Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: The Second Mark

Joy Goodwin’s The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold is the second book I’ve read about the 2002 Olympic figure skating judging scandal. Thanks to my many readers who recommended it.

You might recall that my big criticism of Jon Jackson’s book, On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed, was that he didn’t bring in the scandal until page 180. The rest was a memoir.

Goodwin begins with the warm-up for the 2002 Olympic pairs skating event, but she, too doesn’t bring in the judging scandal until later in the book – page 238. Unlike Jackson’s book, I really didn’t mind that she waited so long to bring in the bombshell.

What’s the difference? Goodwin, unlike Jackson, brings the main players on stage from page one. Better yet, by the time she brings in the scandal, I cared about the skaters. They’re not just pawns for the judges’ medal scheme, they’re people who’ve survived despite uncaring systems, abusive partners, illness, loneliness, and injuries. Each time, these Olympians pick themselves up, shake it off, and try again. One skater’s parent attributes his daughter’s skating success to her ability to eat bitterness. These folks are tough.

Goodwin writes like she’s showing us the skaters’ world on film instead of in print. Readers can see what China looks like after the Cultural Revolution. They can witness the skating system in Russia and the abuse it fostered. Goodwin describes Jamie Salé and David Pelletier so accurately that it feels like I should invite them over for a couple of beers. I like these people and I feel grateful to Goodwin for introducing them to me.

By the time the judges’ numbers game happened in Chapter Five, I wasn’t sure which skating pair or which coach I was rooting for the most. I can tell you that I had pretty much no sympathy for the judges. Goodwin covers a lot of pages with the skaters’ countries, coaches, parents, and training, but she just gives a quick sketch of what it’s like to be a judge. Her notes at the end of the book list all of her interviews, but she never got to the figure skating officials at the heart of the scandal: Marie-Reine Le Gougne, Ottavio Cinquanta, and Didier Gailhaguet. The scandal chapters just don’t have the fullness that the rest of the book has. It’s O.K., though. I’m not really interested in caring about the political pressures the judges faced. Unless one of them had been brained with a sharp blade or shivered in bloody skates, I’ve no sympathy for them.

The bottom line: Goodwin did her homework. She interviewed everyone who would talk to her and watched countless videos about skating and life in China, Russia, and Canada. It sounds like the book would be dry, but it isn’t. Instead, the book unfolds like a good movie: it has scenery, plot, and characters I care about. This book is very much worth your time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How-to: Survive 6 a.m. Freestyle Ice

I am a zombie. So is Ice Girl. She has three mornings of 6 a.m. figure skating freestyle ice, which makes it tough to fit in homework, Facebook, and sleep.

It’s the homework and sleep that we struggle with and I’m sure all of us 6 a.m. ice parents are struggling with it, too. To tell the truth, we struggle with Facebook, too, but it seems like it’s only a problem for me. Ice Girl likes Facebook just fine.

Six a.m. ice is a fabulous thing, especially during hockey season when afternoon freestyle ice is limited. Fewer skaters attend 6 a.m. ice and we parents have a camaraderie that comes from the warrior mentality we share.

So. How do we balance sleep, skating, studying, and socializing? Not well. Here’s what I’ve tried that works/doesn’t work.

Homework in the van. This has marginal returns. Sometimes Ice Girl claims that she has car sickness and can’t study, sometimes she does fine. I have purchased a couple of Lightwedges that I keep in the van. They’re great for reading books, but lousy for doing math.

Enforcing a bedtime. This seems like the obvious answer, but it’s a tough one to enforce. Ice Girl sometimes has homework that takes her past the early bedtime and what do I do? Call the coach and cancel the 6 a.m. lesson? Still working on this one.

Banishing that stupid cell phone. I get it. Ice Girl wants a social life. Part of that life is texting. However, when she’s doing homework or supposed to be sleeping, that cell phone is in a different room. We’re working on setting a homework timer and allowing five minutes of texting for every 30 minutes of homework. How’s that working? Great – when we remember to set the timer. Not so great when we forget.

