Review: Champion Cords


I’m finding that there are millions of different ways to explain skating techniques and millions of ways to try and verbally convince skaters to change their positions and habits. For example, I think I’ve come up with at least 45,000 ways of describing appropriate skating posture, involving eagles, giraffes, trees, prairie dogs, toboggans, starfish, pita bread (bad) versus a slice of bread (good), walls, arrows, guards at Buckingham Palace, and the list goes on…

I’ve even managed to plug good old Starbucks in the posture discussion. I’ll say something to my student like: “Don’t you stand straight and look up in order to place your order of… <Depending on the season, I insert hot chocolate or frappaccino, here, both of which are more advisable and kid-friendly than the Double Tall 74-Shot latte I’m currently drinking>?” I continue: “Don’t you look up at the sign while you’re walking toward the barista? If you can walk without looking at the floor, then you can skate without looking at the ice. That’s all we’re asking for, here.”

Still, despite all the various tricks I pull out of my (wool) hat, I can’t always get my messages across. Sometimes, I’m downright stumped. I’ll scratch my head and wonder how on earth I can get such and such skater to straighten her free leg. I mean, she knows what “straight” is, she knows what I mean by “locked”…she even knows she should be emulating spaghetti noodles before they go into the pot rather than afterwards. And, she can straighten her leg while standing at the boards. Then, out on the ice: Bent! Loose! Limp as a cooked noodle!

Well, I asked the universe for a solution and it recently came to me: Champion Cords invented by coach Sheila Thelan. These are basically bungee type cords that attach skaters’ hands to their feet. These cords create tension and resistance that help the skaters to be more aware of their limbs and torso. Thelan, of Minnesota, got the idea in 2003 while teaching a student who was struggling with her axel. She wanted to tie the skater’s left hand and left foot together so that she would move as a unit. She found some bungee cord in the rink and did just that. The results were immediate.  

dec-4-08-003The cords are easily attached to the laces with a hook, then looped around the bottom of the skate and hooked again to keep it secure. Champion Cords offers a few different types of hooks, including the Triple Hook and the S-Hook. I have tried both and have found the S hook to be a little easier to work with, once your hands are cold. On the other end of the cord, there is a loop that just fits around the wrist like a bracelet. 

Before trying them out on my students, I took them for a test run, myself. It was a strange sensation for the first few strokes, to be connected to these strings. Though there was no Gepetto in the rafters, I felt like a marionette. After stroking around for a while and doing a few basic exercises, I started to notice a few things. For one, my arms were getting quite tired: it was taking a surprising amount of strength to hold them up. (Oh the gym, the gym, that dreaded and oft-avoided destination.) I could imagine that this challenge would also benefit my students. Second, I noted that I was stretching my limbs and my neck a bit longer than usual. Aha! I felt like the “starfish on skates” I’m always blabbering about. Finally, I experienced a heightened awareness of how I was positioning my body and, as a result, an overall sense of deliberateness. It was a very cool feeling.

I was even inspired to try a spiral, something I haven’t dared to attempt in public for several years. I’m not going to say that the cords helped me get my leg to Sasha or Nancy elevation, or anything, but the tension created a sense of security and a bit more balance. I think I looked pretty decent, for such a long hiatus. (The plexiglass wouldn’t lie, would it? )

marionette8413211In fact, these are all the things I noticed in my students when I proceeded to rig them up with cords for stroking, for pulls, for spirals, etc. Suddenly, shoulders were back, arms were straight, and legs were lifted higher. At first, they giggled and skated a bit hesitantly, just like I did. And, by the way, almost every single one of them commented (unprompted by me, I swear) that they felt like a marionette or a puppet. I could see that they were experiencing that increased awareness in their limbs and shoulders. Then, when I took the cords off, this awareness seemed to stick. I’m not saying the lesson is miraculously long-lasting, or anything, but we’re aiming for muscle-memory, here, and these cords are an extremely helpful tool. They’re like flashcards in the game of memorization. 

Since I teach mostly moves and dance, this is what I have used them for, so far. But each set of cords purchased on the Champion Cords website comes with an instructional DVD featuring skaters wearing the cords (either on just one side of the body or both) for jumps and spins. I can imagine that the tension of these cords would help to create similar awareness and alignment for these as well. The DVD also demonstrates an alternative way to use the cords to assist with posture: looping the cords around both wrists so that it’s behind the shoulder blades. This helps skaters feel that line and horizontal stretch.

Anyway, I’ll keep using this new contraption. I’m interested to see what results I can get from here (though I’ll probably also keep racking my brain for new analogies.) The kids have enjoyed using them, so it’s a nice breath of fresh air in my teaching regimen. 

I recommend these for you or your skaters. They are endorsed by the PSA and lots of coaches: Frank Carroll, Audrey Weisiger and Paul Wylie have used and applauded them. ‘Tis the season of gift giving and I for one am swinging toward the more practical rather than the frivolous end of the spectrum. These are a great pick. Click here to learn more and to purchase.


