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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

- intermezzo

During the Pacific Sectionals junior freeskate the Music Guy tried something I hadn't heard before; it seems like an idea worth pursuing (although maybe in a different form).  I've posted previously my gripes about the long scoring pause between skaters, and this might be a viable way to ease this irritation.

Nowadays of course the Music Guy has a laptop computer with a built-in CD player, some digital mixing software and a standalone pre-amp, all connected to the rink's sound system. He also has a whole slew of digital hits at his fingertips resting handily on his laptop.

So Sectional Music Guy dabbled a bit after the skater swept up her hallowed teddy bears -- while the scorers pressed their buttons and technical replayed, rewound, and replayed all the jumps, Music Guy piped in some background pop. Not so loud as to be terribly distracting, but something you could easily chat over without being ensconced in the frozen silence. You know, Taylor Swift, Oasis, Duran Duran sort of stuff.

Now I like dear Taylor as much as the rest of you and she has a place in my afternoon browsing through the radio station commute.  I'm not sure though I want to hear her break the tension between the classical sets of skating. It was nice to have /some/ sort of background music though.

My other concern was that he played a decidedly /different/ intermezzo each time: one may have been more a ballad, one more upbeat. It's unfair to the next skater in that it causes a mood jump -- it grates with a discontinuity once her own program starts.

So here's a considered suggestion for US Figure Skating and rink Music Guys everywhere. Choose a scorekeeping background divertimento that is low-key and quietly distracting, but use the same tune for each break during the entire flight of skaters. It could be akin to video-game background or movie soundtrack stuff, for example. Something melodic and rhythmic and without lyrics. Capiche? And thanks for the idea, Music Guy.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

- layback

The layback is a classic, glamorous element. Executing it to wow the audience is tough though: sort of like an animated cartoon, it frequently looks crude (like yeah, she's doing a layback) or it falls in the broad range of good enough, without being anything special.

You can impress me with either of the two forms of this (not both at the same time though please, choose one or the other). The first I'll call "beachball," the second is "armfully elegant". First though, a sideword about physics. Since your layback posture is rather precarious, you need to be positive you are precisely centered on your spin. Even the slightest amount of precession will bosh a layback.

Secondly, please enter your layback with some panache and gradualness. It looks awkward when a gal just suddenly snaps back -- yeah I know you can do it and it shows off how flexible you are, but it's not very graceful.

"Beachball" layback is the standard circular arms pose: I liked to tell my daughter to imagine grasping a large invisible beach ball. Do you see the image at the top of this blog? Yeah, like that. For the optics on this to be correct, it should appear that the virtual center of the beachball stays absolutely fixed as your arms rotate around it.

Shoulder position is paramount on this layback, and is where most skaters don't quite achieve perfection. Ideally your shoulders should be back parallel to the ice, with both shoulders at the same height. When you are rotating though it's nearly impossible to judge this by feel alone: you really need to have somebody video your laybacks while you're practicing to get the alignment correct.

The other layback, armful elegance, involves weaving a pattern with your hands, arms, or both, as you are spinning while tilted back. The art in this is to be graceful yet with purpose: not too much arm action, but something to tease out the spirit of your music or what you wish to express. I've seen this performed with arms flayed to the sides, to reveal a blooming flower, perhaps. Or up in gentle fountain like flares.

As you make progress through your rotations, naturally you must slowly lower your back off-ice foot so as to capitalize on its storehouse of angular momentum, thus keeping your rotational speed constant.

It takes an extreme amount of polish to change your average layback from something you just do to complete an element, over to a spectacular expression of an artform. We don't just want to see that you know how to do a layback. We want to be entertained.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

- more variety

It seems curious to me that coaches allow their skaters to build their program around their best moves. You end up with someone who does eight jumps or five spin moves in their program, or somebody who melodramatically sweeps the ice four times. I'm not saying that all programs should be the following:

Double toe loop, spiral, sit, combo 2+2, footwork, flying camel, donut, Biellmann, ice sweep, triple-double, quad (okay dreaming here, maybe just some dramatic expressiveness), layback, scratch spin.

... but it does make for a more rounded presentation. My general argument is that once you have already proven to me that you can nail a combo triple-double, I don't really need to see it again. I already know you can do that combo. More generally if your body build gives you an advantage for fast angular momentum on your jumps, I'll know this after your first couple of combos now won't I? If you've got the type of body built for svelte graceful stroking, after your first pass of the rink I will have already deduced that.

