coaching, figure skating

Coaching Chronicles: Keep Your Chin Up Coaching Friends

Originally posted February 2018

A coaching friend of mine texted me last week.  I hadn’t heard from her in a while, but I had worked with her for a decade, and we keep in touch as often as our busy lives allow.

This friend is an accomplished skater and coach.  In many ways, she exemplifies what the spirit of coaching is about; someone who passionately gives of themselves to their clubs and their skaters, often at the expense of their own well-being. In short, this is a person who has earned my admiration through the quality of her words and actions on the ice, everyday, for a decade.

My friend is the kind of coach who is capable of teaching every level with ease. She has a wealth of technical know-how, a calm and supportive demeanor and a heart that guides her to volunteer most of her expertise and time to run some of the most successful programs in her club.

And when I spoke with her, it broke my heart.

You see, my coaching friend is usually steady, unflappable and self-assured.  And I could hear the pain, incredulity and disbelief in her voice as it cracked, on the verge of tears, as she told me about what was happening.

It seems that after years of selfless devotion, of coaching athletes to gold levels, producing stellar results, leading the way by providing a shining light of volunteerism and excellence, and steadily growing the numbers of members in her organization, the club that should have had her back had decided to demean her, belittle her, and strong arm her with loss of work, all over a small issue that could have been addressed through simple communication.

As I listened to my friend break over the phone, my heart ached for her. I wish I could tell you that this was an anomaly.  But the sad truth is, coaches are often the brunt of terrible disrespect, harassment, verbal abuse and manipulation by executives and clubs that should be showing them respect and deference.  And the reason they can get away with this is that we have a system in our country that allows it.

Full stop.

I’ll say it again.

Our system is broken and does. not. support. coaches in smaller clubs.

I’m not making this up.  One of the top officials in our section said to a room full of us in a seminar I attended a few years back that “he didn’t care about the clubs”.  The tone of the lecture was very much that he was delivering a slap to the wrist to all of us coaches who weren’t doing our jobs to get skaters interested in competing.  I know this was the tone because I made it a point to ask other coaches who attended what they thought, and they too felt they were being spoken down to and reprimanded.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

It also did NOT escape my attention that the majority of coaches in that room were women.  I can’t help but wonder, if it was a room full of men would the tone of that meeting have changed?

So, is it any wonder that this style of leadership filters down to the clubs that work underneath them?

The culture of any organization starts from the top down, it’s not rocket science.

When you create a system that puts more and more onus on coaches to pay through the nose for training and insurance, and you restrict their ability to work anywhere else but under the umbrella of your organization, you now have a monopoly where anything goes, and people look the other way.

And then to rub salt in the wound, when you have procedures set up within that system for harassment and abuse of power that don’t work because the organization that is supposed to help you and you have been paying into for your entire career doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to follow through on it…there is no accountability.

This means there are no repercussions for these volunteers with little to no knowledge of our sport when they decide to manipulate, strong arm, defame, disrespect and take financial advantage of the coaches that work for them.  It is striking how much it happens.  And it makes me furious.

I want to be careful here.  I have met many, many, amazing volunteers and executive members, and when clubs work, they are excellent.  I want to make sure I don’t lump the good with the bad, because there are many ethical, caring and wonderful people whom I have been honored to work with.  Sadly, though, it’s about a 50/50 split between the good and the not so good.  And that’s when the coaches bear the brunt of the abuse.

I can remember working for a small club in the mid 2000’s.  I was proposing a new program, called the Junior Gliders, and wanted it to be a new version of group programming that would promote accelerated progress and skating excellence for the beginners who had a passion and an affinity for the sport.

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

I spent well over 100 hours in devising the program, structuring it in much the same way as our current Star Program in SkateCanada.  We divided the mini-lessons into disciplines, with approx. 6.5 minutes of each station spent on either dance, jumps, turns, spins, edges, or moves in the field.  I also devised stroking exercises, each set to its own specific piece of music, so that when it was time to rotate, the kids would practice different skating skills as a full group based on whatever music was music playing before they switched to their next circuit and their smaller group formation again.

We started the session with basic exercises on lanes for a warm up, rotated through three to four mini-lessons each day and followed up with theatre and four-lane high-way exercises for our cool down.  Twice weekly we offered this program, and we also provided an extra session called Junior Plus for those kids that wanted three days a week of skating. 