What about you? Have you tried Champion Cords? Are you an actual marionette by trade, birth, or profession? If so, remember that imitation is the best form of flattery. Finally, if you are the one person in the world who looks down at his feet when ordering at Starbucks, and you’re planning to poke a hole in that brilliant posture analogy of mine, please don’t click on Comment below. All others: you are very welcome to do so.


Book Review: Mind Gym


I am admittedly resistant to the “self-help” genre. Maybe this is because I just like to read stories, or because I value creative writing more than actual information. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing. And I’m not suggesting that I’m not in need of some help, and new perspectives now and then. It’s just that a lot of these books are so cliché and so cheesy. I find myself saying, “no kidding” a lot and rolling my eyeballs so much that I’m in danger of a sprain.

This said, I kept hearing about a book called Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens. About the third or fourth time it hit my radar, I was compelled to check it out. The basic premise is that athletes have to train their minds as much as they train their bodies. In other words, they have to build their mental muscle. Along these lines, Ty Cobb is quoted as saying, “The most important part of a player’s body is above his shoulders.” Likewise, golfer Bobby Jones has said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course: the space between your ears.”

Mack, a sports psychologist, uses quotes and anecdotal examples from famous athletes of the past and the present, including several skaters such as Sarah Hughes, Scott Hamilton, and Peggy Fleming. It deals with a lot of concepts that many of us are already aware of but could always use a refresher on, like: think positive, remain confident, and stay focused. Maybe it’s not even valid to call it a self-help book. I suppose it’s more like sports psychology watered down a bit, and snazzied up with anecdotes. The result is very readable.

I liked it. I found it helpful. Granted, it took me a long time to read (about five months!) but I think that’s okay and maybe ideal: it’s one of those books best digested slowly. It’s nice to keep coming back to it. I have an excellent book about writing called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg that I’ve been reading over the course of at least 15 years. I suspect that when I finally finish it, I’ll probably start over again. It’s kind of like a steady, long-term companion. I can see myself taking Mind Gym off the shelf periodically in the future, if not to fully re-read then to review some of the sections I underscored as especially applicable to skating or just to life in general.  

As a coach, I asked myself while reading: How can I use this to help my students? What tips can I pick up to motivate, to inspire, to help allay their anxieties and fears? Like I said, some of this information was valuable reinforcement of things I have picked up elsewhere. For example, Mack discusses the importance of focusing on the things you can control instead of the things you can’t. I started thinking about this simultaneously obvious and brilliant notion years ago after reading Caroline Silby’s wonderful book, Games Girls Play. (I highly recommend you read this, if you haven’t already – she is also a psychologist and a former figure skating competitor.)  I have been trying to utilize and impart this mentality ever since, but it’s great to be reminded of it.

Similarly, Mack extols the power of positive thinking and demonstrates that even the words you use – either out loud or just in your head – impact this. For example, “I’m not going to fall on this, anymore” versus “I am going to land this.” It’s better to avoid the negative formulation altogether: just by planting that image of falling in your (or your student’s) head, you could increase the chances of it happening and vice versa. At this year’s PSA conference in Chicago, Frankie Perez did an excellent sports psychology presentation on this same topic. I have tried to keep tabs on my own phraseology during lessons since then – i.e. instead of “don’t bend your freeleg”… “straighten your freeleg” and I appreciate this as a more direct and clear way of delivering the message. And, even on a more everyday note, instead of “don’t forget your keys” how about, “remember to take your keys.”   

Mack also delves extensively into the use of mantras and mental visualization in order to get in The Zone for game-time. While I was reading this, I had a student who was struggling with a moves test. A painful knee injury and a serious case of asthma meant that she could really only skate sometimes 20 or 25 minutes per day a few times a week. It was hard for her to develop confidence for the test without much repetition of the moves and without much cardiovascular training. Motivated by Mind Gym, I asked her to do a mental run-through of her moves every night for a week leading up to the test. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she ended up having one of her best performances ever, despite all the obstacles. She hurdled them and I’m happy that she now has the gold testing medal she deserves.

I have found that one of the more challenging aspects of coaching is helping students control their nerves on the day of the performance. On this topic, Mack provides one of my favorite anecdotes of the book, and one that I think is very relevant to skaters. He describes working with groups of new firefighters. He writes: “I often give a classroom demonstration. It is a test you can take yourself. If I asked you to stand on the seat of a chair or on a tabletop, would you have a problem doing that? Probably not. But what if that chair or table were twenty stories in the air, and I asked you to perform the same task? What thoughts would you have? How would you feel? Could you do it? The task is the same. So what is the difference? For many, it’s a four-letter word: Fear.”

I have been gradually sharing this excellent image with some of my older students. After all, what is the difference between doing your run-through during practice and during the performance? Only the judges. It is otherwise the same. In fact, it is arguably better, since there aren’t any other skaters on the ice. 

