7/23/2022 2 Comments
The Secret to Being a Good Figure Skater
It’s no secret that to be a good figure skater you must be a good athlete. And to be the best kind of athlete in any sport, you must include strength and agility, cardiovascular, plyometric, flexibility, psychological, and even dance training. For a great summary of some of the athletic demands of the sport, you can visit this video on the Olympic channel.
Many elite level athletes also include yoga in their conditioning regimen. In fact, Professional teams such as the USA Women’s Soccer team, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and the New Zealand All-Blacks, among others, have mandatory team yoga practice. Lebron James credits his yoga practice for helping the health and longevity of his career. Individual Olympians, such as Olympic figure skaters Evan Lysacek and Madison Hubbell have both been very open about their yoga practice and how much it has helped their mindset and performance.
For some reason, though, many skaters and coaches think of yoga purely as flexibility training and only want teachers to work on the fun, deep, Instagram photo worthy poses. On the flip side, they think of yoga as a rest period for low impact days.
Yes, yoga asana (the physical practice) can help figure skaters with flexibility, strength, and balance, and it can be a gentle practice for rest days, but it is so much more than that.
Have you ever thought of yoga as off-ice endurance training for figure skaters?
Endurance Training for Figure Skaters
Endurance for figure skaters is typically taught through program run-throughs, power classes with high intensity interval training, double program run-throughs, and the like. These kinds of strategies, though, only train a skater’s anaerobic systems.
For anaerobic training to be effective, the skater must have a minimum base aerobic capacity. With aerobic training, which is generally done at a medium intensity over a longer period of time (think approx. 30 minutes). The skater’s resting heart rate lowers and the lungs begin to process oxygen more efficiently, among many other benefits.
Another measure of conditioning is the VO2 Max—a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, or how efficiently the body uses oxygen. The most accurate tests for VO2 Max are done in laboratories and can be quite expensive, but some athletic trainers are certified to use a less sophisticated test, and some smart watches can even give you a rough estimate (although I don’t know how accurate they are). An athlete’s V02 max is partially genetic but is related to fitness level and can be improved through high intensity training. It does typically go down as we age, though.
What if an athlete is doing all the training typically recommended for improved aerobic capacity, but their V02 Max number and their endurance don’t improve? Sometimes improvements don’t come because of lack of training intensity, inadequate recovery between trainings, forgetting to plan for breaths within the choreography, and maybe even performance and practice anxiety.
Or, as this yogi likes to argue, maybe the athlete doesn’t know how to breathe properly?
Figure Skaters Need Yoga
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health titled Yoga versus physical exercise for cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children: a randomized controlled trial evaluated the effects of yoga versus physical exercise training on cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children. Researchers recruited 802 students from 10 schools across 4 districts. Students were randomly assigned to receive either an hour of yoga or an hour of physical exercise daily over a period of two months and then tested their V02 max. The results were very promising, suggesting that yoga “can improve cardio-respiratory fitness and aerobic capacity as physical exercise intervention in adolescent school children.”
Another study titled Effect of Yogic exercises on aerobic capacity (VO2 max) that was published in the International Journal of Recent Trends in Science And Technology studied college age students over 12 weeks of yoga therapy. These researchers also concluded that “yoga practice can be used to perk up cardiorespiratory fitness.”
It is widely known in the scientific research that yoga decreases resting heart rate and can help us breathe more efficiently. After all, everything that we do in yoga is about manipulation of the breath.
An asana (physical posture) practice involves pushing the body just to the edge of our comfort level—just far enough that we might be a tad uncomfortable but are still able to breathe smoothly, fully, and evenly.
Pranayama is an arm of yoga practice designed specifically to regulate the breath through specific techniques and exercises.
Both of these practices are very powerful—they stimulate the vagus nerve, recalibrate the nervous system, balance the hemispheres of the brain, lower the resting heart rate, and improve oxygen saturation. Additionally, specific pranayama exercises help teach techniques that can increase lung capacity and control the rate of respiration.
What figure skater doesn’t need all that?