Sleeping in skating clothes. If you tell Ice Grandma that I send Ice Girl to bed in her Under Armour I will deny, deny, deny it. But, between you and me: I do. This is actually Ice Girl’s great idea and I just pretend that I don’t know she sleeps in her skating clothes. Let me tell you: it’s better for her to wake up five minutes before the van leaves and squeeze in enough Z’s than to wear p.j.s that she’ll just throw in the backseat anyway.

Facebook. I come home from work and Ice Girl and I have the homework discussion. How much of it requires the computer? She’s allowed to use the computer only for that portion. The problem is that Facebook often distracts her from that portion. This is an ongoing problem that most teens and parents have, I think. My only solution is to do spot checks on her, but those have marginal returns.

All in the van before bed. Neither Ice Girl nor I are great at thinking in the morning, so we both put everything we’ll need for 6 a.m. ice in the van before bed. I keep a checklist on the garage door so we don’t forget socks, gloves, or skates. This works pretty well most of the time. Sometimes Ice Girl just assumes that we have pony tail holders in the van because we almost always do…until the one time we don’t.

Coffee. After 10 years of living caffeine-free, I’ve given in. Java, java, java! Ice Girl hates the stuff.

Social. Ice Girl fills out the ice contract each month, so she knows when she has ice and when she’s free. This works pretty well most of the time. However, her friends aren’t planners like we are. Ice Girl just received a Halloween party invite that conflicts with ice time. Am I such an ogre that I’ll force I.G. to skate instead? Nope. I’m a softie. Here’s to hoping we can get a switch!

No ice the night before. I won't take Ice Girl to the rink the night before 6 a.m. ice. It's just too much to ask her to skate, study, eat, and sleep in the four hours between the final school bell and setting the alarm. We're pretty successful with this, but then Ice Girl skates a ton on the weekends. That's tough in her new skates.

Update: After reading this comment from Anonymous, I shall never whine about 6 a.m. ice again. Right. We all know that's a total lie.

Only 6am?! Lucky Ice Girl! I have 4am ice three times a week and start work at 5am on the alternate days- it took me about six months to get into a proper routine for it, and I fell asleep at work twice (which is pretty hard when you work in a casino!)

Update: Reader Anonymous gives 10 tips for surviving 6 a.m. ice. Here are two:

5. no double trips in one day if you're going to go in the morning don't go at night homework needs to be done at some point

9. do not i repeat do not fall asleep on the drive over this is what loud music was made for

Update: Reader Anonymous has a male figure skater. Here's what Anony's son does:

He only skates during the week and is off weekends. He keeps the same bed time during the weekends and gets up on his own.

Update: I have no idea how this works, Anonymous, but I'm willing to learn.

My skater is still small enough that she warms up and stretches in the backseat during the 30 minute drive. By the time we get to the rink, she's pretty much ready to go.

How do you survive 6 a.m. ice? Are you doing a better job than I am? What’s your secret? Please share both successes and failures!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Figure Skate Boots and Blades: Not the Place to Skimp

I’m thrifty, even cheap, but I don’t resort to home dentistry. Sure, I brush my teeth, and I even floss sometimes, but I leave the root canals and fillings to my dentist. My teeth’s good health is important to me: I don’t want rotten, misshapen teeth. I want to chew food without pain and I don’t know the first thing about giving myself Novocain. That’s why I see a professional.

I’m the same way with figure skates. I just don’t know how to fit them on my own; although, I would love a shot of Novocain when it comes to paying for them.

Let’s say, for instance, a person orders her daughter’s figure skating boots and blades online. Being a practical soul, she orders the figure skating boots one size larger for her daughter because the kid is still growing. Practical Mom wants the boot to fit her skater in a year. Practical Mom also bought a boot that’s a pretty high level because she expects her skater to advance quickly. She buys the figure skating blade online and mounts it herself at home. Then she takes the new skates to a local sporting goods store where they sharpen recreational blades.

