Thursday, August 30, 2012

It’s Music to My Ears

PS Magazine Sept/Oct

Beginning with the 2014-2015 skating season, the ISU will allow vocals to be used in both singles and pairs.

While I think I am in the minority on this subject, I can’t wait. My mind dreams of Kurt Browning performing his “Singing in the Rain” program. If you’ve never seen it, I would look for it on YouTube. Now I’m not advocating props and rainmakers, etc, but his interpretation of the piece is breath-taking and probably one of the greatest programs EVER! Another excellent example is Robin Cousins or Brian Boitano skating to Andrew Lloyd Webber's, “Music of the Night”. Ilia Kulik’s “Too Darn Hot”, or Michelle Kwan’s, “Fieldsof Gold” are also on YouTube. Search for your favorite skater and you will find many of their greatest programs, vocals and instrumentals alike.

Whether allowing vocals will be a good idea or not, I guess we will see; there are obvious pros and cons. Some of the cons that I have heard are that vocals are a distraction and that we are going to see program after program of rap music. I just don’t buy that. The sport, at least for the time being, is still judged by trained officials, and if the music is inappropriate or a distraction for them, it will reflect in their scores.

As we do know, most coaches, choreographers, and skaters will mimic what wins. It also doesn’t seem to be a problem for exhibition programs, which are in many ways more popular than competitive programs. We also keep hearing that our fan base is aging and dying off and ratings are poor. Are we going to gain viewership with our product as it is now? I don’t believe that lyrics alone will change that, but I do believe that it will improve the quality of the experience. ISI has been using vocals for many years and the Governing Council voted to allow vocal music for all programs up through the intermediate level judged under the 6.0 system (rule 4040). The ISU has allowed dance and synchronized skating to have vocals for some time. I don’t believe we have seen a rash of poor vocal music choices.

What I do believe is that choices are a good thing. As a coach, I want the opportunity to be able to pick out the best selection of music based on the skill and maturity of my skater, and what will give my skater the best chance to succeed.  If I pick Phantom of the Opera, I have a choice of vocals, no vocals, or a combination. I really have a hard time seeing how that could be bad. 

Monday, July 09, 2012


PS Magazine July/Aug 2012

Transitions in skating are defined as the varied and/or intricate footwork, positions, movements and holds that link all the elements. In singles, pairs and synchronized skating, this also includes the entrances and exits of all technical elements… transitions are extremely important, but the IJS is not what comes to mind when I think of the word.

This past April, NFL star Junior Seau took his life. To say this was a shock to his family and friends, but also to the world of football, is an understatement. More importantly, many questioned not only why, but wondered if it was somehow related to the sport he loved and no longer played. In an article published on May 11, 2012 in USA Today, author Jarrett Bell says a “chorus of former and current players” called for mandatory counseling for athletes transitioning to life away from the game.

Interestingly, while I was researching material for the CER course “2 GRO-W Champions”, the idea of transitioning athletes from our sport came up. While interviewing Dr. Clark Power from the University of Notre Dame, I brought up skaters struggling with ending their careers. This is something I went through personally. After an amateur career that lasted sixteen years and a professional career that lasted another eleven, I struggled with becoming a coach. I was struggling with the fact that I once was the star of a multi-million dollar show and now I was just one of thousands of coaches. If it wasn’t for a spontaneous conversation outside a rink on Cape Cod with Dr. Caroline Silby, a notable sports psychologist and former figure skater, I might have continued to be lost. As I explained my funk to her, she smiled and said, “You’re just mourning your career. You need to go though the process of mourning.” That short sentence made all the difference in the world. I needed to understand that I would get through this and my life could and would still have meaning. Dr. Power’s response to my story was, “This would be an area where we could be really supportive as coaches and talk about it, maybe talk about our own experience transitioning from performing and competing to coaching, and what that was like for us, and try to help the athlete. Maybe this is a time when we can get athletes to think about giving back to the sport through coaching.” Exactly!

Experts and former players referenced in the USA Today article say, “It’s typical for the adrenaline rush that can come from the NFL spotlight to be replaced by depression.” I agree and I believe it is an issue for many athletes. Two figure skating examples that come to mind are Oksana Baiul and Nicole Bobek.  Both struggled with addiction following their retirement. Kellen Winslow, a Hall of Fame tight end and director of athletics and student wellness at Central State University in Ohio, has developed a web-based career counseling program. In the same USA Today article Winslow says, “You leave the game, and all of a sudden it’s, ‘What’s next?’ The interaction needs to start way before a person is retired. If you wait until you’re retired, you’re behind.”

