Movie Review of RISE

courtesy of US Figure Skating

Like many people in the skating world, I watched RISE, with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. For those of you who don’t know, this is the figure skating movie about the 1961 World Team who perished in a plane crash, on the way to the World Championships in Prague.

Beforehand, I wondered if I should cut my skating lessons short that night in order to rush over and see the movie. I am glad that I did.  Likewise, beforehand, I wasn’t sure whether or not to aggressively recommend the film to my skating students, because I wasn’t sure how painful it was going to be to watch. Though it is a horrible tragedy and it is difficult subject matter, it is treated tastefully and has a positive message. The focus is not on the crash itself but on the skaters and coaches who were on the plane. This event had an impact on so many lives and on the American skating community for years to come.

I think my skating students should see this film, as should their parents, as should anyone involved in skating and other sports, too. It is playing again in theaters around the country on March 7. I recommend that you get your tickets now. You can find theaters and buy tickets here.

Not only is it important to learn the history of this specific event, RISE provides us with an all-too rare opportunity to view skating footage from a bygone era. (Like people tracing out figure eights!) It also gives us a chance to understand that skaters of yesteryear, despite their plain costumes and their different skating style, struggled with many of the same challenges as skaters do today. Even back then, some top skaters moved across the country to seek expert coaching, some families were split apart, and some parents pushed too hard. These athletes experienced injuries and disappointing performances, and also victories. Finally, viewers can take a bit of time to consider the skating community as a whole rather than just our own little corner of it. Skating requires so much focus on details that we can easily forget that we are participating in something bigger than ourselves.

The title, RISE, (the ‘i’ of which cleverly depicts a skater mid-jump), is accompanied by a subtitle: Can the end of one dream give rise to another? The documentary’s answer to this question is: YES. A panel of skating greats like Scott Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, et cetera, help us to see how we can be inspired by these athletes from the 1961 World Team.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is how it effectively conveys the concept of legacy and the connectedness of everyone in the skating world. In some way, most of us are either directly or indirectly connected to this event through our coaches or skaters that we know. For example, I was coached by Ron Ludington, who was trained by Maribel Vinson Owen, who is featured in the film.

And many of us have benefited from the Memorial Fund, a very direct form of connectedness. I knew that F. Ritter Shumway set up the Memorial Fund after the crash, but didn’t realize that he did so only eight short days afterwards. Thousands of skaters have been helped by this financial assistance, a very direct form of connectedness.

I was interested to learn that the 1961 National Championships were the first to be televised. And there is an old cigarette advertisement that had the whole theater laughing. There are some photos of the crash wreckage that are not overly gruesome but heart wrenching.  There are some compelling stories about skaters who might have been on the plane but were not either due to injury or sickness.

I enjoyed the segments about the SC of Boston and about the Broadmoor rink in Colorado Springs. Before the Broadmoor was razed, my brother and I trained at that beautiful (though crumbling) rink for one summer. We also competed at our first Midwestern Sectionals there and discovered just how beautiful and majestic that hotel is.  (We also learned how higher altitude really does affect your stamina.)

Evidently, there was a RISE pre-show hosted by Matt Lauer and Peter Carruthers that our theater didn’t play. But we did see the after-show. This was sort of an Oprah-esque set-up where participants in the film (including the filmmakers) immediately discussed the movie and the topics at hand. It was kind of like seeing the DVD “extras” while still sitting in the theater.

During this portion, both Frank Carroll and Evan Lysacek were interviewed. Evan said something to the effect that, after a performance, it is great to be out on the ice by yourself while the audience applauds, but the real celebration takes place when you step off the ice and hug your coach. The way Evan has so kindly shared his Vancouver victory with Frank Carroll is truly endearing.

I gasped, along with many others in attendance, at Dorothy Hamill’s disparaging comment about the rink named after her, in Greenwich, Connecticut. There were likely many people in our theater who coach or skate there.

As always, I enjoyed seeing Scott Hamilton and think he had some of the most poignant things to say. He said that one of the main lessons he learned from skating is that, “You reap what you sow.” In other words, if you don’t practice hard, and go to the rink even on the days that you don’t want to, you can’t expect to succeed. He also reminded us that when, in any aspect of your life, you fall down, you just have to get back up. (In other words, “rise.”) Maybe these are obvious adages, but it can’t hurt to hear them again, especially from him, and especially in light of the health issues he is going through right now.

