Picture this: Your skater is about to compete. She has a fantastic warm-up during which she nails her jumps, and even has time to squeeze in a combination spin and the hardest part of her footwork. She is second to perform, so, off the ice, she bounces around in place and shakes out her limbs while you deliver The Pep Talk. You give an especially good one: inspiring, heartfelt, and sure to ring in her ears as she’s sailing through her elements. While the first skater is curtsying, you do what any dutiful coach should do – you pull out your Blackberry and log onto the USFS website to see if there have been any rule changes in the last 20 minutes. Sure enough, Communication #146753298776551 has just come out. You quickly read all 72 pages and discover that there’s a clarification to the spiral sequence. Now, it turns out, in order to get the spirals to count, you have to have both legs up above your head at the same time. You have no idea how this is possible, you’ve never taught a spiral like this (or seen one), and you have no idea if your skater can do it, but she’s going to have to if she wants to get any points for the sequence.
The problem is that now her name has been called and she’s already standing in place waiting for her music. You can’t verbally coach her from this point, so you dig deep, and relying on everything you’ve ever read about the powers of quantum physics, you try to send her a telepathic message. Alas, she does not receive it. Her spirals are gorgeous, exactly how you taught them to her this morning after reading Communication #146753298776550, but those clarifications are now old news, and the Protocol Sheet she gets back reflects this. All you can do is tell her parents, afterwards, that she’s going to have to get a Blackberry or some other wireless device embedded in a bracelet, so she can check updates herself while skating from the door to her opening pose.
I just got back from the PSA Nationwide Seminar in Stamford, CT, where Technical Specialist Ken Shelley gave an informative talk on the International Judging System, IJS. Coach Shirley Hughes was the keynote speaker of the day and also added helpful information. In hindsight, just because I’m nerdy this way, I wish I had counted the number of times they used the word Change. As in, “this has changed” or “that will change,” or “this is one of the biggest recent changes,” or “make sure to check and see if such and such changes.” I think the tally would have made for some decent entertainment. Instead, I was compelled to play David Bowie’s “Changes” over and over on my internal iPod.
This seminar confirms what I’ve been thinking about IJS lately, that: change is good, but too much change can result in chaos, especially when there seems to be no end in sight. I’m usually not one to raise my hand in class, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “In response to the almost comical number of changes, it seems that skaters, parents, coaches, and even the technical panelists are frustrated and confused. I’ve been telling my students that the system is still relatively new and that we need to let them work out the kinks, but it will all eventually become more standardized. Do you think this is true?” I really wanted Mr. Shelley and Ms. Hughes, the good-natured IJS messengers of the day, to confirm that I was on the right track, here. Instead, they just chuckled and answered that we’re probably going to continue to see a lot more… “changes”. They pointed out that most of these changes, such as (pretty much) doing away with the notorious backwards “crotch” spiral, are positive. I agree that it’s good to remodel your house, but who wants to do so (or be forced to do so) every month?
It could be said that the judging of figure skating didn’t progress enough for a very long time and that the sport was either not moving forward at all or moving forward only at a snail’s pace. Of course our old system was flawed, and it’s to be expected that this one is imperfect too. But one of the major flaws, it seems, is this constant state of flux. Ms. Hughes recommends that we check in with the USFS website at least once a week for more clarifications. But remember that clarifications by no means stand alone: you have to understand the previous clarifications and the ones before those, not to mention the information provided in conference calls. Heaven forbid you come to this game late – the rules have already changed several times.
Granted, lots of things stay the same: a clean landing is still a clean landing, a straight freeleg is still a straight freeleg, and speed across the ice is still speed across the ice. I understand that most of these communications really are clarifications, not full-blown changes, and they’ve come about organically in response to new questions that have arisen on the technical panel at competitions since the big judging pow-wow in Frankfurt in July. And I understand that these clarifications are meant to help, but the incessant barrage is potentially discouraging.
I coach mainly Moves and Dance and, during the competitive season, I help out with the step sequences (a.k.a. footwork) of freestyle competitors. This season, the kids seem especially flummoxed. “Well,” they say to me, with resignation, “I’ll show you how it is now, but it’s probably going to change.” It bothers me to hear this from a skater in September because one of the greatest lessons I learned as a competitor was the importance of repetition. We did everything in our power to have our programs choreographed by the beginning of the summer so that, for the next 4-6 months we could train the exact steps, repeat them over and over again in order to achieve some semblance of perfection.
The step sequences have turned out to be a hotbed of controversy and a place where almost no one is getting the levels they’re aiming for. Maybe if skaters had more time to practice sequences with a static set of requirements, this wouldn’t be the case? Maybe the ISU could establish a deadline for themselves each season after which no more changes (or changes cloaked as clarifications) can be made?
I have other comments to make about the IJS, but I want to consult with my Astrologer, my Physicist, my Mathematician, and my Lawyer, first. Not to mention that I have to get another ream of paper and a new ink cartridge so I can print out the latest round of communications.
Check back next Tuesday when I’ll poke fun at something else.