The loss of one’s perceived identity can be devastating to someone who has no support. It is a coach’s duty to help a skater bow out of the sport of figure skating gracefully, with joy and dignity. Quoted from “2 GRO-W Champions”, “It is probably one of the most difficult times in a skater’s life. They have lived their life as ‘Susie-the skater’ and need to learn how to let go and become ‘Susie-who skates.’ It is part of the process and it is a coach's responsibility to help them through this difficult process.” 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Under the Radar

PS Magazine May/June 2012

A few weeks ago, an e-mail was forwarded through several people, finally making its way to me. The message stated:

I have become aware of several coaches in our area who are flying "under the radar" in regards to the membership, insurance, background check and etc. Looks like it involves the type of coach who justifies it by saying, "I only teach a few hours per week and therefore it doesn't really apply to me". They have been seen coaching at recent test sessions, and are also signing up students for local Basic Skills competitions. Nobody wants to be the bad guy in this situation. The Clubs feel that it is up to the rink management/skating director and vice versa…

Amazingly, while 5,104 coaches can follow the rules, it continues to astonish me that some coaches do, in fact, believe they can fly under the radar. As one of the 5,104 compliant coaches, it upsets me to no end that some coaches believe the rules don’t apply to them. When I was a performer with Disney, I was told by an experienced soloist that it didn’t matter whether there were 10 people in the audience or 10,000…they all paid the same for a ticket. Every person who spent their hard earned money to watch me skate deserved the most I could give…every time! It’s no difference as a coach. We owe it to our skaters to be the very best we can be regardless of how much or what level we teach. The rule that was passed by U.S. Figure Skating should not be considered a punishment. It’s an attempt to provide our skaters with the most educated professionals.

I recently witnessed this phenomenon first hand. My wife, Jamie, and I are co-chairs for our local club competition. One month prior to the competition, we verified the compliancy of the 89 coaches attending our competition. Of those coaches, 7 were not compliant. We sent out e-mails to those coaches and all seven responded. While 6 either became compliant or were compliant under a married name, the 7th coach did not make an effort to become compliant. Over the course of 4 weeks, the non-compliant coach received 7 different e-mails and responded to 5. Each of our messages reiterated the requirements set forth by U.S. Figure Skating. As you can probably guess, the coach showed up anyway, arguing with multiple volunteers and finally the chief referee. In her opinion, since she had been at multiple test sessions and competitions that did not check for credentials, why should she need them here? So we became the bad guys. Following the competition, we sent a thank you to all the coaches and her response was:

To whom it may concern,
My skater and I did NOT have a good experience. This was due to a misunderstanding with CER certification for myself that was poorly handled at two different times by two different people involved with your club. Both times were in front of the skater while she was preparing to test and compete. No apology was given to the skater or myself once the misunderstanding had been cleared. I have already voiced my concerns with the USFSA and I know the parent of the skater intends to do the same. We will not be returning to test or compete at your skating club, nor will we recommend testing or competing to other skaters and coaches from our club.

First of all, thank you, please don’t come back. Secondly, there was no misunderstanding…we communicated with her what she needed to do to be compliant 7 times over 4 weeks! How could she be surprised when approached at the test session and competition about being non-compliant? This coach, who is not currently a member of PSA, was issued an Ethics Violation for Non-Compliance of Coaching Requirements from both PSA and U.S. Figure Skating.

Regarding an apology, if anyone should be giving an apology, it should be the coach to her student for creating a situation that she had every opportunity to prevent. Unbelievably and what really strikes me as funny is that she had one skater there and guess what? The skater…WAS CATEGORY B COMPLIANT! How embarrassing is that!

I wish this was an isolated occurrence, but it’s not. While “under the radar coaches” exist, they continue to exist because there are clubs that just don’t put forth the effort to enforce. While PSA is reviewing the coaching lists at as many competitions as we can, we need your help. All coaches can help change the culture and attitude about continuing education, a standard in many professions. The reality is that it is both an honor and privilege to coach at a U.S. Figure Skating event, not a right.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Change is Inevitable - Growth is Optional!

