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!”
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