Every four years it happens. Glued to the television for two-plus weeks, you and your family watch the winter Olympics and are fascinated by the elegance and athleticism of the figure skaters. Suddenly one of your children announces, "I want to do that."
Although your child may dream about becoming the next Gracie Gold or Jason Brown, you may have no idea how to get started. The Chicago area, however, has long been a breeding ground for Olympic figure skaters, starting with Janet Lynn and David Santee, and more recently with Timothy Goebel and Evan Lysacek. Virtually every champion figure skater started out with a group of children learning how to march on the ice, put one foot over the other in a maneuver called crossovers and how to fall properly.
Skating rinks have popped up all over the suburbs, so you won't have to drive far to find classes. Neither will you have to spend a lot of money or commit to months of lessons if your child discovers that skating isn't their thing. Class lessons start at around $110 to about $140 for sessions that last around 10 weeks. Each lesson lasts from 30 to 50 minutes, with shorter times geared toward skaters ages 3 to 5.
Coaches follow one of two instructional programs promoted by the Ice Skating Institute (ISI) or the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA). Oakton Ice Arena in Park Ridge, where former Olympian David Santee is the skating director, follows the ISI program, although many area rinks follow USFSA's Basic Skills program. Both programs have sets of skill levels that skaters must master before moving onto the next level. Beginners learn basic moves like forward and backward crossovers and simple turns before moving onto jumps and spins.
The most basic difference between the two is that ISI is thought of more as a recreational skating program, even though ISI sponsors competitions. To get to the national championships and the Olympics, though, one must eventually switch to USFSA competition.
Yet, skaters must learn basic skills before they ever take off from the ice, a concept that can be difficult for both children and parents to understand.
"One of the biggest pitfalls is that parents want their kids to pass the levels too quickly," Santee says. "That's the worst thing that you can do because then they're struggling at the next level. Here's where the concept of building blocks comes in. Remember that one skill builds on the next."
"We always tell them that they have to be patient, that it is a difficult sport and it takes time to develop," says Francine Larson, skating director at Seven Bridges Arena in Woodridge. "We also tell them to have fun and be determined."
Sometimes skaters will pass a level in one session, other times it takes two, three or even more, something that becomes more common as skaters progress to higher levels. A good rule of thumb, though, is if you or your skater does not understand why he or she isn't moving up, talk to your skating director.
"Skating is a difficult language to understand or sometimes people will hear rumors about why something is happening at the rink," says Kim Johnson, skating director of Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake. "I think a lot of the time people don't understand about the building blocks, but ultimately skaters should always be having fun when learning."
Being stuck on a skill is common reason skaters begin taking private lessons. Again, you don't have to dole out lots of money or time. Many skaters begin with short private lessons in the center of the ice during public skate or during practice sessions that some rinks include as part of lesson fees. When to progress to regular lessons with a private coach depends on a number of factors.
Larson recommends discussing the situation with your skater to determine if he or she wants to take that step.
"Ask if them if they want to complete and what expectations do they have from skating," she said. "The athlete has to be happy and they have to have the drive for private lessons."
Contrary to what many people think, beginners can still take class lessons in the summer, which is actually a time when skaters spend more time on the ice.
"It's a good time to skate more," Johnson says. "There are camps that skaters can take, they can do two classes instead of one, and it's a good time to do a private lesson or two and perfect a skill."
Of course, sometimes the costumes, music and bright lights lure youngsters to the ice and even at beginning levels, there are opportunities to perform. Virtually every rink has an annual ice show, usually in April or May, and for most skaters, these shows are their first opportunity to put on a costume and skate to music in a group to show off what they have learned.
"It's something that they will remember for the rest of their lives," Santee says. "For our high school seniors (who skate solo numbers), they get very emotional because their last show is a life milestone for them."
Performing in front of an audience and competing is the next step. Some skaters prefer synchronized skating competitions. Deciding to compete as a single skater, however, requires a private coach with at minimum one weekly lesson and a higher level of commitment. Even here, though, skaters and their families have options, according to Kerry Murphy, skating director at Skokie Skatium. USFSA competitions have tracks such as Snowplow Sam, for younger skaters up to Freestyle 1, Test Track that takes skaters from Limited Beginner through Preliminary, and Well Balanced, a no-test option for more casual skaters that takes them up to the Preliminary level. Neither is it necessary for parents and skaters to spend hundreds of dollars per week on beginning lessons. In fact, that can be a mistake.
"A lot of times people will come in and say, 'Who is your best coach?'" Murphy says. "You simply need to find a quality person who fits your kids. As Carlo Fassi (Peggy Fleming's coach) once told me, 'I can coach skaters but I can't teach skills.' Find someone who can teach your child skills. Coaching comes later."
In other words, don't push too hard. There is a fine line between guiding your skater and pushing him or her. Sure, figure skating will be frustrating at times, but no matter what the skater's talent level is, it should always remain something that they will enjoy and remember for the rest of their lives.