By Natalia Ashley
Coach, White Ice Open Collegiate
Starting, coaching and sustaining a small team of non-synchro skaters is the most arduous task I have ever taken on. Recruitment is difficult because you have to convince singles skaters who have been brought up hating synchro, thinking it’s only for mediocre skaters, that it is actually fun and extremely challenging. Getting the single skaters to come to a practice or skate with the team is a huge achievement in itself. Once the skaters are on the ice I am usually convinced that the majority of them will have a blast. And lets be honest—seeing elite level freestyle skaters struggle with a simple mohawk in a block can be quite entertaining.
In the beginning I had all my skaters do drills. I had to find a happy medium for the skaters who could do counters and rockers in their sleep, and the skaters who didn’t understand what a bracket was. The first half of our hour long practice was devoted to turns, the other half devoted to formations.
I had my returning skaters demonstrate skating together on the line. “Alright …and go!” I yelled once they were all in place, up in shoulder grip. Blank faces. Of course they had blank faces! I forgot that something as simple as skating in a line on a circle pattern is not natural for skaters without synchro experience.
I broke down the element for them, and still had girls flying off the end of the line, but we had to move on to the next element because we only had three months of one-hour practices a week to get competition ready. Next we tried a circle. Disaster. Then we tried some pinwheels. They were pretty good—they could actually go from a parallel into a back catch two spoke!
At that point I was giddy with excitement, thinking I was the best coach ever, teaching new synchro skaters how to transition from formation to formation in the wheel, but I was wrong. I decided the best plan of action was to give them the program and teach each element along the way. However, I was a young coach and choreographer with mega dreams, so I ran into some problems.
My first version of our three-minute program consisted of moves in isolation, moves in the field, block, parallel wheel into a two spoke, circle with a change of direction, intersection, interacting intersecting lines, a three-spoke, a pivoting line, and a box intersection…That didn’t work out so well. I ended up cutting the program down a lot.
After cutting the program down it was Election Day. One month left until Dr. Porter. Two weeks before our regional critique. On the inside I was dying—I had such high hopes for myself as a coach and choreographer, but we were still lagging behind the progress I hoped for. We scheduled a few extra practices and we finished the program. All of the skaters had bonded and rallied. The ones that weren’t already in love with the sport quickly fell in love with it. They wanted to do well, and the message I tried to convey throughout the season was, the harder you work, the easier it will be, so they did.
They performed a complete program at critique. It was complete, but still rough—it needed a lot of cleaning up. I met with the judges, and knew it was time to cut down more.
My coaching style relies on listening to the music and musical cues. A challenge I had with this coaching style was that every time we reviewed steps off ice, the timing was different. I needed to teach the team to listen when the music speaks and tells you what to do. At first when I tried to explain they stared at me with blank faces, but eventually they got it, and they were amazing! They made all the changes and corrections and improved a ton.
We actually had a cohesive program by Dr. Porter, but they placed last…by a lot. I was worried that they would be mad, and they would hate me, and they would fire me. They didn’t. Instead, they were all so invigorated by competing and skating the program that they were anxious to go back to D.C. and make changes. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing group of girls my first year coaching.
After Dr. Porter we had one practice before their long winter break. I completely changed their circle and their intersection in that last hour of practice, and then they were off to spend the holidays in their respective hometowns. They came back from vacation with three practices left before Easterns. The momentum picked up even from Porter. We had three practices with just run-throughs.
The Wednesday before Easterns, we had an ice storm, however, every single girl showed up to practice. I was stunned. They learned the most important lesson—everyone must show up to practice no matter what!
On Friday night the skaters arrived at Easterns for their official practice. We kept it nice and medium in the locker room and finally went out to have two amazing skates on our official practice ice. The season could have ended then and there for me. I went into the season wanting to showcase my choreography, and came out of it just being thrilled that these non-synchro skaters skated two complete, beautiful and synchronized skates. But, it wasn’t over. They had to skate the next day.
Competition day came, and I decided to stay relaxed and not to nag. They were at the point when all of them knew what they were doing, so I figured nagging them and giving them new things to concentrate on wouldn’t be helpful. We did a few off ice runs, and that was it. They went into the locker room relaxed and ready to compete. I watched their program from the stands with one of the skaters who had mono and couldn’t skate. I don’t think either of us breathed. It was a good skate, not as good as practice, but they were still elated once they got off the ice.
They wound up in a three-way tie for 4th and ended up 7th overall. Through this experience I learned that no matter what the level, or expectations you have for your team, there are always accomplishments. Whether they are world medals or doing a crossover on the same beat, they all matter, they are all accomplishments, and they are all something to be proud of.