Breathe Like a Champion Skater
There is a technique to activity-specific breathing—singers have one technique, swimmers have one, actors have another, and so on. Runners practice timing the breath with their stride rhythm, and power lifters practice using the breath to lift more safely.
In skating, though, few coaches but the elite of the elite really talk much about the breath, except to yell “Breathe!” across the ice at their athletes as they gasp for air like fish.
For some skaters, breath control and stamina come fairly naturally as they progress in skill and level. In fact, most people only breathe with about one-third of their total lung capacity and this functions just fine for them.
For others, though, breath control and stamina are incredibly challenging. Sometimes this is due to genetics and limited off-ice aerobic training, but other times it is related to asthma, allergies, and/or anxiety.
In times of stress, we tend to take even more shallow breaths than normal and muscles often tighten, which raises the heart rate, which makes us even more stressed. The body does not know whether the stressor is real or imagined—it only knows that the breath is shortened and the posture tense, so it sends signals to the brain to release stress hormones.
This series of responses is biological, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and is necessary for combating threats to our survival. It is the fight or flight or freeze response.
In an athletic situation, the threat we face in training or performance is not usually to our actual survival, even though it may feel as such. For some skaters who have a history of breathing trouble due to allergies and asthma or who simply struggle with stamina due to genetics, the fear of having an episode during a performance is enough to provoke anxiety causing even more shortness of breath.
Shallow breaths caused by whatever reason will lead to fatigue and less than optimal performance. The skater does not get enough oxygen into lungs, the stress level causes the body to process oxygen less efficiently, lactic acid builds up faster, and fatigue sets in earlier.
Under these circumstances, the process and performance are not enjoyable. Eventually, if a skater experiences this enough, they will burn out and leave the sport.
There is hope, though!
Breathing exercises can develop underutilized portions of the lungs as well as strengthen the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
The diaphragm is a very flat muscle located just below the lungs that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. It is attached to the sternum, lower rib cage, and spine. It moves rhythmically with the breath. As it contracts, it flattens out and makes room for the lungs to expand within the rib cage. As it relaxes, it goes back to its normal parachute shape and expands into the chest cavity, creating pressure on the lungs to blow out air.
The diaphragm mostly works on its own, but we do have some control over it, which allows us some measure of control the rate of respiration and breath retention.
The Intercostals are muscles in the rib cage further responsible for expanding the lungs and chest for breathing.
Besides helping us breathe more fully and efficiently, exercises that work these muscles can also help athletes relax to ride out waves of anxiety or breathing episodes.
Off-Ice Exercises for Figure Skaters
I was not a very well-trained competitor. Due to geographical challenges, exercise-induced asthma, severe allergies, intense perfectionism and anxiety, and a late start with training, I struggled with stamina once puberty set in.
One thing I learned early on in these struggles, though, was the importance of the exhale.
When I was in middle school I attended a talk in my city by Nancy Hogshead, gold medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. Meeting her and hearing her speak was very inspiring to me, and her book Asthma & Exercise was a game changer for me because of the practical tips and breathing exercises it offers. Specifically, she suggested one exercise that focuses on the strength of the exhale, suggesting readers to work towards lengthening the exhale to two times the length of the inhale.
Through this exercise, I discovered that a longer exhale can also help calm anxiety. I don’t remember any coach, doctor, friend, or mentor telling me this. My body just remembered having helped with asthma and started naturally focusing on the exhale as a distraction to whatever was bothering or scaring me—usually right before medical procedures.
Later, as I began studying yoga, I realized that this type of exercise is central to a well-rounded yoga practice and can easily be taught to skaters wanting to improve their overall quality of breath and endurance.
Below are two simple exercises you can try for yourself or suggest to someone you think might benefit.
I like to practice both of these exercises using yoga ocean breath, where you slightly close off or constrict the muscles at the back of the throat so that inhales and exhales make a slight ocean sound. Practicing this way can increase oxygen consumption and allows for a more controlled, focused exhale—like blowing up a beach ball where you expel the breath through the valve.
