PSA Apprentice Program

By Kent McDill

December 1, 2016
   In The Loop Extended Articles

The term “apprentice’’ has an old-school feel to it. In pre-America Europe, apprentices learned a trade from the masters to become shoemakers or woodworkers or shipbuilders.

Leonardo da Vinci was an apprentice painter, and went on to paint the Mona Lisa. Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice printer before using his skills to influence the American Revolution. Mickey Mouse was the most famous apprentice of all as he learned to become a sorcerer.

It is perhaps because figure skating has an old-school history that apprenticeships have become so meaningful in the art and craft of coaching figure skating.

The Professional Skaters Association, which takes seriously the continuing education of its rated coaches, promotes the concept of paying it forward by pairing learned coaches with learning coaches in its Apprenticeship program.

As stated on the PSA website, apprenticing is seen as an opportunity for coaches to gain new information on coaching techniques by working with a Master-rated coach in all disciplines and at all levels. Apprentices receive certifications after completing a minimum of 30 hours of study with the mentor coach.

Debby Jones, a master-rated coach in both moves in the field and synchronized team instruction at Skate Frederick in Frederick, Md., has been both an apprentice and a mentor, which gives her the unique perspective on the value of the apprenticeship program.

“If anybody asks me, I will tell them it is better than any other source of education at the PSA,’’ said Jones, whose initial apprenticeship was under current PSA president Christine Fowler-Bender. “You get information on your own technique. You get a broader perspective. Sometimes what you are doing as a coach is exactly what the mentor is doing, and sometimes you can suggest something and the mentor will say ‘that would work’. It’s nice to know you are on the right track.”

“Being in the apprenticeship program ensured that I would consistently get to see how coaches taught and apply those coaching techniques for myself,’’ said Joanne Oh, who is one of Jones’ most recent apprentices. “After completing the apprenticeship, I had gained more trust from the other coaches at the rink. I learned a variety of teaching strategies for students of different ages with different learning styles.”

In the PSA Apprenticeship program, apprentices are already professional coaches. But, in line with the PSA’s commitment to continuing education for rated coaches, the apprentices get to gain insights into the coaching techniques of master-rated coaches and get to focus their attention on the disciplines in which they hope to attain a higher rating.

Kristin Conroy was the skating director at the Greeley Ice Haus in Colorado and wanted to improve her knowledge of coaching in the areas of jumps and spins. Paul Thibert was in a similar position at the Fort Collins Figure Skating Club when Conroy asked him to serve as her mentor.

“I knew his accolades in skating and coaching, and his expertise in jumps, and I thought he would be a perfect match for me,’’ Conroy said. “I had the best experience ever. It gave me confidence in what I was already teaching.

“I have done several programs within the PSA, and I feel like all of them are gems, but I really feel the ratings and apprenticeship programs are the diamond of all of them. I feel the apprenticeship gave me a more in-depth look at the discipline I was trying to get more knowledge in.”

The apprenticeship program is very hands-on (or skates on) instruction. Mentors will work with their own students with the apprentice watching and contributing, and often the apprentice is allowed to bring his or her own students to work with the mentor so that the apprentice’s personal coaching style can be viewed and critiqued.

Apprentices enter the program with an aim to improve their rating in a particular discipline. As such, they have a preconceived notion of what works for them. At the same time, the apprenticeship serves to open their eyes to what works for other coaches and how they might apply those teaching techniques to their own students.

“In order to prepare, you need to know what your weaknesses are,’’ Jones said. “You need to think about what is in there and what in particular you do not understand. You must keep an open mind to what they tell you, but you need to have some focus. But you also get an affirmation of your own coaching techniques.”

“As a skater, you can somewhat identify how to correct errors, but the program gave me critical thinking as to different areas I can identify and correct in both jumps and spins,’’ Conroy said. “It taught me creative avenues in the kinds of exercises on and off the ice I can provide my kids when they are trying to comprehend a new jump or skill.

Conroy said the apprenticeship had an immediate impact on her coaching.

“I see more productivity and feel my coaching has been more effective,’’ she said. “Being an apprentice is like being an intern, working at your occupation to gain more experience. Or maybe it is like a residency at a hospital, a way to further your training.”

The program calls for 30 hours of work between mentor and apprentice, and because of that time commitment, often the partnership occurs between coaches who know each other. However, Jones said it might serve coaches well to consider serving as an apprentice under a coach that is not personally familiar.

“For the most part, if you want to do an apprenticeship, I would go outside of the rink you work at,’’ Jones said. “You need that outside experience, you need to see how things are done elsewhere. It is so much easier to take advice from a new person than it is take it, or give it, from someone you know.”

In the case of the mentor-apprenticeship arrangement between Jones and Oh, they had a working relationship to begin with. That familiarity made it easier for Jones to assign Oh to numerous tasks as part of her apprenticeship, and Oh used that variety of experiences to widen her own coaching style.

“I was placed in a wide range of classes, which prepared me to be able to handle any teaching situation,’’ Oh said. “I also assisted in a specialty class that Debby helped create, focused on refining and reinforcing fundamental skills. I had a few one-on-ones with Debby, which taught me how to prepare for classes and conduct myself professionally as a coach.”

Conroy said the greatest benefit to her as a coach was learning the need to consider each student individually when approaching them as their coach.

“Paul took his mentorship a step further, teaching me how to use communication skills to match the level of the skater’s energy and intensity,’’ Conroy said. “That as a huge eye-opener for me.”

Apprenticeships are not one-offs. Jones has been called “the apprenticeship queen’’ for the number of times she has taken advantage of the program to improve her own coaching (not to mention the number of apprentices she has taken on).

“I absolutely plan on doing the apprenticeship program again,’’ Conroy said. “It’s more one-on-one, more of an intimate understanding of that discipline you want to improve upon.”