I actually want to see you challenge your self with your program. It's not just a matter of having a well-rounded presentation: I get a sense of comfort knowing that you push yourself to practice the things you're /not/ good at. It's what an athlete is supposed to do.

And you're only allowed to sweep the ice once.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

- gripes

I'm not really in a sour mood or anything, but those couple times in my previous posts where I throw in a sideline of (please don't do this) seem to work better if I roll them all up into one.  Some of these gripes don't find a sentence to slip into another post so you get to see them here instead. Therefore below my gripes about the particulars of how you skate, all rolled up into one. Don't take it personal (but please don't do these).

that third combo weak toe loop
ending your program at the far end of the rink
skating too close to the audience dasher
not starting when your music starts
doing any footwork standing in one place
the leg or head dip before your donut
hair trailing in a ponytail
chatting with your coach after you're announced
showing off during warmup
thinking too much about your routine while skating
telegraphing every jump
blemished skate boots
phoning it in
leaving the ice glum or casually
mouthing the words
acting too literal
paperclip spin
jerking too quickly up to Biellmann
not holding your spiral long enough
popping
choppy music transitions
competing just to get a trophy/medal

Here's the kicker: you can't really keep all of these in your head and think "oh no I better not do that." Rather most of these seem to be a failure to attend carefully to the development of particular /habits/. You can pretty much avoid all of these sins therefore just by developing the appropriate -good- habits to start with, okay? Thanks, and with love, LA SkateDad.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

- camel

One of the more interesting elements is the camel, straight up or flying. I'm always intrigued by the entry, keenly critical of raised leg stability, absorbent of expressiveness, and watchful for a graceful exit. There's room for playfulness both mid-spin and at the exit.

Technically speaking though the camel is fully self-judging: its pose and mechanical physics are so strictly limiting a 5 year-old can tell if you nailed it or not. It's easy to see if your raised orbiting leg stays level or if your pivot foot precesses. I have no great clues for you here about how to achieve a stable rotation and avoid technical sins: outside of a good coach I think you're on your own with your awareness and a videographer. I do have plenty to say though from an audience member's perspective.

On entry I want to see your pivot foot immediately pinned to the ice without further movement, hops, or spiraled in circling. Your raised leg should be to full up position without wobble or further adjustments. Your first rotation should be in a plane perfectly flat and parallel to the ice. I tend to be more accommodating if your entry was flying (so your second rotation is pivot foot pinned and raised leg parallel).

If you flew into your camel then I absorbed all of that hocus pocus of upper body balance and arm artistry. Some gals "signal" here with a large arm wave whereas others fly in so smoothly and gently that suddenly they're cameled. I don't mind the flailing about if it has grace to it, but sometimes it shows signs of struggle.

Once your cameled my eyes saccade across your body as you rotate to my full visual width: what's up with your head, shoulders, arms, and hands? Are you happy to be here or are you wrestling? Some skaters tilt to a more "open" position with one shoulder up toward the ceiling, others are more tummy down with shoulders at the same elevation flat to the ice. I don't care in either case as long as your neck is straight aligned with your body (no slumping head, please).

Standard arm position seems to be one arm down the leg, and one alongside your trunk, but I've seen tons of variants so this is an excellent place to experiment with drama. I get a sense once you've decided on arms there isn't much latitude for change: since the constraints of the physics are so severe, if you move your arms you will bosh your spin.

Rotational velocity now rises forefront. I don't care so much if you're fast or more deliberate as long as you're not losing angular momentum and slowing down terribly. It's sad to watch a skater with beautiful positioning and attitude get so sluggish they have to break form.

Now that you're locked in how about interesting psychics? What are you imagining as you spin about the audience? Are you sprinkling sparklets of love about? Are you entwining ribbons of color? Are you slaying dragons of woe?

Ready to de-camel? Probably half of skaters choose to swing the upright leg down into a sit spin. Catching the back leg into donut seems to be getting more popular, and then if you want to truly amaze me pull that donut up into a Biellmann. What's more important is your head doesn't drop in either case: your posture should be deliberately and precisely controlled during the transition.

From an observational perspective the camel has more interesting subcomponents than any other element -- it's multi-textured with loads of room for expressiveness.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

- protocol

Here's one of the more peculiar and incidental ebb and flows of skating: you have tons of unstructured practice time and moderately adhered to coaching sessions that dramatically funnel down to a strictly timed and scheduled performance. For all the flexibility, creativeness, and random explorations the sport of figure skating allows, there are a few times when the strictures of rules, procedures, and protocol are very binding. Once you're within the vortex of a competition there are a couple even more tightly controlled scenarios you need to abide by.

