Archive for the ‘Coaching issues’ Category

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Competitions and Nervous Figure Skaters

March 3, 2008

I coached at a local competition here in the Midwest yesterday.  I’m helping my two adult skaters prepare for Adult Nationals in April.

Both skaters skated very well with just a few minor mistakes and both won their events.  I was very proud of them.  But it was interesting that both of them were disappointed immediately after their performances, mostly due to “nervous lapses” that they virtually never have in practice.

Being nervous about competition seems to be nearly universal in our sport.  And this nervousness and anxiety is probably the number one cause of poor or sub-par performances by our skaters.

I would say the odds strongly favor skaters that minimize their nervous response during competition.  A small minority of skaters really love the experience of competing and step up their performance accordingly.  These are those rare “super performers” we love to coach.  But the vast majority of skaters have undesirable responses, as most coaches struggle to keep their skaters calm and collected.

All this brings up an important observation that almost nobody seems to address in the world of figure skating.  The observation is this:  Nervousness, anxiety, and worry are all basically fear-based emotions. 

What exactly are our skaters afraid of?

If we could address exactly what they’re afraid of, doesn’t it follow that they won’t be nervous?  And they’ll start having better and better performances?

It appears most coaches and sports psychologists believe that this nervousness and anxiety is normal.  Most sports psychologists tend to focus on tools and techniques to help the skater manage the nervousness, rather than address the underlying reasons behind it.  And most figure skating coaches are completely inequiped to deal with it, considering almost no coaches have formal training in this area.

Regardless, most coaches handle it the best they can based on their own experiences.  Obviously some coaches are better at managing their skaters’ emotions than others.  Many coaches recommend lots of competitions to nervous skaters to get them to naturally conquer their fear.

But what exactly are skaters nervous about?  Are they worried about embarrassing themselves?  Or embarrassing their parents, families, coaches or friends?

Embarrassment is a form of shame or a painful feeling arising from something perceived as dishonorable.  When stated in those terms, it’s hard to believe skaters think of their sub-par performances as “dishonorable.”  But it’s almost certainly the fear of embarrassment that causes them to be nervous.

From my own experience, very few skaters actually feel intense emotional pain after a poor performance.  Sure, they feel disappointment but they quickly realize they made a good effort (most of the time) and nobody’s opinion of them or those they care about was permanently damaged.

Instead they worry and fret ahead of time about the emotional pain they will suffer or will inflict on  someone they love or respect.  But even after their worst performances they don’t feel that much discomfort.  The worry about the feeling is much worse than the feeling!

If we’re truly interested in helping our skaters have outstanding performances and develop important life skills through skating, we really need to start addressing this.  How can we convince our skaters they have nothing to fear?  Coaches, skaters and parents, I’d love to know what you think about all this.  Please leave a comment below.

Trevor Laak

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Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules! (Figure Skating)

November 21, 2007

If you’re reading this blog post, the chances are you’re a member of the figure skating community.  As such, you probably take many things about this great sport for granted.

Whether you’re a spectator, a skater, a skater’s parent, or even a coach, I’ll bet you assume that the most critical aspect of our sport has very clear definitions and rules.  What is this critical aspect?  Jumping, of course.

It seems logical that everyone knows exactly what an axel is.  Or a toe loop or a lutz.  In fact, it seems logical that there would be legally binding definitions and rules regarding each of these elements.

But quite astonishingly, there aren’t!

How do I know?  Because I’ve been doing some surveys of coaches at SkatingCoachQuiz.comI’ve been asking the coaches there for precise definitions of “perfect” jumps. And the survey results are all over the place.

This really got me wondering:  Why do coaches disagree so universally regarding precise definitions of jumps?

I figured I could help clear up the confusion by digging out the formal, legal definitions and sharing them with the coaches.  But what I found, really surprised me.  And disappointed me.

There really are no formal rules.

Don’t believe me?

If you own an official US Figure Skating Rulebook, you can read it from cover to cover and you won’t find a formal written definition of any of the jump elements.  The best you’ll find is the amusing and childish “List Of Jumps” at the start of the Glossary.

You may say, “Well, all you need to define the jump is the entrance edge, the exit edge, the total rotations and whether there’s a toe assist or not.”  But I’ll immediately argue that that definition is really weak.  It says nothing about the critical moments just before, during and after lift-off.  It also says nothing about the critical moments just before, during, and after touch-down.

These critical moments remain blissfully undefined.