Over the Edge Mar/Apr 2012

It seems to be the time of the year when all I read on the internet regarding skating is how IJS has ruined the sport. In an article widely circulated on the web by Monica Friedlander of, former Canadian skating star Toller Cranston was quoted as saying, “The way it's judged now, the more you can do the more points you get, so everything is overproduced and generic.” Also quoted in the article, the beloved Janet Lynn, called the IJS “a totalitarian system of measurement that does not breed freedom on the ice or lift the human spirit.”
Although Toller and Janet have earned the right to speak out, I respectfully disagree. Had Toller or Janet really been involved in the sport during the challenging transition from 6.0 to IJS, the interview and comments may have sounded a little differently and have more merit. From my perspective, I would say that Alissa Czisney’s Dr. Zhivago program from the 2009 U.S. Championships in Spokane would challenge the most esteemed champions of the past. How about Jeremy Abbott’s Day in the Life short program or from last year, Ryan Bradley's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy? I don’t agree with the statement that IJS does not breed freedom on the ice or lift the human spirit. It just bothers me that critics who don’t like the system take it out on the thousands of skaters out there currently giving it their all.
So let’s say we listen to the critics of IJS and go back to 6.0…how does that make the sport better? The skaters will still be the same and would they not have the same skill set? Back in the 6.0 system, is the quad going to be any less relevant? Back in the 80’s, rules were continually changing to try and limit jumps. In fact, it has been a constant tug of war since the turn of the century…I’m referring to the 1900’s. Then again, switching back to 6.0 will allow fans to boo the judges again directly. What I believe has always been is that there are skating enthusiasts who love the theatre and those who love the athletics.
Under the international judging system, judges award points for five additional components - skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography/composition and interpretation, as well as the grade of execution of skills. Now guess what… didn’t the judges consider those same components as well as the technical ability of the skater to prepare their marks in the 6.0 system? Go to youTube and watch Toller Cranston. Do you think he couldn’t compete in an IJS system? He would kill. Even with his lack of jumps at today’s standard, could Toller be competitive? YES! He may not get the points in the jumps but as Evan Lysachek showed at the Olympics, you can get your points other ways. What has changed?
The only real difference I see between the skaters of today and those of yesteryear is the quality of flow and edges (besides the obvious growth in the number of revolutions in the air). While there are some who have those unique qualities today, it’s not the norm. I don’t blame this on IJS, but on two additional points.
The first, the elimination of figures - those of us who did figures, regardless if we were good at them or not, learned to “sit” on an edge. We learned how to work the ice with our edges, to feel the bite of skating “in” the ice. How about lilt? When was the last time you heard someone use it in a lesson? I’m not even sure today’s skaters, other than dancers, would understand the term. Today’s skaters have difficulty understanding those concepts…but it’s not their fault.
The second - the volume of new skaters beginning in the 1990’s through the mid 2000’s overwhelmed our teachers and coaches. In a frenzy of hiring new coaches to keep up with demand, actual skating skills and a lack of experience was often overlooked. Personally, I was thrust into group classes with absolutely no idea on how to teach basic skills. Teaching a double Axel, no problem; teaching a swizzle to a group of 4-year olds, not so easy. In 1996 when I became a skating director for the first time, the learn to skate school went from 650 skaters to over 1100 almost overnight! I had no idea were to find quality instructors. I was looking for anybody with a heartbeat who could stand up in skates…owning their own skates was a plus! Eventually, many of my older competitive skaters came to the rescue and they brought great energy to the classes. This was not a problem exclusively in my arena. It was happening all over the country and besides the teenagers, many adult skaters with almost no experience or background were teaching. While most could demonstrate the skills, many of these new coaches lacked the knowledge and experience to break down the skills to provide a solid foundation of “skating skills” like turns and steps.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is what it is…I love skating…yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Don’t tell me that these kids today don’t have the heart or passion. Don’t belittle their accomplishments because you don’t like the system. The past is the past and tomorrow is the future. To stay the same or to go backwards…not an option… we have to move forward!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Willful Tolerance

In the Loop, PSA E-Magazine - Issue 1, February 2012

In my “Over the Edge” editorial in last months PS Magazine, I wrote about abuse in coaching, emphasizing that it is imperative that coaches be diligent in keeping an eye out for suspect or abusive relationships. As it was reported regarding the Penn State fiasco, this was not always the case. Many adults in positions of authority ignored the signs of abuse or simply didn’t report what they saw. While it could be considered a criminal act in some instances, willful tolerance, as it is being called, definitely exposes the observer to civil liability.
As I understand the term, willful tolerance is the practice or act of ignoring wrongful deeds. Willful implies intent or purpose. Tolerance implies the allowance or sufferance of conduct with which one is not in accord.
My concern is that coaches and club officials, who understand that they have a duty to protect the skaters, do not report abusive situations to the proper authorities, but instead choose to share the information with their peers. This does little to end a bad situation and generally makes it worse. But why do we not report these issues? It made me curious as to why this happens so I did a little research.Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., was quoted in a recent article by Maia Szalavitz regarding the Penn State crisis. She asserts “… that somehow, when we’re with other people, we lose our rational capacity or personal identity, which controls our behavior.” In comparison, coaches and officials are often more concerned with the public fallout of an issue.Penn State football coach Joe Paterno appeared to have either looked the other way or maybe even covered up for the accused Sandusky, rather than reporting him to the police. Said Levine, “[This] suggests that group solidarity with the football team still takes priority over support for abused children at the school.” That is, in a nutshell, willful tolerance.
Another possible factor identified by social psychologist Stanley Cohen is denial. Often, bystanders repress the information or refuse to admit that an incident has occurred. What happened to the witness in the Sandusky case is what Cohen labeled “interpretive” denial – trying to transform or minimize the significance of the action. Research suggests that when a witness’s own perception of the world around them changes negatively, “they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.”
Finally, Levine refers to the ‘50s when all adults took responsibility for all children. Today it is every family for themselves. Most people would think twice before acting, fearful of being condemned for stepping in.
Hopefully, in the future when witnessing an abusive or illegal act, the outcome will be different. The author Szalavitz concludes, “Understanding the psychology of these situations can help increase the chances that bystanders will step up when people need assistance, but it does not excuse the failures of those who do nothing.” We have a duty to put the needs of the skater first; doing everything in our power to protect them from harm. As a person of authority, this is our responsibility ALWAYS!

