Tie on your skates and jump on the ice. We've got lots of life lessons to discuss today...

Visualization Technique #2

Watch and learn

Sometimes you don't have the opportunity to "feel" all of the pieces of a move while working with your coach. Maybe you are in the early stage of learning a new move and you haven't had the opportunity to break it down into its component pieces yet. Or maybe your coach hasn't found the right way to communicate the move techniques to you yet. Maybe you know how to do this move, but your coach is saying that you have to do it a bit differently before you can progress onto the next level, another rotation in your jump, or just better technique in general. Whatever the reason, all you have is a visual reference for this move that you want to get right, and you want to make it your own. This technique is for those times.

The first step is to watch people doing the move correctly a bunch of times. You can search YouTube for the name of the move you want, but that will often give you as many bad attempts as quality examples. One of the things I've found is that searching for videos of tests which skaters passed can help find a move done technically well. Watching top skaters' performances in shows or competitions can also help, though sometimes it's harder to find precisely the move that you need to watch. You can also try a search for "video figure skating how to [move name]" and you may find some very useful videos for this exercise.

Once you have something to watch, spend a good fifteen minutes just watching that move over and over again. Watch it frame by frame if you can. Imagine yourself doing that move. Imagine what it would feel like to move like that.

After you've spent the time watching that move over and over again, close your eyes and imagine yourself doing the move exactly as you've seen it done. Sometimes you'll start out by "seeing yourself" from the outside doing the move just like you saw it in the videos. If that's the case, try to shift your point of view to the first person perspective and imagine yourself moving just like you saw that other skater moving.

Some of my students get frustrated with me at this point and say, "How can I imagine it? I don't know what it feels like. That's the point!" And all I can say is, "Practice, practice, practice."

Your imagination develops as you use it, just like any other skill that you develop. If you take the time to try to imagine what things feel like in between skating sessions, and then feel what things are really like on your skating days, you'll start to develop more skill in imagining the way things feel. Some people will feel silly trying to imagine what something feels like just from watching videos of someone else doing the move, but if you keep at it, you will see results. You will see results both in terms of improving your ability to know what your muscles feel like when they move in certain ways, and you will see results on the ice when your off-ice imaginings develop into faster learning times. 0 comments

Visualization Technique #1

It should feel like this...

Let's take an example of a common skating problem and consider how you can work through it with visualization. Along the way we'll see how you can combine your physical training with off-ice visualization practice to improve your skills over all.

A lot of skaters have trouble with toe pushes. Generally speaking, you don't want to push through your toe pick. Whether you are doing straight stroking or front crossovers, the sound of toe pick scritches on the ice is anathema. Your pushes should go through the edge of your blade, nearer to your heel than to your toe. But if you've been pushing through your toes for a while, you've built up that motion as muscle memory. How do you make yourself push through your heels instead?

The simple answer is practice, practice, practice. If you can push through your heels enough times, you will have re-written your muscle memory. The problem is that your existing muscle memory keeps kicking in and you have trouble consistently pushing the correct way. This is where a combination of real practice and visualization can help you build new muscle memory faster.

First, you want to learn what pushing correctly should look feel like. As a coach I use a few different tools to help students with this challenge. First I use other exercises to show a skater which part of the blade gives them the most power. Two foot swizzles are really good for this because you get power in your swizzles when you push through your heels. I also take skaters up to the wall or to the bar to feel what a good push feels like. I help them feel what it's like to keep hips and shoulders "squared up" and facing forward, turn the pushing foot to the side and push correctly at an angle back and a bit to the side. I help them feel what a good extension feels like after the push, too. Once the pattern has been set, I have my skaters practice that in place at the wall a few times.

Now that you know what the move should feel like, you are ready to work on the visualization. Imagine yourself skating perfectly. Remember what it feels like to push through your heels. Remember which muscles work when you hold your extension correctly. Remember what it was like to practice the push correctly against the wall, or what it felt like to practice pushing off ice. Where are your hips? Where are your shoulders? Where should your hands be? Imagine what it feels like to skate like that. Imagine yourself skating, pushing through your edges correctly, holding your body correctly, and feeling the power that comes with proper stroking technique.

You might find that when you first start imagining a move that you want to fix that you actually imagine yourself doing it wrong. Don't worry about that. It's just your mind telling you what it knows so far. You will teach it better. Keep reinforcing the idea of what you want to do over what you have been doing in the past. Just as you would do while practicing on the ice, think about what you want to do and how you should do it. Keep practicing in your imagination, even after you "get it right". Reinforce that positive visualization as much as you can while you are off ice if you want the improvements to be seen on ice as well. 0 comments

Visualize Whirled Peas

Back when I was first learning how to skate, my coach told me that visualization was an important tool for an athlete. She talked about a study where two groups of athletes were given skill tests at the beginning of a study and at the end of a study and their improvements compared. One group worked on their sport for an hour every day. The other group worked on their sport one hour every other day, and on the days that they didn't go practice they sat still and just imagined practicing for an hour. The group that spent an hour every other day just visualizing their practice actually improved more than the group that actually worked out physically every day.

