Monday, July 4, 2011

All or Nothing

When you walk into our rink, there are two posters that flank the front door. One's of a mom screaming at her sad hockey son, and the other is a dad screaming at his sad hockey son. Both have the caption, "Relax. It's just a game." I want to make some posters of a mom screaming at her daughter in a sparkly dress, with the caption, "Have a valium. It's just figure skating."

I know we skating parents like to claim all the sports crazy in the world for us, but we by no means have a monopoly. The crazy extends to all areas; tennis, golf, swimming, baseball, football, lacrosse, hockey, dance and voice. Anywhere there is a remote chance of a kid becoming a star, parents are throwing themselves into the work of pushing that kid into being that superstar on the Wheaties box.

The simple truth is this: The odds of your kid making it to the NBA, MLB, NHL and whatever the national leagues are for swimming and hockey are dismally small. Same for skating. It's more reasonable and sane to operate with the mindset of, "This is a recreational activity for my child, which encourages self esteem, provides valuable exercise and acts as a deterrent from substance abuse later in life" than it is to have the mantra, "OMG OLYPICKS!" Which isn't to say that I don't get stars in my eyes sometimes. I do, especially when I hear that Coaches like my kid and I get wind that others think him talented. I don't think I'd be a good parent if I didn't. But I do try to bring myself back down to earth and focus on the task at hand. Right now that's jumping on dry land.

Yesterday evening Stitch shocked himself by getting around more than 180. "Mom! I started out facing the tree and I landed facing the flowers! Do you think I can do it on one foot?!"
"Well, let's try it on the stairs first so you can get the height to do it."
Usually the ponderous task of jumping stairs on one foot is enough to remind me of reality. (He's getting better.) And I have this blog, which gives me some space for reflection and catching me in my own bad behavior.

Anonymom brought up some comments yesterday that mirror a conversation Dad and I had that same day about kids, skating, talent and fun. Dad and I were discussing coaches (Stitch was outside), and I was relaying my theories as to how these people operate: They troll the beginner classes for kids who seem to have some knack for it, they skim them off into their higher level classes with the assumption that the kids will "pick up" the basics provided they skate enough. That leaves the Coaches free to focus on "real" skating like jumps and spins in an incredibly demanding and cliquish environ, which girls typically respond to. This is actually Bela Karolyi's method; "Little girls are like scorpions. You put all the scorpions in a bottle and one will come out alive." (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,) It's actually exploiting Girl Psych. The kids that don't make it through this process of theirs, they don't want anyway, and they can weed the group down to the one or two who actually have a shot. This is just my theory, but Dad agreed and we both found it reprehensible. It literally trashes dozens, if not hundreds, of kids in figure skating simply because it burns them out or makes them feel incompetent enough to quit.

My little Niece was at the receiving end of a similar process. She's really little, and her mom and dad signed her up for a Gymnastics class. The coaches all thought she was the most talented little girl of the bunch, so they bumped her up a few levels. Suddenly surrounded by older girls she didn't know, doing things that seemed too hard, Little M sat down. She quit gymnastics, because the Coaches wouldn't let her take things at her own pace. 

Youth Sports is drifting towards a terrible "All or Nothing, Champ or Chump" mentality. Anonymom's comment that skating talent isn't determined until they have all six jumps and are doing "real" spins, I believe is a damaging way of thinking. And it's not just skating. Every week I listen to my coworker trash his own kid because the team lost at another baseball game. Anonymom, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be no value at all placed on The Swizzle or the Foul Ball, the lessons from absolute basics and loss.

It's cultural, too. Look at kid's clothing for sports. All little boy's tees say, "FIRST PLACE," or "TEAM CAPTAIN," or "CHAMP, STAR" or some other variation of THE BEST. There's no mention of the work it takes to become a champion, just the finished product. Worse, there's no value ascribed to doing something for fun or just recreationally, because either you're a champion or you're wasting everyone's time. Everyone wrings their hands and wonders why kids quit sports, opting for the safer route of vidya games and other mindless pursuits. I can give you my opinion why; it's because the focus went from Recreational Activity to BE A CHAMPION. Or perhaps the focus never was Recreational Activity to begin with. Parents or Coaches didn't care about the process, only the end result.