Practical Mom wants to save money, but she’s doing it in the wrong way. Let’s see where she went wrong and how to make it right.

Ordering figure skating boots online. Sure, you can save money and order boots online, but you have to be cautious. You have to make sure that the foot measurements and foot tracings are done properly – many folks get it wrong. If you order your boots online, you don’t have the benefit of trying on several pairs from different manufacturers. You don’t know that one manufacturer’s boot has a narrow heel or that another has a wider toe box. However, ordering boots online can save you money, especially if the skater has stopped growing. In that case, order the same boot; it’s pretty simple.

How to make it right: Unless you’re very experienced with skate fittings, visit a reputable figure skate dealer for a good fit. If you must order online, call the place you’re ordering from and ask them to walk you through the measurement and foot tracing process. See if they can recommend a certain boot for you based on the measurements.

Ordering a boot that’s too big. Practical Mom knows her kid’s growing, but what she doesn’t know is that the sides of the figure skating boot are reinforced at points that correspond to a skater’s foot size. If a skater is too small for the boot, the non-reinforced areas will take the impact. Renee from Rainbo Sports said that this kind of wear actually makes the boot break down, or crease, faster than a boot that fits well. Practical Mom thinks she’s smart to order a size too big, but really, she’ll be buying new boots sooner.

Boots that are too big also cause foot problems, Renee said. A skater might compensate for the boot’s size by gripping the sole with her toes, which causes foot pain. Her heel might slip in the back and cause a bump on the heel. She could develop painful calluses, too.

How to make it right: Buy the boots that fit your skater’s feet. You can maybe go up a half size, but don’t go up any further than that. Remember that boot sizes don’t correspond to shoe sizes and every figure skating boot manufacturer has a different size chart. You must measure.

Ordering a figure skating boot that’s too advanced. Practical Mom dreams of doubles and thinks that the heavier the boot, the better her skater will perform. This is a lousy idea. Your skater will skate like she’s in cement shoes because the boot’s too tough for her. If you want your skater to quit, buy a boot that’s way too stiff.

How to make it right: Your skater needs to build up her legs and her feet in order to tolerate an advanced boot, Renee said. You’re better off increasing the boot incrementally than jumping from the rental skates your skater used in Basic 4 to a skate that kids doing triples require.

Skipping the heat molding step. I think Practical Mom skipped this step because she doesn’t have a convection oven at home. Few people do. You can’t heat mold a figure skating boot in a conventional oven, so don’t even try it. Heat molding figure skating boots is a fabulous thing. It molds the boot to the skater’s foot and smoothes the break-in process for the skater. Heat molding reduces painful blisters, rubbing, and even scars.

How to make it right: If you have ordered your boots online, take them (and your skater) to a skate shop. Dress your skater in her skate socks, too. Request that the shop heat mold the boot. They’ll probably charge you for it, but it’s worth it.

Mounting the figure skating blade herself. You’d think that mounting a figure skate blade to a boot is as simple as drawing a straight line down the center and screwing the blade down on top of the line. However, even a small variance in the mounting can make holding edges and spins difficult for your skater. If you try to adjust the mounting, you’ll weaken the sole and invite water damage. Better to get it right the first time.

How to make it right: Again, if you’ve ordered the boots online, take them into a reputable dealer for the mounting. Yeah, they’re going to charge you, but you’ll save your skater a lot of frustration in the long run and have a more solid boot.

Inexpert figure skate blade sharpening. Blades are pricey and have only so much life in them. An inexpert sharpening can ruin a blade by taking off way too much metal or rounding the blade à la hockey skates. Blades cost $150 on the cheap end and $500+ on the expensive end. For my money, I want the most life out of that bugger.

