We are figure skaters because we love figure skating, but very often we do things that steal the joy from our experience. We focus on our competitors, badmouth ourselves, beat ourselves up over both big and small mistakes, make excuses for bad habits that we have the power to change, fixate on the things we don’t like about our image (because societal pressure tells us we should look a certain way), spend countless hours scrolling social, and then stay up way too late because we are ruminating over the negative things we’ve experienced throughout the day.
It’s not our fault–we are biologically programmed to remember negative information and experiences more easily than positive ones. This is called the negativity bias, and it’s pretty powerful.
Just because we have a biological negativity bias doesn’t mean we can’t overcome the negative, though. It’s not easy–some studies estimate that we need at least 5-7 times the positive input for each negative one. The more ingrained the negative experience, the harder it is to change. We are figure skaters, though… we were born ready to tackle the hard!
Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can rewire connections in the brain not just in childhood, but well into adulthood, too.
First, we have to become aware of our habits, then practice replacing them with more positive and productive habits, and finally, surround ourselves with tools and like-minded people to help us in the process.
Yoga can be a big help in this process for several reasons.
First, studies show what yogis already know–a regular practice of yoga that includes asana, meditation, and breathwork protects and strengthens the brain .
In other words, yoga and neuroplasticity go hand in hand.
Second, as I’ve written about many times, the purpose of yoga is to guide us on a path to a fulfilling, happy life, and the entire framework of the 8 limbs is designed for this purpose. (See image below)
The mechanism of yoga teaches us to pause and still the mind, which helps us slow down long enough to recognize and observe our habits. And since the first tenet of the 8-limbed path of yoga is ahimsa-non-harm, it makes sense that we would work to stop the harmful habits, thoughts, and behaviors.
Then, being honest with ourselves (satya) enough to avoid the consumption of negative energies and ideas (saucha) and direct our energy toward helpful thoughts and behaviors (brahmacharya) with fervor (tapas), we can change our habits.
Let’s start by eliminating these three harmful habits that I often see in skating.
Commenting on a Skater's Appearance
There are so many ways this can go wrong and be hurtful, it’s just best to avoid the topic at all.
When I was in the throes of an eating disorder, people always said “you look so great”, and encouraged me to “coach” the other skaters on how I had lost weight. I felt so important, and all the attention just fueled the ED.
Even commenting on a child’s rapid growth–particularly a girl’s–can make them feel ostracized and self-conscious because even though we are in a performance sport, kids want to blend in.
Let the skating do the talking, and let the comparisons be to our own abilities and efforts.
Instead of saying “You look so pretty”, or “Look at those beautiful long arms”, try saying “What an amazing dress”, or “I love that color on you!”
Better yet, we can say, “You’re such a strong skater”, or “I love watching you skate”. Both of these take the focus off the appearance and onto something the skater can control–their skating.
Setting the Expectations Too High - aka Perfectionism
Once I was playing a game with some of my students on the ice. When one of them lost a point, they got really angry and began pouting and behaving poorly. Afterward, I talked to the student about it and they said: “I’m just really competitive”. I pointed out to them that poor sportsmanship is not being competitive… poor sportsmanship is related to a lack of emotional awareness–it’s an immature response to an icky feeling.
I won’t do a deep dive into all the pitfalls of perfectionism–that’s enough for another post–but expecting ourselves to be perfect is akin to being a poor sport. It’s an unconscious response developed to avoid the feelings of not measuring up, and it’s an immature outlook on human nature and a gross misunderstanding of the learning process.
And it’s incredibly harmful to our progress as skaters because it stops us from taking the necessary risks for progress.
When we get angry, frustrated, or even panicked over every little mistake, not only do we rob ourselves of the joy of the small victories along the way, but we also lose sight of the things that matter–the enjoyment of the process and our overall evolution as skaters (aka our progress).
Set firm, realistic expectations (this goes to being honest with ourselves-satya), direct our energy in the right place (brahmacharya) with fervor (tapas), and offer ourselves some grace when we falter (santosha-contentment).
More Spills than Drills - Trying a Skill Over & Over Without Pausing for Reflection or Instruction
A popular definition of insanity of unknown origin is: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
In skating, this manifests as “more spills than drills”, which is the opposite of Olympic coach Audrey Weiseger’s advice of “more drills than spills”.
Often skaters fixate on having to do something over and over until they get it right, and some coaches, sadly, still teach this way.
During a check-in with a student the other day, the student told me that after their programs they have been repeating the jumps over and over as many times as it took them to make the jumps perfect.
My first response was that there is no such thing as perfect, so let’s stop doing that.
Then, I explained that yes, doing enough jump reps is important to developing muscle memory, but that only works if the jump is actually happening correctly. It’s certainly not helpful to do a multitude of incorrect repetitions.
Throwing the body in the air over and over without focused thought or direction tricks us into thinking we are working hard (which the brain gets a kick and dopamine hit out of), but it doesn’t do much for our short or long-term progress or happiness.
It is much more effective to do more exercises and drills to teach the brain and body the proper connections (brahmacharya-right use of energy) and mix those in with repetitions of the jump, spin, or whatever skill being developed.
And when the skill isn’t clicking after a few tries, instead of getting frustrated, depressed, or angry, simply move on to something else.
There is plenty to work on, and we are in this sport because we love it and should continue to enjoy the process.
How to Train Smarter, Skate Better, and Enjoy the Process
Recognizing these habits when they pop up is not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. We have a lot of outside influences that tell us to look good, aim high, and grind–don’t stop til we drop. In reality, though, we need a balance of contentment and drive to achieve longevity without injury and burnout.
The key to all of this, in my experience, is pausing every once in a while to check in and notice yourself:
Close your eyes.
Take a deep breath or two.
What are you feeling in the body and where?
How is the skill progress coming?
How do you feel about it?
What can you change in the moment, if anything, to make the moment more positive or effective?
Write or read a quick note in your notebook.
Get a drink of water.
And go back to work with a refreshed perspective.
This work of changing habits is hard and takes consistent monitoring and awareness, but if you surround yourself with peers and mentors who are of the same mindset, you have a ready-made support system and model.
While we, as skaters, think that skating is our life, it is actually only one aspect of it. Skating should support our path of a fulfilled, purposeful life, just like yoga does.
Maintaining a regular practice of yoga that includes postures/movement (asana), breathwork (pranayama), and meditation (dharana) and that is guided by a balanced mindset (yamas and niyamas) has been proven to support such a path.
For simple and practical poses, breathing, and concentration exercises to help you train smarter, skate better, and enjoy the skating process, get my FREE GUIDE: Anti-Anxiety Tools for Skaters.
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.