Conscious Diaphragmatic Breathing
1. Lie on the floor in a comfortable position—perhaps with legs extended and a pillow under the knees or with knees bent and feet on the floor. You can also do this exercise sitting in a chair or in a cross-legged position, but I like to begin practicing it on the floor with the eyes closed. I find it easier to focus on the correct movement this way.
2. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.
3. As you inhale, try pushing your belly out using the diaphragm. You will notice the movement by feeling or seeing the hand move up. The hand on the chest should stay as still as possible.
4. Then, when you exhale, imagine you are blowing up an enormous beach ball by blowing air out forcefully through your nostrils, with the back of your throat acting like the valve. Gravity helps relax the diaphragm to begin the exhale, but you must activate the abdominal muscles to speed up the exhale and complete it fully.
5. Begin by counting to a slow count of 3 on the inhale and 3 on the exhale for a few rounds of breath. If that feels good, try lengthening the exhale to a count of 5. If that does not feel good, go back to the 3-count for both.
6. Breathe like this for 5 minutes, at least once a day. After several days of practicing, you may gradually work your way up to 10 minutes, perhaps placing a light book on your stomach for added effort.
Note: You won’t breathe quite this way when skating—the inhale will be more natural and automatic during most of the activity because of the way the brain asks for oxygen and the lungs have a spring-like reflex. In other words, you won’t need to think about taking a belly-full, diaphragmatic breath.
However, since it is not effective to relax the core as we are skating, the diaphragm has a hard time flattening on its own… this means we often have a hard time expelling the stale, used air (aka excess carbon dioxide). If we use the abdominal muscles to forcefully exhale as in this exercise, we can effectively create room for more new air to enter the lungs.
Also, we can use the abdominal muscles to control the length and timing of the exhalation, which can help lower the heart rate. It’s a win-win!
To begin the transition to the ice, you can practice this exercise exhaling through pursed lips—like blowing bubbles in your drink through a straw—or maybe even smiling and blowing out through the teeth.
Conscious Rib Cage Breathing
1. Stand with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart and knees soft.
2. Place the hands at your sides, cupping the bottom ribs. Thumbs will be towards the back side of the body and the fingers towards the front.
3. Breathe normally for a few rounds of breath, noticing whether your hands move in and out on the inhale.
4. Then, begin to breathe deeply, trying to push the hands out to the sides. Try to fill the lungs completely—all the way out to the edge of the shoulder blades and up to the collarbones.
5. Gently contract the abdominal muscles to give yourself a slow, long exhale.
6. You can begin by keeping the inhale and exhale the same length. I like to use a slow count of 4, but you may prefer to count to 3 or 5—do what feels best for you. Begin practicing for 30 seconds, gradually working your way up to 2-3 minutes.
7. Once you get comfortable here, you can try to implement the ocean breath, and maybe switch to making the exhale a little longer than the inhale.
I love this exercise because it brings awareness and mobility to an area of the body that is often overlooked—the intercostal muscles—and as a result, helps us breathe more fully. When I practice it, I still find nooks and crannies of the lungs and chest cavity that I didn’t know existed!
On the ice, I find the most benefit from this exercise when trying to take deep inhales, as it will help you take in more air.
Putting It All Together on the Ice
Practice the two exercises described above back-to-back to really feel the difference between the functions of the diaphragm and the intercostals.
Then, to put them together: exhale as you did in the first exercise—blowing out into the beach ball—and inhale into an expansive rib cage (another good reason to keep working on that pesky upper body carriage 😊). Repeat.
My favorite way to practice this combination on the ice is to swizzle and fan the arms overhead on the inhale, glide with the feet together while finishing the inhale. While still gliding on two feet, fan and press the arms back down to the sides on the exhale. Take a couple of laps this way, really focusing on how the breath feels with the movement.
If you have never done any breathwork and are having an episode asthma or anxiety, you should wait until you are feeling better, as you may have difficulty with these. If you experience any dizziness or lightheadedness while practicing, discontinue the exercise. Also, it is generally not a good idea to practice immediately after eating.
