The Traffic Issue

There is something about figure skating that most members of the general public don’t realize, something that skaters contend with all the time, something that television viewers only occasionally glimpse through rare footage of competition warm-ups…Traffic. 

I’m not talking about the trip to the rink (though that can be harrowing as well). I’m referring to the trip around the rink. Navigating traffic on public sessions is one kind of adventure (see archived installment about Bryant Park) but it is something else entirely on freestyle sessions, mainly because everyone is traveling in a thousand different directions. Ten, twenty, and sometimes more skaters loop, circle, and switchback again, mostly managing to avoid one another.

If you were to perch on the rafters (like the birds who sometimes manage to sneak into the rink) and watch a freestyle session from an aerial view, what you would see is chaos of a highly organized variety. The way skaters swirl around each other while practicing jumps, spins, moves, dance and programs is kind of like a moving puzzle, each piece carving out paths with varying speed and predetermination. 

It is, to a degree, a thing of beauty. But watching a freestyle session is not for the faint of heart because in fact, when you look a little closer (or brave the ice itself) you will see that the pieces don’t always move together so poetically. Paths get regularly derailed, patterns interrupted. There is frustration. There are collisions. In fact, every few moments there are near-misses that would make professional stunt men cover their eyes. The real miracle is that there aren’t more injuries from skating accidents. It’s a wonder that every backward spiral doesn’t result in a beheading and that the ambulance doesn’t regularly have to pull up to the double/triple lutz corner.

Traffic is definitely a daily issue, crowded sessions or not. As one of my colleagues recently pointed out, sometimes the so-called “empty” sessions are more treacherous than the more densely populated ones because skaters tend to let their guard down. Competition warm-ups, which can have as little as only two to only eight skaters on them, can be especially risky due to the fact that skaters are so focused on preparing for their rapidly-approaching performances.  

Every skater copes with traffic differently. Some barrel ahead as if wearing blinders: the hapless individuals in their paths must either move or get flattened. Some skaters can’t contain their aggravation, frequently displaying rink rage. Other skaters constantly stop for everyone else, in the process never fitting in any of their own elements and therefore accomplishing little. Others are well-meaning but clueless, seeming to lack depth perception, often misjudging how close they are to gliding directly into someone else’s camel spin. Some just haven’t yet gotten the hang of steering; they see the traffic but can’t physically maneuver around it. Still others manage to find that balance of being both productive and safe. 

There are written and unwritten rules. Spins usually go in the middle. Double and triple jumps usually go on one designated end, and lower level skaters go on the other. Of course, dance, moves and programs require the entire sheet of ice. Lessons and programs generally have the right of way, but these are difficult things to keep track of from one half hour to the next and one month to the next, respectively. Some rinks and clubs provide bright colored pinnies or sashes of some sort to distinguish the person who is doing the run-through to her music, a tactic that seems to have varying amounts of success.

As a coach, you have to decide whether or not you want to brave these dangerous frozen waters. If you’re standing in the middle of the rink to watch your student, you are like a sitting duck, in danger of getting hit. If you sit at the side, you can’t always see your student’s jump or pattern from the ideal angle.

If you have a particularly timid student attempting one of the Junior Moves diagonal patterns…or attempting the backwards section of the Quickstep…or a student particularly prone to aggravation…or particularly ill-equipped to find so-called “openings,”…or a dance or pair team putting up a lift that could be especially hazardous to themselves and others…or a student trying to fit in her 455th double loop attempt in the last 10 minutes…in these cases, as a coach, you sometimes have to skate along with the student in order to be her eyes. This also creates power in numbers: for example, with my extra-wide, down-feather coat, I am the equivalent of about three skaters…and this tends to part the freestyle seas.  

The real challenge for a coach, wherever you are situated, is to watch your student, while also watching out for your student. You don’t want your skater to hit anyone or get hit, so you are in a constant state of scanning on her behalf, trying to keep your eyes one step ahead of where you know she intends to go. Simultaneously, you want to be able to see what she is actually doing so that you can advise accordingly.

