|"...One of the greatest benefits we confer on a child by educating him- in the opinion of many thinkers immeasurably the greatest of all- is not the actual learning and accomplishment he will attain to, but the fact that he has acquired the power of working, and working properly, at something which, if left to his own free choice, he would never have wanted to do at all. As things are in this world, it is rather a sad reflection that only a minute fraction of the population are ever going to spend their lives doing those things they are hankering to do. You yourselves will seldom have the chance of interpreting great music to audiences who are hungering for it; unless you are a great deal luckier than most musicians you are much more likely to have to spend innumerable weary hours, whether in health or no, teaching music in unalluring surroundings, often on almost unendurable instruments, to pupils who are mostly ungifted and frequently have no personal desire to learn. Your one and only chance of survival, the one condition on which you can come out of it all still sane and inspiriting, is that at some time or other you have learnt that, once a job has been taken on, for your soul’s sake you must put in your best work at it. I am not emphasizing the moral side, though the moral side is obviously there; but rather the psychological fact that if once you condone slipshod work in yourself you have become, to everyone who falls within your sphere of influence, not an educator but a contagious disease." 1
Figure Skating coaching is a process in which a coach facilitates the development of skaters' skill by using her knowledge, experience and conscience to recommend actions for the skater and his parents. The coach also supports and encourages students to explore and develop their own unique capacities by way of the particular challenges figure skating presents.
The Coaching Profession
Coaching figure skating in Canada is extremely demanding physically and mentally and provides little financial benefit or security. Year after year coaches spend long hours standing in cold, damp rinks, in skates, working split shifts- before and after school accommodating the schedules of twenty, thirty or more different families each with their own unique needs. Because of this, it is almost always necessary for them to streamline their own schedule in some way either by reducing their overall hours or by concentrating their efforts on certain sessions and excluding others. Further complicating matters is the change and development of a coach’s clientele which makes permanent scheduling impossible. A schedule that works well one year may be completely inadequate or inappropriate the next.
Pleasing everyone would mean working seven days a week, spread over sixteen hours a day, fifty-two weeks a year. Limiting schedules is the only way coaches can survive these working conditions and continue to have the energy to support and encourage and train their skaters. There are many ways to trim a schedule but organizing it to target certain sessions and/or branches is preferable to indiscriminately teaching less. Arbitrarily teaching less over many branches and streams means some skaters will not receive adequate and/or appropriate instruction.
Coaches usually follow their interests when selecting sessions on which to concentrate. There are almost no coaches who teach all areas of skating (Pre-School, Competitive and STARSkate Singles and Dance plus Pairs, Skills, Interpretive, Synchro, Adult, Special Olympics and Power Skating) and none who could do it well. Even within certain branches such as the Singles branch they will specialize. Some do not want to be involved with beginners; they only want to teach Competitive skaters meaning their clientele comes from other coaches or through team teaching. Others do not want to teach Competitive skaters (although they will teach advanced STARSkaters) meaning at some point they expect some of their skaters to go to another coach. Others present themselves strictly as choreographers or as jump or spin technicians. Although interest is an important and valid factor in determining schedules and the branches in which a coach will be involved, coaches should think twice before confining their interest solely to the talented.
"...Do not make the mistake, so natural to young teachers, of thinking that your really valuable work is amongst your gifted pupils and that the rank and file are just an unfortunate necessity which you have to suffer in order to earn your living. Almost any teacher, except a miraculously bad one, can get a talented pupil to improve, for really talented pupils teach themselves and need little more that a guiding hand. The real measure of your success will be the number of those whom you raise from the mire, where, but for you, they might have stayed."2
It is unwise to believe a child should be exempt from good training because he is only there to have fun. Skating is fun when one feels confident he possesses the tools necessary to cope with and master the challenges this sport inevitably presents. It is not fun when one cannot progress because of poor technique or injury. Pain and frustration are not fun.
In skating, lean, speed and balance are intimately connected allowing movements that on dry land would not be possible. The paradox is that jumping and spinning, turning and gliding are both complicated and facilitated by being performed on ice. At first skaters will attempt to perform as though they are on land. They will substitute strength for technique at every opportunity so effort must be directed toward encouraging skaters to use their bodies and blades to create movement in proper skating fashion. This will greatly improve their chances of executing future skills well. Improving the quality of skills is one of the main reasons for hiring a private coach.
Some skaters perform simple skills in a manner that will require a relearning of at least some parts before the skater will be able to master more difficult versions such as multiple rotation jumps. When beginners develop technique derived from triple jumps they are constantly and consistently constructing their future highest level of performance from their first day on the ice. In this way the necessity for relearning skills will be much reduced.