There are more exercises to share, but these are two of my favorites to begin with. If you try them out, comment below to let me know how it went for you and if you liked them, please share with someone you think might benefit.
Why Kids Figure Skate
While we sometimes see intense skating parents that push their kids to the limits from a very early age, the reality is that most skating parents just want opportunities for their kids to have fun, grow, learn, build self-esteem, make friends, and succeed.
We intuitively understand that play-based learning is crucial for our kids’ emotional, intellectual, social, and physical development, and we expose them to many different types of play—both structured and unstructured. In fact, play-based learning is currently the predominant theory in action in early childhood education.
When you observe a skilled Learn to Skate USA teacher, you see the fun and the learning taking place. Not all the learning is easily observable—the life lessons may take some time—but as parents, we know they are happening.
These are the reasons why we sign our kids up for skating.
Kids, on the other hand, try skating because a friend or relative skates, or because they saw an ice show, or their favorite anime character or Peppa Pig tried it, and it looks cool. They sign up because they think it will be fun, and they stay with it when they make friends.
If we become involved in figure skating to have fun and play, then why do so many young figure skaters eventually struggle with their mental health?
Mental Health in Figure Skating
Figure skating is a tricky Olympic sport that has traditionally encouraged early specialization for its athletes.
Since the days of Sonja Henie’s victory at the 1928 Winter Olympics, ladies figure skating has been dominated by teenagers. Teenage Olympic figure skaters don’t traditionally go to school full-time, and many must train far away from their families.
Most figure skaters are not bound for the Olympics, though, and parents, skaters, and coaches know that. After all, the Olympics only happen every four years!
Nevertheless, some skaters still want to aim high and work towards competing at national and international events. Competition for these spots is incredibly tough, and skaters with this goal in mind also may forego traditional school and move away from home to train. This is true for singles, ice dance, pairs, and even for synchronized skating in some cases.
In singles skating, this track of competition has most recently been called the “Well-Balanced” track, which is ironic, because to be successful you must lead a life that is anything but well balanced.
The competition structure in US Figure Skating has promoted a competitive overdrive among skating families. With very few opportunities for success and very little acceptance by the federation of anyone outside of a select few skaters, it’s no wonder many competitive figure skaters leave the sport traumatized. They feel as if the federation never valued them.
Ashley Wagner, Alysa Liu, Gracie Gold, and many others have all spoken out about some of the challenges they faced during and after their elite competitive careers.
US Figure Skating has made improvements in recent years by adding opportunities for those youth skaters not wishing to pursue a path towards international competition—the Excel program, solo dance, showcase, and theater on ice are all excellent options for figure skaters. Because humans are involved, though, even these new opportunities can be highly competitive.
A federation that appears to undervalue athletes as human beings and prominent athletes with mental health struggles are not unique to figure skating. What is unique to figure skating (and a handful of other sports, such as gymnastics and artistic swimming), is that we display our athletes in tight fancy costumes often when they are at their most vulnerable age and judge how they are “packaged”.
And then we tell them their placement is determined by how hard they work.
Beyond the intense competitive structure of US Figure Skating, young skaters face other pressures of many kinds. They are humans first, figure skaters second. More than they want to be great at skating, the vast majority of these young humans just want to please their parents, do well in school, and be accepted by their peers.
As they move into middle and high school, they become more aware of the family and financial sacrifices that allow for their participation. Additionally, they grow and experience significant body changes that make them more self-conscious.
At the same time, adolescent athletes begin to show more understanding of progress and placement in relation to their peers, and their homework load and school obligations (and phone usage) become more significant. All this can lead to poor sleep hygiene, which further exacerbates mental and physical health.
The higher the stakes of the competition, the harder it all is. As the hours of training required and the pressure to perform increase, so can the anxiety and all its symptoms and comorbidities. Skaters go to great lengths to improve their performance, often overtraining and falling into disordered eating patterns in effort to be “body perfect”.
