The Practice Guarantee

June 10, 2008

Practice makes perfect. But nobody’s perfect. So why practice?

I read this inscription on a plaque in an engraving store at the local mall when I was a teenager. I laughed out loud both because it was delightfully ludicrous and because it was a strangely defeatist notion to have on a “plaque,” of all things…perhaps it made sense for a mug or even a bumper sticker, but on something usually given as an award then proudly displayed on a shelf? Funny.

At the time, my entire life was dedicated to practice. I was training approximately five hours per day five days per week including on and off-ice work. When I wasn’t at the rink, I was studying, re-reading chapters in my Chemistry textbook two and sometimes even three times then spending the weekend poring over Transcendentalist essays too dense for me to understand at first glance.  

I wasn’t especially gifted as a skater: I was tall and not terribly aggressive. And I was definitely not a gifted Chemistry student, but by the time I was about 14 or 15 I’d figured out, with the help of my parents, my coaches, and mostly my older brother, that “moving forward”, “doing well,” and “achieving success” was dependent on how hard I worked.

I think that because this mentality has now become so ingrained in me I sometimes forget that I had to learn both the value of practice and how to go about it. I think some people (my brother, for instance) are born with “drive” and others, like me, grow into it. I come across these two kinds of skaters all the time at the rink, and probably more in the latter category than the former.

Of course, no one is perfect, and contrary to the above inscription, practice does not make perfect… but it does make you better. Every skater is starting in a certain place: she may be loaded with physical talent or she may not. But the goal is to move forward from that starting point and this requires a certain amount of repetition.

I have not done a scientific analysis of exactly how much repetition this should be. And of course it is going to vary in every situation based on age, specific skating goals, the rink schedule, and the outside commitments of both skater and family, but I can very generally and confidently say this: those who practice consistently at least to some extent in between lessons tend to improve more rapidly.  

It is essential for skaters to think through the technical concepts their coaches have provided for them, to solidify these concepts both in their minds and in their muscles. Furthermore, it is ideal for skaters to learn how to problem solve, or at the very least, to identify what problems they’re having with a certain element.

From a coach’s perspective, it is frustrating to repeat the exact same concepts week after week. Granted, certain concepts are truly physically (or sometimes mentally) difficult to apply, but many figure skating concepts are really very simple.

Say, for example, I want a skater to get her left arm up while doing forward crossovers counter-clockwise, instead of letting her left arm droop down behind her. This is not physically or mentally demanding.  It is a matter of: 1) lifting that arm up; 2) remembering to lift it up throughout the lesson; 3) practicing lifting it up outside of the lesson so that it becomes a part of “muscle memory” and no longer something that has to be consciously thought about; and 4) coming back to the lesson either the next week or very soon and demonstrating that the arm is now consistently in place. Once this unsightly case of Droopy Arm is corrected, I can go on to the next 6 (or 60 or 600) concepts.

Skating is like math. It is cumulative. When we master one set of skills we can go on to the next. Of course there’s also the whole cardiovascular aspect of things, the necessity to “over load” the muscles in order to build strength, and the necessity to generally develop the body as an athlete. (Even in the case of Droopy Arm, some shoulder and arm muscles may need to be strengthened.)       

If the skater comes to her next lesson and the next, and the arm is still drooped down, then we need keep going over this. I’ll keep demonstrating where I want the arm to be, placing her arm where I want it, and going through the same explanations I went through the first time, in the process whipping up some more analogies, perhaps having to do with beach balls, or pancakes, or manicures. The point is that I’ll be forced to use our precious lesson time to repeat something relatively easy that the skater, with dedicated repetition, could correct on her own. This means that I am basically monitoring her practice time. What our lesson has become is a form of…babysitting.

I am not always at the same sessions or rinks as my students. And even when I am, I can’t directly monitor whether they are actually practicing or not. Sometimes I ask how their practicing is going and the answers run the gamut from sheepish excuses, to a specific run-down of the practice week. However, without asking, I can usually tell if someone has practiced since our last lesson. Perhaps what we were working on last time is now better. Perhaps the student comes to the lesson with a burning question starting with the words, “I was working on (blank) and I still don’t understand…”. Or the student comes to the lesson excitedly reporting how she finally mastered (blank)!

On the flip side, maybe the student doesn’t remember the steps to the new dance we learned last week. Or doesn’t remember having learned it at all. Hmm.

So how to impart the practice of practice?

First, I suppose it’s a matter of educating skaters and parents of its importance. Without practice, skaters cannot fulfill their potential. In his excellent article in the May/June issue of Professional Skater Magazine, Bob Mock addresses the issue of what he calls “the drive-through skater.” These skaters expect to pass through the sport with minimal effort. These skaters have not yet figured out the correlation between dedication and success. For many of these skaters and their parents, frustration is mounting. But most parents have not skated and may not have participated in a sport anything like skating, so it’s incumbent on the coach to provide the “this is how it works best” information. 

Second, skaters, coaches and parents should develop a general game plan. In other words, how often can the skater consistently get to the rink? How many other lessons does the skater have and therefore how much time is left over? This will be arrived at on an individual basis, based on age, level, and other commitments of both skater and family.

