public skate, still in costume. I leave with teary eyes and walk along Sepulveda. All the adjacent businesses, the urbane eateries, the pet groomers, Tanners coffee, the model train store, continue along unperturbed.

Monday, January 13, 2014

- hypnotism


The best skaters hypnotize with their performance. They do this not through their artistic arms nor their skillful jumps and spins, but rather by focusing where they hold their own awareness.

Even on practice ice one may easily discern which skaters have hypnotic power: they are able to concentrate and hold their awareness continuously at a point of high Qi, between their third and fourth Chakra. Physically this is a location about half way between their actual center of gravity and their heart.

While contemplating the hypnotic skater you watch their Qi glide smoothly as it effortlessly slides around the rink in gentle parabolic arcs through jumps, resting perfectly fixed in space during a spin.

When a skater focuses on her Qi rather than on what she is practicing, she will follow the natural hypnotically expressive path that her skills and physics allow.