The Ways They Learn
Hacks into getting through to your skaters!
If you're a parent or a coach for any length of time you learn one thing very quickly about kids: THEY'RE ALL DIFFERENT. I recently became an uncle to identical twin nephews Remley and Callahan and on my first trip to visit them I was afraid I wouldn't be able to tell them apart. It turned out there were so many things not "identical" about them that it made it easy. The active one that was moving around and throwing things, that was Rem. The one that would sit quietly in your lap and just take in the world, that was Cal. If he was crawling to you on the floor, Remley, if he was kind of scooting over to you sitting on his bum, Cal. They were identical twins, raised in the same home, with the same attentive parents but they just developing differently in various ways and at different speeds. Not one better than the other, just different.
This got me thinking about my experiences as a coach and the ways a skater's learning style can change from one to the next and why it's important to recognize and remember those differences to give the most effective lesson for the skater in front of you. Today I'm going to talk about "the big 3" ways skaters learn. I am by no means taking credit for discovering the big 3, this information has been out and widely circulated for a long time, but I will share some tips on how to navigate them and tailor your teaching style to best fit your skater.
So what are "The Big 3"?
It's been a commonly held belief for a long time that skaters primarily learn 3 ways: visually, tactically and auditorily. Put simply: seeing, feeling, hearing. While I don't think these are the ONLY ways kids learn I think they are very necessary to understand and important to have a working knowledge of all 3 on a day to day basis.
I think there is a lot of value in using all 3 ways to all students regardless of what their tendencies lean towards. As a coach I find it helps me get a feel for what works best for a particular skater. For a skater it helps solidify information by seeing, hearing and feeling it. What I have found as somewhat of a pattern, but by no means an absolute rule, is that younger skaters do well with tactile corrections as they are still developing the fine motor skills needed to achieve them. Visual aids most help skaters that have the ability to perform skills but are still developing the body awareness to know what they are doing. Auditory corrections are most practical with more developed skaters to reinforce skills or concepts that the skater already has an understanding of. I still recommend using ALL 3 methods with ALL students but tailor your approach for what works best for your skater.
Some students just have to SEE it! Here are some tips for helping visual learners.
DEMONSTRATE: Demonstration is a large part of what a coach does. Skater see, skater do. When demonstrating make sure you're in the student's eye line. If you're at the boards stay in front of them. (My torn piriformis muscle suggest I remind you to know your limits!) If it's something you don't feel safe demonstrating you can have a student do it. I've also asked other coaches to "loan me" a skater to demonstrate a skill that I know they do well. This builds comradery with the skaters and boosts the self esteem of the demonstrator. If you don't feel like busting out your triple toe loop and there's no one around to help there are other ways.
VIDEO EXAMPLES: I was very fortunate that early on in my coaching career I invested in a DartFish video analysis system. I would set up my video camera in front of the TV, play skating events and take clips of almost every element. (You could probably do this with an iPad or smartphone now.) After that I would label them by element and skater. I keep them on the laptop that I bring with me to the ice every day in folders labeled by jump name or type of spin. It got to be that I had so many clips I had to make a folder of "favorites" for quick reference. I find having video examples CRITICAL. As a primarily visual learner myself, I learned so much from video review as a young coach. So much of what I "thought" happened wasn't always what showed up on the screen. I was able to reevaluate a lot of what I thought and notice important patterns across different jump techniques.
On a personal note: Growing up, I watched videos of skating over and over and over as a kid. I was always an early riser, so 5am every morning I was downstairs watching VHS of Paul Wylie and Nancy Kerrigan until the tape was worn out. I had taught myself how to do forward and backward crossovers, mohawks and waltz jumps on roller blades before I stepped on the ice for the first time at age 11. Video review is FREE.Not everyone is going to teach themselves an axel but since it can be done off the ice, using video examples is one of the most COST EFFECTIVE ways to learn and teach.
VIDEO REVIEW: While fabulous, DartFish got a little bulky to transport, especially given that I teach in a 3 rink facility. I switched to an iPad Pro to record students in lesson. I use an app called HudlTechnique. This app lets me play back a skater's element frame by frame, forward and backward at any speed. You can draw, measure angles, even sync videos side by side to show differences a skater might not feel yet. I can even record my voice while reviewing a clip and send it as a video lesson. Also very importantly, Hudl allows you to set a timer on the screen so you can clock your skaters air time from take off to landing. This is critical for skater safety. As an example, research has shown the minimum airtime on a fully rotated double axel is 0.5 seconds with very few exceptions. If a skater's single axel is well below this number, I spend more time working on the air time of the single, then keeping most double attempts in a jump harnesses. Crash padding should always be used when working new skills. (Click right for more examples)
Have you ever had something finally "click" that you might have heard a thousand times but it was just explained to you a different way? This is why communication is so important and here are some of my tips on getting students to HEAR you.
