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,