Read more:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Doing the Right Thing

2012 Jan/Feb PS Magazine

Watching Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN 2, Mike Greenburg quoted a line from the movie, A Few Good Men, surmising that the excerpt represents the people that sat by for years and let dozens of children be sexually assaulted by former Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky. If you recall, the movie is about a group of Marines who following orders, unintentionally kill another soldier and then is covered up by the superiors. At the end of the movie, Judge Randolph finds the accused guilty of conduct unbecoming a US Marine and orders Lance Corporal Dawson and Private Downey to be dishonorably discharged. A bewildered Downey asks Dawson what that means. Downey doesn’t seem to understand that they have done something wrong…they were just following orders. Dawson answers that as Marines, they were to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves and on this occasion, they failed.

I agree with Mike and the screen writer; we are here to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But what does it take to do the right thing? Even Joe Paterno said he wished he had done more. I think the most disturbing fact surrounding Sandusky was that he got away with his predatory behavior for over 13 years and it was not a secret! Reading the Grand Jury investigation report, there were many opportunities for witnesses to do the right thing. Even when investigated by authorities, they dropped the ball. How many children were abused because know one stepped up in 1998 when the first allegations came to light?

Significantly, this is not a new problem and not one you would generally associate with football but in society in general. As I wrote last year, USA Swimming reported that they banned 36 coaches over the previous 10 years for sexual misconduct. Literally as I write this, a lawsuit has been filed in Indiana targeting USA Swimming, Indiana Swimming and a school district. In addition to looking for financial compensation, the suit seeks the firing of top officials at USA and Indiana Swimming. It was reported in the Indianapolis Star, that officials had a couple of chances to stop the coach from molesting the child. Again, what does it take to do the right thing? Burying your head in the sand and making believe that nothing happened or that someone else will report the activity… is just unacceptable.

Three years ago, US Figure Skating passed a motion that all coaches and officials must pass a background screening. Many professionals criticized the plan; felt it was unfair and too expensive.

Two years ago, PS Magazine published an issue entirely on Ethics, its featured article Tough Times written by Olympian and PSA Governor, Paul Wylie. An unforgettable quote from the feature, “What can we do to daily live up to our best intentions? Obviously we must adhere to a minimum standard of ethics.”

A year and a half ago, at the request of Paul Wylie, the PSA met with Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL hockey player who had been subjected to years of sexual abuse by his junior coach. Sheldon was a co-founder of Respect in Sport, a Canadian company whose mission is to educate athletes, coaches, officials, and parents on appropriate contact. They met with US Figure Skating as well. Following this meeting, US Figure Skating and PSA decided to produce a sport specific e-course on abuse. Just completed, PSA partnered with several noted experts, Dr. Clark Power of the University of Notre Dame's "Play Like a Champion TM" program, Dr. Max Trenerry of Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Gloria Balague from the University of Illinois – Chicago Circle. The objective of this two-part course, CER ET 201/SS 206 “2 GRO-W Champions”, is to provide coaches' education on the definition, recognition, elimination, and prevention of abusive coaching, and the building of safe training environments.

At the Annual Conference and Trade Show in Dallas this year, PSA presented a panel discussion regarding abuse in sport which included Paul Wylie, Sheldon Kennedy, Pat St. Peter, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar. A three time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, Professor Hogshead-Makar is Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, and an authority on Title IX, the NCAA rule on equal play.

Also this year, PSA reached out to ISI and implemented a combined grievance process. By signing this deal, the PSA was able to help ISI close a loophole that had allowed the opportunity for questionable coaches to keep teaching once they were excused from either PSA or US Figure Skating. Also this year, ISI has implemented their own requirement for coaches to pass a background check.

I am proud of the fact that PSA has long taken a stance to promote ethical coaching. I am also proud that together with US Figure Skating we were able to produce the CER course on abuse as well as support US Figure Skating’s commitment to producing a safe training and competitive environment. While no system is perfect, we understand that a motivated pedophile can get past our safeguards. This is why it is imperative that coaches be diligent in keeping an eye out for suspect or abusive relationships. We owe it to the children to do our utmost to protect them. I suggest that you take 2 GRO-W Champions sooner than later…It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.