My one criticism of RISE is probably not a fair one: I wanted more! While it was fascinating to learn about these individual stories, I didn’t feel like there was enough detail about enough people. I suppose there is only so much ground that can be covered in 94 minutes. And truth be told, this sense of wanting more prompted me, when I got home that night, to pore through the pages of SKATING magazine’s February issue, a large portion of which is dedicated to the crash and the film.  I am now also intrigued by Patricia Shelley Bushman’s book, Indelible Tracings: The Story of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team. So my interest has been further piqued and I presume it has created similar curiosity in many others.

Like I said above, go see RISE on March 7. Many of us have seen that iconic photo of the team lined up on the steps of that fateful airplane. After seeing this film, their faces will look a lot more familiar.

What did you think of the film? Feel free to leave a comment below.


Skating with the Stars: Be Afraid

It’s official: ABC’s Skating with the Stars will premier Monday, November 22. You may remember that Fox tried something like this – called Skating with Celebrities – back in 2006, and, though it had its interesting moments, it was considered a flop. This time around, the Dancing with the Stars producers are taking a stab at it. Already, the show is being criticized because the stars they lined up aren’t all that famous. I think the three most intriguing are probably Vince Neil of Motley Crue, Olympic “freestyle” skier Jonny Moseley, and actress Sean Young. I’m not very familiar with the other three – Bethanny Frankel, Brandon Mychal Smith, and Rebecca Budig – but I applaud them for taking the lunge…I mean plunge.

So I am excited to see this. But mostly I’m afraid….very afraid. And here are 10 reasons why I think you should be too:

1.Inspired by what they see, viewers across the land are going to flood their floors with garden hoses and turn off their heat, until they reach a deep freeze. This way, they can attempt those exotic skating tricks at home.

2.Vince Neil can apparently do a Waltz Jump. He claims to have been figure skater back when he was age 12. Actually, this is endearing. What is scary is that American skating coaches are going to be inundated with calls from other aging rock stars, ushering in a whole new breed of adult skaters. Better start offering tequila at the snack bar.

3. The skating will be so HOT that the ice will melt. Caught up in the glory, skaters and pros alike won’t reach for their guards quickly enough, and the one and only sound that is worse than fingernails scratching across a chalkboard will be broadcast around the world: blades against cement.

4.When viewers see how gracefully all these stars can skate, they are going to think that skating is easy, that it’s a snap. (Of course I’m kidding. It is sure to be an awkward-fest with lots of bent free legs, lurching, and terrifying falls. This will in fact emphasize exactly how difficult this sport is.)

5. Seriously, I predict three severed limbs, and no less than two body casts. On Skating with Celebrities, Bruce Jenner tripped while trying a spin and had to get 16 stitches on his face. Keep in mind that he is a decorated, Olympic decathlete, therefore presumably somewhat coordinated. A few other stars from that show required emergency medical attention. Just be ready to wince for this one. I suggest covering your eyes and peeking through your fingers. In light of the dangers, it’s understandable that they couldn’t lure bigger names: what Hollywood hotshot would risk disfigurement (not to mention the embarrassment factor)? On the flip side, it’s amazing that top U.S. pair skaters Brooke Castile and Keauna McLaughlin agreed to be pros for this, considering that they are still competition material. For them, I recommend what I always wanted to wear as a pair skater: full body padding, maybe some hockey equipment with sparkles.

6. During Skating with Celebrities, actor/hockey player Dave Coulier was so frustrated by those pesky figure skating toe picks that he filed them off. What if Olympic skier Jonny Moseley seeks similar comfort by attaching skis to the bottom of his skating boots?

7. If indeed, as is rumored, Johnny Weir and Dick Button are both judges, there will undoubtedly be a catfight. Fur will fly.

8. The producers of Dancing with the Stars have taken schmaltz to new heights on that show. So brace yourself for cheesy music, hideous costumes and general tackiness on ice. Of course, most skating programming already contains these qualities in spades. Isn’t that why we keep coming back?

9. Love affairs will ignite; marriages will be torn asunder. Lloyd Eisler and Kristy Swanson (who infamously hooked up on Skating with Celebrities) will make guest appearances as relationship counselors.

10. If the ratings are really shoddy, critics (who are just jealous because they are neither skaters nor stars) will use it as proof that skating popularity is declining. Others will go so far to say that it’s the nail in the skating coffin. As a result, rinks will be boarded up and rental skates will be sent over to the troops in Iraq as combat weapons.