UNIFORM LANGUAGE: Uniform language is helpful to explain the same concept across many elements. One example I can give you is the word ACTIVE. I didn't invent this term but I once heard a coach use the term "active edge" to describe an edge that was actively gaining speed or power. (Think power pulls or swing rolls.) As a skater, I had heard this concept explained a hundred different ways to me with words like rip, press or push etc. "Active" clicked with me. Trying to get a skater to push harder? "Make your pushes more ACTIVE." Deeper edges? "Make your edges more ACTIVE." It's a great way to simplify language and explain the same concept across many elements. I also name certain walk throughs with uniform language. (Think crossed-foot twizzle walk through or down-the-line walk through.) These are things like exercises that I use for all jumps and can be referenced easier with uniform language.
SIMPLIFY CONCEPTS: Once during a snowstorm I was trapped in the house for a few days and went into what Dr. Brene Brown calls a "Jackson Pollack crazy" video review project. I must've watched 1,000 dartclips looking for commonalities and trends across all jumping. Specifically looking at the major causes of falls and what aspects of quality jumping are ALWAYS present and what are variables due to technique or body type. In my study I boiled the important stuff down to 3 rules and gave them quick catch phrases. The first having to do with posture, the second with direction of travel and the third with edge quality. I'll write more about this soon, but at competition I've found it very efficient to just yell "Rule Number One" or hold up 3 fingers to get the point across.
EXPLAIN WHY: People are always a lot more motivated to work on something if they understand WHY you are asking them to do it. Explain what is it you are trying to achieve and why should it be important to them. I also think it's important to teach COMPREHENSION above just giving my skaters commands. Teaching skaters things like cause and effect and how to read their tracings on the ice may take a little more time in the short term but it teaches your skaters how to think for themselves and work more effectively on their own.
MAKE IT STICK: Every coach has been there, you find yourself making the same correction over and OVER with a skater with little success. When this happens I find myself thinking, maybe there's something wrong with the correction. While brevity is important, there are many times where a more vivid explanation is necessary. Knowing how to craft a good analogy will serve any coach well. I'll give you an example, after finding myself saying "point your toes" for the 10,000th time I was beginning to find myself a little frustrated and then... I got lucky! That day in a lesson my skater had oddly been looking at my mouth when I spoke the whole time rather than into my eyes. I thought to myself and asked, is there something in my teeth? She grinned widely... I saw an opportunity. I said SEE, it's one tiny little thing but it's all your eye can go to. You do an otherwise beautiful landing position but the only thing anyone can look at is that turned in flexed foot! You have food in your teeth! Well, it stuck! I don't remember having to tell her again. Having that seemingly unrelated visual was something she could understand and relate to that burned into her mind. In the end, no correction is effective if you can't make it stick.
Some students just need to FEEL it! Here are some tactile tools and methods I use for my skaters.
ON ICE EXERCISES: I think having a good inventory of exercises is a coach's bread and butter. If you're interested in learning more about the value of myelin and muscle memory I highly recommend The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Using repetitive movement exercises help turn movement patterns into habits. Walk throughs and various back spin exercises allow you to work on the "parts" of a jump with more repetition and less time. For me, one of the most valuable benefits of using exercises is the safety of my skaters. If you can achieve the desired result with less repetition of high impact skills that means less risk of injury and less wear and tear on a young body.
HARNESSES: I use a ProMotion fish pole harness with my athletes on the ice to help them learn what a successful jump feels like before they are able to generate the air time or quickness to achieve it. My rink very fortunately has a Champion off-ice harness. I love this harness because it is a fun, time effective, way to teach correct air position, axis and snap to a student at a lower cost to the family. I personally rarely use the line harness but use whatever resources you have available to you to help your skater.
OFF ICE JUMPING: Talk about efficient and cost effective! On a typical 45 minute session at my rink, I'd say a skater can likely to get off about 25-40 jumping passes depending on how crowded the session in. Off-ice, you can do the same in about 5 minutes for free. While there's certain things you can't simulate off-ice like edge quality, there's a lot of work you can do on body positions, alignment and quickness so you can use your time on the ice more strategically.
SQUEAKERS: I didn't come up with this one either but replacement dog squeakers are awesome for tactile learners! I use masking tape to put them wherever I want on the body to create a contact point for the skater. On toes for backspins, on ankles or under a glove for air positions. It amazes me how quickly and dramatically that tactile learners can make big changes with squeakers.
KOOSH BALLS: Yes, I said koosh balls. I put them on a skater's head to make them be aware of posture on walk throughs or skating skills. I also use them at competitions to play toss with my skaters. Emotions like nervousness, worry and fear are processed in the amygdala which is famously responsible for our "fight or flight" reflex. Having to focus and be present in the moment to catch a ball requires the skater to be using their cerebral cortex, which is responsible for problem solving and logical thinking, resulting in better focus.
While these are by no means the only ways, these are just some tips that I have found worked for me over the years. I've been amazed by some very CLEVER coaches who use a lot of different ways to EXPLAIN, SHOW and ultimately get a student to FEEL a proper element. If I find something that works, I write in down in a notebook, maybe it will work again but at the end of the day, if I see 30 different skaters in a week I know it's likely I'm going to have to teach the same element 30 different ways! Give yourself a BIG tool box to work and always remember, IT'S ABOUT THE SKATER!