Here is the third entry of my favorite figure skating moments of 2014:

8. Mao Asada’s Olympic freekskating performance. After a devastating short program two days earlier, the 2010 Olympic Silver Medalist skated her heart out and moved all of us to tears. Twitter exploded with support for her and she showed all of us the true meaning of being an Olympian and the sometimes overused adage about never giving up. While many argued about Yuna and Carolina being underscored, Mao was perhaps the most underscored lady of the evening because she skated in the third to last warm up group.

Here is the second entry of my favorite figure skating moments of 2014:

9. Abbott and Aaron earn three spots for the US Men at the 2014 World Championships in Saitama. Not since the post Olympic World Championships in 2010 have the US Men earned three spots for the next year. The combination of Jeremy Abbott (5th) and Max Aaron (8th) were the magic numbers to start the next quadrennium with a full slate. Best wishes to the US men this year to push for the podium and maintain the momentum.

Here is the first entry on the list of my favorite figure skating moments of 2014:

10. The Professional Skaters Association is approved as the coaches education organization by the United States Olympic Committee. Way back in 1992 when I was appointed to the PSA board of directors by then PSA President Kathy Casey this was a primary goal. Both she and Carole Shulman and now Jimmie Santee and subsequent presidents: Bob Mock, Gerry Lane, Cindy Geltz, Robbie Kaine, Kelly Morris-Adair and Angie Riviello-Steffano worked to make this happen. They say change is slow and that may be true but perseverance and diplomacy pays off. Congrats PSA!

IJS for Elite Figure Skaters Only

I am writing my November blog because I have been thinking a lot about the mixture of judging, coaching and athlete performance in terms of everyone working together toward the common goal of Team USA single skaters consistently reaching the top of the world podium again like they did in the 80’s and 90’s. Before I write further I want to congratulate the Russian and Japanese skaters and coaches who are dominating the Junior and Senior Grand Prix events. They truly are an inspiration.

My perspective is quite unique since I have coached full-time and worked with great pride to produce TEAM USA athletes from the grass roots level to the world level for 24 years. Currently, I do not believe our junior athletes are working thoroughly enough because this is the first time since 2001 that no junior US single skaters have reached the final. Let me explain why I think I can say that. Since its inception in 1997, I have coached at 11 JGP/SGP Finals in ladies, men and pairs. At seven of them I have coached two or more skaters (singles and pairs) and at four of them I have coached two singles skaters and two of them I coached three single skaters. In singles, I have produced two singles champions, five silver medalists and one bronze medalist. These credentials I feel give me an understanding of how hard our skaters have to work early in the season to be able to handle the high risk elements required in their programs under the pressure of qualifying for the final–let alone peaking there with a podium finish.

What I think contributes to this mentality of not working hard enough on the part of many skaters (some of whom I coach and have coached) is the risk vs. cleanliness of programs strategy necessary to advance in the US qualifying competition structure.  This begins at the lower levels, specifically regionals and continues as the skaters climb the ranks. I have had several discussions with many officials and colleagues while at Skate America, Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup about this issue. I want to reiterate the importance of the officials and their vital role in our sport. Because all of us couldn’t just keep “teaching and learning and practicing and testing” without becoming bored, once a year we register for the “qualifying” season. (A tad bit of tongue-in-cheek humor but also somewhat true.) This is the reason I think our officials have the final responsibility in this equation. When we (coach and skater) produce our work and a judgement is made in terms of scoring (much like what a judge does in a courtroom or on the Supreme Court), everyone on the skater’s team looks at what and how things have been decided and adjust their focus and emphasis accordingly. This is a natural occurrence since everyone who is competitive wants to advance to the next competition–and the judges/technical panels have the power to decide who those skaters are.

In the 6.0 system it was obvious the “private” scoring sheets of each judge left the skater and parent and coach to “wonder” — even argue — about what could have been better or what were the reasons for the placement. This “gray area” I believe was a good thing. In the IJS there is little left to wonder about as it is all very much clearer as to why and how each skater received their points. While many see this as a good thing and I believe it is for the elite levels, because I have always coached at the developmental levels, I see how many of the young skaters since 2003-4 when the IJS first began have dabbled in the sport for several years but eventually chose other paths mainly because their result sheets tell them very precisely their points are not competitive enough. That harsh reality (not just being a few tenths behind but more than 20-35 points behind) eliminates the “hope and wonder” (Thank you Kori Ade for using the same word in Moscow) in the back of their minds about what could be –and thus the potential of the next season and eventually their future in US Figure Skating. There was something hopeful if a skater failed in the 6.0 system –though not necessarily true– about looking at the ordinal sheet when many times the placements were not unanimous and saying, “The judge who gave me 3rd liked my ______________ (flow, smile, jumps, program, etc),” when you didn’t skate well and placed low. The protocol sheet in the IJS doesn’t offer that kind of hope to the lower placed skaters. This has obvious effects on participation at the regional level and overall membership.

