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.

Friday, November 27, 2015

- spiral

I may have mentioned this a couple times before, but the spiral is one of my favorite elements. What, you ask...? It is only the skater traveling in a static pose with one leg up behind her -- what could be difficult or interesting about that?

Well to me the spiral encapsulates all three of my top skating criteria in a simple to judge move: grace, balance, and skill. Also since I have a skating daughter I recognize how difficult it is to accomplish a quality spiral, mainly since I have had the privilege of witnessing all the young skaters attempt this as they were growing up through their coaching sessions.

The first challenge is bringing your trailing leg up at a smooth consistent speed and then stopping at the correct height. Go too far and you faceplant. Don't go far enough and it's impossible to hold. Viewing a gal practice this is like observing a young person learn how to do a headstand. Trial and error, muscle memory, finding the balance points.

Once you're pegged into position you get to deal with the vagaries of blades and bumps in the ice. I don't know from experience but it seems to me from watching that the gals that maintain the most velocity in their spiral have an easier time keeping their position fixed as they traverse the rink's incongruities. Those traveling slowly get whomped by every small dent and surface gash.

What I actually focus on after examining the smoothness of entry is your skates: my peripheral vision makes sure the hind leg stays frozen exactly at the same height, and my wandering eyes appreciate any stylistic hand movements, but mostly I am examining if your edges stay clean and committed as you manage the traversal. I am watching how you finesse the minuscule velocity changes imposed by the bumpy ice with your core muscles.

Holding your rear leg stock still is enough of a challenge, but if you can do this while also throwing in some slight balletic arm movements at the same time, I'm doubly impressed.
The other notable oddity about this element is, of course, your face is presented statically straight up toward the audience (or judges, depending on your angle). Please don't skate your spiral with your mouth open.

Somewhat miraculously this element also critically narrows the body types for those who willl eventually become the great skaters. Obviously you need strong glutes to pull it off well, but additionally if your center of gravity stays fixed as you tilt into position then this indicates that your top and bottom halves are appropriately balanced.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

- sectionals

I spent most of two days last week at Pacific Sectionals. I'd been to several Regionals before, and Worlds when they were in Los Angeles, but never Sectionals. When I checked the USFSA web site I was surprised to read they host only three sectionals a year.  Amazingly enough this year's Pacific was at my daughter's former home rink, Pickwick in Burbank.

For a chance to see one-third of the top up-and-coming skaters in the U.S., the $25 entrance fee for a day seems quite reasonable. Walking into the rink I noticed the usual room set-asides for hospitality, trophies and photos, et cetera. It all seemed exceedingly well organized, much more so than a usual competition. Once I paid my admission and got my paper wrist wraparound, I entered the rink proper. It didn't seem terribly crowded: mostly just the usual crowd (folks dressed in standard skating fare and hanging nametags) without a lot of outside spectators.

Pickwick features rather extensive bleachers opposite the "garden" side of the rink, probably twenty deep at a fairly steep rise, along the whole length of the rink. Smack in the middle they had cordoned off a group section with signs reading "trial judges only" but nobody was sitting there. All the audience sat on one side of the rink, with the official judging in the first three rows at midrink (and the customary scorekeeping tables smack up against the back of the dashers). The entire top three-quarters of the bleachers behind the judges was empty, so I took my usual seat at the topmost bench behind them.

I happened in during an ice cut so things were pretty quiet, but I could tell this wasn't quite the typical scorekeeping setup. There seemed to be a bit more technology than usual, or maybe just all the technology was in one place, rather than spread out at different rink locations. Video, music, scorekeeping entry, timers, and announcer were all in one group, complete with little tables and pop-up stands for their monitors. Down by the dashers sat official looking empty numbered trunks the videographer brought with his equipment.

One very pleasant thing about Sectionals is, aside from the skating mechanics themselves, the rest of the competition has a nice air of informality to it. Most of the folks know about half of the other folks there, everyone has seen these judges before, and you can pretty much wander around anywhere without raising much of an eyebrow. Well, I can anyway, as I'm fairly well known by the community out these parts.

Once the events started ramping up I sensed the scoring process moved quite a bit quicker and considerably more formalized than usual. This may have been a misimpression just because I was stationed ten rows up behind the technology, but it did seem that everything clicked together and stayed on schedule, with only the occasional delays in the technical video review holding things up a bit.

The other thing I noticed once the events ramped up (okay even before then, while perusing the schedule) was it seemed that nearly half the events were either ice dance or pairs. I guess this makes a lot of sense if you think about it logically (uhhh, there's men's, ladies, ice-dance, and pairs, so yeah: half). In your normal local events you're lucky if you've got one ice-dance couple and maybe two pairs, so locally maybe 4% of a competition is this. In the national qualifying events though it's fully half. (Afterthought: the upshot of this must be that all ice-dancers and pairs nationally know each other).

Mostly I like to watch the ladies intermediate and junior events. The novice division is too weird (more about that briefly) and the senior ladies skate last so by then I'm too tired (mentally and physically).

For many of the Intermediate level skaters this is their first time at Sectionals, so nerves are palpable. There's a fair amount of variance in skill and size, but pretty much all of the Intermediates are pre-puberty and haven't gone through any kind of long-bone growth spurt yet. They are all small, compact, little powerhouses of personality with a low center-of-gravity (when they fall it's not a big traumatic deal). They are charming and a pure joy to watch skate.

