Photo Credit: Stephan Potopnyk
When was the last time you practiced a classic cross roll, focusing on the depth of your edges? What about the last time you held an edge while being mindful of the toe placement of your free foot going into a simple a bracket? How about a mazurka?
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a coaching seminar hosted by Christopher Nolan, Vesna Markovich, and Mark Hird, also known as The Collective, whose goal is to preserve the classic basics in figure skating.
Over the last decade figure skating has evolved into a point-based obsessed sport. After numerous judging scandals, namely the 2002 Olympic pair skating event, and uproars for a fairer marking method, the sport opted for a less subjective point-based system rather than the previous and simpler form of giving the skater two marks out of 6; one mark for technical merit and one mark for artistic impression. We definitely needed a change in the marking system, however, the change in the manner of judging inevitably also transformed the way skaters train and perform in competition. To some degree, this change has taken away an element of simple virtuosity, or elegance, if you will.
Before I continue, it is important to note that today’s top skaters demonstrate tremendous talent and have contributed to amazing technical feats that this sport needed to achieve. What I’m suggesting is that as figure skating continues to evolve, maybe it’s time to remember and reflect on some of the components that brought so many beloved fans of skating to watch this sport in the first place.
The seminar started off by watching a performance by Janet Lynn. Some of her movements looked similar to that of a ballerina on point. It was simple and beautiful. She portrayed movements that lingered, long edges, and pointed toes.
The discussion was then prompted by the question, who is your gold standard?
At our table the names that came up were Kurt Browning, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, John Curry, and Peggy Fleming. We talked about the sound of edges carving the ice, breath in between movements, and lightness. The second part of the questions to who is your gold standard was, do you coach like them? The answer that seems to be common involves the factor of time. That there is a certain pressure to use all our time on the ice to focus only on the things that will bring the most points.
Christopher Nolan shared an example from his experience in shows that demonstrates where the basics are often lacking in today’s athletes. He talked about how he unofficially became coach to the skaters entering the show after leaving the competitive stage. Many of these skaters who were world class athletes came to perform in shows and found that they only really had the same five moves in their repertoire. When asked to do a basic camel spin, Christopher was met with a look of confusion because the skater only practiced entering from a three turn and with the addition of a “donut/hair-cutter” or some other contorted variation that would have given them x amount of points in competition. Some of the skaters, he also mentioned, were surprised that there was a difference between a loop and a double three-turn.
The second part of the seminar was spent on the ice where we explored figures and basic skill exercises.
I felt so at peace while tracing figures on the ice, so focused, almost meditative. It was very difficult to trace my circle with precision. I love the diligence and the commitment that it takes to get it right.
We then practiced exercises down the ice that reminded me of ballet class. There were a number of different exercises that promoted long edges, lines, and posture, while completing classic, basic elements like brackets and three-turns, mindfully. The exercises would go something like this: A group of four or five skaters stand at the far end of the rink in t-position. On a count of eight with arm preparation, the first group of skaters would push to an edge held long enough to bring them around three quarters of a circle, on the fourth count the toe of the free-foot would come to the heel of the skating foot, fifth count in front, six, seven eight – the arms change, then push to the next edge into a bracket. The second group of skaters would then follow.
I reveled in the entire seminar. The topic was one I’ve been engaged in many times before in discussions with my friend and fellow skating coach, Laura. It was so wonderful to see that others also greatly value foundational skills. I truly believe that a good foundation of basic skills contributes to a well-rounded skater; it makes technical elements stronger and more controlled as well as making it all look effortless, with beauty and grace.
I would love to hear your thoughts – do you see a need for classic basics in skating today? Who is your gold standard?