We've all seen the moms in the stands who berate their kids after lessons. "You're in Pre-Alpha now, so you need to stop walking like a Tot!" Mom, it's a process. It takes time. Your kid is adorable, and fabulous just the way she is. Her wonky one foot glide will get better. Focus on the Process, not the Product. It will make you and your kid much more sane and your journey much more enjoyable.


  1. "Youth Sports is drifting towards a terrible "All or Nothing, Champ or Chump" mentality. Anonymom's comment that skating talent isn't determined until they have all six jumps and are doing "real" spins, I believe is a damaging way of thinking."

    Actually what I was saying is exactly what the first part of your post was saying until you got to this bit.

    The early stages should be purely recreational because you really cannot tell who is talented and who is not at these stages. All kids will get all the early skills - some faster and some slower but that is not talent just natural differences in kids. Does not help anyone to bump some of them up to freestyle and tell them how talented they are. It feeds directly into all of the problems you describe and many of them will end up like your niece, poor baby, and others will end up doing things for all the wrong reasons and being snooty to other kids.

    There should be nothing "competitive" about it until kids reach FS3/4 when you actually can start to determine who is talented and who not. Then you can have tracks for competitive and recreational so both can keep excelling at their own rate. Making any kind of distinction earlier does no one any favors.

  2. ISI and Basic Skills comps are geared for Fun. That's why everyone gets a prize, for Fun. Anyone not having Fun is bringing their own baggage to the table. Yes, there is a competitive aspect to it, but that is not the focus. No one watches Muffy do Swizzles and think, "She's gold medal material," except her grandma.

    We set Muffy out there to have fun and show off her skills that she's worked hard at. And some kids are competitive, like Stitch. He enjoys competing. As for being snooty to other kids because he's competitive, that's tempered by parenting. Bear in mind, I don't go into a lot of parenting detail with Stitch because this is a skating blog, but I work with him to temper him. Anytime you see kids being snooty to other kids, just remember, kids are mirrors of their parents.

  3. "everyone gets a prize" is another problem with todays youth culture. Eventually you grow past that stage but you have been raised to expect that you will always get a prize, that you always deserve a prize. Eventually you are not going to get a prize and its going to be much more traumatic that it would have been if you had not been habituated to always getting a prize.

    In life, prizes are rare and special. You have to work super hard to get then, usually you do not get them. Sometimes you do not get them even when you deserve them. Why do we deliberately set kids up to expect something different?

    Muffy gets to show off her fab skills at the ice show and the prize there is knowing that you did your best, and if you are super lucky some flowers or a well earned stop at Cold Stone on the way home. Perfect childhood moment.

    Kids happily played self organized back lot baseball for decades before adults had to come along and ruin it by creating little league and pony league. Definitely an adult construct, not kid driven.

  4. Okay, well, I'm done defending my position so let's clarify yours.

    At what point do you think it is valuable and OK for a kid to begin competing? Under what circumstances would you condone competition? Is it okay for a kid with no real "high level" goals to compete?

  5. from a not being just silly perspective, starting at FS5 would make sense, but I could maybe see it from FS3/4 - in other words once they are achieving at a high level - there is a good reason why they can't audition for show solos before that level either.

    before that it should really be about learning not about competing. The competing aspect is where the toxic culture of rinks the people like to bemoan comes from. And its a big part of what makes the sport expensive and out of reach for many kids who would benefit a great deal from skating. And the "funny" part is that a large part of the competing is the parents competing with each other using the kids as a proxy. Exhibitions and ice shows are much healthier ways of letting kids showcase their skills at these levels.

    but once you have made it to FS 4/5 why would you need to have national ambitions in order to compete? Thats like saying I should not run the local half marathon unless I have the goal of someday finishing in the top 20 at the Boston Marathon. Competitive goals are fine but should wait for the right level of maturity and skill.

