Figure skating is an early specialization sport. One reason is that figure skaters must develop extremely complex motor skills on an unfamiliar surface (the ice). The jumps, spins, and even the basic skills require many years of training to master. I will say this again: the most fundamental skills in figure skating – edges and three turns – require years of effective training to master. This blog discusses a deception that exists if children do not effectively train and master basic skills and opt instead to focus only on jumps and spins (note: we do not consider Moves in the Field tests to be effective basic skills training on its own. You will learn more about this in a future blog).
The golden era of motor development
Some athlete development models argue that children enter a ‘golden era of motor development’ between the ages of 7-12 years of age – a period thought to be crucial to develop aspiring athletes’ coordination and foundational skills (Balyi, Way, and Higgs 2013) (please see our recent blog series on stages of development for more). We agree that this certainly is an advantageous stage to develop foundational figure skating skills. However, we also acknowledge that this supposed ‘golden era’ is also extremely deceptive with regard to how the (lack of) development of proper technique and basic skills can influence long-term progress in figure skating. In fact, we think this is one of the biggest issues that impacts the talent pool of figure skaters in the United States. Below, we will explain why.
Benefits of the golden era
There are three reasons the golden era of motor development is an advantageous period for figure skaters. First, as we stated above, children tend to grow and mature more steadily during this time period. This allows their skills to remain more stable because when developmental changes (e.g. height to weight ratios change; limb lengths change) occur the body has to search for new patterns of coordination that suit the changes. When this happens rapidly, coordination is thrown off more dramatically. This is why it is sometimes observed that pre-pubescent children have better coordination than children going through puberty.
The second advantage of the golden era of motor development is that, in general, pre-pubescent children benefit from a relative strength advantage. Relative strength is a measure of one’s strength relative to the size (weight) of their body. The relative strength advantage refers to the fact that height and weight do not increase proportionally. Therefore, two skaters could be equally strong (they can both lift 100 pounds, say) but the shorter one will be relatively stronger than the taller one because less strength is required to move their body. By nature of being relatively stronger and of having shorter limbs (the lever lengths are shorter), smaller bodies have the potential to be more powerful. Research shows the relative strength and power benefits are extra advantageous in motor skills that involve manipulation of one’s own body (e.g. a vertical jump) (Swinton et al. 2014, Zatsiorsky and Kraemer 2006). This is exactly what figure skaters do – they manipulate their bodies to perform explosive skills.
The third advantage of the golden era of motor development is the inertia advantage. This really extends from the second advantage. A smaller body is less resistant to the forces acting on it (inertia) and naturally achieves a more compact takeoff and tighter air position on jumps than a larger body (Mattson and Richards 2010). This maximizes angular momentum and velocity which are both vital to rotating triple and quadruple jumps.
Growth is steady
Greater relative strength
Less Resistance to inertia
The golden era of motor development allows for a huge deception to exist in figure skating performance. The deception is this: children can potentially acquire double (and even triple jumps) in the absence of biomechanically efficient techniques by virtue of being small, compact, and relatively strong. In fact, children can potentially acquire double jumps at a quicker rate in the absence of learning technique.
However, this will come back to impede their progress later on. Why? Earlier we wrote that it takes years of training just to develop fundamental skills (the basics) in figure skating. Basic skills provide the foundational technique (e.g. edge pressure) for how skaters will execute the ‘big moves’ – jumps and spins. However, there are many, many ways skaters could successfully complete a single or even a double jump (and even triple jump) consistently in the absence of understanding how to efficiently apply technique. For one, double jumps do not push the limits of the human body to any extreme and if a young skater practices enough- even in the absence of technique- their body might find a way to accommodate or adapt. If that skater is small and compact, now the likelihood of landing double jumps – in the absence of technique – increases significantly.
There are fewer ‘solutions’ to triple jumps, and still even fewer that solve quadruple jumps. These skills push closer to the human body’s limitations. In addition, puberty is where all kinds of issues emerge and this is right about when competitive skaters start triple jumps in the United States. During puberty, children grow at faster rates; their bodies change rapidly and, while they do gain muscle, relative strength decreases and resistance to inertia increases; their limb lengths, center of mass, and other dimensions change, which further disrupts coordination. They must adapt performance to accommodate all these changes (children who remain small aren’t affected as significantly). In other words, when they go through puberty, children naturally get stronger (absolute strength) but become relatively weaker (it is harder to manipulate their body) and less powerful; and their bodies are harder to move through space (inertia) and this negatively affects angular momentum and velocity on those jump takeoffs. Suddenly, technique is not only important, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, the way that “got the job done” before may no longer work or be effective.
Here’s another way to look at how the limiting effects of poor technique are delayed. Most healthy individuals could jump over a 6-inch high hurdle through a multitude of methods – two legs, one leg, backwards, sideways and so on… Jump technique is not a limiting factor for this hurdle. General athletic ability will accomplish the task. However, once that hurdle is raised a bit, now individuals will start to struggle. They might contort their bodies to clear the hurdle and it somehow works. We can call this “finding a way” to get the job done. It won’t be effective or efficient – but it works- somehow. Once the hurdle is raised to a greater height, no amount of adapting will work. You will be stuck. This is the point where technique becomes a factor and if you took time to develop that technique properly from the onset of your training, you would be better equipped to overcome this higher hurdle. Now, you either are stuck or you must go back and learn the basics of jumping if you are ever going to clear that hurdle in the future!
The deception of the golden era of motor development is that children’s progression during this time does not accurately reflect or predict future performance.
Bottom Line: ALWAYS focus on the basic skills. They are vastly more important than any competition medal! The basics will take time – lots of time, especially in the beginning. Others who ignore the basics might appearto progress faster; they might land double and some triple jumps – even win competitions. However, the basic skills will provide a solid, solid foundation through which to develop stronger, more efficient jumps and spins in the years to come. That is when those basics will make your skater shine!
Balyi, Istvan, Richard Way, and Colin Higgs. 2013. Long-term athlete development: Human Kinetics.
Magill, Richard A. 2011. “Motor learning and control.” Concepts and Applications.
Mattson, Jeffrey M, and Jim Richards. 2010. “Early specialization in youth sport: A biomechanical perspective.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance81 (8):26-28.
Swinton, Paul A, Ray Lloyd, Justin WL Keogh, Ioannis Agouris, and Arthur D Stewart. 2014. “Regression models of sprint, vertical jump, and change of direction performance.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research28 (7):1839-1848.
Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M, and William J Kraemer. 2006. Science and practice of strength training: Human Kinetics.