Skaters love to learn new skills. It is exciting to have a new jump or spin to show parents and parents like to see progress but the ability to execute single jumps does not guarantee the successful execution of double or triple jumps if the technique is impaired. The higher the quality of early performance the better are one’s chances of executing future skills successfully and in a timely fashion.
Long Term Investments
Learning is a long-term investment and like any long-term investment there rarely are immediate returns. Skaters who perform skills with faulty technique will eventually suffer catastrophic consequences so right from the Initiation phase coaches need to ensure skaters develop the proper foundation on which to build correct jumping technique. During this time progress is sometimes not yet evident to the untrained eye but is often incubating or the progress is only evident to the coach who has been closely following the skater’s development. Sometimes a child’s most important progress may be due simply to improved attendance, effort, concentration or attitude or just a natural function of growth.
Parents and coaches are sometimes eager for visible and recognizable signs of progress such as skaters having a solo and competing and trying tests to prove how fast and well their skaters are advancing. The timing of these events is critical though- it is important that premature participation in these activities does not disrupt skill acquisition.
Skaters should never be required to practice any skill incorrectly. Caution is especially advised when participating in off-ice classes in which skaters pretend they are skating. There are no activities that are sufficiently like Free Skating to serve as a substitute for it. Either a movement is Free Skating or it is not. Skaters travel over ice at great speed. They wear skates that bind their feet and that have inflexible soles and the use of their bodies will be specific to those conditions. The closer an off-ice class comes to repeatedly mimicking on ice technique without being identical, the higher the risk of negative transfer especially when the number of off ice repetitions exceeds the number on ice. In Canada it should rarely be necessary to substitute off ice training for on ice training. There is enough ice time available for skaters to practice skating by skating. However, especially in the Initiation phase, participation in other physical activities may engage the skater’s body and mind in a variety of ways potentially improving his general fitness and understanding of sports. When skill level is low skaters will not be able to affect their level of fitness through skating alone so participation in other aerobic and stretching activities is in fact advised.
All auxiliary training should be undertaken within the context of the overall training plan developed in concert with the skater, parent and coach. This training plan does not just list the activities planned for the skater it organizes them in a way that best conforms to commonly accepted general training principles. For example, adequate and appropriately timed rest must be built into the plan for proper recovery to take place. Exercise is catabolic (destructive), rest is anabolic (constructive). The timing of the activity within the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly plan is one of the most critical features of training and one that is frequently overlooked in one’s zeal to work hard and progress quickly. It is important for skaters to develop good technique before training hard. Hard training with poor skills thwarts future development.
The nature of figure skating training- the size of the ice surface, the temperature, the noise, the speed of the movement, the glass separating the spectators from the training surface etc. all make it impossible for parents to be privy to precisely the instructions their children are receiving during lessons. Assumptions about lesson content based solely on visual cues are incomplete and almost always inaccurate. Parents who develop training convictions based on what they think they see and then insist on coaching their children accordingly from the boards, the seats, in the car and at home may inadvertently (or intentionally) be sending a message that the coach’s instructions are inadequate and/or the skater is either incapable of either remembering or following them or they are advised not to. Skaters whose training is frequently disrupted in this way are often late in developing the very skills these parents complain their children lack.
Parental coaching disrupts progress particularly when it is based on rumour, gossip, ignorance, wishful thinking or is transferred directly from other sports. In extreme cases quality skill development may be lost through the necessity for the coach to spend a disproportionate amount of lesson time reducing the impact of the other curricula to which the skater is exposed.
Parents must understand when they enrol their child in sports training they are providing him with an opportunity to immerse himself in the world of sports- a world separate from his daily life and in which he will grow and mature as he struggles daily to come to terms with his own limitations. There is no dispute children look to their parents for guidance, support and love. Free Skating training does not diminish the need for parents in the slightest. In fact, skaters will find reasons every day to need and benefit from such support, but parents’ efforts truly are best confined to their parental role.
STARSkate vs Competitive Stream
Coaches, parents and skaters are free to choose certain branches of skating and coaching practices and exclude others according to their interests, beliefs and needs. The nature of everyone's involvement should be well understood by each but it should not necessarily be inferred that coaches who choose to coach STARSkaters are not capable of teaching Competitive skaters or vice versa. Competitive development begins in the STARSkate Stream in the Initiation phase.
A skater’s future whether in STARSkate or the Competitive Stream is shaped largely by the motor patterns he adopts as a beginner. Beginners exist in both Streams. Since no skater’s future can be accurately predicted it would be wise, at first, to treat them all as potential high performance athletes. It will be the parent’s ability and willingness to provide for the necessary training and the skater’s proficiency and commitment (or lack of it) coupled with his particular heredity and personality that will determine the Stream in which he will eventually participate.
