November is the month for reality checks and finding balance

Ah, November. In all my years of skating, it didn’t matter which team I was on, who was coaching me, or what category I was competing in–November sucked. The anticipation and excitement of the early part of the season, when everyone was fresh and anything was possible, had been replaced by debilitating stress and total panic. A handful of skaters still didn’t know their steps. The intersection that had once been disguised as “challenging” now revealed its true nature: impossible. Elements were over-rotated one day and under-rotated the next. The program didn’t have an ending. There was at least one injury. The dresses either weren’t ready, didn’t fit, or were hideous.

Memories I hold near and dear to my heart.

The intent of this post is not, however, to reminisce. Rather, it’s to speak to a few key points coaches need to keep in mind during this very important month. An optimist might say November builds a team’s character. A pragmatist knows that choices made in November can have a big impact on the trajectory of the rest of the season, and prepares to make adjustments.

1. Reality check: what can your skaters do?

No. What can they REALLY do?

This is, in my opinion, the single most important question you can ask yourself as a coach. However, it’s only worth asking if you are prepared to give yourself an honest answer. Can your skaters do a bracket? With a clean inside edge and proper counter rotation to a clean outside edge, with visible lobes? Or can your skaters do a “bracket”?–a one-foot counter-rotation swing-around from forwards to backwards on “edges” of questionable clarity and quality.

Can your skaters do a controlled change of rotational direction in a circle or wheel? Can they do a block pivot that keeps its speed and spacing?

If they can’t do those things now–will they be able to do them at a competition?

Programs don’t have to be perfect in November. In fact, when they are, they’re often a disaster by the the end of February, when most teams should be at their peak for Nationals (for North American teams). But by November, coaches should have a good sense of how much their skaters have developed since the start of the season, and how much growth in skill is likely to take place during the remainder of the season. When technical officials monitor programs, we can tell you whether an element is designed to meet requirements for a given difficulty level, if executed correctly in competition. But as the coach, only YOU know what your personal limitations are (are your strengths in teaching technique, or choreography?), what your logistical limitations are (how much ice time do you have in a given week?), and what your skaters’ limitations are (do they have opportunities to work on skills outside synchro practice?), and it’s up to you to calculate how those limitations impact what your team is realistically capable of achieving in the next few months.

2. Finding balance: provide your skaters with both challenges and opportunities to display confidence.

Difficulty is a good thing. Asking your skaters to try new and more challenging things will improve their skills and make them better people. Mastering something hard is rewarding–both on a personal level, and in terms of points earned on your report card.

However.

Programs that are filled with elements that are too difficult for the skaters are not a good thing. Singles skaters usually a have “go-to” jump that they almost never miss. They can do it with their eyes closed, and rely on it for a boost of confidence when things might not be going so well with the more difficult jumps. Synchro skaters need the same. Too often, I see programs that are packed with elements from difficulty groups that are *just* beyond a team’s skill level. The consequence of this reaches much farther than many coaches realize. When an element doesn’t meet all the technical requirements for an attempted difficulty level, the result isn’t simply a downgrade. Even if a team ekes out the technical call, if they are struggling to do so, the GOE drops. If the team is struggling with every element, the PCS is going to drop across the board. If the team is struggling with every element, in every competition, all season, the skaters are going to lose their enjoyment, and drop the sport.

That may sound drastic, but I’ve seen it happen.

Give your skaters “go-to” elements or steps. Let them skate with confidence, and give them opportunities to present and feel the music, without having to think through or show fear in every element. Include difficulty, but don’t rely on it. Build in stages that make sense. Don’t create a program full of triples if your skaters don’t have solid doubles.

Remind your skaters of the things they CAN do, while you also challenge them to try things they can’t do…yet.

All of this is not to say that November is the month to throw in the towel if things aren’t going according to plan. Maybe your November is going swimmingly–in which case, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But given its proximity to the rest season–you’ve known your skaters for a few months, the choreography is in place, and competitions are just around the corner–November is usually the perfect time to do a sanity check and evaluate whether the strategy you started the season with is working, or requires some tweaks.

In the words of Buck Brannaman, an exceptional horseman I look up to, “I’m not trying to be critical. I’m just trying to be real.”

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