On the third day, we encouraged the skaters and their parents to hire a private coach for some semi-private or small group lessons and some free practice time.  Of course, we also provided practice plans in books for each child who could read, AND pictures around the boards for those who weren’t old enough to read yet.

The amount of work it took to run this program was staggering.  Particularly because I went the extra step of planning each lesson for each discipline for every single day of the year, complete with progressions, teaching tips, diagrams, and circuits.  I also coordinated the lessons, so that what a coach was teaching in one mini-lesson with one group (for example outside edges) would then coordinate with what the other coaches would teach i.e., outside three turns in the turns lesson, forward one-foot spin with spiralling entry in the spins mini-lesson, and salchows for the jump mini-lesson.

Then of course, there was the music.  By the end of the season I had recorded at least 10 different hour-long CD’s, complete with musical cues for warm-ups, station switches, theatre, seasonal and holiday themes, you name it.

I worked hard on this program.  And it was amazing.  I know it’s not considered cool (particularly for a woman) to brag about their accomplishments, but it was ahead of it’s time.  In fact, I often wonder about the similarities between that program and the Star program and Canskate programs SkateCanada uses now, because there are many.

The reason I have explained this to you in such detail is because you need to know just how much work goes into creating and delivering a quality program.

After creating the program, printing up all the lessons and materials, and organizing the entire program so it could virtually run itself, I then presented it to the executive.  The total cost of the work I had put in to create and develop the idea, with the time spent on the ice coaching and overseeing it combined with time spent preparing off the ice for it’s delivery from September through until the end of April would have cost at minimum $14,000. Of course, I knew there was NO way our club could afford this much, so I then told them I would do it for as little as $8,000 spread out over the course of the 8-month period it would run.

I SHOULD have been paid $1000 a month for the work I put into the program. 

They offered me much less. Much…. MUCH less.

Slap-in-the-face-total-disrespect-for-the-work-I-had-done-or-the-innovativeness-of-the-program-insultingly-less. Now, I did go back and argue my case, and I ended up receiving slightly more than the initial offer….but it was still not congruent with what I should have been paid.

You see, the sad fact is, very few people who aren’t involved with skating have any understanding of how much work we put in as coaches.  There is this misconception that it is just a hobby; something we do on the side to make a little extra money. I mean, it’s not a real career, is it?

For some of us that may be true.

But for most of us, to be a skating coach means you are a highly dedicated individual with years of training and expertise that very few people have. We spend hours online, getting our certifications, being assessed, filling out workbooks, networking, studying, and reading to hone our craft.

So now, put those highly qualified people in the hands of a group of volunteers who have total power over our careers.

Let me say that again.  These people have the power to demand that we work for less than we are worth.  If you live in a small town, and you need to work, this means you have little to no recourse other than to accept their terms…. I mean, a coach has to eat right?

Basically, our options become; work for less and be exploited by people with no respect for the work we do or the sacrifices we make, or don’t coach at all.

I’ve seen it happen over, and over, and over. To too many coaches to count, and I’ve had it happen to me more than I can say.

It’s frustrating and infuriating.  We work in a system that allows this type of abuse of power and exploitation of arguably its second most important asset. (the first being its athletes of course).

How does this make sense?

So, I wanted to write this blog to reassure my friend that I and all the other coaches who have gone through this have her back.  That she has made a difference to me and how I coach, and to all the students she has coached or who have learned their skills through programs she has run.

Just yesterday, as I was teaching one of my Canskate students in a private lesson, I used a technique I learned from her. It worked like a charm.

You see, sometimes the only reward we get is the knowledge that maybe, just maybe, we have made a difference.  Maybe we’ve left our students better skaters, and better people because of what we’ve taught them.  Maybe somewhere, someone glides a little faster and holds their head a little higher because of the example we set for them.

Sometimes it’s only that knowledge that keeps us lacing up our skates each day.

My friend, your influence reaches farther than you know.  Never doubt your worth, and never let people with no regard for what we do as coaches take that away from you.

Sound familiar? Sound off below!

I want to hear your experiences, let’s start a revolution!

2 thoughts on “Coaching Chronicles: Keep Your Chin Up Coaching Friends”

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