3/18/2023 0 Comments
Failing a Figure Skating Test
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?
3/10/2023 0 Comments
Learn to Land with Eagle Pose
I wasn’t taught to cross my legs in a jump until I was 13 and started training in a different city. My first coaches were good-hearted people with a love for skating whose techniques had come from a different era. I was learning to jump like Sonia Henie.
I am a daughter of teachers, so I always see things from the teacher’s point of view, and I wanted to trust my coach. But I watched a lot of skating on TV in the 80s and paid attention to the good skaters, so something didn’t seem right. When the technique didn’t make sense, I knew there was deeper instruction to be found.
Once I began crossing my legs, it was like a whole world of possibilities opened up. I actually started to land some jumps!
Maybe this is why I love exercises that work on back spins and crossed legs so much. They bring me back to that light bulb moment when my skating world changed forever.
Whether you are focused on athletic achievement or life lessons, creating a safe space is crucial for the well-being of everyone involved.
As a skater, I trained in environments that, from the outside, appeared healthy and safe. There was no physical or sexual abuse that I am aware of, and there was none of the heinous screaming and name-calling that still exists in many rinks.
However, when I was younger, my coaches behaved like mean girls in club politics and created ugly rivalries where there should have been collegiality and friendship. Later, at a different facility, my peers had weekly weigh-ins, and I was applauded and revered for drastic weight loss that led me down a decades-long path of eating disorders. In yet another facility, I was made to feel like an imposter–just a “tester” among those actively competing.
As a coach, I have always tried very hard not to repeat the mistakes of my teachers. Most of them were good-hearted with good intentions, even if they were often blinded by their own competitive nature and their own past wounds and teachings.
So, without a good model in my background, I repeated some of the same mistakes. Pushed kids when they didn’t need to be pushed, compared skaters to one another when I shouldn’t have, offered dietary advice without being a licensed dietitian and tried to convince a skater to stay in the sport when what she really, really wanted was to be done.
For many years I coached in an environment that closely followed Safesport guidelines. Yet, it didn’t feel healthy and was arguably quite harmful to me and many others. Playing favorites, forming cliques, ignoring skaters who need extra emotional support, and politicking amongst coaches are surefire ways to ruin a healthy, collegial environment.
While Safesport and SkateSafe attempt to prevent and prosecute the most egregious acts of abuse in our sport, they fall short in many ways, especially in instances of emotional abuse. Their shortcomings are beyond the scope of the post, so I will simply say that I believe we need good models of conduct and spirit that go deeper than US Figure Skating’s Code of Conduct and the PSA’s professional standards.
As a figure skater, beginning a yoga practice–or starting to “do yoga” –can be overwhelming. There is so much information online it’s hard to know who to trust and where to look.
Besides, society presents this image of yoga as bubbly young athletes sweating in Lululemon doing crazy poses. The franchise yoga business in many cities has perpetuated this myth.
Sure, some yogis are very flexible, even hypermobile, but most of us aren’t.
The reality is that all figure skaters already have some experience with the foundations of yoga, whether they know it or not. Spirals, catch spirals, lunges, Biellmanns, split jumps, layback spins, etc. Many of the movements and movement patterns we use in skating are very similar to those of yoga, as is the overall focus on balance, strength, and flexibility.
In fact, I was drawn to yoga because when I practiced, it was the first time I felt like my body could move in a somewhat similar, yet more gentle, way than skating, and the first time ever I felt like I could synchronize my breath with my movement. And that was the most powerful tool I had ever experienced.
The additional reality is that yoga has something to offer every single skater.
In a post a few weeks ago I even talked about how the foundations of yoga - Patanjali’s 8 limbs - relate to the skating journey.
In short, I broke down the foundational journey of yoga to show how it parallels some aspects of the figure skating journey:
So back to the original question… where does a skater go to begin “doing yoga”?
We have all faced nerves and felt anxious before a skating test or competition, right?
Sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea, jittery legs, shaking from the cold yet dripping sweat, forgetting your steps, feeling like your head is floating above your body, maybe your coach even sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher—wah wah wah. When I was a young competitor, I would yawn excessively and tell myself, “I’m not nervous! Look how relaxed I am.” 😅
I didn’t know that I was experiencing performance anxiety, and my coaches didn’t have any words of advice for me. In fact, I was too embarrassed even to admit that I was nervous. In the 80’s and 90’s, performance anxiety was considered a sign of weakness.
Either you could handle the stress, or you couldn’t. If you could, you won. If you couldn’t, you “bombed”. And "Sports Psychology" was only for the elite of the elite.
So, instead of recognizing my nerves, I internalized the bad skates and told myself, “I’m just not as good as the other skaters.”
As a result, I tried to work harder by beating myself up more in practice. Sound familiar?
2/9/2023 0 Comments
The Best Recovery Tip for Figure Skaters - Legs up the Wall Pose (Viparita karani)
Sometimes in figure skating, it’s true that we have to practice more and work harder, not just smarter.
And when we do, we need to rest even harder.
It’s no secret that our modern society is full of sleep-deprived beings wandering about, operating heavy machinery, putting ourselves on the hook for high performance, and trying to be pleasant to others. Have you ever tried to be nice to a driver who cuts you off when you have only slept for five hours three nights in a row? 😂 Or when someone in your house mouths off to you again?
