7/23/2022 0 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.
Athletes know that four of the main types of exercises are balance, strength, endurance, and flexibility. In many sports, balance is one of the most under-rated, often being overlooked in workouts in favor of the other three.
So what is balance and how do we achieve it?
Merriam Webster lists many different definitions, but for athletic and yogic purposes, we generally refer to physical equilibrium—the ability to balance and not fall over; to mental and emotional steadiness; and to finding a happy medium between conflicting or interacting elements.
It is widely known that one of the most common predictors of injury is muscular imbalance. Yoga combats this by constantly working towards muscular balance—every movement and posture is practiced bilaterally and is geared towards balancing effort and relaxation.
Additionally, yoga helps develop our actual balance (physical equilibrium) by challenging our sensorimotor control systems. Specifically, yoga challenges our vestibular system, our sight, and our proprioceptive awareness. Many movements or postures such as vinyasas and inversions stimulate the vestibular organs, while the twisting and turning of the neck and head challenge the sensory input our brain receives from our eyes. Strong, balanced muscles, good proprioceptive awareness, and healthy eyes and vestibular organs lead to less falls and less injuries.
Just as importantly, yoga works to balance the two nervous systems and hemispheres of the body. It recalibrates the brain. In the modern world of constant stress and overstimulation, young athletes need as much attention to this area as any adult. Yoga begins by calming the breath because it is easier to calm the breath than the mind. In his book titled One Simple Thing, yoga teacher Eddie Stern says, “If stress levels are high, yoga practice will down-regulate, particularly through breathing, the parts of the brain and endocrine system that are responsible for hormonal release of adrenaline and cortisol.... (Yoga) restores the functions that are out of alignment toward a state of balance.” (74)
Don’t have time for a long practice? Begin with the following 6 poses and practice them mindfully, focusing on keeping the breath full, smooth, and even for the entire practice. Breath becomes short or labored? Then back off on the effort level. Remember—the goal is balance, not intensity.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Hand to Big Toe Pose. This is a great posture for a daily balance check. When standing on one foot, try to feel the opposing actions of grounding into the standing leg from the hips while lifting from the waist through the crown of the head. Keep the glutes of both legs engaged—they help support the standing leg and may help lengthen the adductors of the raised leg. Use a strap around the foot if the hand doesn’t reach the big toe. In part B, turn the head at the same time as you open the leg to the side to help with balance. Hold A & B 5 breaths each on each leg.
Garudasana. Eagle Pose. This pose enhances awareness of alignment and develops the sensation of opposing forces. The glutes squeeze towards each other, inner thighs, shins, and arms do the same, but all in different directions. The standing leg roots down, while the elbows and torso rise up. In figure skating this pose is often taught with a twist to the torso to mimic the last position of a jump before checkout. Pressing the outer shin of the free leg against the shin of the standing leg adds stability. You can rest the toes on a block for balance. Gaze can be upward or forward, depending on what is most appropriate for you today. Hold each leg for 5 breaths.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana. Revolved Crescent Lunge. Athletes know that lunges build strength, which helps balance. Adding a twist further challenges the balance. Squeeze the sit bones towards each other and lift the front of the extended leg, pushing out through the heel. Engage the core to twist and hold and press the upper arm against the outside of the thigh to create more twist. This pose is said to build confidence and courage. Option: lower the back knee to the mat. Hold on each leg for 5 breaths.
Ardha Chandrasana. Half-Moon Pose. The standing leg uses the gluteus medius to stabilize the pelvis and maintain balance, while the lifted leg is using the gluteus medius to lift. Weakness in this muscle limits balance. Work to create maximum energy and extension in all directions, as extension facilitates balance, even though extension takes extra strength and flexibility. Turning the head towards the lifted hand further challenges the balance. Place the hand on a block or on the floor--whichever you feel gives you more stability. Hold each side for 5 breaths.
