New Normal:Games with balls and sticks

By Kent McDill

December 1, 2013

   In The Loop Extended Articles

Thanks to the economic downturn of 2008, the entire world has changed in one way or another, and that includes the world of competitive ice skating.

But other factors, more social than economic, have created a New Normal among professional skating coaches and the athletes and athletes’ parents they work with. 

Two members of the Professional Skaters Association, Bill Fauver from Nashville, TN and Denise Williamson from the Charlotte, NC area, discussed their theories about the New Normal with PSA Magazine, explaining their view of the current state of competitive figure skating in the United States.

Fauver is a former Olympic pairs skater, a former international team coach for U.S. Figure Skating, a former board member of U.S. Figure Skating, and was the technical director of the 1997 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Williamson is a coach at the Extreme Ice Center in North Carolina, a former member of the PSA Board of Governors, and the former PSA Freestyle Discipline Chair.

They have both witnessed the effects of the current state of the economy on skating coaches, but believe there are other factors involved in the fluctuation of participation of figure skating, painting a more socio-economic picture.

Which brings us back to games with balls and sticks.

“There are a lot of other sports that are competing with figure skating for participants and they are doing a good job marketing themselves,” Fauver said. “Soccer, basketball, lacrosse and other sports are less expensive and team-oriented.”

“Team-oriented” and “less expensive” go hand-in-hand, although Williamson, a soccer mom herself as well as a professional figure skating coach, knows that if an athlete reaches the travel or club level of a team sport, it can get expensive as well.

Still, there is a perception that team sports are making inroads into the participation levels of figure skaters, especially when the skaters get beyond the Learn to Skate level.

“We have lost the middle of the pyramid,” said Fauver, who has two sisters who are ice skating coaches, one in Cleveland and one in West Virginia. “Learn to Skate is okay, but our novice to junior skaters, there is a great chasm. Our regional intermediate level is the bellwether of the sport.”

Williamson works with a lot of coaches at the training center in North Carolina and notes the full-time coaches seem to be doing fine despite the economic downturn.

“Coaches who are part-time, they saw a little more effect on their business,” Williamson said. “But from my existing clients, there wasn’t too much trouble, unless the parents were in real estate or another field that was more seriously hit. But part-time coaches, there was definitely more of an effect.”

Fauver, on the other hand, has been more directly affected. Although he still coaches, he is also opening a high-level custom boot company in Nashville, Avanta Skating Boots, which will open next month.

“Most coaches I know who recognize the economic problem have found ways to reduce costs,” Fauver said. “They give group lessons, or coach ice dance, or theatre on ice, to find ways to maximize their income in the time they are on the ice.”

Fauver said he believes there is growth in synchronized skating because it costs less for ice time and coaching. “It’s keeping skaters in the sport but is taking away from our freestyle pool,” he said.

Williamson said economics has prompted parents and middle school or high school athletes to find other outlets for their time and money.

“It has improved, but I don’t think we have recovered, but the biggest reason is there are just a lot more options for these athletes to do,” she said. “Children need to get involved in something, but with recreational leagues, baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse is big now, they are less expensive. Financially they are a completely different environment.”
Although the costs are similar, one other sport that is pulling figure skaters to the team atmosphere is girls hockey, which is seeing increased participation numbers in the grade school levels.

At some point in the development of a figure skater, more individual coaching is required, and as a result, expenses jump up. The best figure skaters often end up running off to training centers far from home, and then the cost is through the roof.

“With the elimination of figures, we are getting so specialized,” Williamson said. “It’s getting to be kind of like medicine. We used to have general practitioners but now we have specialists in everything, in every aspect of skating. There are more places to go and train, but in order to do that, you are going to have to have a decent bank account.

“It used to be, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, that only the very wealthy kids skated, and I think it is heading that way. It’s just for the wealthy if you are going to be competitive.”

Williamson recognizes a change in the figure skater of today that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with technology.

“I am not a child of social media,” Williamson said with a laugh, "but I think the way kids are being brought up today, so accustomed to constant connections with others, that solitude isn’t something they are comfortable with, and competitive figure skating is a sport you do alone.

“Kids are never really alone,” she said. “Even when they get sent to their room, they have someone to talk to. With cell phones and texting, they always have somebody at their fingertips. That lends itself to being more comfortable being with people rather than being alone.”

Wiliamson did admit that it is not just figure skating that could suffer from the social problem of constant connection. She pointed to gymnastics and ballet as other activities that are performed solo.

“When we put together our Christmas shows now, more athletes want to do group acts instead of solos,” Williamson said. “They want that interaction, and it takes the pressure off. They would much rather do quartets or trios than solos. We have pretty good skaters going to do quartets.”

And the inability to handle loneliness becomes multiplied when the best skaters leave their hometown or local training facility to go to a renowned training center somewhere away from home.

“Good skaters are going to draw good skaters, or draw kids that think they are good, or their parents who think they are going to be good,” Williamson said. “Those kids have to be able to take it emotionally, but unless you are a standout among standouts, you are just a number.”

Williamson points to two skaters from her home rink who both recently went to the training facility in Colorado Springs and left behind what they had at home and one of them has already quit the sport.

Taking Fauver’s point about the middle age-range of skaters disappearing, and Wiliamson’s point about specializing, then you add the fact that athletes are being pulled to other activities or even jobs, and you have a different world than the one many of today’s figure skating coaches grew up in. Williamson points to her upbringing at the Wagon Wheel in Rockford, Ill.

“Those girls I grew up with at Wagon Wheel are still my best friends,” Williamson said. “I remember, during summer camp, we would be dropped off at 7 a.m. and picked up at 6 p.m., and my mom could have picked me up at 8 and I would have been happy. Now it is just go in, get the job done, and leave.

“Times change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse,” she said. “I’m not sure where we will be in 10 years.”