Junior level skaters are the seriously upwardly-mobile competitors. Juniors have generally all "grown into" their body after those awkward post-puberty years when you feel like a spider chicken. Most of them have been skating around ten years, and already well know the routine. Nearly all have been to regionals several times and probably half have been to sectionals. The juniors seem to fall into two broad groups: those that really have their act together and are desperately seeking a ticket to Nationals, and those that are, well, having a bad day. It's hard to tell in the "bad day" subgroup if it's something personal, or if they just really don't have the heart to lug their entire family to Nationals.

You see, the thing about Novice level is it is smack in the middle of Intermediate and Junior. Some of them are skaters who are way too good to skate Intermediate: they have just begun their growth spurt and their thin svelteness makes triple jumps child's play. Some of them are skaters who aren't skilled enough to skate at Juniors even though they are pretty much their final body shape. I suppose they could easily split Novice into two independent groups but then that would be too many Divisions to manage (really, four divisions is plenty). It seems unfair to judge the Novice against one another: each Novice has their own unique struggles.

I'm thinking the worst of the stress falls on the parents and the rink staff. US Figure Skating apparently quite verily micromanages all of the rink appurtenances, so the local rink team gets held to extremely high standards (btw great job Pickwick!). Many of the parents look shell-shocked.

After Sectionals finished and I had some time to reflect quietly, I recognized the audience for figure skating is a lot like the audience of track-and-field. Yeah you get those couple-a-year televised events (and the Olympics!) where the general populace watches and gets to know the top stars. The general populace also thinks what they see on TV is how most of the athletes in the sport perform.  Then you get the vast majority of the athletes laboring in obscurity to weekly audiences of their friends and parents.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

- meaning

I like to see skaters who understand and imbue the sport with more than just "it's a contest to get a trophy medal." I want to see something much grander. In your own mind, what's the highest spiritual purpose you could possibly ascribe to your skating?

Make your skating about that.

Monday, November 16, 2015

- last note

My first choreo post was logically enough about an early part of your program, your first jump. Now though I leap all the way to the very end of your program: the last note, actually, at the very very end. I don't know if folks deliberately plan this out, as it seems to be more an artifact of the music you selected for your routine. One might easily though recalibrate the music to address this issue that leaves the last impression.

In an earlier post I chatted about how to allow yourself enough slack time to ensure you finish your final movements in time to the music. It seems the more I watch particular skaters though the less coincidental their endings appear. Some skaters can simply always nail the timing while others cannot.

If you are one of those lucky souls who has the rhythm in her bones then you can make a dynamite impression by choosing a musical piece with an abrupt and spectacular ending. Nail it and everyone goes Whoa.

But if you're like most skaters who can at best time it to within a couple of seconds, it would seem to me you should cut your music to end on a holding chord. That way if you're a tiny bit early you can melt into your final pose. If you made it just in time then you'll look like you planned it that way.

Monday, November 9, 2015

- scratch spin

I decided it's probably time to explore way down into the weeds, spinning out my detailed thoughts about all the possibilities of each individual element. Maybe I'll interleaf these posts with the thread I've started on choreo, just for a bit of variety.

When you are coming up to speed through the beginning levels of skating, most of your initial lessons are for moves you will later grow out of, and never perform again once you're a serious competitor. A couple of the early moves though are suave enough that you actually can use them in your mature programs, with just a bit of polish and embellishment. One of these is the scratch spin.

I don't see this much mid-program -- it must be terribly disorienting to exit a scratch spin and proceed to your next element. Maybe once or twice in a competition though I'll see a gal end her program on a scratch spin, and when done to perfection it's an arresting finish. The risk: it is easy to blemish the spin when you're tired, and if you get remotely dizzy you'll fall out of your final pose.

I like to see unexpected entrances to the scratch spin. Sometimes a gal will enter it standing from a sit or a camel spin. Sometimes you'll get a nice three-turn entry. I like to see the speed anticipation build up in a slow straight perfectly gradual progression: as your off-ice thigh gradually lowers and your arms curl in, it's fun to watch your revolutions quicken. Of course I want to see your contact foot in such a tight non-precessed circle that you're pretty much drilling a hole into the ice. If I'm fortunate enough to be alone with you in a freestyle I want to hear the smoothly louder swashily as the blade reaches resonance.

I want you to get so fast you become a blur.

Arms and hands should have some planned sensibility to them -- I've seen scratch spins with one hand in front and one in back, with fingers gently suggestive (maybe a two finger scout salute). Also nice is if you can do fancy positioning higher up near your face or overhead -- of course the higher your arms rise the more challenging the physics of pinning your center of gravity.  Your head should remain dead centered and fully upright. I've seen some head tilted back scratch spins but frankly watching them makes ME dizzy.

The end of the spin can be either gradual or checked-out. Smile!

Monday, November 2, 2015

- variance

In an earlier post I detailed how arm dynamics should be ballet slow, whereas your legs need to be dynamic and fast. There's a tad more to a well-rounded and enthralling program than that though. To stay interesting and not appear to be frozen in a mood, to show that you have moxie and can relate to your program's music, both arm and leg dynamics need to vary across time. Not randomly though, but rather softly and thematically matched to the changes in your music's tempo or intonation.

When the music is bold and sweeping your arms can be more directive and your leg movements can be longer, more rhythmic strokes. If your music is soft and gentle, your arms can by lyrical and your legs and feet can move to a more eclectic pattern. When the music is staccato your footwork should be precise and demonstrative, but your arms should be ballet (we are watching your footwork, don't distract us with your arms).

Getting into the flow of the music without being imprisoned by it is a gentile art all its own. Your motion and dynamic changes should coincide with the timepoints where your music's theme changes, but you don't have to match a stroke to every downbeat, or accent an arm movement on every bar.