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, 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.