Add injury to the mix, and you have a recipe for loss of identity, social isolation, dopamine depletion and all sorts of hormonal imbalances, loss of identity, and depression.
If young skaters start the sport just to have fun and be with friends, how does it get to this point?
Characteristics of Great Athletes
I have asked myself often if the institution of skating is to blame for the mental health challenges of figure skating, or if genetics and personality traits of individual athletes might also play a role. After all, my sister always told me that I was born anxious, and I am a figure skater (former competitor, now coach and parent) recovering from a lifetime of perfectionism and disordered eating.
While humans tend to revere their sports heroes and think they are invincible for their discipline, grit, perseverance, and strength, recent studies regarding the mental health of youth athletes show that athletes are just as vulnerable to mental health struggles as members of the general population.
However, young competitive athletes have additional circumstances that may trigger their mental health struggles. In an article titled “Mental Health in the Young Athlete”, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that young athletes “experience unique stressors that put them at risk for the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders.”
Kinesiologists and researchers Dr. Todd Sabato, Dr. Tanis J Walch, and Dr. Dennis J Caine reviewed research of the risk of physical and psychological injury associated with participation in elite youth sport. In their article titled “The elite young athlete: strategies to ensure physical and emotional health”, in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine they state that preliminary data suggest risk of injury among elite young athletes is high, and “there is concern regarding burnout, disordered eating, and the long-term consequences of injury.”
Furthermore, Drs. Sabato, Walch, and Caine point out that although science has long established that physical activity supports mental health, “intense physical activity performed at the elite level might instead compromise mental well-being, increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression through overtraining, injury, and burnout. The peak competitive years for elite athletes tend to overlap with the peak age for the risk of onset of mental disorders, increasing the likelihood of depression-based injuries.” The big question is why?
“Skewed to the Right—Sport Mental Health and Vulnerability” by Dr. Amy Izycky attempts to answer this question. Dr. Izycky is a former high-performance rower turned clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist specializing in neuropsychology. In her book she presents a theory that athletes are “skewed to the right” in personality traits such as masochism, obsessionality, perfectionism, and avoidance and “skewed to the left” in terms of internal acceptance and self-worth.
This means that in her research, elite athletes fell one standard deviation above average on a bell curve in these key personality traits and one standard deviation below in the others. Two standard deviations away from average signifies diagnosable mental illnesses. It stands to reason, then, that high-achieving athletes may be more vulnerable than the general population to tipping into a clinically significant state of mind.
As Dr. Izycky states, “(P)ersonality traits that help you to be an incredible athlete and may present as socially admirable qualities on the field or on the water—“he has such discipline, such control”—may tip you over into something unhelpful in everyday life.” (p.6)
Combine two opposite extremes of personality structure and you have a unique recipe for high performance athletics and mental health vulnerabilities. Any one of these characteristics taken to the extreme can lead to harmful behaviors and clinically significant disorders, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. When combined, these personality traits can feed off each other and can be exacerbated by the situational difficulties present in athletics, as described above.
Balance for Figure Skaters
Despite its reputation and tradition of pushing its athletes too far, there are many healthy skating clubs, amazing coaches, and beautiful options out there. Figure skating can offer a magnificent sports journey for your child, if you are certain to follow some key guidelines for maintaining a well-balanced figure skating life.
Below are my top tips for you to support your child’s skating journey AND their mental and emotional well-being:
Progress over perfection.
Say this one over and over until you and your young skater believe it. It’s easy to say, but hard to believe for some people. Celebrate the every day baby steps, which sometimes equals just showing up.
Stay focused on the process and present, rather than the outcome.
The journey is where the growth happens, where we build our community, where we build character and where we spend most of our time as athletes and parents. Achieving milestones are the fruit of this mindset.
Yoga and meditation are great tool for learning to be present.
Diversification, instead of early specialization.
You can start skating early and be very involved at a young age, but all the current scientific data point to the harms of overspecialization.
Good athletes make good skaters—allow your child to become an athlete first and develop a multitude of movement patterns in various activities they can enjoy for life.