In addition to reading Mind Gym from the perspective of a coach, I couldn’t help also reading it with the eyes of a former athlete. Wow, I kept thinking, what if I had read this or something like it, back then? I was not exactly overflowing with confidence as a skater. One of my own more memorable mantras before competitions was: “I just hope we don’t get last.” I was kind of joking and kind of serious. Mainly, I suppose this was a protective technique: if we happened to get, say, second to last, I managed to feel, if not thrilled, then at least relieved.

But what if? What if I had aimed for the so-called stars instead of planting such a negative image in my head? If I had believed that I could have climbed the podium, would I have increased my chances of being there more often? I suspect that’s possible, but there’s no use in wallowing in regret. I do think it’s useful to analyze these kinds of things so you can extract a lesson. As Joe Biden aptly put in that crazy Vice Presidential debate not so long ago: Past is prologue. What worked? What didn’t? How can you change your own methodologies or thought patterns to reach your own goals and to help others?

My brother and I were incredibly fortunate to be coached by Robbie Kaine. He was a positive force, indeed, and imparted an idea that Mack also touches upon: while you always want to try your best, the process is superior to the outcome. As Charles Barkley is quoted in these pages, “I know that I am never as good or as bad as any single performance.” I think I was slow to understand this, and, in fact, probably didn’t fully process it until after I was finished competing; it’s as if it had to percolate for a while or I needed distance and the resulting perspective in order to see it. Better late than never: now, as a coach, I try to pass this mentality onto to my own students. I can only hope they are more clear-sighted than I was.

Mack touches on so many other valuable concepts like, setting goals, trying to think yet not over-think, and to train in a way that allows you to run on autopilot once you arrive at the game or the performance. He addresses sportsmanship and the importance of loving what you do. I certainly get the impression, from these pages, that Mack is enthusiastic about his own field.

Finally, he encourages athletes to look in the mirror, to really see themselves as others do. I think this is one of the most powerful parts of Mind Gym. It’s not that we should value what other people think over what we think, but it’s good for all of us to realize that we are using our minds and our bodies in a larger context. As athletes, we can get very caught up in the minutia of technique, ranking, and the next competition. This is probably especially true in an individual sport like skating. But what effect might we have on other people as examples or as mentors? It’s great that he helps to broaden this perspective. 

On this note, I’ll leave you with what I think is one of the best sections of Mind Gym. It’s toward the end, and if I take nothing else from this book (or impart nothing else in this blog), this quote makes it worth reading:

“Everyone eventually leaves the game. Imagine for a moment you’re attending a testimonial dinner in honor of your retirement from competition. Maybe you’re retiring after high school or college or at the end of a professional career. Maybe you’re a weekend warrior. Your friends are at the banquet and so are all your coaches, former teammates and those you competed against. Each one stands up and says a few words about your character and how you played the game. What would they say? What would you want them to say?”

Think about this for a moment. Whether you are a skater, a lawyer, a beekeeper, a banjo player…or a writer: what would you want them to say?


Have you read this book? Any other books that have been of help? Click on “comment” below.

For those of you who are interested, I have another book on deck that’s supposed to be great for skaters called, Skating out of Your Mind. Yes, I’ll reviewing this at some point in the near-ish future.

Thanks for reading.   

Update: New Moves in the Field

My, what a nice loop she just completed, and in turquoise skates.

My, what a nice loop...and in turquoise skates.

Is it strange that I love the Moves in the Field as much as I do? Okay, don’t answer that.

I know that Moves are basically the piano scales of skating. I know that many skaters and some fellow coaches find these required, fundamental exercises boring beyond words. Yet for some reason, I enjoy teaching them, maybe because I like the challenge of trying to make them fun. I like showing my skaters how the Moves skills relate to other areas of their skating, such as their step sequences and transitions in the Freestyle, Synchro, and Dance programs. And it’s very gratifying to see them climb the Moves testing ladder.  

Last year, we started to hear that United States Figure Skating was going to restructure the Moves. I think this news was received by most coaches with a mix of excitement (something new to teach!) and trepidation (uh oh, something new to teach…). I certainly felt both of these things, especially in light of all the new concepts we’ve had to digest due to IJS. Skaters and parents of skaters frantically wondered if they should try to test all the way from Pre-Juvenile level all the way through Senior within the next year in order to avoid the changes.

In fact, the new Moves were proposed at the 2008 Annual Governing Council Meeting last May. However, they did not pass. At the PSA Conference later that month, many coaches got a look at the proposed (yet unapproved) changes during presentations by coaches Damon Allen and Janet Champion, both of Colorado Springs.

Curious about the current status of these changes, I contacted Wayne Hundley, who is the chairperson for the new Moves Task Force. He is a Technical Specialist, a Controller, a National Judge and former competitor located in Riverside, California. The task force includes about 22 people, including USFS Committee chairs, USFS Board Members and PSA Representatives. Hundley was kind enough to update me with a lot of specific information and he encouraged me to pass it along here.