Paschimottanasana. Seated Forward Fold. While this is a very effective pose for lengthening the hamstrings, this pose is also important for massaging the abdominal organs and resting the heart, which calms and balances the mind. Engage the quadriceps and hip flexors to avoid overstretching the hamstrings. If the low belly is on the thighs, you may wrap the hands around the feet and clasp the fingers around the wrist. If hands don't reach the feet, bend knees to your comfort level, take chest towards the thighs and clasp hands behind knees or rest them on shins. Hold and breathe deeply for 1-2 minutes.
Viparita Karani. Legs up the Wall. This is by far my favorite pose. I do it when I'm stressed, tired, when I’m getting ready to travel, or when my legs are extra achy. Some say this is the #1 pose for every athlete and every yogi to do every day. Place a blanket a couple of inches from the wall (or chair or bed), Lay on the blanket with hips slightly off the edge. If hamstrings are tight, you can move blanket further away. Arms can go in a T, overhead, or on the belly. Place a blanket over feet to warm them and help legs stay vertical with minimal effort. Breathe deeply and evenly, and stay for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Notice how your heart rate slows and your mind becomes more centered.
Sit in silence in a comfortable cross-legged position for a few minutes after your practice. Keep a soft gaze or eyes closed, hands resting softly in your lap or on your thighs and notice how you feel.
There are so many other poses that can be added to this sequence to help develop balance, but these are some of the most effective to begin with to target both the body and the mind.
Click here for a downloadable pdf of this sequence including pictures of the poses. If you choose to try it out, let me know how you feel afterwards by leaving a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1976.
Long, Ray MD FRCSC. Key Muscles of Yoga: Your Guide to Functional Anatomy in Yoga. Independent Publisher, 2010.
Solloway, Kelly. Yoga Anatomy Coloring Book: A Visual Guide to Form, Function, and Movement. Get Creative 6, 2018.
Stern, Eddie. One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How it Can Transform Your Life. North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2019.
Young student athletes may not realize it yet, but parents in competitive youth sports know that even though the days are long, the years fly by.
If we know this, then why don’t we learn to savor the little moments of the sports journey instead of rushing about from one thing to the next, cramming as many things into a day as possible?
When we strive for efficiency just to achieve more (rather than as a means to free up time for hobbies and quality time), then efficiency is just code for pressure.
And the pressure we have created here in the US has spread around the world. Recently I met some friends from Guadalajara, Mexico whose children attend the American School there—a bilingual private school that issues both a Mexican and a U.S. high school diploma. Although they are Mexicans living in Mexico, my new friends said, their kids are expected to keep up with the pace of the American academic system, applying to dozens of universities and participating in multiple sports and activities. It’s all about standing out from the competition.
I am a highly sensitive recovering perfectionist who suffers from anxiety and is easily overstimulated. As such, competition is a chronic stressor for me. While I have implemented many tools to be less bothered by others' words and actions and to stay grounded in my own journey, many days are still a struggle.
Do more, be more, buy more, the world around us says. When the pace of growth and information overload makes our bodies and minds suffer, it’s time to step away from the competition and courageously and honestly give ourselves a reset.
What kind of reset? Sometimes a reset may look like embodiment practices such as restorative yoga, conscious breathing, and walking in nature. Other times it may look like journaling, meditation, and talk therapy. Even other times, though, that reset might look like a dramatic change of scenery.
Over twenty years ago I learned that one of the best ways for me to reset my nervous system—bring it back into balance—after chronic overwhelm was to get far away from the outside influences and expectations pulling me in all directions. I like to go far enough away that it’s clear to myself and others that communication will be minimal while I’m away.
If you or others have a hard time respecting your boundaries, or if you are easily overwhelmed by competing demands, this type of physical distance can be a helpful tool for a personal reset.
To be clear— getting away is never an escape from your problems long-term. You must do deep work on yourself for any change to be lasting.
Mindful travel, however, is an opportunity to reset your nervous system out of fight or flight mode and to help you see things through a different lens.