One of the suggested reasons for this difference is that visualization can help you overcome the problem of uncorrected mistakes causing bad muscle memory. Every time you do an action you are building or reinforcing your muscle memory for that move. Muscle memory is part of what makes a complex action easy with a bit of time. Learning how to eat with chopsticks might like a major challenge to your coordination when you first start, but once you get the hang of it, muscle memory kicks in and you don't have to think about how to hold your hand or how to pick up food. When you learn how to skate you are building up all sorts of muscle memories. But if you learn how to do something wrong, you have picked up a "bad" muscle memory.

Imagine if the way that you learned to eat with chopsticks made it impossible to pick up single grains of rice. A friend shows you how to hold the chopsticks correctly, but try as you might, you don't seem to be able to get this new technique. Your hand seems to always do what you learned before, and it's very frustrating. Your muscle memory is kicking in and it takes a lot more work to re-learn this physical action than it did to learn to eat with chopsticks in the first place.

You can use visualization to help you overcome this problem. You can imagine the right way to hold your chopsticks, the way it feels to bring the sticks together like your friend showed you, what it feels like to pick up a single grain of rice. When you first try to imagine this, you'll likely find that you are even imagining yourself doing the action the wrong way. That's how strong muscle memory is. But as you keep at it, you start to imagine that you are doing the right thing. Once you can imagine yourself doing this action correctly, you have a better chance of actually doing it correctly. It seems as if you are re-wiring your brain, creating a sort of virtual muscle memory.

Over the next few posts I'll share some visualization techniques to help you overcome bad muscle memory and to build new skills. In the future I'll also make sure to tag any post with visualization techniques in it. 0 comments

Moving Balance

Yesterday I talked about moving balance. You might have thought, what the heck is that?! Well, I don't like to make it too easy on you. I'm a coach after all. I'm hoping that you reach a little to see what you can find on your own before I start telling you how I see everything. After all, a lesson that you learn from your own exploration, experimentation and experience is far better than anything you can pull from a book. But now that you've had a bit of time to imagine moving balance on your own, I'd like to give you my take on this concept in ice skating and in everything else.

I once heard walking described as "highly coordinated falling". With every step you are falling forward, but you catch yourself before any disaster happens and then you allow yourself to fall forward onto the next foot. But, of course, we don't focus on the falling part. Walking is a great example of moving balance. Each step is an opportunity to fall, but we don't, because we are in balance even as we move.

It takes longer to learn how to walk than it does to just stand up on your own. That's because moving balance is more complex than balancing yourself when you are completely still. There are more muscles involved and more variables to deal with, too. But you aren't going to spend your whole life standing in one place to hold your balance. You learn to walk and then you move confidently through life.

Moving balance is that equilibrium which is always in flux. It's a controlled fall that doesn't feel scary because you are confident in your ability to hold it, to stand upright throughout the motion, and to continue to move in the direction you want.

Ice skating is all about moving balance, of course. It's about working with the forces that work on your body: gravity, acceleration, inertia or momentum. When you have learned a move it becomes comfortable as you become confident in your ability to control the fall, to manage the equilibrium throughout the entire process.

Life is all about moving balance, too. Life is always in motion, and you are always balancing yourself within it. Your mental, spiritual, and physical health are all affected by your equilibrium in life. Work-life balance is only a piece of this big puzzle. You balance your desires, your dreams, your family, your beliefs. You balance what you want to do with what you can do and what you must do. You shift your weight, sometimes subtly and sometimes drastically, in order to continue to move onward. 1 comments

The Layback

Layback spins are a particularly difficult challange in equilibrium for a lot of skaters. By the time you are working on a layback spin, you have a pretty good idea of what good balance in a spin feels like. But, face it, this spin is weird.

First off, this spin is strange because it completely messes with your sense of direction. In a moderately good layback you'll be looking at the ceiling, but in a really good layback you'll actually be looking at the world upside down. You can get used to that feeling of disorientation by practicing headless spins before you start doing laybacks.

A headless spin is just a regular one-foot spin, but you tilt your head back to look at the ceiling and hold your hands together in front of your throat, with your elbows pointing outward. This spin is a lot easier than a layback because, other than your head getting tilted back, your whole body is straight the same way it is for an ordinary scratch spin. You may find it takes a little practice, though, because the disorientation from looking up can make it hard to keep that perfect straight-spine position.