Turns out that since May, they have basically started over from scratch. They are taking into consideration lots of feedback they have received from members-at-large and have been working to address some of the most common concerns.

Among these concerns, is the length of the tests and the amount of ice time clubs need to purchase in order to host these test sessions. In response, Hundley’s committee is now proposing that approximately eight of the current Moves are simply condensed so that they take less time. For example, in the Preliminary Moves, instead of doing two figure eights of Forward and Backward Crossovers around the hockey circles, the skaters would do only one figure eight forward, then flow directly into a backwards figure eight without stopping. Another example of this is on the Juvenile Eight Step Mohawk Sequence: instead of stopping between directions, they are proposing that this is set up as a figure eight and one circle simply flows into the next, similar to how the Juvenile Backward Power Three Turns currently work.

In this new plan, some moves have been taken away all together, such as the Intermediate Back Perimeter Power Crossovers with Backward Power Three Turns, the Novice Bracket-Three-Brackets and the Junior Forward and Backward Power Circles. This is meant to make time for the addition of some entirely new moves, which feature Loops, Twizzles, and some Circle Eights reminiscent of School Figures. They believe that these will be helpful to competitive skaters using IJS for Freeskating, Pair, Dance and Synchro and that they will also impart important skills for skaters on the test track.

Along these same lines, there are also some revisions to the Novice and Senior Spiral Sequences to incorporate more kinds of spirals. Specifically, the Novice test would include all eight spirals (i.e. now there would be Forward Outside Spirals and Back Inside Spirals on both feet in that sequence). And the Senior test would change slightly at the end of the pattern to include a Forward Outside Spiral. At both of these levels, the skater would be required to hold each Spiral for a designated number of seconds, in some cases three seconds and in some cases six.

In all, there are approximately 16 changes, and this number includes those eight Moves that aren’t really changed, just condensed. From what I can tell thus far from Hundley’s extremely clear and organized proposal, the changes are not very drastic. And they make sense. I like the idea of incorporating twizzles, loops, and some old-school figure eights into the Moves and getting rid of a lot of the restarts.

I think what would take the most effort to learn would probably be the proposed Junior Straight Line Step and the new Senior Circular Step Sequence. This latter pattern does use some of the current version, but with the addition of a few new turns, like Twizzles and Counters. Hundley underscored the fact that the Senior test is the culmination of the whole process, so it’s important that this test incorporates as many of the Moves skills as possible. Truthfully, it doesn’t even seem like these two Moves are very complicated, nothing to get anxious about.

Hundley said, “Skating is constantly evolving and we want the Moves to reflect that progress.” He emphasized that the Moves are meant to improve basic skating skills, such as better turn quality et cetera, for all skaters, not just competitors.    

Hundley assured me that none of this is a secret. They already have the diagrams finished and coach Gerry Lane is helping to get the video clips ready. They hope to have lots of the information for these newest proposals posted on the USFS website as early as mid-November. They will be presenting these New Moves yet again at the 2009 Governing Council Meeting next May, so they are hoping to have lots of input on the proposal before then. The Professional Skaters Association would, as always, put together the manual, which outlines the focus of each Move and the common errors.

If this newest version passes in May, these Moves will go into effect September 2009.

Thanks so much to Wayne Hundley for so generously sharing all of this info and providing lots of much-needed clarity. It will be interesting to see if this all goes through and fun to play with some new (and slightly tweaked) tricks.


So what do you think of all this? Please leave a comment below.

If you subscribe to Professional Skater Magazine, check out page 8 for a humorous essay I wrote about the PSA Ratings process…

And, this weekend I went to Oktoberfest in Central Park. To read The Informer report, click here.

The Practice Guarantee

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.   

PSA Conference: Power in Numbers

Sunset from 95th Floor of John Hancock Building in Chicago

Sunset from 95th Floor of John Hancock Building in Chicago this past Saturday. 

Skating seems to be getting more quantitative. Ever since IJS landed in our laps, I’ve been wishing I had a Degree in Higher Math. Alas, I am more of a “word” person. Not that I have anything against numbers. In fact, I’ve always respected them quite a bit…from a distance.

Lately, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of nice things about numbers. How you can count with them, for instance. How, when you use them in order to back up what you’re trying to say, your statements can sound a lot more like objective facts. How you can maybe understand competition placements after analyzing columns of numbers on a Protocol sheet, and maybe even, with the help of numbers, control those placements more proactively in advance.  

You always hear that there is “power in numbers.” This was hit home to me in several different ways last week at the Professional Skaters Association Conference in Chicago. First of all, there were a lot of coaches in attendance: approximately 800, maybe a little more or a little less, one of the largest Conference turnouts ever.  We filled a large ballroom and according to more than one speaker up on stage, we, as a collective group, were rather intimidating.

Indeed, from where I sat, the sea of skating coaches around me was an impressive visual. I hate to sound new-age-y but it was a powerful feeling to be surrounded by that many coaches in one room. I imagined that I was somehow buoyed up by all those people with similar perspectives, experiences, schedules, frustrations, and successes…not to mention similar addictions to both coffee and fleece.