Please do not mistake my comments for displeasure with the IJS. I like it very much as I stated earlier in the title of this blog—for the highest levels of figure skating only. I just do not believe the current structure of the IJS in the US is appropriate for developing the “risk taking” and “once chance only” mindset necessary for eventual podium finishes at the World Figure Skating Championships. (Thank you Brian Orser for confirming this in the airport lounge.) USFS has the stats which say the US has many of the best component skaters in the world within our top 10 at nationals–yet we are still without world medals. This specific data was shared with coaches at the recent Elite Coaches College and Champs Camp.

As several officials have recently told me the parents of skaters who are also club level officials and/or representatives who attend Governing Council are saying they want the IJS for the developmental levels because it seems to be more fair and clear. This trend of using the IJS at the pre juvenile level and lower is happening all over the country and I believe supported by the Professional Skaters Association (I love the PSA but I disagree politely in this area). My response to concerned parents would be the officials and coaching professionals who know more about the development process say this is not appropriate and for the above specific reasons–no need to rename them. Simply put, there is a time and place for everything. Just Google “child brain development and elite performance” and several articles by K. Anders Ericsson (2007) regarding the importance of deliberate practice and the quality of training pop up. Hold that thought.

The IJS risk/reward ratio for attempting 2a and triple jumps at the juvenile and intermediate levels does not allow for a fiercely competitive growth mindset to be developed as proven by Carol Dweck and her groundbreaking research (she cites Ericsson) and a glance at all of the protocol sheets from all nine regional championships. Unless modifications are made as have been in countries like Canada and Russia, the penalties for failure of these elements are so severe that in relation to the cadre of double jumps which the average competitors will complete there becomes no mathematical way to place in the top four and advance with one or two “holes” in a jump box from failed attempts of more difficult (and naturally more inconsistent) high-risk jumps. When the IJS is used at the lower levels the skaters immediately start thinking about points (and not because their coach tells them) when they are learning how to compete and this is the last place (get it) their minds should be as they are developing. Thank you again, Brian Orser for affirming this point, too.

No parent of a potentially elite athlete wants that type of failure even in the early phases of the development process so the decision is made to skate clean. They at least want their child to be in the mix and advancing to sectionals is part of the way they know that. Rachael Flatt, Jeremy Abbott and Ryan Bradley all had cheated jumps at the lower levels in the developmental process under the 6.0 system and received only .1 to .3 off their technical mark when these errors occurred. I believe the “base mark” in the 6.0 system served the purpose of rewarding risk taking. Currently we have a base value for each program in the IJS but that total does not factor into the results. Perhaps it should as the degree of difficulty does in other judged acrobatic Olympics sports like diving, ski jumping, aerial skiing, gymnastics and snow boarding. (I will personally e-mail this blog to Alexander Lakernik, chair of the International Skating Union technical committee.)

Secondly, aside from the importance of the judges in scoring, rewarding and thereby developing athletes, I also feel many judges have a predisposed mindset of wanting to see a complete performance at the lower levels –which may seem like the fairest way to actually judge and assess– when really this expectation should be impossible for 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 year olds for obvious physical reasons. LET ME STATE CLEARLY THAT IN NO WAY SHOULD BASIC SKATING AND PERFORMANCE SKILLS BE NEGLECTED, but due to the fact that no skater learns perfectly and immediately each coach’s responsibility is to “juggle” various developmental aspects while at the same time maintaining trust with the skater and parents who are paying for their participation in our sport. Clearly, USFS has the stats to show that there is slim to no correlation between placing in the top three at nationals in the lower levels in relation to skaters reaching the World Team even after many years of hosting Junior Nationals and justifying it as an important step in the developmental process. This information was presented to the parents at the recent national novice camps. So in my mind that statistic is really the best argument for placing a higher value on risk taking at the lower levels since almost all of the best overall quality skaters who have great basic skating details and performance talent never seem to last past the novice level and rarely make it to the highest level. See Wikipedia for the exact names of many of the skaters who are national juvenile and intermediate champions who the general public has never heard of. Believe it or not only Max Aaron, Ryan Bradley, Jason Brown, Ricky Dornbush, Evan Lysacek and Ross Miner have been on the podium at the juvenile and/or intermediate levels and made it to the World and/or Olympic Team. And coincidentally, if you scan the protocol sheets for the juvenile and intermediate men at all nine regionals they reveal more risk taking than the ladies most likely because those events do not have as stringent qualification (i.e. no initial round and less total skaters). The only woman to do this is…..Keana McLaughlin and she did it in pairs and not singles. Incidentally, I know these stats because I am currently writing two IJS strategy courses for the PSA and have been doing a lot of research.