Often, when danger is imminent, you have to yell out some kind of warning at the top of your lungs, usually, “WATCH!” hoping that either your skater, or the other skater, or both, will hear you and take heed by either changing course or stopping immediately. I have been told, by certain factions, that I am an alarmist in this regard. (Or, really, I should say “faction,” singular, who I won’t name, except to say that I’ve known him for a while and long ago he attempted to transform me from a timid skater who never got anything in to a more aggressive skater who should, quote, “hold her line” while practicing pair and dance elements.) It has, in fact, been suggested by said faction, that I may have my own issues with depth perception. He posits that I tend to yell out “WATCH!” when in fact two skaters are, quote, “miles away from each other.”

This may or not be the case but either way, I am unapologetic. In this, and most areas of life, I adhere to the Better Safe Than Sorry Philosophy and I believe that my students are still (for the most part) in one piece because of it.

But skaters don’t always have a coach to scan the rink for them: what about those times when they are not in lesson? What about when they don’t hear their coach’s startling warning shriek? What about when they don’t have their music on and when they have no pinnie? How can this situation be improved? I think these are important questions.

Many areas of the sport are benefiting from creative innovations in biomechanics, physics and exercise science. Likewise, with the help of the U.S. Department of Transportation, I am currently developing several new ways of controlling freestyle traffic. Once our proposal is complete, which I expect to be in the near-ish future, I will of course post it here for your review.

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to… “WATCH!”


Are you curious how my real estate broker convinced me to rent my current apartment? Read excerpts from her brochure by clicking on Cusp of Greatness in the column over to the right.  





  1. Timbo · April 22, 2008

    all of this, so true. my favorite is going to a lot of effort to get out of a skater’s way and he or she doesn’t do the jump anyway. this seems to happen to me a lot. i must spook them.

  2. Henner · April 22, 2008

    Yes, after you’ve watched your student circle around “455 times” to attempt a jump, you do need to take matters into your own hands.

  3. Mrs Redboots · April 22, 2008

    Yes, sometimes even getting to the starting-point of one’s free dance feels like trying to cross the M25 in the rush hour (actually, that’s a bad analogy, as the M25 is stationary in the rush hour, but you know what I mean!). You definitely need the Green Cross Code….

  4. spicedaddy · April 22, 2008

    Great topic!

    The funniest thing I ever heard anyone say about traffic was at a rink that is notorious for its large population of clueless, belligerent and depth-perception challenged skaters. After being repeatedly mown over by the clueless, belligerent and poor depth-perception skaters, a woman turned to me and said “Did I miss the memo? Is today “everybody’s invisible except for me” day at the rink?”. I had a good laugh at that one!

    Excluding the clueless, the belligerent, and depth-perception challenged, I have my own theory as to how skaters who are otherwise fairly normal and reasonable in their safety/traffic operating assumptions can still have many, many traffic run-ins. I believe each skater has an awareness radius around them. This radius is like a mental spotlight that radiates out around them about as far as they are capable of moving in, say, +/- 2 to 3 seconds. Anything beyond that radius is outside of the mental spotlight and thus in total darkness.

    The problem comes when you have skaters traveling at far different speeds on the same surface. The faster skater’s +/- 2 to 3 second radius is WAY bigger than the slower skater’s +/- 2 to 3 second radius. So, the slower skater is contained within the faster skater’s radius, and the faster skater may already be trying to navigate around them, while the slower skater’s radius does not encompass the faster skater until the faster skater is almost on top of the slower skater.

    Thus how it happens that a faster skater will be greeted by a blank, shocked stare of the slower skater when they almost collide. The slower skater, meanwhile, is left with the impression that this reckless faster skater just came “out of nowhere” and wasn’t attempting to navigate around them.

    Alteast, this is what I try to tell myself when *I* am circling for my 455th double loop attempt! (Didn’t anyone tell you, Jocelyn, that it’s the 456th attempt is always the charm? Ha!)