How to make it right: Take that blade to a reputable skate sharpener. I know – it’s hard to know who sharpens correctly. Ask around. People will tell you. (Someday I’ll write a post about how to know if a sharpening is good or not. Until then, ask around.) I drive Ice Girl’s skates to a shop 90 minutes away because I know that Renee at Rainbo Sports sharpens well. You know I’m cheap, but I’m also not willing to risk my daughter’s Vision blade on just anyone. That’s $500, people. O.K. I bought it used, but still. I’m not going to pay for the local used sporting goods store or hockey shop to ruin it.

The bottom line: scrimping on skates isn’t really saving you much. Look. I want to save money as much as the next person. Perhaps more than the next person: I adore bargains. But, I save money elsewhere: I sew dresses (you can buy them online), I make Ice Girl practice moves on cheap, empty public sessions, and I bought used blades (with Renee’s approval).

Update: From reader Anonymous: The recommendation charts are somewhat helpful, but as a skate tech who works with skaters for a living, I can tell you the charts are not always 100% on the money. The charts don't usually take into account the skaters body size, weight, hours per week he/she skates, how he/she breaks down boots, etc. I have customers who are 65 lbs. and working on Double Axels and the boot I recommend for them is not going to be the same as the boot for a 150 lb. man working on the same jump. Also, there is a major difference between a skater who is a "test" skater at, say, the Intermediate level, and an Intermediate lady who qualifies for Junior Nationals. So I always look at the "whole picture", not just the chart.

Update: From reader Helicopter Mom: Take the coach's advice too. They have WAY more knowledge about all kinds of skates than the other moms at the rink.

Update: From reader Ethelapple: Heat molding is great -- and so is "bumping out" the boot to get a little extra time before having to buy that next pair!

Update: From reader Anonymous: In general, I have found that an excellent pro-shop may have better boot and blade fit information than the coach.

What do you think? Let me know if you think I’m way off base with this one. Better yet, let me know if there’s a way to save money on figure skates that I don’t know about. Have a horror story? Share that, too!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hey, Mom. Stop Coaching from the Stands

This post is courtesy of Cap’n Obvious (left). However, some moms don’t recognize Cap’n Obvious, even when he’s staring back at them from across the hockey glass. This post is for them.

I’m sure every rink has one of these figure skating moms: she’s in the stands, behind the hockey glass, shouting instructions to her figure skater like: “Hold your landings,” or “You’re wide stepping.” You might even have seen this mom pull her figure skater off the ice to lecture the skater about edges.

Mom thinks she’s helping. I know she does. The truth is: she’s not.

Look, Mom. You’re not a coach. And if you are, you know better.

Your role: be your skater’s number-one fan. That’s it. You’re in charge of encouragement and making sure that your skater turns out to be a normal human being.

You are not to shout instructions to your skater from the stands, the hockey box, or the mini van. Mom, you pay good money to qualified coaches for that instruction. Do not interfere. You are in charge of mental health and a normal life. And driving. And paying the bills. But not coaching. Coaching is for coaches. Skating is for skaters. Parenting is for parents.

Mom, your amateur coaching is harmful. You know that money you pay coaches? Well, if you’re coaching on the stands, add a lesson or two for the coach to undo your damage. Include some self-doubt in your extra lesson calculations for the complex you’re giving your skater. Your skater wants to please you, Mom, but also wants to please her coach. Whom should she follow?

You’re also pressuring the poor kid. Kids are not widgets that perform the same as other kids, learn the same way as other kids, or progress as fast as other kids. They are people, not gears or cogs. People are different from one another, so you can’t expect your kid to learn a jump at the same rate as some other kid. You can’t stress out because another skater has passed a moves test and your skater hasn’t. Your sidelines coaching puts pressure on your skater and will delay her progress instead of furthering it. Plus, she’ll never feel free to make mistakes and learn from them. Add some extra professional coaching lessons to compensate for that, too.

Your in-the-stands coaching is also pretty awkward. Shouting from the stands distracts other skaters. They worry about the pressure you’re putting on their friend, but they also worry that maybe their moms will think that amateur coaching is a good idea, too. Moms who recognize that in-the-stands coaching is a no-no look away from you when you shout and move their blankets to another part of the bleachers.