Truthfully, I’m just afraid of all the household and organizational tasks I’m going to neglect on Monday nights for the six weeks that it airs. I’ll surely be watching. Will you?


Please share your deepest fears on this subject by leaving a comment below.

Notice that there are lots of new Skater Quotes in the column to the right.

The “Wounded Star” artwork above is by the talented Mr. Rob Strati. To see more of his work, click here.

Charlie Brown: The Skater

Every holiday season, I re-watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and every year it both warms and breaks my heart. I can’t help it: I love Charlie Brown’s existential woe, his thwarted attempts to direct the Christmas play, his pitiful little tree, and the way his friends pull together at the end to make it all nice.

Of course, I especially like how the whole thing starts with a wintry skating scene. The Peanuts Gang does an impressive synchro-esque splice right at the beginning. Though Snoopy doesn’t have on a pair of skates, he manages a gorgeous spread eagle (or should I say spread beagle?) After a weaving round of crack the whip, Linus’ blanket somehow gets wrapped around Charlie Brown and flings him into a tree trunk. A pile of snow proceeds to plop on his head. Good grief, I just can’t get enough.

So, naturally, I was thrilled when Charlie Brown himself contacted me a few weeks ago for skating lessons. Turns out he has decided to try and make it to the upcoming Olympics. This has presented me with a dilemma: knowing that Charlie Brown isn’t exactly overflowing with self-confidence, I don’t want to be too discouraging…but.

Well, here’s the first draft of my response.

Dear Mr. Brown,

Thank you for contacting me about my coaching services. I am a big fan of yours. As per your request, I have analyzed the skating footage from the opening scene of your iconic holiday special in order to assess your stated goal of making it to the upcoming Winter Games.

The news is mixed. First, let me say that your ability to skate (and even stand up) amid snowflakes the size of baseballs is impressive and demonstrates a great deal of balance. Second, I have noticed that you are a simple man with simple needs, in terms of equipment. Most competitive skaters these days transport their skates in bags specially designed for optimal performance. Many of these bags even have wheels that put on their own laser light show. Your method of carrying your brown skates old-school style with the laces knotted and looped over your shoulder is unconventional yet refreshing. I presume that since you have no guards over your blades, they are in pretty shoddy condition. I like this: it shows that you are not a diva.

Your costume choices are…interesting. The hat with earflaps is an excellent pick, especially considering that it will be pretty cold up in Vancouver. Your yellow shirt, on the other hand, is a bit problematic: you may want to switch out those zig zags for something with softer lines in a color scheme more flattering to your skin tone.

Your musical selection, by Vince Guaraldi, as rendered by Schroeder, is to be commended.

Now to the skating. Your ability to bellyflop then spin on your stomach with that much momentum tells me that you are more aerodynamic than the size of your head might otherwise suggest. Of course, it is more ideal to rotate in a vertical position, but this is something we can work on.

Granted, in skating, as in life, it’s not always about how much you fall, but your willingness to keep getting up. Unfortunately, I noticed that after you careened into the tree, your recovery was inconspicuously absent from the film.

Before this event, I did spot a few split-seconds of competent gliding on your part. Truthfully, though, you would need many more hours of practice, in fact perhaps thousands of hours of practice, in order to make your Olympic dreams come true. This means that you’ll have to give up your extra-curricular activities, namely your role as the unappreciated Director of the Christmas Play. With all the work we would need to do, you simply don’t have time to be out looking for the most pathetic Christmas tree you can find.

Most importantly, Charlie, you’ll have to make some serious changes in your attitude. Your constant claims of depression and bellyaching about the meaning of Christmas will have to cease immediately. Likewise, statements such as, “Good grief, everything I do turns into a disaster” and “Everything I touch gets ruined,” are not indicative of a gold-medal mentality. Furthermore, you’ll have to wipe that worried look off your face; judges prefer smiles. I urge you to discontinue your use of Lucy’s psychiatric services despite her convenient location right in your path and her bargain price of 5 cents. Instead, I can recommend a few excellent sports psychologists.

This brings me to your mother: I can’t understand a word she is saying! And when I telephoned your teacher to see if we could “tweak” your school schedule in order to get some clear, mid-day ice time, I couldn’t understand her either.

Finally, to make it in this sport, you’ll need to abandon your anti-commercialism stance, as you will probably need corporate sponsorship in order to afford my fees. The good news is that right now several companies happen to be looking for a new athlete for endorsements.