  5. Scooby · April 22, 2008

    How about the kid that yells “EXUSE ME” at the top of her lungs program or not. One kid at my rink did this so frequently I was tempted to ask the mother if the child suffered from severe gastrointestinal difficulties.

  6. platogrande · April 22, 2008

    spicedaddy, as a math person, I find your theory pretty cool. Thanks for pointing it out!

    The “traffic issue” reminds me of two things.

    First, I think of Jane Jacob’s notion of the “ballet of the streets”, where a busy, vibrant city is characterized by all sorts of different people engaged in commerce, recreation etc in a complicated, beautiful weave of activity. Mixed use FTW!

    Second, I think of the Hudson Greenway, and more generally MUPs around the world. Multi-Use Paths are paths where motor vehicles are forbidden, and where cyling, walking, Rollerblading (see, trying to get skating into this post!), etc all take place at once. As a regular bike commuter, I love the Hudson River Greenway MUP in the cold months. These days, with warmer weather and longer days, they become dangerous, much like a busy rink at practice time. No0bs abound, and no number of “on your left”, “heads up” etc calls will prevent bone-headed maneuvers by the clueless, the iPod Zombies(TM) and the otherwise selfish MUP users. I’ve seen cyclists collide head-on. I’ve been sideswiped (no joke), while on my bike, by a jogger (mad skillz on my part kept us both upright). Worst of all, I regularly see unsupervised toddlers, toddlers! let loose on the busiest bike path in the USA. It’s at times like that that I begin to think that the subway isn’t such a bad option.

  7. Aaron · April 22, 2008

    All of this is so very true. Loved Stars on Ice this season, they had a whole group number dedicated to this very topic!

    Loved how everyone got mad when the Ice Dancers took the practice ice!

  8. Mai · April 25, 2008

    Yes, and then there are the falls… How do you navigate around a fall that happens in a spot that was supposed to be vacant a split-second before you were supposed to be on it?

  9. sony · April 30, 2008

    there aren’t as many collisions because its all a process. skaters eventually have to brave the waters to improve their skills. ultimately these aggressive yet defensive mechanisims help when you finally get your drivers permit; recalling how i was not remotely intimidated by merging onto the highway the first time i had to drive myself to the rink!

  10. Pingback: Survival of the Fastest
  11. Ice Mom · May 2, 2008

    This is so timely, Jocelyn. Ice Girl just got smeared while she was practicing spinning. The other skater didn’t slow down to check on Ice Girl, she just scowled and kept moving. Ah, well. Ice Girl’s fine and you get all sorts in figure skating, just like in all areas of life!
    Great post.

  12. Terri · May 6, 2008

    Oh, and pity us lefty skaters too – it’s like swimming against the tide. I always thought since I only got in half the jump attempts I should only have to pay half as much for the session. Rink owners disagreed. Sigh, now that I’m an adult I ice dance instead, and that has its own frustrations. Not only am I one of “those #@$%@! ice dancers,” I’m also viewed as one of the “old ladies taking ice space away from kids.” Both categories very frowned upon on freestyle sessions, but it still beats trying to jump clockwise as I did in my youth.

  13. chrissy · June 6, 2008

    what’s worse is when skaters on the same synchro team are on a freestyle session together and decide they want to practice their program. I feel like I have to wait til their done in order to practice anything….not easy to try to jump when a whole herd of skaters are coming at you.

  14. Pingback: Traffic Solutions « Current Skate of Mind
  15. fromthedeskofstephanie · April 23, 2009

    Great post! And great replies! It makes me feel better to know others have the same issue I have.

    I swore off freestyle sessions yesterday.

    One very good teen-aged skater kept cutting me off while I was having a lesson – as she always does, and she does it to every one.

    Then she stopped me and asked if I could go do “that” on the otherside of the rink because she wanted to practice a jump in this spot. (I was practicing a jump, too.)

    There were only 3 skaters on the session at the time. An elderly lady taking a lesson at center ice, me (a slow-ish adult skater) and her.

    I told her “no.”

    Does this happen to anyone else?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s