Last night at a skating benefit I sat in front of a couple who was visiting in obligation to a friend. I was struck by the stark contrast between their viewpoints from outside the sport and mine from the inside. This couple measured up not amongst the far-outside, but rather the casually disinterested outside. They understood the flow of local, regional, sectional, national, Olympics, but had never heard of IJS or 6.0 scoring. After a couple of minutes of small-talk where they established that I'm an "insider" the gentleman cleared his throat and prefaced his question with "I don't want to seem like I'm being critical or anything." He couldn't understand why his sister-in-law spends thirty thousand dollars a year on raising a kid who figure skates.
The visitors were close enough to folks who -are- in the sport to understand that for nearly all skaters it is a -total- commitment. Aside from the bored kids who rent skates a few times a year to skate a public session on the weekend, they recognized that there aren't any casual skaters. There aren't any kids who go to school and then just go to a skate coach and a freestyle once a week, like you can do with karate practice or soccer. You're either in it full-heartedly five days a week or you're not. They fully comprehended this and it was at the foundation of what was gnawing at them about the sport.
Also the gentleman was inquiring how long the gals skate, and what happens after they stop. You don't have kids who graduate with a Master of Arts in Figure Skating and then get recruited by Fortune 500s. You don't have companies out in the world placing want ads for figure skaters. And if a young lady is aiming more for a homemaking role, which is a rare enough privilege nowadays, why wouldn't she spend more time dedicated to domestic arts and household culture? So to these casual observers it seemed like an enormous waste of time and money.
Sitting in the stands with them I wasn't particularly in the position to yell over the music to explain what makes the parents-skater combo tick. So here's my blog post to explain it instead.
To start with I think there's a bit of a discontinuity in perceptions that makes it hard for an "insider" to explain the sport to an "outsider" on the spot. I don't think that the casual observer perceives the sport in the same manner as those of us who watch it all the time: they miss most of the subtlety. It's like trying to explain baseball to somebody who doesn't "get it." Somebody who watches baseball twice a year and sees home runs and strikeouts and the occasional stolen base on TV is missing 85% of the game. Similarly if you don't watch skating regularly in person then all you see are jumps and falls and spins.
When you have a child who is gifted, athletic, attractive, highly intelligent, sensitive, artistic, and full of energy, what are you going to do with them? If as a parent you had a similar bent yourself when you were growing up, then you identify with their predicament. They constantly need an energetic creative outlet; without such a thing they would blow themselves up with dissatisfaction, dissonance, and boredom. To them skating is not a choice, it's a requirement. They need the goals, the advancement, the love of an audience, the acceptance, the structure, and the creative outlet. Their souls absolutely require it.
So it's not a waste of time any more than your standard workaday job is a waste of time. It achieves a purpose and makes the world a better place, even if it doesn't make money for the company boss, sell soap, or build automobiles. It's art and athletics for those who require the expressiveness and it's art appreciation for those who love them.