The most helpful thing a parent can do in order to encourage a skating career, is to get her child on the ice, thereby creating the opportunity for the skater to practice. Parents can also help to impress upon their skaters the value of that session time, and the necessity to not take it for granted. Not that there can’t be any chitchat whatsoever, but obviously lengthy palavers over at the barriers are a huge waste of time and money. I think it is great for skating to be a social outlet (it certainly was for me), but socializing should take place on the bench before or after sessions or at sleepovers, etc.     

Third, coach and skater can develop a more specific game plan in order to organize the practice time. This may be broken down in to a certain number of repetitions of an element (ie. 15 double axel attempts) or a certain number of minutes per discipline (i.e. 20 minutes of moves in the field patterns or stroking exercises).

Finally, this practice regimen needs to be implemented. Because the skater can not be monitored at all times by the coach, and should not be monitored at all times by the parents, the skater, no matter the age (at least from the age of 7 or 8 on) should be able to take responsibility for this herself. A notebook, a calendar, or some kind of tracking grid that the skater creates can assist with this. I’ve noticed that kids like to check off lists almost as much as I do.

Of course there are the rather large issues of enforcement, and rigidity, and motivation. These could form the substance of about 8 other blogs, but suffice it to say for now that they are a matter of a coach’s personal style. Ideally, a skater will experience the benefits of practice and the proof that this works will be in the so-called pudding. Directly pointing out how practice ended up contributing to a particular success helps to demonstrate and validate the connection.      

Note that it’s important to practice correctly, i.e. with thought and applying the technique the skater has been given. It doesn’t help to repeat things incorrectly, in fact it only re-enforces the wrong movements, so it’s important for the skaters to wear that ever-sensible accessory called The Thinking Cap. Along these same lines, (and this only refers to a small subgroup of skaters) it’s possible to practice too much, i.e. to the point of stress injury, or obsession, or flat-out discouragement. Every once in a while, practice limits need to be drawn.

I’ve noticed over the years that some skaters have enough talent or aptitude to pull themselves together at the last minute, training for a few weeks or even days before a test or competition and somehow ending up with surprisingly good results. But just imagine what could happen if she’d been training diligently all along?     

Let’s face it, there are very few guarantees in life. Coaches cannot guarantee that skaters will pass a test or win a competition. But we can guarantee one thing: if you practice and do so correctly, you will get better.

                                                            ***

I am very interested in other coaches’ and skaters’ thoughts on the subject of practice, so please share them by clicking on Comment below.

Also, I hear it’s going to be very buggy this summer. Read some suggestions on this topic by clicking on Cusp of Greatness in the right hand column.   

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9 Responses to “The Practice Guarantee”

  1. Zenskate Says:

    It really is pretty simple: just like anything in life, you get out what you put in. I have learned this many times.

  2. Paula Says:

    This is great. Though I agree with everything you have said the sad fact is that with jumps skaters do eventually reach a plateau and sometimes no matter how much practice they do they may not ever land that double axel. However, practicing does increase the chances of landing it or other jumps. I also think the importance of off ice work can not be underestimated.

  3. Heartig Says:

    To contribute two cliches…skating is a marathon, not a sprint. And of course, you get out what you put in!

  4. Martina Says:

    Babysitting-ouch, sad but true. Here are some great practice quotes…

    “Practice as if you are the worst, perform as if you are the best.”

    “When you are not practicing, remember, somewhere someone is practicing, and when you meet him/her she/he will win.”

    “An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching.”

    My personal favorite…”Practice is the best of all instructors.”

  5. Aaron Says:

    “Practice makes perfect. But nobody’s perfect. So why practice?”

    The answer: Because you can get pretty darn close to perfect…which can give you the most points and you win!

  6. Practo Says:

    Addition to Skater Quote of the Week: Six year old after receiving list of what to practice before the next lesson. “(Heavy sigh) Everything in life is practice.” From the mouths of babes…

  7. Suzee Says:

    Your comments on practice really made sense, and I can easily identify the types of skaters you mentioned.

    One thought to share about Dance practice: How can you Dance solo as well as you can with your Pro Coach or Partner? (From someone who’d never thought they could do the Dutch Waltz with such extreme edges, control, and speed)

    The answer: Try it once, try it twice, a few (lot) more times and guess what? You are dancing with similar edges and speed as the Standard. (partnered) dance. Here’s to the “P” word!

  8. Miami Says:

    I must say that without practicing, I wouldn’t have accomplished ANY of my goals. Sure, I might’ve gotten lucky here or there on tests, but without the practice and diligence behind it, passing those tests wouldn’t have meant half of what they mean when you know you’ve earned it. Especially after passing my gold dance and moves tests, it became even harder to figure out what to practice. I realize now, however, that I have more time to revert back to the basics, and improve my skating that way – having a stronger foundation to build upon. Each skater has to find what practice strategy works for him/her, and use that state of mind to motivate him/herself to move forward. If nothing motivates you, perhaps you need to rethink your long-term goals, and whether this sport is right for you or not.

    My mantra has recently become, “If you want something bad enough, it won’t matter how many obstacles you must overcome to get it.”

  9. BA Says:

    As a former competitive skater, I used to love practicing. I found great pleasure in finally mastering something I had been working on for months. So great! There’s really nothing like it.

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