Too much success too soon for a “young, talented star” as John Nicks once told me makes the skater “hot and noticeable” but is not necessarily good for the developmental process. On the contrary, instead of placing the highest value on rewarding complete skaters at the lowest levels the judges could expect to see a more complete skater after 10-15 years of practice in the sport not after 3-4 years (which is typically how long it takes to get to the juvenile and intermediate levels).

I hope those of you who are reading this find my comments provocative, appropriate, sincere and without blame or criticism. I fully respect and value everyone in our skating family and I hope there is an intense discussion in coming months as ballots are prepared and votes cast in order for our sport to advance and thrive in the US once again.

Best wishes this holiday season,


Clash of Skaters

I am addicted to Clash of Clans. You know the 2012 freemium mobile MMO strategy video game developed and published by Supercell, a video game company based in Helsinki, Finland.

And for good reason. I play it on my I-Pad–without a controller. Many times you tap the screen and the game plays itself. In a nutshell, it’s all about developing and building your own personal village from nothing but a town hall and some money and elixir (a purple magic potion of sorts). Of course you have to save money and buy things and make decisions and have a plan and then make mistakes and so on…much like life and figure skating. You can even opt out of the “battles” and choose to participate as little or as much as you want. Of course we all know Hillary Clinton’s quote about it taking a village and this game shows you that in spades.

I was a reluctant player at first (being 51 and not of this instant access generation) until my 10 year-old son, Dylan, asked me to join his clan. He set me up in a few minutes which included picking my name. He chose “awesome.” I immediately explained to him that was not a good name since I didn’t even know how to play the game and it might be misleading. He said, “That’s ok, dad, I named you after me because I am your son.” To which I asked, “What is your name?” He answered, “awesome2.”  I guess he is a chip off the old block and doesn’t lack in confidence.

One of the instant benefits was much needed father-son time. Every night we connect–either in person as we play on the chair in our living room or long distance over the internet when I am coaching in some other country–and share our progress. I have learned many things from my son which is an important right of passage moment for every parent.

I learned right away that he needed to be taught how to coach. For example, when I couldn’t catch on to the fact that I didn’t really have to build the wall– he grew impatient with me. After a few minutes he finally offered that if I simply touched the builder he would do it for me. I had to explain to Dylan that I was intuitively challenged and he needed to not assume that I knew everything he knew. Over time he developed patience with me and I with him. And he began to offer many details and hints that helped me. Eventually the student started teaching the teacher. Another great metaphor for coaching.

When I quickly started to “win” attacks and reach higher levels (I have a level 8 town hall as of this publishing) he was kind of surprised. After I found out how to join his clan (he left the one he originally put me in) he left again because he was embarrassed that his dad was in his. That is until yesterday when he joined my clan and asked me to promote him. Now he knows I am worthy enough and he might be able to learn a thing or two from me. Rite of passage times two.

This whole process has been enlightening for me as a coach whose job is working with skaters of all ages many of whom play COC themselves. It is definitely enhancing my coaching because being able to talk intelligently about COC raises my “cool” points. Even Mirai Nagasu is playing as I found out on our recent travel day to the Japan Open. Ashley Wagner also informed us that Ryan Bradley got upset with her because she wasn’t playing enough and booted her from his clan. If you are in the skating family and playing COC send me a message, I am awesome in the StarofLife Clan and level 48. Come find me. Tweet at me. Facebook me. Or we can chat at the “clan” or “global” level.

The other night I was frustrated because ever since I had advanced to a higher level I noticed I was losing more battles (yet another skating metaphor). Dylan said, “Dad that’s part of it. You can’t win every battle. You have to lose sometimes. It’s ok. Just rebuild your defenses and upgrade this…” and so on. And once he put it that way I knew instantly that of course I can continue to play this game since I have had to do similar things in my life already–albeit on a much more real and serious level. It was then I began thinking this really is a good game for him to play if he is learning things like this without a lecture from mom and dad…

And so as the figure skating season begins with the regional championships upon us, consider the process: build, scout, go to battle, strategize, rebuild, go to battle, take time to decorate and enjoy the treasures you earn, make decisions carefully, listen to those who coach you, rely on your support team to help you through the battles, share with the people in your clan, communicate in the chat room and above all–have fun while you are doing it. Remember whether you win or lose doesn’t really matter. It’s how you play the game. And more importantly with whom you play the game.

Good luck to all of the skaters, coaches and parents around the world who will “clash” this season! May the best skater win.

Coach Tom Z (currently contemplating “farming” to reach a level 9 town hall)