But what I’m really getting at here is the weird thing that happened this week: I started to see the world of skating and the world in general as a collection of numbers. I’m not claiming that I suddenly transformed into a Mathematician or that I became Rain Man, I’m saying that I was overcome with the strange urge to create… A Spreadsheet. I admittedly don’t know how to create a real spreadsheet (let alone flow one of these beasts onto this website), but even thinking about doing so makes me feel very “professional,” so bear with me as I present…


Number of Years PSA has been in existence = 70

Years Kathy Casey has been coaching = 30+

Number of days in the year we should wake up with a burning desire to be better coaches, according to the ever-entertaining Kathy Casey = “every day” a.k.a. 365

The Component Score Susie Wynne would receive on the transitional skating she demonstrated in her wonderful class called, “Simply Skated” if she were competing under the IJS system and I were a judge = 10

Grade of Execution Gale Tanger would have received for her Spiral up on stage (though we’d have to replay the video to see if she held it for 3 seconds) = +3

Number of questions Doug Haw asked Brian Orser in the brilliant segment called, “Inside the Coach’s Studio” modeled after the television show, “Inside the Actor’s Studio” = 29

Number of dizzying revolutions Brian Orser a.k.a. Mr. Triple Axel seemed to do on the floor of his living room in the classic black and white footage from when he was a toddler = approximately 35

Number of syllables in the word “momentum” as counted by Orser’s coach Doug Leigh in the video footage = 3 

Number of pillows (both functional and decorative) on the beds at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare (and thank you to my conference buddy for helping me with the calculation of this statistic) = 7

Therefore, when two beds are in the room, the total number of pillows = 14

The deadline for coaches to complete their required Coaching Educational Requirement (CER) credits = July 2010

The number of people who currently understand exactly what this entails = 4

Latest ISU Communication that will probably change after the ISU Congress in June = 1494

Number of times presenters from the judging community encouraged coaches and skaters to aim for high GOE’s rather than high Levels = at least 10

Number of “extremely diverse” conferences simultaneously being held at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare = many

Number of people wearing one or more of the following items for a particularly “intriguing” conference that shall remain nameless on this blog for fear of receiving a crazy amount of unwanted spam: leather, chains, collars, and something I can only call a “skirt-less skirt” = again, many

Number of times I heard someone ponder whether or not the aforementioned conference had a tradeshow = 5

Percentage of sport success that is “mental” according to surveys of Olympian Athletes, as presented by USOC Sport Psychologist Kirsten Peterson, Ph.D. = 50-90%

Amount of training time that athletes spend on the mental side of their sport according to Olympian Athletes as shared by Peterson= not 50-90%

Percentage of human communication that occurs through words according to Psychotherapist Frankie Perez = 7%

Percentage of communication that occurs non-verbally i.e. through body language, tone, etc = 93%

Ideal height of a leg extension for ice dance according to coach Iouri Tchesnitchenko= 80 degrees

Price of an all-event ticket for the World Championships according to a friend who worries, quite rightly, that cost is negatively affecting the skating fan base = $1000

Amount of weight gained from uncontrollable buffet grazing = No Answer

Amount of weight my suitcase mysteriously gained though I did not purchase or steal anything (I suspect foul play: invisible bricks, perhaps?) = 5 pounds

Length of the maze-like hallway leading from the hotel to the Convention Center where some of the presentations were held on the last day (and thank heaven, because I had to walk off some of that buffet-ing) = 16 miles

Pages of notes I scribbled because I am an obsessive note-taker (though in my defense, the pages of my notebook were rather small) = 56

Floor in the John Hancock Building from which my conference buddy and I watched the sun set while enjoying a post-conference drink (see picture above) = 95th

Phone number of the JFK Jetblue baggage claim office in case they ever lose one of your bags = 7186326355

Total number of minutes they might keep you on hold over the course of 3 phone calls = 36

Number of skating blogs I’ll be able to write, thanks to all the information I gathered while on this trip (not that I was lacking for topics) = 477

TOTAL = Priceless



Please add to this “spreadsheet” by clicking on comment below. 

And stay tuned. In future installments I intend to address such topics as:

Pair Skating in America: Ouch; Moves in the Meadow; The Ratings Game; Figures: Still Mourning; Youtube as Teaching Tool; Age: To Limit or Not to Limit

Finally, here is the article I wrote about the event for icenetwork: 

Careers not Chosen

This week, I’m flying to Chicago for the Professional Skaters Association Conference. While there, I’ll be attending all kinds of seminars and seeing coach-friends (including former competitors and mentors) from around the country. Amid packing for this event and canceling my lessons, I have been thinking about career paths. Mine has been somewhat circuitous.

I’ve mentioned in previous installments that I didn’t know I was going to become a figure skating coach. Not that I didn’t admire my own coaches growing up; becoming one just didn’t occur to me, for some reason. I am certainly glad I chose this particular path but sometimes I just have to chuckle at where I thought I’d end up instead.