Minor detail: the U.S. National Championships start in about two weeks and you have unfortunately missed all of the qualifying events. However, your association with the legendary, late Charles Schulz could hold some sway with United States Figure Skating.

In all, I think your chances of making it to the Olympics are slim, but I’d hate to say that your goal is impossible. If nothing else, I’m sure your skating career will not pan out any worse than your attempts at becoming a kicker for the NFL. (Again, Lucy’s services might not have been the wisest choice.)

There is some extremely exciting news in all this: while your skating talents are really only mediocre, some of your friends I saw skating on the tape look to have great promise. In fact, Snoopy seems like he could be a real podium climber. If he does not already have another coach, please have him contact me so that we can start training immediately.


Jocelyn Jane Cox


Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays! If you have any advice on this letter or any suggestions I can pass along to him, please click on “comments,” below.  🙂

If you haven’t already seen it, check out my article on page 30 of this month’s Skating Magazine. It’s about sibling ice dance teams. I know: it’s shocking that I’d report on that subject…

Book Review: Offensive to Skaters!


There is a novel out right now (it’s currently in hardcover but will come out in paperback next month) that features a young figure skater. It’s called My Sister, My Love and is written by Joyce Carol Oates, an author who has won all kinds of prestigious literary awards and teaches at Princeton. She has published 34 books since 1964. Though I haven’t read any of her other full-length books, her short stories stand out as some of my favorite. I was delighted to see her read from one of her books when I was in graduate school. So I was excited to learn that she had written about our sport and curious to see how she did it.

Well, not only is this a book I absolutely cannot recommend in general, it is offensive and I think it would be to anyone even remotely involved in figure skating.

It turns out that this is basically a fictional rendering of the infamous JonBenét Ramsey case, the six year-old beauty pageant girl who was mysteriously murdered in 1996 in Boulder, CO. Though DNA evidence seems to have proven that no one in the family committed the crime, the parents and even the little girl’s older brother were suspects; the tabloids focused on them relentlessly. In 2006, an American teacher living in Thailand admitted to the murder but the DNA at the crime scene didn’t match his either, so the case remains unsolved.

In Oates’s book, the family is called the “Rampikes” and is told from the perspective of the girl’s older brother who is now a 19 year-old with a mind addled by drugs. In this version, the little girl is a promising figure skater and the murder is pinned on a creepy man who had been stalking her. However, Oates makes the mother the actual murderer – it was a drunken, angry accident. As if this all isn’t dark and sinister enough, the mother tells the father that the son did it. She drugs the kid then tricks him into admitting it in front of a video camera and the father proceeds to try cover this up. Along the way, there’s lots of child abuse, perversion, jealousy, insanity, drug addiction, alcoholism, obsession, philandering, delusions of grandeur and, well, that not-so-uplifting murder.

So I guess I’ve spoiled it for you – but I don’t think you should go out and buy this book. That is, unless you enjoy seeing skating depicted in the worst possible light and grossly misrepresented. In fact, the way Oates has made a mockery of our sport caused me to slam the book closed several times.

Not only does Oates equate skating with beauty pageants, she makes skating out to be a dirty, perverse circus, teeming with stalkers and sexual innuendo.

Let me interrupt here to say that, though I have been involved in skating for most of my life and currently make my living in this field, I do not believe that I am overly sensitive about it. I do think skating turns out to be a positive experience for most who participate, but I certainly recognize that, like most activities, it has some foibles.

And most of us are accustomed to the fact that skating is rarely depicted accurately in movies or books. We all know, for example, that triple jumps aren’t mastered in a matter of weeks, that real competitions don’t feature spotlights, and that skating isn’t and never was (at least in recent history) judged on a scale from 1-10. These are some common misrepresentations. But I think we’re all willing to cut non-skating people (producers, directors, writers) some slack. I, for one, loved the spoof, Blades of Glory, and that was of course wildly inaccurate.

Likewise, I’m willing to forgive Oates for some of her mistakes. She thinks that five year olds get scores of 5.9 out of 6, they skate six-minute “routines” and then if they win a competition, they get prize money of $5,000. The protagonist’s best skating move is apparently something called a “butterfly gyre.” Huh? In this book, promising local skaters get featured in People magazine, and sought after by television crews and newspaper staffs. She thinks that when little skaters do well, the parents are suddenly admitted into the most prestigious country clubs.