The STARSkate and Competitive Streams do not exist in every branch and the skills contained in each are not always the same. For example, the majority of skills contained in the Competitive Stream of the Dance branch do not exist in STARSkate. The Skills branch does not have a Competitive Stream at all. Nor does the Interpretive branch. The Pairs branch does not have a STARSkate Stream. In Free Skating, however, there is little distinction between STARSkate and Competitive Stream skills. The difference lies in the quality of their execution and/or the extent of the skater’s overall development. This can lead to confusion over whether a skater is proficient enough to be a Competitive skater.
When a skater skates many hours and displays a deep commitment to learning then an opportunity to teach in depth presents itself and can lead to Competitive Stream competitions. This coach and skater are then termed 'Competitive'. The difference between STARSkate and Competitive Stream Free Skating training is not so much the skills contained in the curriculum but the depth of the skater’s and his parents' commitment to learning them. Skaters compete in both STARSkate and the Competitive Stream but in Competitive Stream Free Skating the final emphasis is on winning; in STARSkate Free Skating the emphasis is on participation. STARSkaters are not better served with Competitive Stream goals if they lack the ice time, lessons and desire to achieve them. In either stream it is not wise to make winning a priority if one has poor skills.
Good coaches in both STARSkate and the Competitive Stream do not fret about judges’ placements (as though they could be changed by something other than hard work), use anger as a motivator, threaten skaters or pit them against one another, work them foolishly to appear tough, succumb to outside pressure to expose skaters to new ideas when they have no scientific or logical basis or include token training that diminishes real training 'just in case' it helps. They coach skaters to be the best they can be. There are no magic words, secret information or special tips; learning to skate well is simply, exquisite hard work.
Figure skating is extremely complex and often difficult. Coaches are not provided with nor do they require a standardized curriculum for coaching skating. They are free to instruct in accordance with their own knowledge, experience and conscience. In Canada they are however, certified by the NCCP (National Coaching Certification Programme) to insure a general level of competence. There are 5 levels:
Level 5 not yet required
Level 4 required to coach Olympic athletes
Level 3 required to coach National and International athletes
Level 2 required to coach Sectional athletes
Level 1 required to coach professionally
All Skate Canada coaches are required to be certified in First Aid.
On the chart, Free Skating Coaching, the components that influence a coach’s effectiveness are shown. Many components are the same as those for Free Skating Performance, but the coaching components are far more theory and experience oriented. It is not absolutely necessary that a performer understand why he is doing something a certain way but a coach must be able to justify everything she does and be able to draw on a much deeper understanding of the sport as the instruction she provides must be relevant to each unique skater. All skaters and coaches will draw on all components included on their respective charts whether they do so intentionally or not. What distinguishes good and bad skaters and coaches is the extent to which they possess or have been able to develop each component.
Assessments of a coach’s effectiveness are extremely difficult even for the coach herself. This is because the great number and variety of factors impacting each skater’s progress muddy the mitigating factors and those of little or no consequence. However, all figure skating coaches and their students benefit from a healthy coach’s heredity and personality and strong background in experience, logic, curricular development, imagination and training methodology. But what if a coach does not have these qualities?
One of the sticky issues figure skating faces is the possibility that inadequate coaching services may be offered by some professionals. Coaches in Canada who have completed their Level 1 course and hold a valid First Aid certificate are qualified to coach. They are certified by the National Coaching Certification Programme but this programme does not evaluate a coach’s heredity or personality, only their education and only a limited number of these components are addressed in coaching courses.
The people who must ultimately evaluate the coach’s effectiveness are the parents. They are left in the unenviable position of evaluating coaching proficiency without sufficient knowledge of figure skating or the coaching process to do so. Since parents are not privy to the actual lesson content their child receives and often rely on their child’s evaluations and descriptions of the coach’s efforts which may or may not be accurate, it is not surprising they fill in the gaps by discussing figure skating training with other parents. This discussion rarely takes individual needs and circumstances into consideration and can easily degenerate into rumour and gossip. This may lead to the inclusion of all kinds of arbitrary training, coaching strategies or coaches, "just in case" it helps.
Parents should always feel comfortable discussing their child’s progress with their coach and feel free to question any training decisions coaches might make. Good coaches will adhere to certain teaching principles:
1. Justification. Coaches should be able to provide a rationale for why they are teaching a certain skill or
concept and how they are using a skater’s time.
2. Individuality. Instruction should serve the individual learning needs of each skater.
3. Relevance. Instructions should be applicable to past experience, present needs and immediate futures.
4. Transference. Instruction should carry over from the practice to the competitive or test setting.
1 Buck, Percy C.: Psychology for Musicians. Oxford University Press 1944
2 Buck, Percy C.: Psychology for Musicians. Oxford University Press 1944