For example, when I was very young, it was clear to me that I was going to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. Through watching football (and rooting for the Packers) with my dad, it was pretty obvious that the cheerleaders for the Dallas team had the best sense of style. Their outfits were a little more glamorous (covered in silver stars!), their Keds (and smiles) were a little whiter, and their cheers a little more convincing. Of course, I suppose they had a few other famous “attributes” I didn’t even notice. Perhaps my own pom poms were the wrong color scheme (red and white for the Wisconsin Badgers) and the bleachers on our front lawn were empty (okay, not even set up), but I put in some long hours honing my high kick and my woo hoo! on our driveway.

Someone, probably after asking me, the What do you want to be when you grow up? question, convinced me that becoming a Dallas Cheerleader was extremely difficult, so I decided to reconsider this path and move on to something more realistic. I figured it would be a lot easier to become a…Supermodel. After all, all you had to do was look good. You didn’t even have to do any cheers. As soon as I heard that in order to excel in this vocation you had to basically stop eating, it started to lose its appeal. I figured I’d just hold this idea in reserve as something to fall back on, just in case.

From there, I took a slight left turn toward the sister industry of Fashion Design. I pored over the beloved “Fashion Plates” set I received for my 10th birthday. With these stencil-like panels, I created thousands of different wardrobe combinations and committed them to paper with the help of colored pencils. I’d later go on to design my skating costumes by sketching them out first on typing paper. I’d fold the sheet in half and draw my dress on one half and my brother’s costume on the other. I colored them in, down to the last detail, with that same trusty set of colored pencils.

I eventually discovered that, in order to be a Fashion Designer, you had to know how to sew. It was one thing sewing by hand and quite another when you got a sewing machine involved.  In 7th grade Home-Economics class, I discovered that threading a sewing machine was the domestic version of Rocket Science. The few times I attempted to use my mother’s sewing machine on my own, it made a scary whirring noise. The thread flew off the spool and into a terrifying knot in the shape of a skull-and-crossbones. (Of course, now that would be a trendy fashion statement, so I was clearly way ahead of my time.)

For a while there at the beginning of college, I thought I’d be a Lawyer, wearing slick skirt-suits and winning cases like the heroine in a girl-Grisham novel. The problem with this is that I wasn’t exactly one to speak up, either in class or in almost any group scenario. And I certainly wasn’t one to debate things.

From there, illogically, I decided that I was destined to become a Professor. I suppose the distinction for me was that, in a classroom, I could “share” my ideas rather than “argue” them like I’d have to in a courtroom. I was starting to become an avid reader and I had this image of wearing eyeglasses and my hair in a bun. (Okay, well… for those of you who know me, please stop laughing, and for those of you who don’t, I guess I should admit that I usually wear glasses and my hair pulled back in a bun.) I envisioned leading my eager pupils to the shade of a campus tree, where we could gather ‘round and dissect poetry.

In fact, I did eventually go on to teach a college course, Composition 101. It happened to be a night class for adults and I was the youngest person in the classroom. When I walked in on the first night and I put my satchel on the desk (a bag I thought seemed very academic), one of the students said, “You’re our teacher?” She loaded that you’re with disdain. She felt insulted by being taught by someone younger and her attitude was contagious: when I had the nerve to assign reading and essays, I was hit and wounded by many dagger glares over the course of those three months. Right around the time that I had to determine final grades (they weren’t all that great) that would have a ripple effect on GPAs and transcripts of people 5, 10, 20 years older than me, I decided that this was probably something I’d be better suited for once I had some more life under my belt. (Oh…to be too young for something, what a hardship.) So, just like my Supermodeling, I put this on the back burner.

There was also a brief stint as an Advertising Copywriter, enjoyable enough that it created a dilemma. Around the time I started teaching group and private lessons at the rink where I am currently on staff, I was offered a position at a firm on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. I could see it: the water cooler, the Happy Hours, all that hip, creative synergy. And of course the fashion component: the high heels, the slacks, the green leather briefcase purchased at a downtown boutique. But I also envisioned something else that compelled me to turn down the offer: I could see myself coming home at night and not wanting to write my own stuff after sitting at a computer all day writing brochures and radio ads. 

Of course, this leads me to the other thing I thought I’d become. A Writer. This fantasy predated (and coincided with) all else, the Cheerleading included. In boxes at my mother’s house, there are laminated “books” I penned and illustrated. One details the adventures of a thumb (my thumbprint included.) Another is about a wounded bird my brother and I found in our backyard. Another is called “A Day in the Life of a Skater.” The protagonist, as you might imagine, is me.