  6. I can see your perspective, I really can. In fact, my original intent was not to allow Stitch to compete before he got to Freestyle. But once he saw one, he wanted to try. And I didn't see an issue with it. Why the heck not?

    My position is, most kids won't get to FS 3/4/5 until years after they are into the sport. Why deny them the chance to really showcase themselves if that's what they want? And don't say "Ice show." You know and I know and the kids know that low level ice show group numbers are not taken very seriously. A minute, buried in with a dozen other girls as an act that's a go-between for soloists, is nothing compared to a minute on your own in a program tailored to you.

    Clearly, we are not seeing eye to eye, here. I have no issue with Low level competitions as long as they are held in the "Fun" sense. If other parents bring baggage to the table, that's their problem and not mine or yours. Ignore them. I laugh at them. Yes, every kid gets a prize, but you better believe that kids figure out fast first versus third. I covered this in an earlier post somewhere. A healthy amount of competition is good for a kid, if that's what they like. Stitch happens to thrive on it, and learns better with it. We're not alone, other moms have told me the same thing. Striving for first place makes a child work harder. So, in our sense, it is part of the learning process for him. Finally, telling a "low level" child that they exist solely for the benefit of higher level skaters or for a rink to concentrate their resources, time and spotlight wattage on them is damaging and discouraging to PreStyle skaters. Those High Level skaters come from somewhere.

    As to the marathon correlation, if it's just a half marathon, does it really count? After all, it's just half. Recreational Competing isn't terribly expensive, you don't have to do it if you can't afford it or don't want to or have some deep seated moral objection to it. If you want to consider it a beauty pageant, I'll let Stitch know about the flippers tomorrow.

  7. This is where my earlier feeling that "skating is not a sport" came from. The act of ice skating and learning the various possible moves (as well as the foundations to create new moves) is not itself part of a competitive game.

    Baseball: game. Football: game. Tennis: game. Golf: (god help us) game. You can't do these things without (at least generally) producing a universally agreed on score. The score is the point of each game.

    Cheerleading: not a game. Marching band: not a game. Theatre: not a game. Ice skating: not a game. The act of doing any of these things does not produce a score, because there is no game at the heart of the thing. You can create competitive events for these things, and create rules, levels, etc... but you can participate in any of these things without ever competing against others.

    Youth sports leagues need to understand that many of the younger kids that are just starting out simply want to have fun. The "winning" is secondary. Sure, winning can be more fun, but how much more is dependent on the attitude of the parents and coaches when the kids do not win.

    I can at least understand (though not agree with) this attitude of "if you aren't doing it to win, than why are you doing it?" from the game-based youth sports groups. I don't understand it from the skating groups. There is an existing separation between the "learning to skate/learning the moves" classes/activities and the "skating for competition" classes activities. Treating everyone as though they are only there to compete isn't fair to anyone.

    I was writing a long comment about the competitions and levels and all that, but I think it really boils down to this competitive mindset being applied to everyone, regardless of their desire to compete.

    Skating is supposed to be fun. Competing is supposed to be fun.

    To use something from my line of work: all that is needed for theatre is a performer and an audience member. That's it. The only difference between Mrs. Slotnick's Kindergarten class presentation of The Little Lost Puppy and a Broadway production of King Lear is money and time.

    Real skating doesn't start when someone says you have reached a certain proficiency. Real skating starts when the blades hit the ice.

  8. completely agree that real skating starts when the blade hits the ice (and when the tush hits the ice repeatedly!). I don't think my daughter's skating is not real (or very important to her) just because she is in the low freeestyle levels, not was it back in gamma etc. She was beta level in the christmas show and loved every minute of it. Is why all the energy devoted to making it so elaborate, competitive, and sometimes cultish baffles me.

  9. Skaters have different motivations / goals and I agree that in skating it's perfectly normal to be loving every second on the ice without desiring to compete. Athletic activities generally have recreational and competitive aspects, and playing basketball with friends everyday means a serious basketball lover on the recreational side, even though there is a "game". Maybe winning is not even the most important thing, it's the process of having fun.

