Under the Radar

by: Terri Milner Tarquini

June 1, 2014

   In The Loop Extended Articles

The idea of being “under the radar” typically means going undetected or unnoticed. While this can and does happen with some figure skating coaches, operating under the radar also has more of a dual-pronged definition in this sport.

“What we have are largely two separate issues going on,” said Alex Chang, chair of the Coaches Committee for U.S. Figure Skating. “One issue is with coaches who have skating experience, but for whatever reason are not getting their memberships and liability insurance and accomplishing their CERs (Continuing Education Requirements). The other issue is with someone who has their registration and has passed some CERs, but doesn’t have any skating experience themselves.”

This second situation of “paper coaches” is being actively addressed inside U.S. Figure Skating, although the solution is far from black or white.

“It’s a heated topic when it comes to coaches who have their coaching requirements but lack on-ice experience and mastery,” Chang said. “In the true sense, they’re not doing anything wrong. But the question is, ‘What’s best for the coaching and skating community?’ We don’t want to carelessly shut people out, but we are continually clarifying coaching standards. What needs to be figured out is at what level those standards should be set and its enforcement.”

While there are stories of instructors with low-level accomplishments themselves in the sport who have gone on to be competent - and, in some cases, great - coaches (Gus Lussi comes to mind), the motivation is usually different when it comes to someone with basically no skating experience.

“There are parents, or even adult skaters, who have virtually no skating background, who can get coach compliant,” said Heidi Thibert, E-curriculum coordinator for PSA. “Some do it to save on the cost of a coach and some do it for control, but neither is good for the skater. In my opinion, you cannot be effective without some background.”

But how does a coach with no figure skating skills or experience get in the door and pass the CERs anyway?

“The CERs are academic-based not technical-based,” Thibert said. “They need to be measured online, so they can’t really be heavily technical.”

Performing and teaching are two different skill sets. It is possible for someone to have been a mediocre skater and yet have an understanding of the principles of skating and how to impart that knowledge to students, according to Thibert. Therein lies the challenge: Knowing where to draw the line when it comes to a prospective coach’s skating background.

“We’re trying to evaluate that distinction, but it’s like having a cliff on one side and a cliff on the other,” Thibert said. “Some people think the bar needs to be set really high and others don’t agree. It’s tough.”

While there is a structure within the skating community to rate and rank coaches, not all of the rink-based sports and activities have such a framework in place.

“A large area of concern is with hockey coaches,” said Gerry Lane, the Ethics Chair for the ISI. “There’s not a testing structure, per se. So what do you demand and what do you expect for an actual skating background from coaches so not just anyone can call themselves a coach?”

A huge hurdle to the policing of coaches is at the local rink level, where rink owners and managers come from all different backgrounds and have all sorts of motivations for wanting to own and run an ice rink.

“There are rinks out there with no affiliation with anyone,” Lane said. “They don’t cater to figure skating; they tend to cater to hockey. They have public skating and they might have some learn-to-skate. There are opportunities for people with no credentials or skating experience to coach there and function. With privately-owned facilities, there can be a lack of resources and a lack of knowledge.”

Even when there is some type of levels laid out by the PSA, coaches – and those calling themselves coaches – can take advantage.

“Teaching power stroking for hockey players is like the wild west of our sport,” said Bob Mock, coach and former PSA president. “It is an almost entirely unregulated area of the ice sports (only PSA offers a certification). Basically nothing is required to call yourself a power skating coach. People who haven’t a clue are teaching it and they’re charging big-time rates. They’re paying to be on public skate, giving lessons and pocketing everything.”

When it comes to figure skating, however, the governing bodies of the sport have made it more difficult for undocumented coaches to get away with under the radar practices.

To be compliant for qualifying events at U.S. Figure Skating sanctioned events at the juvenile level and above, coaches who want to represent their skater must have a current U.S. Figure Skating membership, a current PSA membership, the required CERs, proof of liability insurance, and a background check that has been passed.

“When you take into account the memberships to the various organizations and clubs, the CERs, the insurance and everything else,” Mock said, “it costs me about $500 to step on the ice as a fully credentialed professional.”

There are those, however, who want to coach, but don’t want to jump through all of the hoops to be fully credentialed.
“Another thing to consider is the coaches with different goals,” Chang said. “There are high-level coaches out there who only want to be a technical coach, but are not going to competitions. Are they considered under the radar? They’re not going through the same rigors, but they’re not in the competitive cycle and not standing rink-side at these events.”

Being credentialed benefits a coach in more ways than being able to stand by the boards. There are seminars and learning opportunities, and a community of peers to easily share knowledge and questions.

“I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but typically the more involved you are, the more informed you are,” Chang said. “At a certain point, not keeping up on information is going to show in the results.”

The results can sometimes be further down the road and, in the meantime, there are young skaters being taught by a coach who might not be up on the latest information.

“There are coaches out there that are so far out of the loop, it’s pathetic,” Mock said. “The poor, unknowing public is walking in and taking lessons and paying good money for someone who is not doing what they should be doing.”

That “unknowing public” is something that U.S. Figure Skating’s Coaches Committee and Parents Committee are working to combat by getting out information on the organization’s website, but that mission is complicated.

“It’s a continual re-education process,” Thibert said. “Parents come and go in the sport so it’s challenging.”

In the end, however, it isn’t up to the parents to be the enforcers of a coach’s memberships and continuing education. It is up to the coaches themselves.

“Often, if the process isn’t complete, it’s because of an oversight,” Chang said. “They didn’t finish through to the last page online or there was a clerical error. Normally it doesn’t get to the point that it can’t be rectified. But it does take constant policing because there’s always going to be stragglers.”

In an effort to make punctuality more of a priority, U.S. Figure Skating is assessing a $75 fine for coaches who are not compliant by June 30 of this year.

“Definitely there are oversights sometimes, like when someone gets married and their name changes, but sometimes it is intentional and those people are pretty easy to identify,” Thibert said. “We send out emails before regionals and sectionals that say, ‘You’ve been named as a coach for this competition and this is what you don’t have and what you need to get.’ We literally spell it out for them. At that point, if they don’t do it, then it’s intentional.”

So what happens to the coach who shows up at a U.S. Figure Skating sanctioned qualifying event lacking the proper requirements and makes it into the competition?

“We’ve had people who are not compliant show up and stand at the gate,” Thibert said. “At that point, we’re not going to pull them and upset the child, but it’s an actual violation so the referee reports it to the Ethics Committee and the committee takes over and from there it is a confidential situation.”

The onus can’t be expected to rest with the unpaid parent volunteers at the rinks who are hosting the competitions. Coaches need to be aware.

“It’s a team effort,” Thibert said. “When the CER rules went through, one thing we mentioned over and over was the coaches needed to be active in policing themselves. If there is an issue, we encourage coaches to report another coach who is not compliant and we appreciate it. It’s offensive to coaches who are compliant when other coaches don’t fulfill their responsibility.”