Becoming a writer was probably the craziest idea of all, and, it turned out, impossible to let go of. When I flip through that ancient masterpiece about skating, it seems so obvious that I’d become a Skating Writer or a Writing Skater, but I’m glad I tried out some other vocations along the way, even if only in my mind. Besides, it occurs to me that, as a coach, you have to be a little bit of a cheerleader, a bit of a professor, and sometimes, if meeting with resistance, a bit litigious. Sometimes you have to give input on costume choices or designs, and sometimes, as an ice dance coach, you have to try and get your skaters to strut around the rink with the confidence of runway models. In this job, you get to wear many hats. Literally and figuratively.

The Sociologist in me (yes, I toyed with that for about 10 minutes in college as well) wonders how many people actually end up in the careers they youthfully identified when asked the, What do you want to be when you grow up question. Probably a handful, but it would be interesting to have some statistics…

I posed this question to some of my students today and their answers ranged from Engineer to Orthodontist to Veterinarian to Lawyer. One student, a 9 year-old blushed and answered, “Figure Skater” shyly, as if I might not think she’d qualify. Of course, I was flattered, though it should be noted that she did not say “Coach” – I suspect that her current idea of growing up doesn’t go too far beyond the age of 18. Over the next 10, 15, 20 years, I’ll have to keep track of how many of these abstract plans come to fruition.  

I also asked a few coach-friends (all of whom obviously love what they do) to share three careers they thought they were aiming for, once upon a time.

One friend answered:

  1. Prima Ballerina
  2. Trial Lawyer
  3. Boutique Owner


  1. Journalist
  2. School Psychologist
  3. Sports Psychologist

And a third:

  1. Flight Attendant
  2. Scientist
  3. House Wife

And you? Whether you are skating coach or not, please share three “Careers not Chosen” by clicking on “Comment” below.


I anticipate that in next week’s installment I’ll be regaling you with my Chicago adventures.  But then again, we’ll see, life doesn’t always turn out as expected….                

PSA Seminar: Time Travel


(Warning: Some content in the following installment may be highly sentimental in nature.)

There are about 450 things I’d rather do on my days off than sit in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and sit in a rink for 8 hours absorbing information on the topic I already think about all week: skating. But it’s pretty clear our sport is undergoing a metamorphosis, and whether you think today’s skaters look like they are floating like butterflies or flitting around out there like nervous moths, the fact is that, due to the International Judging System, biomechanics, and a whole host of improved training methods, skating is changing, and we coaches best stay informed.

This is why two friends and I threw our overnight bags in my trunk and headed over the George Washington Bridge toward the Professional Skaters Association National Seminar held at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society (PSCHS) in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. In addition to keeping my PSA accreditation up to date (this now requires 28 credits every three years), I was interested in getting some survival tips on IJS, some new coaching techniques on specific elements, and maybe just some new ways of explaining the methods I already teach, all useful to my future in coaching. I ended up getting all these things, but I also took an unexpected stroll into The Past… both into my own and into the history of skating.

This started the night before at my mother’s house in Delaware (where we moved to train when I was 14) and where, for the purposes of shameless show-and-tell, I busted out my first dress: pink, and approximately the size of my adult hand. (I was so delighted to obtain this garment that I twirled around in it on my driveway wearing sneaker rollerskates.) This dress elicited from my guests appreciative oohs and ahhs then descriptions of their own first dresses, which, whether we still have these tucked away in our closets or not, we tend to remember with remarkable detail. This led me to drag out my last skating dress, the unveiling of which understandably resulted in quizzical giggles and my contention that, “Really, it made sense in context, I swear.”

This backward glance continued the next morning when we arrived at the PSCHS where, over the years, I commenced many a season by competing at Challenge Cup, and where I was honored to perform in a few Saturday afternoon Tea Exhibitions. Most notably, however, this is where I gave the Funniest performance of my career (and I realize this is not necessarily a category most competitors carry in their catalogues.) Suffice it to say that there was a good deal of “audience participation” in the form of laughter, a reaction that reached my ears all the more directly due to the fact that there are no boards, or plexiglass, around this ice surface.

But my own memories of this place are only the tip of the so-called ice…berg. The building was erected in the late 1930’s but the club itself has been in existence since about 1850 when skating took place on rivers and lakes and people regularly fell through the ice. Club members carried twine as a rescuing device, and hence, the humanitarian or “humane” aspect of the club’s name (which has managed to confuse more than a few kind locals who have carried stray dogs and cats through the front doors.)

Upstairs, where the Seminar’s off-ice portion took place, the club’s long and venerable history was in evidence at every turn: the large, curved mural depicting outdoor skating; plaques honoring the club’s Gold testers; a quaint glass case displaying “The McConnell Collection” of skating figurines; and last, but not least, the wall of windows overlooking the ice surface itself – the ideal perch from which to watch skaters perform whilst sipping tea on a perfectly civilized Saturday afternoon.

Maybe I have an over-developed tendency to let an environment infuse meaning into an event, but it seemed like this setting set a tone for the Seminar. Directly, or indirectly, much of it was about getting back to our roots. And this seemed especially fitting on the cusp of the competition season, with Regionals occurring around the country over the next few weeks, the winter months heralding increased group lesson enrollment, and all of us, in one way or another, getting “caught up in it all.”