Not sure what I’m talking about?  Everyone agrees the entrace is a back inside edge because the rules say so.  But from there on, nobody seems to agree on anything…most likely because there are no rules!

  • There are no rules to state whether it must be a clean edge take-off or whether the skater may push off the toe pick of the skating foot at lift-off.
  • There are no rules to state whether the skater must take-off facing backwards or whether the skater can pivot forward before lifting off.
  • And if a skater is allowed to pivot forward, either doing a very short three-turn or actually spinning on the toe pick or blade, how much pre-rotation is too much.
  • If a short three-turn is allowed, can the three turn exit edge touch the ice or only the toe pick?

Due to it’s artistic nature, figure skating is a very subjective sport.  But are you starting to understand that even the technical aspects of figure skating are totally subjective?  There are no written rules!

Still don’t believe me?

  • In a step sequence, exactly how long and how deep must the edges be for the skater to get credit for a rocker or a counter?  Don’t bother looking that up…there’s no rule for it.
  • In a sit spin, the bottom of the seat must be below the top of the knee, but how exactly is the bottom of the seat defined?  Last time I checked (on video today, by the way) the seat is curved, making my estimate of “bottom of seat” totally different than someone else’s.  Again, there’s no rule for it.

The added complication of the new International Judging System was justified by claiming that it would be more fair.  But can you see how the lack of precise definitions means that even the technical aspects of skating are totally subjective.  We are now using frame-by-frame video analysis to judge our competitions.  Every aspect of take-off and landing can be reviewed.  But with no formal definitions, the results of those reviews will depend on the subjective opinion of the technical team.

It’s probably pretty clear from the tone of this post that I think this is completely unacceptable.  When I have some time, maybe I’ll submit some formal definitions to US Figure Skating and to the ISU.

My goal is to help coaches teach better.  But that’s close to impossible without formal definitions and rules for the elements we teach.  Today good technique and biomechanics for one coach are totally unacceptable to another.

If we can formalize the rules, we can also formalize the technique.  Of course, many coaches don’t want that.  Some don’t want to learn new technique.  And some successful coaches don’t want the technique they teach to be standardized…because their skaters will immediately have a lot more competition.

Whether you’re a coach, a skater, a parent, or a spectator, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please leave a comment by clicking the No Comment/Comments link below.

Trevor

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Figure Skating Coaches Need Discipline

November 2, 2007

I wanted to make a comment about how much discipline and patience we need as skating coaches.

Today I worked with a low-level skater on a her scratch spin.  I work with this skater in private lessons on a fairly regular basis.  This skater is currently in a basic skills program and is learning a scratch spin in her class.  But I’ve been very unhappy with the technique she’s been learning in class.

Unfortunately, she’d been having some success with the poor technique, spinning about 3 fairly centered rotations.  What I disliked about her technique was she was taught to simply twist into the spin, while I wanted her to glide on a long entrance edge to allow longer, faster spins.

This put me in an awkward position.  I had to convince her to try it my way without openly criticizing her basic skills instruction.  Not surprisingly, when she initially tried it my way the results were terrible because she could not control the entrance edge.  It took multiple lessons over several weeks of patiently and gently demanding the technique I wanted before she started to “get it.”

And today was the breakthrough!  Today she could finally control the edge as it got deeper and deeper until the edge naturally turned into a spin.  Her spins today were nearly centered and she was now getting 6 full revolutions.

With today’s success, I could see that she finally “bought into” the technique I was teaching her.  Up until today, she was merely humoring me.  She was willing to try what I asked, even though it wasn’t working, because I remained utterly unshakable in my requests.  This is the discipline I’m talking about.  We need the discipline to ask a skater to do the proper technique every single time.

Too often I see coaches throw away a valuable 15 minute lesson of technically improving drills by giving in to the skater’s desire to try the element when they’re still not ready.  Often coaches are giving in to their own curiosity or lack of patience.

I once took away a skater’s axel for 3 months.  At the time, she couldn’t get her free leg in front before jumping.  We used the three months working on exercises to slowly and persistently change her technique.  By the end of the three months, her new technique was totally ingrained in muscle memory.  Her technique was fixed from the very first axel she tried after the 3 months.  And it was permanently fixed!

As coaches, it’s our job to be patient and make sure the technique is good.  Skaters rarely have any patience.  And their parents are usually even worse.  As coaches, we’re the only voice of reason in the process.  The problem is, as coaches we’re likely to give in to our own curiosity, the skater’s pleading, and the parent’s pressure.

Stay strong!

Trevor