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:
1) 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.
2) 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 tools for learning to be present.
3) 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.
4) 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.”
5) 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.
6) 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 happen to them.
7) Be vigilant.
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.
8) 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.
9) 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.
10) 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.
11) 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.
12) 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. 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.