To this end, I decided to travel to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino, or The Way, is a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. The first pilgrims made their way to Santiago nearly 1000 years ago, as the pilgrimage was one of three main pilgrimages in which Christians could earn a plenary indulgence. The main route follows an earlier Roman trade route and stretches from France across the northern part of Spain to Santiago and all the way to the coast at Finisterre.
Most definitions agree that a pilgrimage is a lengthy journey often on foot or horseback to a destination of special significance—such as to a shrine or other sacred place—for some spiritual or deep personal reason.
While traditional pilgrims made the trek to Santiago for purely religious reasons, now people do it for all sorts of reasons. What is clear, though, is that most pilgrims choose to walk the Camino to experience a period of reflection and to reconnect with themselves or nature. I met people along the way recently divorced, widowed, retired, and graduated, and I met whole families, school groups, military squadrons, best friends, and solo travelers.
I chose the Camino because I wanted to reset my mind, body, and soul after many difficult years working in a toxic environment. Additionally, I needed to let go of old thought patterns holding me back, and I hoped to feel connected to the shared humanity of everyone who had walked before me. Besides, I love to walk, and being in Spain fills my heart with joy. So, what better time and place for contemplation than on the Way?
Pilgrims can begin their journey at any point along the Way, but to receive an official “compostela” –the document certifying you have completed the Camino—you must complete at least 100 km on foot or 200 km by bike. You must also have a “credencial” or pilgrim’s passport stamped at least twice a day during the last 100 km of the Camino. To walk the entire 500-mile route may take 5-6 weeks. Since I only had a few days, I opted for the most popular journey of 115 km (about 70 miles) in 5 days.
(To learn more details about the Camino, visit the website of the Pilgrim’s Reception Office, or to understand more specifically about the compostela, check out this article by Correos, the Spanish postal service.)
Athletes and sports parents looking for a break or departure from the competitive lifestyle can find their reset on the Camino and learn a lot about life and themselves in the process:
Whether or not you make it to the Camino de Santiago, these are valuable lessons that hold true for our journey through life and sports.
Northern Arizona has four seasons, unlike the rest of Arizona. Phoenix is glorious in the winter, and miserable in the summers, and the landscape is made of various shades of reds and browns. It’s beautiful, but it stays the same year-round. When I lived in Arizona, of all the things I missed about Kentucky besides my family, I missed the changing seasons the most. That most visceral reminder of the passage of time and the cycles of life is like a road map guiding us on our journey. The timelines of my memories from Arizona aren’t as clear as they are of memories from other places simply because the landscape doesn’t change very much throughout the year.
Life is full of transitions—from one season to the next, one relationship to another, beginning and ending semesters, changing jobs, growing children, retirement, and on and on. Sometimes we mark the dates on the calendar months in advance, and other times, radical change is forced upon us at the most inopportune times. Everyone knows this, and writers of all genres from ancient literature to pop songs have written about it. The only thing constant is change, right?
Yet, as humans, we try to fight the end of a season and cling to what is in front of us, sometimes even while we are dreaming about something different. A summer’s last hurrah, the sledding adventure in March, the pleading with an ex-boyfriend to please come back are all examples of this. In our professional or athletic lives we can be completely burnt out and still want to stay in the game. Why do we resist making a change(s) that is necessary to move us forward? Because our brains are hard-wired to be fearful of new things and because change can require a lot of work.
One thing you realize as you get older, though, is that changes will come whether you are ready for them or not. Family members get sick, we get injured, children and parents get older, the economy goes up and down, accidents happen, and people around us make decisions that impact us. Right now, I’m closing another chapter in my professional life to hopefully forge a new one a few years sooner than I imagined. At the same time, I am caring for a very ill, aging aunt who just wants to feel safe and loved, and helping my son write essays for the convoluted high school application process we have in our school district.
In mid-summer I did not know I was heading towards any of these concurrent paths, yet somehow I ended up here. And I’m trying to be more present than ever for my family, maintain my health and sense of self, while still serving the students I deeply care about.
The question begging to be asked, then, is how do we adapt to such sudden changes? How do we navigate life’s big transitions gracefully?
I find the answer to be simple: Always go back to a yoga practice that incorporates breathwork, asana, and meditation. There are many reasons this works, but my favorite way to explain it clearly is that the breathing sets the stage for the movement, and the movement helps you sit still enough to meditate comfortably. The breath and the movement work hand in hand to balance the nervous system and strengthen your stress response. Then, in the stillness of the meditation is where you can find what you’re looking for—the courage to identify and let go of whatever is extra and stand firmly present in what matters most to you.
The sooner we get used to idea of constant change (for good and bad), the sooner we can stop fighting the transition and go with the flow. Don’t get too attached to the phase of life that you’re in—try to experience it in its fullest, because you never know when the next chapter will begin. In the meantime, do more yoga.
Don't know where to start? Check out some of my free practices.
Leaving competitive sports behind is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. Either you're the one who chooses to end it, or someone or something chooses for you. When you retire from sports, sometimes it’s because you don’t make the cut for the team, or maybe you have a career-ending injury, you graduate, a parent loses a job or they get divorced, or maybe you just don’t love it enough anymore to keep making the required sacrifices. Or maybe a tragedy (or pandemic) leads your peers to grow apart and your family to reevaluate your current financial and emotional investment. No matter the reason, leaving competitive sports almost always entails an agonizing transition for an athlete.
One of my students recently decided to stop skating. It had been a long time coming; I had seen the signs for a while, but I thought she would be able to hold out for one more year of high school and to pass one more skating milestone. When she came to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the sport, she was distraught. Being at the rink makes her anxious and she doesn’t feel good about herself when skating anymore because she isn’t achieving goals quickly enough. (As in any sport, the higher you go, the harder it gets to maintain the level of athleticism required to progress and stay interested.) She doesn’t have time to get all her schoolwork completed, participate in the other extra-curriculars need for college apps, keep a part-time job, AND skate. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, she feels like her rate of progress is being used as a gauge for how others around her feel about their own progress. Whether or not others are actually paying attention to what she is doing now is irrelevant—she believes that is the case, so the environment is no longer good for her.
This is not the first conversation I’ve had like this. In fact, for over twenty years I’ve been having similar conversations with almost every teenage athlete I have taught. Skating is a sport that specializes early, and since it hasn’t traditionally been a collegiate sport, most skaters wind down by the time they get to high school. It’s a problem that US Figure Skating is trying to rectify by offering other programs and paths besides the traditionally “competitive” route that you see on TV and by pouring energy into the collegiate skating program. Ultimately, though, the athlete feels pulled in all directions. Their friends change, schoolwork intensifies, they want to try new things, they might get a job, and skating just gets too hard to continue. While many athletes in skating and other sports do stick it out to graduation, most eventually go through a similar transition at some point during or after college.
Yet, the transition is a tough one. “What will I do now? It’s all I’ve ever done.” I’ve heard this statement so many times from young athletes, and when I stop to put myself in their shoes, it can be quite terrifying. I remember what it was like in college to be without the sport I had chosen when I was 4. I also remember what it felt like when my first love left me (also while I was in college). Both felt like being thrown into the deepest abyss imaginable. It was all darkness, and I couldn’t imagine a life different than the one I had known before. I struggled to let go of both and kept searching for ways to maintain contact—with both skating and the boy.
If the time has come for a chapter to close, though, then ultimately you will make the leap or be pushed. You shouldn’t stay in a situation that no longer serves you just because you don’t know what else is out there—that only leaves you feeling more heartbroken, more resentful, and even worse about yourself. (Side note: I did meet a woman once who told me, “never quit your job or your boyfriend until you have the next one lined up”, but as I’ve become much more in tune with my mental health over the years, I definitely do not agree with her!)
What’s next, then, once you foresee the big leap? Here’s what I told my student:
Buckle up, feel all the feelings, give yourself some grace, and enjoy the ride.
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 young athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life outside of sports.