Chronic stress and sleep deprivation are huge factors in illness and injury, and even bigger predictors for burnout.
According to most studies, adolescent athletes need at least 9-10 hours of sleep a night. That’s almost impossible for the student-athlete to achieve!
Older elite athletes can get by with a little less, but the reality is that most athletes are operating on a sleep deficit. You can read some of the studies here.
Factor in stress, electronics use, caffeine, medications, and poor sleep hygiene, and you end up with a scenario that, even if you have 10 available hours to sleep, you can’t be productive in rest and recovery.
What to do, then?
As a yoga teacher, I’ll tell you that this is where yoga, particularly restorative yoga, comes into play–in helping our rest time be truly restful.
What is a Spiral in Figure Skating?
If you have ever watched figure skating in person or on youtube, you have seen skaters perform spirals. One of the most iconic figure skating tricks, the spiral (also sometimes called an arabesque), is a key choreographic highlight and also a required element.
A spiral is a skill or trick (also called “element”) in figure skating where the skater glides on one foot with the other leg lifted in extension, generally to the back or side.
For the skater to receive at least the minimum credit from the judges for the spiral, the knee of the lifted leg must be at hip level or higher.
Some of the most popular skaters throughout history have been known for their beautiful spirals. Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Karen Chen are all known for, among other things, their incredible basic forward spirals.
Spirals can be performed on either foot, both forward and backward. In addition, they can be on a straight line or on a curve–an inside or outside edge.
There are quite a few variations of spirals–not all of which have names. Some common ones are the catch, the cross-catch, the Biellmann, the Y, and the Charlotte.
Check out this compilation of some of skating’s top spirals throughout the years.
Figure skaters wanting to succeed inevitably look for off-ice training classes—conditioning, ballet, plyometrics, vestibular training, nutrition, etc. Yoga is also a part of this--often thought of as a physical form of off-ice training.
Indeed, the physical practice of yoga can be very helpful for figure skating success. Asana (yoga postures) helps build strength, flexibility, awareness, and balance, and through their coordination with the breath, it improves our stress response and helps recalibrate the nervous system.
A yoga practice tailored specifically to figure skaters can inform a skater’s development, bring balance to the muscles, and develop stamina by teaching breathing techniques.
The Role of the Cognitive Triangle in Figure Skating Self-Talk
The Cognitive Triangle is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is used to treat many mental health issues. It is well-researched and documented and very widely applied to performance related therapies, and as such, is particularly relevant in sports psychology and figure skating performance.
Basically, the cognitive triangle diagrams the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We have a thought or a belief, which produces a feeling, which leads to anaction or a habit. Then that action or habit produces additional feelings and thoughts, thus continuing the cognitive cycle.
In my last blog post I discussed how the Cognitive Triangle is key to our ability to control our actions, our reactions to our environment, and ultimately to our happiness.
I am not a therapist or licensed social worker, even though I sometimes wish I were. When I was a young coach, I felt completely unprepared to guide my skaters through the negative thought cycles that often sabotaged their goals and happiness. All I had to advise them with was my sincere emotional investment in their well-being coupled with my own ADHD and anxiety fueled overdrive.
Later, after many years of personal therapy and study, I became aware of what I called the Positive Thought Cycle and began applying it to my own life. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the ability we have as humans to intervene in our own thought processes in order to change our behaviors.
Competitiveness in Youth Sports
Do a quick search of “toxic culture in youth sports” and you’ll find lots of good articles, like this one from US News and World Report.
Our modern society that promotes growth and achievement at all costs continues to push its unhealthy competitive values onto our kids. Not only do we see this in academic settings, but also in social settings and even more so in youth sports, including figure skating.
Just as weight bearing exercise makes our bones stronger, so does a small amount of competition strengthen character. Too much stress, though, and both our bones and souls can end up broken.
Healthy competition fosters creativity and excitement, teaches grit, and can boost confidence.
But when the pressure is so high that parents, coaches, and athletes focus on achievement and winning over fostering true friendships, loving the game, and enjoying the growth process, then everyone loses—most of all, our kids.
This is not new information. Especially since COVID, athletes and coaches have been speaking out about the harms of toxic competitive culture on our mental and physical health.
Nevertheless, the problem is as rampant as ever.
Just this week a football coach friend posted a picture of national basketball rankings for 4th graders. And today I saw this article about nationally ranked 2nd grade twins and their personal brand as basketball stars.
What does this have to do with figure skating?
Figure skating was a trailblazer of the current youth sports industry. Most of its biggest female stars throughout history have been young teenagers. 3-time Olympic champ and 10-time world champ Sonja Henie competed in her first Olympics at age 11 in 1924 and won her first Olympics at age 15 in 1928.
And while figure skating no longer holds “national championships” for skaters at the developmental levels of Juvenile and Intermediate, it still ranks skaters by posting their competition scores highest to lowest. All skaters in a national series—Excel, Solo Dance, and National Qualifying Series—are ranked in this way. Some are as young as 7 and 8 years old.
National events in figure skating—where certain regions have fewer rinks and lower numbers of participation—are important for the development of our sport, so I’m not arguing that the series rankings should be abolished. If there is a qualifying event or series, then transparency is absolutely crucial to the integrity of our sport.
It’s what parents, coaches, and skater do with the ranking information that matters.
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.
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