    If competition is important to the skater, once-a-year local competition could serve as an effective motivator and really isn't a huge financial burden for an average skater's family. (Private coaching is necessary to compete, and skater at poverty level probably won't get this through rink funding) Although the ice show group numbers are fun for lower levels, skaters often do not get to perform to their full potential. And an annual competition serves as a good benchmark for the skater that grandma can witness, rather than puzzling her with a note saying Suzie passed FS3 with hard work and determination.

    As a recreational adult skater, passing FS5 and skating a decent show solo motivate me enough without doing competitions. While I applaud all skaters at the ice show (esp. tots and adults), I personally think pre-axel children usually don't have "solid footwork" unless they are on the dance track. It's often the cuteness and personality on ice that capture the audience.

  10. Skating is a self-starting sport, a sport in which the "game" played is not always against an opponent. The "game" that is so frequently mentioned in these comments is a game to be extremely self-motivated and self-starting to accomplish jumps/spins/edge control/artistry that, really, only the skater is capable of achieving.

    Sports don't always have to have a numerical system in order to be valid. And a game certainly doesn't need to have a physical opponent. Sometimes the hardest game you play is against yourself, and only the most head & heart strong come out of figure skating on top (which is not to say anyone falling below that is invalid as a player - their expectations are simply different).

  11. I have no problem with low-level competitions in which everyone gets a prize. There is something to be said for just getting out there on the ice by yourself and putting yourself before a subjective (to some extent more or less) judge. I mean, in my most cynical self, the world is filled with learning how to understand and play subjective games to get a "prize", as much as it is learning when to take and leave subjective critiques. Not the stated goal of a Snow Plow Sam competition, but there is something worthwhile to be gained in any level of competition, even one in which everyone gets a prize.

    Also, there is a different kind of learning that goes into preparing for a competition. Upping the ante a bit, working under a deadline, lighting a bit of a fire under needed to learn some skills...again, I don't discount any of this just because it's for a Basic Skills competition versus Nationals.

    That some level, it's "for real". No Test through Pre-Juv give parents and skaters a better taste for what it means to work hard - really hard - and put some muscle behind talent. There are a few prodigies, but mostly at the upper levels it's all "talented" kids who are working their butts off. At each level past No Test (in IJS), it seems that most skaters begin asking themselves "is this what I want to be working at on the ice?" Skaters don't necessarily stop working as hard - but, yes, the goals begin to change and kids/parents come up against some questions about themselves that are at the same time welcome and difficult.

    We live in a society that holds up the Champ, the Maverick, the Gold Medal. Just being able to say, "I also respect people who skate for fun or in a skating level/type different than mine as being *equally* worthwhile and 'worthy'" is a Big Deal and life changing moment for people that requires stepping far outside their Western Culture comfort zone. I think the process of meeting walls, of failing as well as succeeding is important in personal development. I wish we could sincerely embrace this for our kids...but Gold Medal Or Nothing can make it difficult.

    On the other hand, if a kid wants to compete For Real, no one is doing any favors by not being honest: sometimes, the judges are right and you weren't the best; sometimes, talent is nothing more than who is working the hardest. Life is mostly hard work.

  12. Here in the UK basic level comps only take place in closed club comps or they have the chance for gala's.

    Then the open comps like the ones your talking about is from beginner level which most kids can jump toe, salchow, loop with flip comping in the level one comps but this is after the beinner skateuk levels one to ten and three 'passport levels' which are the start of jumps. However here in the UK there are no half lutz or any half jumps on the levels its up to set coaches to teach it if they feel like it.

    I feel the way the US work with comps is probably better as you only have to look at the US results compared to the UK's recentenly and also see how much more conferdance and personality the americans have.

    There is nothing wrong with entering low level comps and if it fits into the budget and what the skater wants it gives something to work towards and achive the skills to copy.

  13. Geo_Ice_Skater, I'd love the insight you can provide to how the process goes in other countries. If you want to write a guest post as to how things happen in the UK, feel free!

  14. Thanks, If you look at my blog think you can get there my clicking on my name I speak of the UK side of skating/how a uni student sees the world

  15. Oh, By the way I dont minds doing a guest spot if you want one!