Figures and Poses
Originally written 08/22/2015
I recently gave some lessons to a couple of young skaters (10–12 years old). In a need to get back to basics I brought the girls, eager to jump and spin, to the blue line to flow through some edges and 3-turns. I do this a lot with skaters and they often roll their eyes, hesitate, and who knows what else in their heads. I asked if they’d ever heard of figures (you know, like, as in ‘figure’ skating). “No”.
For readers not up on the terms and culture- this is almost like a kid today responding the same way to being asked “do you know what the dewey decimal system is?” To be completely fair, I am young enough to never have needed to test figures. I was raised on Moves in the Field. I am old enough, however, to have had lessons in figures and I’m so glad that I did. Now with plenty of education in exercise science, athletic injury, and as a yoga teacher, I can tell you that figures should never have left. And just because we no longer test and compete compulsory figures this doesn’t mean skaters should get away with not doing them.
Super informal case study- I passed my Senior MIF test when I was (I think) 17. After that, I subluxed my knee about once a year, severely hurt my back, mangled my ribs, and ultimately destroyed my body. I was getting older, had a changing body, and a different mentality but there’s no doubt in my mind that the end of being attentive to the control of my blade and intricate positions of my muscles contributed to the end of my healthy physical body. To note, this was also the same time I began a pretty intense yoga practice. So I’ll hit you with two stones: a yoga teacher proclaiming that yoga/off-ice isn’t enough and a skater who got away with not doing figures advocating for their daily practice.
There’s a lot of controversy in the yoga world surrounding the physical practice of it (asana). Just like in skating, many people from the yoga realm are debating how the practice has become all about the “tricks” and the crazy photos/videos of physical contortion. Instagram has become yoga’s version of the IJS system. Historically, asana has been a practice to prepare and bring attention to the body (not necessarily to become more flexible, more strong). This is what figures were for skating. They included the mental/spiritual/attentive practice that’s missing from skating today (no matter how much we argue that the sport is so “mental”). You can do all the pilates and yoga you want off-ice. Without bringing the awareness practice to your blades, I argue that their benefit will be very limited. That is to say- doing a slow, focused practice off-ice and expecting it to directly benefit jumps and spins and focus is illogical. Blades first. Get grounded. Then grow.
In the same way a twisting chair pose in yoga improved my loop jump, as can the figure loop on the ice- and it’s much more applicable. Your senses and subconscious are aware of what you’re doing, believe it or not. A discovering of how your brain and body works on the ice will translate much more cleanly to the jumps and spins you do on the ice. Back to my education in exercise science and yoga, figures used to be like yoga on ice. They forced skaters to slow down in the daily so that a potential injury had less of a chance of stopping a skater altogether. Double and triple jumps are far more than how strong your major muscles are or how daring you feel. They require a unity in the mind, numerous big and tiny muscles, and a spirit of trust.
There is a trouble happening in the whole world, not just on the ice or on the mat. We are so focused on the next big thing, the next step, the next accomplishment. We ignore the groundwork that needs tending constantly. Not every challenge can be met by improving. Many challenges need to be met with a slowing-down and remembering. Many new things to learn are less about adding to your knowledge and more about rediscovering, reapplying, knowledge you already have. This is yoga. This is compulsory figures.
Now you might be saying “but MIF!”. MIF address the need to test a skater’s edges and blade control but they’re accumulative, not restorative. And once you finish testing them, how often do you really go back and practice any of those patterns? You can perform a 3-turn and then move on to brackets. But can you control a 3-turn? Can you hold it around a corner and transform it into a back-3-turn? Can you perform your edges, turns, and patterns when you’re at your angriest, your worst, your sickest? Did you get your counters and rockers to “passing” or do you have an innate understanding of how your body creates the pattern? Injury occurs when we let landing a jump justify moving onto a bigger and harder jump.
If you’re resistant to the idea of slowing down and taking a break from jumps, spins, and programs consider this: where is your resistance coming from? Fear of not improving fast enough? Fear of being seen as not good enough? Fear of missing an opportunity to accomplish a goal for the day? There is always work to be done. But learning patience and calm is as important as landing that double axel. A patient and healthy skater will love the sport longer than an over-eager and injured skater.
An idea: when the jump being worked on just isn’t happening, what do we typically do as skaters? Practice one revolution down for a minute, perhaps? Walk through it? Move on to a different jump? Switch to spins? What if instead of keeping the eye on the “next” we take a look over there at “different”. Take a few minutes to practice some really slow figure-eights. Add in some 3-turns and brackets or figure loops. Do some choctaws and regain some more intentional, longer-than-a-half-second attention to your muscles working. Yoga is like setting the groundwork for the whole body to perform the rest of its tasks in a day. Figures can do this for skating.
As frustrating as they are, I argue that figures are what helped create healthy skaters (pre-IJS national competitors were in the game for more than a decade. You just don’t see that now.) I’m glad I got some ice time with a scribe, smart coaches, and the invitation to calm it down for a bit. I’m glad that my experience with yoga helped make this connection both emotionally and logically that such a practice on ice is beyond the definition of beneficial. As a skater- this is an invitation to coaches to dare teach their skaters figures no matter how much you hated them or how much push-back you get from the student. As a coach- this is a suggestion to skaters to get curious and ask your coach about how to include figures in your practice for, essentially, some benefits of yoga directly on the ice.