One of these we'll simply call the Referee. I always wondered what this person did: they get introduced along with the judges and the technical staff. The simple answer is the Referee is the Protocol God. She enforces that every single rule of the competition and all of its standard procedures are being followed down to the last iota. Usually when things run copacetic you don't see her do much at all. If anything out of the ordinary happens though the Referee will intervene. I've seen her have the announcer call the skater back out onto the ice to pick up a dropped bauble from a hairpiece. Once when the door monitor allowed the next flight of skaters to take the ice for warmup before their names had been rollcalled, the referee directed "mike" to have the skaters clear the ice. Don't mess with the protocol God.

The other time you get absolutely no choice or free will is if you get injured while skating. Shortly after first aid is applied a rink official with a clipboard will track you and your parent down and subject you to The Injury Debriefing. It seems to be a fairly standard and legalistic practice. During the process you will feel you are essentially being forced to indemnify the rink and show that you can manage safely the rest of the day by yourself. Sitting casually aside listening to a couple of these (not my injured kid) I've come to recognize this procedure is much more than rinkwash.

Most skaters get so pumped up with adrenaline during a competition that the effects of hormones completely mask their injury. They may have gotten an infection or be partially in shock and not even recognize it. The parents as well get roiled when their kid is injured. A large part of the Injury Debriefing is to assess the mental state of the skater and parent and to "talk them down:" have they descended yet from their adrenaline high and are they fully aware of what their injury might entail? The debrief gradually brings them back to earth, so the rink staff (and parent) can determine if more medical attention might be required. So if this unfortunate bind should befall you, please chill, and follow the protocol. The rink is looking out for you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

- drama

There's something to be said about skating with the appropriate amount of drama. When I watch a program two aspects roll forefront: first, do your skills concur with the dramatic pitch and amplitude displayed by the music? Second, are you immersed or are you distracted? The first question is a matter of choreo, but the second is fully psychological.

Skating music spans the spectrum of the dramatic canon. You have the serene and pastoral up through the Wagnerian explosive, with all sorts of side detours through frivolous, demonstrative, and vernacular. Most skaters like to blend variability into their program with some edits across musical phrases (usually within the same oeuvre, but sometimes across) so they can demonstrate a command of different styles.

Be careful you can actually affirm the drama depicted in the music though. You can fault either way here: you can be overly expressive beyond what the music requires, which make you look fey. Or you can choose music far exceeding your stagecraft, which makes you look vacuous. This is tough to judge on your own though and is where the opinions of your coach (and perhaps some close skating friends or one of your parents) can come in handy. Do you really know how well you project to the audience, and the limit of your thespian abilities?

Once you've got your program music selected and edited together you're going to pretty much be committed to it for half a season (or more). This is where the second challenge arises: being able to consistently express the feelings of the piece. It sounds wonderful when you first select it, and then more amazing when you slip your fresh CD into the rink's sound system and skate for the first couple times. Maybe even a bit overwhelming. Recognize as you put your elements and timings together to match the music, you will be listening to this program around 500 times. Yes, am I close?

Most of this listening happens during freestyles with nobody watching but a few other skaters and maybe a parent or two. Does it make sense to "act it up" during practice? I'm asking here, I don't have an opinion or answer for you. The issue of course is you need to get up to speed on the dramatic portrayal but you certainly don't want to burn out. Let me see what my skating daughter thinks about this matter (her reply below).

When you're skating your music at an exhibition or competition though, it's important to stay in the zone of caricature. Not just for the dramatic effect for the audience, but also because we don't want you so distracted and focused by your own skating thoughts that you overthink and defeat your muscle memory.

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Hi Dad. I felt the need to “act it up” in practice several times before a competition. First though I had to reasonably execute the choreography and transitions from a technical standpoint. I say “reasonably” because it seemed like the choreography and transitions were so challenging that I usually didn’t have them fully mastered at the first competition of the season.

When my program practice would just barely begin to come together, that was around the time I’d start skating the program like it was a competition (on days when I had the energy and wherewithal to do it). Simulating competition as close as possible made me feel more prepared on the day of the competition, and feeling prepared was a must. This meant both mental and physical simulation (not just the movements of the program but also clothing -- this included skating without gloves when doing a full run through).

I don’t recall ever getting burnt out on a program, but that may be because of all the different elements to practice. I remember practicing the elements of a program (e.g., a particular jumping pass, or difficult footwork) more frequently than the whole program with expression and all.

Of course these were just my experiences. Would be interested in hearing other skater’s thoughts and experiences.