Once you are comfortable with the headless, you are ready to move on to the layback, but here's the catch: The layback is NOT just a headless that you lean back further. In a layback, your whole spine curves backwards. But we've already learned that you have to maintain equilibrium -- equal balance/equal forces -- in any move on ice. So, if your whole spine is curving backwards, how do you maintain balance?

The answer is in the hips! In a layback spin you push your hips in front of your skating foot to counterbalance the weight of your upper body leaning backwards.

The thing is, this is not a natural or a comfortable position for most skaters when first learning this spin. Most skaters who are just learning a lay back end up keeping their hips too much in line with their skating foot as their head leans back and they curve their back just below the shoulder blades. The thing is, your body is very smart. It's not going to let you spin like that, because your brain knows that it can't hold you up in that position. So, you push forward on the rocker of your blade, and next thing you know you're all the way up on your toepick and the spin is a mess.

Center, Leg, Hips, Back

These are the steps for a perfect layback:
  1. Center yourself
  2. Get your free leg back
  3. Push your hips forward
  4. Lean back from the waist

Practice layback balance everywhere until you get it right. When you are standing in line, waiting for a bus, whatever -- whenever you have a couple of seconds to spare. Start by standing on your skating foot. Put your "free leg" behind you. Push your hips forward and lay back from the waist so that your whole back is as curved as you can get it.

When you first start practicing this, you'll need your "free leg" to stay on the ground, even if just your big toe is there for balance. As soon as you can, though, start lifting that free leg into the air until you can balance in the layback position anywhere and any time.

Now you're ready to take it to the ice.


I'm always saying that ice skating is like yoga, and it's not just because of the positions that you have to hold when you do moves, either. The layback spin is like a mini-meditation on accomplishing anything really difficult.

First you need to center yourself in the comforts of your normal life: family, home, friends, faith, routine, and whatever else brings you to your point of moving balance.

Next you step out of this safe space, and create a new balance that is out of the ordinary. If you travel far from home, you might find comfort in the presence of new and old friends. A travel buddy may become your lifeline of normalcy as you explore new foods, new languages, and new cultures. Or you may find that you rely more heavily on calls home to mom than you normally would in your workaday life.

Finally, knowing that you've found a balance that you can hold comfortably for a while, you relax into whatever adventure you are on. You reach for those stars, throw yourself into an ambitious task, and rest assured that this odd equilibrium that you have will keep you steady until it's time to return to your center and get back to ordinary life. 0 comments

A Balancing Act

A lot of people think that ice skating takes some special feat of balance. In reality, just basic skating around the rink isn't all that difficult as long as you have a decent pair of ice skates on your feet. You should have strong boots and the blades should be balanced properly under your feet. Notice, I said that the blades should be balanced under your feet, not that you need to balance on the blades. If your boots are supporting your ankles and the blades are positioned correctly on your boots, you shouldn't have any difficulty keeping your feet upright. Standing upright on skates doesn't take any particular balancing skill, but controlling where you go and what you do on your skates, that's another issue entirely.

It seems a bit unlikely that you should be able to stand up on a small blade under your foot. It's not that hard to understand, though, if you take a pencil and balance it on your finger. You know that there is a point on the pencil where the weight balances perfectly. You can even balance it on something smaller -- a pin or the point of another pencil.

In Hebrew, the word for balance, shivui mishkal, literally means something like "equivalence of weight", much like the English word "equilibrium" which comes from the Latin words for "equal" and "weight". That mental image helps me lot when trying to understand how any given move actually works.

But what is weight, anyway? It's not how big something is. That's size. It's not how much matter is in something, that's mass. Certainly you learned in school that the mass of a thing isn't the same as its weight. Weight is the force that is exerted on a thing by gravity. In physics that's the mass of the object times the local gravitational acceleration. That's why your weight is different on Earth than it is on the moon. The moon doesn't have as much gravity to pull you down.

So, what we can say, then, is that equilibrium, is really about evening out the forces on the two sides of some specified point. In ice skating, that point is somewhere on your skate blade, but where?

If you take a look at the bottom of your blade you'll see that you don't really skate on 5mm or so of steel. You're really skating on two, much thinner edges. When you go straight you are fully on both edges. When you turn to the right you are putting most, if not all, of your weight on the right-side edges of your blades. It doesn't take a lot to push you onto an edge. Moving your arms, shifting your shoulders or hips, leaning a little, or even changing where your eyes are looking can all change your balance and push you over onto one edge or the other.

But still, whether you are on one edge or two, you are balanced because the forces that are pulling you in one direction are equal to the forces that are pulling you in the other direction, whether that force comes from gravity or muscle power in any given position.

Tomorrow I'll talk about balance in the layback spin. But first, tell me, what are the challenges to balance in your life? How do you equalize the forces that pull at you? 2 comments