Part of me finds some of these inaccuracies kind of amusing and the other part finds her lack of research disappointing. I’d like to think that if I was going to write a whole novel about tennis or fly fishing or professional knitting, I’d learn at least some of the correct terminology and try to figure out how that particular world actually works. The internet makes this kind of basic information so readily available.

But I digress. The point is that Oates is completely off base on just about every skating detail. Her biggest gaff is pretending/assuming that skating is like beauty pageants. For example, here are the names of the skating competitions in this book. They will give you a good chuckle: Little Miss Royale New Jersey, Starskate Ice Capades, Little Miss Jersey Ice Princess Challenge, Miss Tots-on-Ice Debutante. Winners of these competitions are “crowned.” They wear tiaras and they win that aforementioned prize money.

Here is what the announcer says to introduce our little skating contender for the Miss Atlantic City Ice Capades:

“Ladiez ‘n’ gentlemen…what a luscious sight: she’s wearing a black lace Spanish veil mantilla d’you call it? Quite a dramatic costume for a 5 year-old. This little skater is a real pro…left shoulder daringly bared, tight black-sequined bodice, black taffeta skirt very very short…black lace panties peeking out beneath, black eyelet stockings and sexy black leather high-top skates like boots.”

Yikes! I don’t know if this is how announcers and commentaries sound at kiddie Beauty Pageants (doubt it) but this is certainly not how it goes in skating. I found Oates’s constant reference to peek-a-boo panties so frustrating – “a peep of white-lace panties flashing beneath,” “crimson-lace panties teasingly visible beneath,” “a hint of white-silk panties” – that I started angrily counting: the total was at least 15 mentions.

Granted, skating costumes aren’t overflowing with extra fabric. Our little skaters do wear make-up and sometimes too much. Granted, the costumes are sparkly. And yes, this is really the only sport where smiling and gracefulness are part of what is being judged. But this is part of what makes skating so difficult: making these complicated moves look so effortless requires lots of technique, discipline and athletic strength. These facts get almost entirely omitted from the Oates’s story. She includes some falls, some injuries, a few quick images of training, and a string of demanding Russian coaches, but these details take a back seat to the costuming, the cosmetic dentistry (at age five!), and the provocative, airbrushed headshots for modeling contracts. The main character (again at age five) has her hair dyed and her mother changes her name from Edna Louis to Bliss for publicity purposes.

What’s most bothersome is Oates’s over-sexualization of the competition scene. She describes the ushers as “shapely young girls in skating costumes, pink satin high heels and pink satin caps with Tots-on-Ice 1994 in white.” She describes the stands as being filled with nefarious, middle-aged men: “hoping to be inconspicuous, even as they cradle cameras, camcorders, and binoculars in their laps appear to be alone. For invariably at such young-innocent-girl skating competitions there are such male spectators.”

No, Oates, this is not how it is.

To make matters worse, Oates makes the little figure skater an idiot outside of the rink. By age six, though she can supposedly do all these jumps and is headed for “the Nationals,” she doesn’t know the alphabet, can’t write her own name, and still wets her bed. We are to presume that this underdevelopment is the result of being so focused on skating. Surely I don’t need to say that successful skaters are notoriously disciplined and that this dedication most often spills over into the rest of their lives. Or do I need to say that? This book has made me wonder how the general public perceives our sport. How does it look from the outside?

I suggested this book for my bookgroup. (Still hoping that they’ll forgive me.) I was concerned to discover that the non-skating people (intelligent, discerning women) took no offense to the depiction of skating. They figured that skating is probably just like this. In fact, combing the web, I couldn’t find any other reviews that address the skating aspect of this book. The negative reader reviews on also make no mention of it. That is…until I added my own review this week. To read it, click here.

I recognize that Oates’s novel is a critique of society. She is critical of the tabloid press, of pushy, delusional parents, of our culture’s over-reliance on medications and many other negative things that are going on right now. I realize that much of this book is exaggerated for effect (i.e. anorexics in 4th grade, 8 year olds overdosing on pharmaceuticals, etc.)

I just think Oates has gone too far here, especially since the fiction/nonfiction line is blurred: she is writing about a real event. She’s also writing about a real sport and making it into something it’s not. In the end, all I can really say is that for me, and most of my students, skating has been a source of strength and confidence. The costumes are pretty and the glitz is fun, but these are just parts of a much larger whole.


Do you think the general public sees figure skating as a type of beauty pageant? What can we do to promote it in the best possible light? Did you happen to read this book? Please click on “comment” below.