Follow your own path.
Great thinkers dating back to way before Aristotle knew the dangers of comparison and the potential pitfalls of competition.
Each skater has their own body, personality, schedule, budget, interests, school, and family. Help your child set goals according to these priorities and realities and encourage them to keep their proverbial head down and plug away on their own figure skating journey.
Know that they do not have to compete, and make sure they know they are allowed to change their mind about their goals and even their desire to skate.
For extra stressful chapters of life, the goal may be to simply show up and connect with the skating community and move the body a little. You do you, because as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Build a kind, inclusive community and support system.
Your skater will need positive friends to connect with, and you will need other positive parents to share the journey with.
Find a club that values teamwork, respect, and camaraderie over competition.
Find parents with a grounded perspective and balanced mindset to talk with.
Choose a coach whose values support yours.
Finally, your coach can help you assemble a team of specialists—orthopedist, physical therapist, conditioning coach, yoga and mindfulness teacher, ballet teacher, choreographer, therapist, sports psychologist, nutritionist, etc.
Being a skating parent is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
Normalize failure and grace.
To quote Brené Brown: “There's a lot of darkness in learning, a kind of trying to feel your way through. Educators have the ability to reframe the conversation into, “Look, this is a powerful experience precisely because it's so uncomfortable, and if you are really going to engage and put yourself out there, you are going to fail.”... Failure is part of the learning process.”
When interviewed by Glennon Doyle on We Can Do Hard Things, Dr. Brown encourages parents to normalize things by talking about them, thereby removing the shame and stigma surrounding them.
So, let’s normalize failure amongst our skating community. Minor slip-ups, big mistakes, and massive failures--they happen to everyone, and every skater needs a bit of grace when they happens to them.
Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of potential mental, emotional, and/or physical illness or injury.
Athletes, coaches, and parents walk a fine line of pushing through when it counts and pushing too far. Observe without judgment, ask questions, and act when necessary.
It’s up to the parents and coaches to be alert enough to protect and support the skaters.
Limit the body talk.
According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Parent weight talk, particularly by mothers, (is) associated with many disordered eating behaviors. Mother dieting (is) associated with girls' unhealthy and extreme weight control behaviors.”
Social media, peer pressure, the “look” of elite figure skaters, and other mental health struggles make our skaters vulnerable to disordered eating patterns.
This means we must refrain from weight-based comments about anyone, including ourselves, which may be hard for those of us raised on diet culture. But it’s crucial to the well-being of our young figure skaters.
Seek counseling with a licensed therapist.
Sports performance experts are an important tool and certainly can help our skaters on their skating journey, but young athletes need mental health support beyond performance enhancement.
All experts and my 40+ years of experience agree that it’s best to be proactive and seek counseling before harmful thoughts and patterns become clinical. As young athletes approach adolescence and begin creating their identities, it’s crucial that they find their voice and use it for internal validation.
Therapists are a big part of this process and can help parents cope with stress of parenting a child in competitive sports.
Maintain outside interests and friendships.
This may be one of the hardest tips to implement. Our modern lives are so busy, and often our young skaters don’t even want to do anything else but skate.
Don’t let your skater become consumed by the sport, as this only leads to burnout. Injury, illness, fatigue, and boredom come for every athlete at some point, and your skater is no exception. They will need to lean on school and other interests and friends.
Keep it fun.
It can’t and shouldn’t always be about working towards a goal. Sometimes the work and progress are part of the fun, but sometimes we just need to play.
Science has shown over and over that play is essential to learning. Encourage your young athlete to play games while skating with friends. Allow them to take specialty group classes, such as jumps, spins, power, choreography, theater on ice, ballet, etc.
And most of all, keep yourself and your skater in check—sometimes parents expect too much work from their kids, and sometimes the skaters expect too much of themselves.
After all, it’s just skating!
Do you have a top tip for supporting mental well-being while participating in competitive figure skating? Leave comment below!
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete, the effects of toxic training environments, and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life in and out of sports.