Some of you might feel your skater traps you into the amateur coaching role. I’ve seen skaters ask Mom how a spin or jump looked. Mom struggles to say something intelligent, but that’s where it all goes wrong.

Here’s what you say, Mom, when your skater asks you for feedback, “It looked great, honey. You’ll have to show your coach.”

Stick to the script, Mom. Deviating from the script leads to long-term trouble with amateur coaching. Resist. Be strong. Smile, nod, and wave the kid back out on the ice.

That’s not to say that parenting from the stands isn’t a good thing. It’s a fabulous thing. Want to parent from the stands? Here’s how:

  1. Watch your skater and give her a periodic thumbs-up.
  2. Sit with other moms and clap for every skater when each one finishes a program.
  3. Smile and nod whenever your skater asks for feedback or approaches the hockey glass for a conversation. Do not say anything; just keep smiling and nodding.
  4. When your skater stands around at the boards and chats with friends, wave her over, give her a stern look, and make a skating motion. It’s perfectly fine for Mom to tell skaters to use their ice time well.
  5. You can do anything the coach authorizes you to do. I’m authorized to do a ride ’em cowboy motion whenever Ice Girl does a rodeo arm movement with her lutz. That’s great fun, I tell you.
  6. Be your skater’s biggest fan. Watch her and let her know that what she’s doing is important and interesting.
  7. Hugs and love. When skater comes off the ice in tears, offer the hug. When skater comes off the ice with a smile, offer the hug. 
Update: Counterpoint from reader Anonymous (thanks, Anony!):

I agree with you coaching from stand with so many people around will probably do more harm than good. but I think you go too far by saying parents shouldn't make any technical comments on any or most circumstances.

I am sure there are parents out there who played gymnastics, ballet or even ice skate etc... who have some valuable experiences who can share with their kids ... like how to rotate the body efficiently, how to transfer weight properly etc... I believe they are qualify to comment on the skaters. Of course it doesn't mean they becomes an authority higher than than the coach.

What I am trying to say is, no one should feel guilty by DEEPLY participating in your child's sports. If you have previous experiences in related sports, feel free to do it. It is a blessing that you can discuss with your child at that level. if you do it properly and respectfully, you can have a more intimate relationship with your child. I would love to see my daughter come to talk/share with me about the technical details of the jump that she knows I may not 100% understand but knows enough to chat or help her to spot the problem. Rather than having her thinking - "mom won't understand the frustration of my axel problem, I would rather talk to my friends."

There is nothing wrong with trying to understand and/or comment things like ... why your right leg is not straight while you are rotating or why your head you not moving to the left when you are in the air.

The only thing that you should feel guilty undermine the authority of your coach or criticize/embarrass your kid in public.

Update: From the Professional Skater's Association's Ten Commandments for Figure Skating Parents: III Thou shalt not coach your child. You have taken your child to a professional coach - do not undermine that performance by trying to coach your child on the side. Your job is to support and love your child no matter what, and the coach is responsible for the technical part of the job.

Update: From USFSA's Parent Information: 10. Turn your child over to the coach at practices and competitions – don't meddle or coach from the sidelines.

Update: From reader Season: We also do not want to live our lives through our children. We as parents if we want to be skaters then we need to get out our skates take some lessons and get on the ice with our children. You can be more supportive on the ice sharing in what they are learning than you can ever be coaching from the sidelines.

Update: From reader Helicopter Mom: I AM trying to pay closer attention during her lessons (I used to sit in the warm room and read a book!) so that on sessions when she has no lesson (and I can pry her away from her chatty friends), she can't hit me with "I don't know what to practice!" So I try to see what the coach is working on with her so I can remind her that she might want to try working on that.

Update: Ateam on the Edge posted the profile of the skating parents we all try to avoid at the rink. Read about Dragon Lady and Darth Vader. 

So, parents, what do you think? Got a cure for the amateur coaching mom? Do you have a suggestion for sideline parenting? Leave your suggestions in the comments!