So I was already in a contemplative mood when Sandy Lamb stood up to speak about Basic Skills. She started off by acknowledging that some of her first competitive students, Robbie Kaine and Tommy Kaine, were in the room and how lucky she felt to have students like them to start off her coaching career. She proceeded to embellish her Power Point presentation with anecdotes from her own experience, enthusiasm for promoting skating at the grass roots, and ways to keep it all Fun. I thought back to my own group lessons in the studio rink at the Madison Ice Arena, where the ice was the most pleasing color of royal blue, (well, it was the floor underneath that was painted blue, but it took a while for me to realize this.) My delight in these lessons was only mildly tempered by my brother’s mastery of that elusive Mohawk turn long before me (and in hockey skates). My aggravation with his speedier improvement was, however, pretty much forgotten by the time my first ice show rolled around: this event included costumes, a printed program with a picture of me in it, and…I could hardly contain myself…Spotlights!

Kat Arbour’s presentation on Periodization was excellent. Her and her colleagues’ cutting-edge work in Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology at the University of Delaware has contributed greatly to the science of this sport. I was fortunate to train in that program in the years after Ron Ludington first moved to U of D, over 20 years ago. It was exciting for me to participate as a subject in several studies, the nature of which I barely understood. It is (and was) great to see that most of what we achieve on ice can be quantified, therefore repeated, and improved upon, ideally with minimal injury. 

Doug Haw (coach of, among others, Brian Orser and Jenny Kirk) started his presentation by harkening his grandmother and her encouragement of his figure skating back in Canada, though he started in hockey. He also detailed his own background with the PSA and American figure skating, despite being Canadian. He explained that much of his education has been derived from analyzing skaters, both live, and on video. He struck me as a true student of the sport, and for this reason, also a true educator. I was impressed, and inspired, to say the least, by his verbal creativity, including a whole host of catchy aphorisms and poems, and an evident commitment to also keeping skating Fun, an aspect of this gig all of us can stand to be reminded of.

Later, for the on-ice portion, with microphone in hand, Haw encouraged us to keep coming back to the tracings on the ice, to look closely at jump take-offs and spin entrances. It was a clear, bright day and sun reflected off the ice through the backdrop of glass brick, so even from the bleachers, it was possible to see the tracings of the demonstrators. I’m not someone who laments the termination of Figures, but I understand why people do, and respect those who had the patience and talent for them. As I gazed at that gleaming ice surface, I could almost make out a phantom figure eight, or a whole line of them, running the length of the rink. I was reminded that Figure Skating didn’t originally include jumps and spins; it was named for the figures, or the intricate marks left on the ice.

Okay, so obviously the almost surreal beauty of this rink and this day had, by this point, put me in an altered state, a state of severe sentimentality. But who could blame me, sitting under that gracefully curved ceiling, with a wall of mirrors on the far end, a pair of banners touting home-rink Olympic Champs, Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, and that conspicuous absence of boards, providing an unfettered view of it all? Let’s face it, most new rinks in this country are about as interesting as warehouses, so it’s nice to be in one that has a little personality. Of course, I wasn’t always such a purist. When I was younger, I probably would have said that some of my favorite local rinks now – Playland Ice Casino in Rye, NY, Harvey School Rink in Katonah, NY and EJ Murray Rink in Yonkers, NY – were “old,” “beat-up,” and “dirty.” But something has been happening to me lately, and I think it might have something to do with maturity. (After all, I’ve even found myself listening to jazz music with some regularity.)

During Cheryl Demkowski-Snyder’s presentation on IJS Choreography, we were treated to a quick performance by elite ice dancers Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, skaters Cheryl coaches with Robbie Kaine. After a few earnest but low-level freestylers showcased their footwork sequences, Kim and Brent seemed, in comparison, to re-define “edgework” (and they did so in blue jeans after standing around all day…) I am a big fan of theirs, in part for their incredible basic skating skills and, even more so, for what always comes across as their real, honest enjoyment of what they’re doing. I think it’s important to remember and try to impart to our students that, while our seasons are planned around those precious and nerve-wracking moments of competing, it all starts with and comes back to something very simple: a pair of blades, a body (or bodies), and a sheet of ice, just like it did on the rivers and lakes of Philadelphia and on frozen surfaces around the world.

Later that night, as we sat at a standstill on the NJ Turnpike, I had to smack my own cheeks a few times to keep myself awake. Then, slap-happy in a rest stop parking lot, I even tried a few flying sit spins, employing the Doug Haw method (and absolutely no muscle control whatsoever). Back on the road, with the traffic finally moving, I had to admit to myself that, tired as I was, I was also excited to get back to work the next day. It’s like I was somehow getting nudged forward by everything that has happened before.  


Please share: What rinks bring out the Skating Purist in you? Any fond memories of PSCHS? Click on “comment” below.

To read more about the history of PSCHS, check out:

To see the schedule of upcoming PSA educational events, check out: