I wish I had failed more as a skater.
Of course, I experienced minor failures every day in practice as I worked to achieve new skills, but not until the end of my career did I fail a test.
Most things in skating can only be really learned by doing, and sometimes things don’t really click until you start to learn something even harder. Take jumping, for example. At some point, in order to begin learning a double jump, you have to say that the single is good enough. You continue to work on the single, but you can move on.
However, I used to get so angry at myself for making mistakes in practice and needed my skills to be so perfect, that I wouldn’t allow myself to move on to learn new things.
I was so terrified of making mistakes, that I stunted my progress and robbed myself of the joy of achievement. Instead, I turned achievement into obligation and a requirement for proving my worth as a human.
We can go more in-depth about the pitfalls of perfectionism in a later post, but I will say that the best skaters are the ones who take risks and don’t let failure stop them from trying.
They are the ones that can hustle and skate with abandon and really push their limits.
So why, then, as a society, do we only celebrate our successes?
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
- Paulo Coelho
Deciding to Take a USFS Test
Valid tests are tests that actually measure the things they are designed to measure. Reliable tests are those tests that can be valid consistently across time and place.
Skating tests are as valid as any test can be, in my opinion. The Skating Skills and Pattern Dance tests, in particular, offer a curriculum and framework for skating development in addition to achievement milestones.
Skating tests are not always reliable, though, because even though skating judges are quite trained and always aiming to follow specific standards, there will always be some level of subjectivity.
Every judging panel is different, and every day is different.
The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can lean into the uncertainty and learn not to be flustered by it.
How to prepare for a test that may not be scientifically deemed reliable, then?
“It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
- Bill Gates
Failing a USFS Test
Sometimes, even when a skater is uber-prepared, a skating test doesn’t pass.
And sometimes, even when a skater feels confident and performs well, that skater doesn’t pass.
So… what causes a “Retry”?
There are lots of possibilities–maybe the skater wasn’t quite prepared enough or didn’t understand the assignment. Maybe they understood the assignment but had a mental lapse while performing and got confused. Maybe they were sick, stressed out about school, sad about some other news, or just overall distracted.
In a perfect world, coaches should only allow skaters to test when they are confident the student’s skills are above passing standard, and all judges would see things, in the same way, every time.
The reality, though, is that some judges are more strict about power and performance, while others may be sticklers for edge quality, and coaches have to make a judgment call about whether the skater has developed the right balance of all the criteria and if the skater will be able to successfully perform them in a stressful situation.
It is also true that some skaters have tremendous performance anxiety or are incredibly timid and may skate well below their ability in the performance environment. Sometimes skaters are trying to meet a test deadline for a club programming requirement, qualify for a synchro team, or compete at a certain level, so they might try to test knowing that their skills are borderline--meaning that one judging panel might pass it but a different panel would not.
I have also had skaters graduating high school and others moving out of state and out of the country, so I pushed them to try a test before an ideal amount of preparation.
For some skaters, particularly boys, things may not click until they actually get into the testing situation, so if you’re always waiting for perfection before you register, it may never happen! My son was a perfect example of this.
Coaches have to make a judgment call sometimes weeks in advance as to whether the student will be ready or not. Often, we make that decision and then a skater gets sick or hurt or overwhelmed with school work and has to miss lots of practice between the registration deadline and the test.
It is also true that figure skating is really hard, and testing is really hard for some skaters. The higher levels are incredibly difficult for skaters that choose not to compete because they have little performance experience.
In the end, the decision to test is a very personal one and shouldn’t be rushed, unless the circumstances really warrant it.
As I told one of my skating yogis a few years ago, “they won’t be asking you on your graduate school application if you passed your Junior Moves in the Field test at the same time as your friend or three months later.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
- Winston Churchill
What We Can Learn From a Retry
There are many things about our system in the United States that are not ideal. It’s incredibly expensive, training is not team-oriented enough, most cities can’t offer coaches a living wage, and schools are not always supportive of the absences required for testing and competing, among other things.
The fact that we can choose to skate (as opposed to being forced to by the government), though, and that we have this comprehensive testing structure to help guide skaters’ development is a huge asset.
Not every country has such a developed nationwide curriculum, and many others have none at all. Skaters in these countries have very few guideposts to help them in their skating journey.
So… we are lucky to have as many opportunities as we do to try and re-try.
What do we learn, then, when we have to Retry?
You Got a Retry. Now What?
While a Retry is never “fun”, it doesn’t need to be miserably dramatic.
There is no shame in failure, and I believe we can help remove the stigma of failure simply by talking about it.
In fact, as I said earlier, I wish I had failed more as a young person! I was paralyzed by fear of failure as a teenager and young adult, so I failed to take risks, and as a result, did not pursue my dreams.
Operating from a place of fear, as I did, holds us back from our dharma, or our purpose in life. And there is no time to waste when fulfilling our purpose can bring us so much joy.
as skating people, it is so hard to not be afraid because there is so much judgment inherent in our sport, and most of the time, we aren’t taught how to manage it.
It’s the job of coaches, parents, and skaters to minimize the external pressures skaters may feel when testing. Many elite athletes, for example, will purposefully avoid social media in the weeks leading up to a big event.
Coaches and parents must also work with skaters to help them manage their internal pressures. (See one of my previous posts on the mental and emotional well-being of young skaters)…..
When it doesn’t go well, though, there are bound to be hurt feelings and disappointment.
Here are my top tips for facing these feelings of disappointment:
“The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”
- Paramahansa Yogananda
Figure skating tests, while incredibly valid, are not the most reliable in scientific terms due to the subjectivity involved in human judging. So, deciding when to take a test can be a tricky, very personal decision based on many factors. Not everyone passes--tests can be very difficult--but in the end, having to retry a skating test can be a blessing in disguise that develops skating skills and character. The most important part of a Retry is how the skater and their support team process the results and move forward.
Curious about how to beat test anxiety? Get my free guide: Top Tools for Beating Performance Anxiety.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.