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.

Monday, October 24, 2016

- beginning choreo

We never actually retained a choreographer when my daughter was skating: she already had enough to learn, plus her coach seemed to have the instinct for promoting rink coverage and expressiveness. As I've watched tons of other skaters over the years however I've noticed that most of them seem to be stuck in unglamorous rink-coach mode. Although their programs do their best to match their music they seem to lack imagination. Targeted toward squeezing in the required elements, they fall short of making an artistic musically coordinated statement.

You know, you can retain a choreographer.  Since I had no clue how you go about such a thing I contacted Kate McSwain ( from Boston to find out more. Hopefully in the next couple of posts I can summarize her information well enough to fill us both in.

Early learn-to-skate programs focus on form and balance. Edges, arms up, stroking, posture. Many six year old skaters hit the ice for a show looking like tiny robots.  Once your kid gets her balance and stops falling every time she runs through her program, it's likely time to loosen her up a bit. You can start this as early as FS1, when a skater is seven years old or so.

Check with your kid first and then chat up her coach. Does your coach know a choreographer? Sometimes this is a delicate conversation and you may have to be more firm: some coaches may dissuade you from bringing in someone who they may view as an impediment to their own influence. Push harder. Or casually check with another coach at the rink, or chat up other skate parents.  Choreographers generally don't market themselves directly to skaters -- they all work through coaches. Your role as a parent is to get everyone onboard.

The good news is choreographers charge pretty much the same hourly rate as regular coaches. If your rink doesn't already have a resident choreographer then you can expect to reserve time with a visiting one -- many of them travel around. Kate said she plans on spending an hour of time with a skater for each minute of her program. For your typical skater (say with two programs running) getting your programs designed comes out to approximately 6-8 hours of choreo per season, so certainly affordable. After you've got your programs all layed out figure you'll want an additional 6-8 hours of advice over the course of the season for stylization and polishing your routines to perfection.

Monday, October 17, 2016

- the whole spectrum

Now, enter the parents. Naturally some of the parents are more competitively inclined; others have more aesthetic sights. Crossing the expectations of the parents with the body-types of the skaters blossoms the whole interesting range of the skating spectrum.

The competitive parents with the slender daughters end up with hyperactive kids, coerced into ridiculously sublime attempts at ever more complicated jumps. The parents hold their breaths and clap when the kids land their jump; the kids push themselves so much that they exclude all room for art.

The slender kids with the aesthetic parents have an interesting dilemma: they are driven by their peers in one direction but by their parents in another. They show an inherent tension in their skating -- not a bad tension, but a tendency to take a quick jump to impress their coach while their parents covers their eyes and berate them afterwards.

The large-boned kids with the aesthetic parents are in stage-performance heaven. Their parents love them and they garner grace, elegance and admiration from the audience. But they don't move very far up the competitive skating ladder and hence remain trapped with small audiences.

Ah, but amazingly enough the middle ground of skaters (who are average, in almost all respects) are the skaters that gradually move up through the ranks. They grind away at the competitions... a first place here, a second place there, surviving on that rare combination of artistic grace with just enough athletic talent to make some of the moves.

This is my daughter. It is a challenging place to be, because you are often spurned by the slender gals since you have more grace than them, and you can't compete with their jumps anyway. And you are shunned out of jealousy by the large-boned gals. The middle ground makes you lonely, but if you have the self-discipline it also is the road to ever larger audiences.

There is a sort of bittersweet resignation in all but the top competitors. Most of this simply comes from their acceptance of their physical body size and shape that has the affect of limiting their skating physics. And after all, they put up with us parents.


Friday, September 23, 2016

- voyeur

When your kid no longer skates and you visit a local competition, you always feel like a voyeur, enjoying the guilty pleasure of watching something that should remain private. Well they do let outside folks in, and it's usually only around five dollars for the whole day. It's not like they specifically discourage visitors, and it's hard to beat the entertainment value. Still whenever I run into my daughter's former coach at another competition her first remarks to me are always "What are you doing here?" My standard response has always been to shrug and reply "Just hanging out."

I still like to visit local competitions to provide emotional support for the up and coming skaters. I rather expect them to pick up on my brainwaves while they are out there, and my specific observations (laden with all that prior viewing experience) must impart some sort of higher standards upon them. With the younger skaters nearly half the time I'm thinking "get yourself to the gym" or "more sit-ups" or "stroking class." Juniors and above already know their athletics, so at that point it's all mental comments about style, musical expressiveness, or jump dynamics.

Despite my honorable intentions though it's still a challenge walking into an environment where I might not belong. The reason I feel a constant obtuse and nearly pathological undercurrent of voyeurism is because I get to witness skilled people working under difficult conditions of exceedingly high duress (both the skaters and their parents). It's almost perversely unfair that I can do this totally relaxed while not being a participant, for just five bucks.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

- injury

Falling on the ice is such a common part of practice that after a few years you don't much think of it any longer. You still occasionally slip yet you have your "muscle memory" of how to tumble without getting too badly hurt, outside of the usual bruises.

Muscle memory is an interesting phenomenon, and there wouldn't be figure skating without it (or most any other sport for that matter). It would be impossible to coordinate the hundreds of millisecond muscle adjustments required for a move if you had to think about them consciously. But muscle memory can be a two edged sword.

Every so often you'll end up at the wrong end of a spill without a way to brace yourself against injury. Or you *won't* fall when you should have, and as a result you'll put too much stress on a body part that wasn't expecting it. A broken bone is a rare occurrence, but sprained muscles and torn ligaments are unfortunately all too common. I don't know any junior level skater who hasn't suffered through such an injury at least once.

So say you're injured. Sigh. What do you do? A sports injury clinic and rehab, crutches for a while, dear sympathy from your fellow skaters. This is just the least irksome part.

During that epoch while you're not skating your body slowly changes. You mature some, you put on weight in various places, and your muscle strength compensates for your injury through your daily activities. By the time you fully heal and are ready to retake the ice you are physically a different person.

And this is truly the demonic aspect of an injury, the bitter vengeance of muscle memory. As you return to the ice picking up where you left off, your automatic memory no longer matches and is inappropriate to your presently healed body. Sadly nothing is more frustrating: after all that careful rehab you have not only lost a year's worth of skill but also the path for moving forward.

Unlike most other sports, anything more serious than a moderate injury during the formative growth-years of a skater's career nearly always ends it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

- at the top

Even at the highest levels much of the psychics and recourse to practice strategy remain the same. After all there are only a certain set of attitudes, spells, prayers, and thoughts that a person can entertain.

Of course at this level the skaters see each other all of the time. They also have a peculiarly warped sense of worldview, not so much from the daily practice routine (that is gruelingly ascetic) but rather from a hotel-and-tourist approach to the world... living half their life from rolling luggage and eating in restaurants with their moms, coaches, or skate friends.

To some extent this familiarity and shared worldview tends to swing the top-level skaters toward being a bit more courteous.

Fairly remarkably even at the top you see the same wide range of body types, although the variety spans a somewhat narrower band. Also rather oddly you can still fall short of reaching a more ebullient level of grace: the same top artisanal qualities exist at the local rinks as at the worlds (although of course few of the local skaters are landing triple axels).