Do you think skating should be depicted in literature in a more real and positive way? I’m working on it, I’m working on it…:)

Thanks for reading. To see what else I’ve been writing, lately, click here.


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.

Interview: Kurt Browning


Let the holiday shopping begin! If you’re like me, you’re starting to make your lists, check them twice, and you’re noticing that everyone’s been both naughty and nice. No matter what, everyone deserves that perfect gift…and in my book, books are always an excellent choice: they expand the mind and you can always squeeze another one on the shelf (okay, or on that pile of books that has overflowed onto the floor and is now serving as a nice plant stand…)

Anyway, I recently picked up Kurt Browning’s children’s book, A is for Axel: An Ice Skating Alphabet at Skater’s Landing for my nephew. It was published by Sleeping Bear Press a few years ago. What’s great about this book is that it’s interesting and informative for children of many ages (and also adults.) The illustrations, by Melanie Rose, are beautiful and the text takes readers through the alphabet from Axel to Zamboni. For every letter, there are corresponding poems, such as:   

C is for Coaches, who teach you so much. They’ll give your skating their personal touch. From singles to doubles then triples you grow, with coaches beside you sharing all they know.

And: An amazing thing about skating is the ability to Glide. Just get up some good speed, and then enjoy the ride. But if you want to try it, you should take this advice. Take off your guards or you will hit the ice.   

In addition to the pictures and the poems, each letter includes a more sophisticated explanation of the topic for experienced readers. These paragraphs include some technical information and historical tidbits.

I was curious what prompted Kurt Browning to become the author of a children’s boodscn0016kurt-browningjpg1k. He is a four-time World Champion, four-time Canadian National Champion, three-time Olympian and has had a prolific professional career since then. What I’ve always admired about Browning is that, in addition to his expert jumping (he was the first person to land a quad in competition), his footwork and skating quality are fantastic. Besides, he has lots of charisma: his performances are fun and his personality always shines through. So I am of course thrilled that he took the time to answer the following questions about A is for Axel for Current Skate of Mind…       

Jocelyn Jane Cox: How did this project come about?

Kurt Browning: I picked up the phone one day and on the other end of the line was an offer to write this style of book about skating. I loved the idea and like writing and poems, especially silly and fun ones, and so I jumped (pun intended) at the chance. How they got the idea to ask me to write it, I am not sure.

J.J.C.: Will there be a follow-up?

K.B.: I have had some thoughts in the past and have some notes written down somewhere, but I have seen versions of my idea since and so I don’t know if I will pursue it. Maybe I will write a private one for my second son? There will be a follow up book about dance and I am helping my wife Sonia with it. Sonia is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. Working together on this project has been a good experience for us. It has been fun having a common goal. 

J.J.C.: What was the writing process like?

K.B.: I loved the process! I had a big time frame to work with and I almost only worked on it while on the road so this book was written in hotel rooms or parks or the hotel lobby. Actually, some of it was written in Spain while on vacation. With so much time, I had the option of leaving it alone and coming back to it weeks later and this meant seeing it from a different angle. A few times, I changed the whole thinking behind a letter. Sleeping Bear Press told me to think of it as a puzzle and to put the pieces together and I liked this way of thinking. The poems always came first and this was both the most fun and the hardest part of the process. I asked my fellow skaters for help, but nine times out of ten all they came up with was silly stuff or worse. Steven Cousins did help me with what the letter Q should be…for some reason, I had not come up with “the quad” yet!?

J.J.C.: One of the things I like about the book is the depiction of a lot of male skaters. Do you have any advice for boys and young men who are just taking up the sport or starting to get more involved in it?

K.B.: I tell young men in skating that if they have the guts to stand in center ice alone and move to music while trying to jump and spin while everyone is watching, then, boy, everything else in life just got a little bit easier. 

J.J.C.: What do your children think of the book?

K.B.: My oldest boy had already learned his alphabet and so he did not really use the book in that way. I expect him to take a different interest in it when he starts reading more on his own. Of course, he likes his page. Melanie Rose was sweet enough to include him on the L page (laces).

J.J.C.: What projects (on or off ice) are you currently working on?

K.B.: I have some secret stuff waiting to spring out there in the world…you will have to wait.


Thanks so much to Kurt for this.

Put this book on your list for the little (and not so little) skaters, and even non-skaters in your life. Order it at Powell’s, here:

And if you have already picked up “A is for Axel,” leave your thoughts by clicking on comment below…

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.