Figure Skating is an individual sport. I would argue that even though the pair, ice dancing and synchronized teams know best how to work together, the singles skaters could benefit from functioning in a similar way.
Most of how we work as coaches in North America with our skaters to help them become great has to do with “private” instruction or lessons. However, throughout Europe, many of the coaches and skaters train in group settings. Because of my seminars throughout Italy over the past three years and my recent participation at the ISU Singles Seminar in Ostrava, I have been reminded of the benefits of doing things in a “team” format. When I started coaching this approach made sense to me because when I was a young boy growing up in Garfield Heights, Ohio, I began playing football and basketball–team sports–before I ever put on a pair of figure skates.
There are many reasons why functioning as a “team” is useful for singles skaters. First and foremost the competitiveness associated with group instruction and interaction makes everyone better. This includes all of the coaches on your “team of coaches” who are helping you with your skaters as well as those coaches in your rink with whom you may not work. I realize a “team” environment is a difficult format to establish when parents are paying for your individual coaching time and other skaters and potentially competitors of their children who are also part of your team of skaters can well you know…let’s just say it is worth figuring out;) Get it?
Think of it this way: we all started skating as a team in group classes either in a USFS or ISI learn-to-skate program. So a FUN group setting with our friends is our initial orientation to this in individual sport.
The USFS structure is also based on clubs. Your club is the local “team” you become part of as you work the long, difficult hours it takes to become an elite skater which will hopefully and eventually lead you to Team USA. Once you are part of the international team it is no longer only about you and your goals. You represent your federation and are an ambassador for your country and your focus changes from reaching your personal goals to making your country proud of your efforts. What bigger team is there than that?
At my first international competition as a coach I was walking backstage with Ryan Bradley and we were getting the lay of the land when we past the “skating family” lounge. I explained to him that was where he could bring his family for food and snacks, etc. Needless to say once I realized they were not allowed backstage, it occurred to me rather quickly that I was now part of the International Skating Union “family” and what better way to feel part of a group/team than by using the word family. As a footnote, the skating family lounge still exists today some 17 years later.
Losing precious learning time and focus is perhaps the biggest fear of team work. About two months ago, I was the lead coach at the Air Force Academy inaugural figure skating camp and witnessed firsthand how much learning can still happen when administrators, coaches, skaters and parents share their experiences and function as a team for a week. The same is true for the Team USA Champs Camp, which I recently attended with Max Aaron and Mirai Nagasu. Throughout the week, I watched how the “team around the team” of coaches, officials, administrators, and off ice specialists (nutrition, strength, packaging, etc.) worked together to help each skater improve. Our kick-off motivational speaker was Andy Yohe, the captain of the 2014 Paralympic Men’s Sled Hockey team which won gold in Sochi. He grew up participating in team sports like hockey and basketball and was speaking to a group of individual figure skaters. Having attended every Champs Camp except for one, I have observed how the structure and atmosphere has changed from being so separate to being so inclusive. This is mostly because of changes the athletes have suggested like wanting to practice together and with mixed disciplines (ladies and men). This year the most fun I had was participating in the coaches team building activities (included in the schedule for the first time) with my colleagues, Kori Ade, Rafael Arturian, Peter Cain, Justin Dillon, Mary Lynn Gelderman, David Glynn, Peter Johansson, Christy Krall, Doug Ladret, Jere Michael and Suna Murray. It was so competitive and so much fun at the same time. We need more of that in coaching along with Christy Krall’s card tricks.
If you stay in the sport long enough not only will you become part of the ISU skating family but also the International Olympic TEAM and the newly added team event in figure skating. The Olympics is one heck of cool party where you come together with every coach and every athlete from every sport from all of the nations around the world. Yes, many of them are there for individual glory but all of them are there for a shared experience.
Speaking with Rafael it is obvious that the Russians know the value of placing the best athletes together in the same training center and having them work together as a team. There is no need to worry about the effects of teamwork reducing an individual’s will to win. All you have to do is read the interview with Adelina Sotnikova in the recent issue of International Figure Skating to see how the Russian strategy for winning the gold medal in the team event contributed to her winning the ladies singles event.
So the next time you think your skating and your participation in it is all about you, remember that it’s more fun to be part of a team, which by the way has no “i” in it as we all have been told, but does include “me.” And there is nothing wrong with having it both ways.