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Aug. 4 2009 - 2:43 pm | 397 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

The overzealous skating parent

apmAlthough skating is an individual sport, a skater can‘t make it to the top of the podium alone. It takes a team of people to carry them there, and an athlete’s parents are generally the ones who oversee this team. Parents are in charge of driving their child to ice rinks for practice, finding the best coaches, and, of course, they are the ones who handle the very pricy skating bills.

Once a parent is thrust into the skating world, they soon find out that skating is a sport that comes with few guarantees. Control is elusive. Many parents–and skaters–find themselves grasping for it in any way possible. Sometimes a parent’s desire to help facilitate their child’s success can lead them to some pretty extreme behavior. Some of these behaviors can be detrimental to a skater and can have long lasting effects on them both physically and mentally.

Most people know the story of Tonya Harding’s mom beating her with a hairbrush in a rink bathroom. Although this degree of physical abuse is not very common in skating, there are a few parents in the sport who have a difficult time handling the pressure of their child‘s career. It’s not unheard of to see a parent berate their child in the parking lot over missed jumps at a local competition, or two parents get into a shouting match over whose child had the longer and better lesson that day. Other parents have been known to give their children the silent treatment after bad practices or poor results at a competition. Although some might think that this type of behavior helps to motivate their child, for the skater, it can turn skating and competitions into a time when a fear of failure takes over any fun associated with the sport.

There was a skater whom I trained with for many years whose mother tried to motivate her daughter and enhance her career through a non-stop search for the best coach. Almost daily, her mom would drive her to three different rinks that were hours apart to take lessons with various instructors. She would travel an hour and a half to take a 20 minute lesson on spirals. Then, she’d drive back to another rink to work with someone else on her spins. At times it seemed like this skater was being held hostage to her mother’s non-stop carpooling and desire to train with nearly every coach in the state.

Even after hiring some of the best coaches in the country, some parents can‘t stop themselves from sideline coaching. A coach at a rink in Los Angeles says that she has to sometimes leave her lessons to ask a parent to stop yelling at her daughter from the bleachers. Parents attempting to coach from the stands isn’t the only thing that can disrupt a skater’s practice sessions. Some parents will stand by the music box in order to cut ahead of other skaters in line so their son or daughter gets their music played first. In addition, it’s not unheard of for a parent to tell their child to purposefully get into a competitor’s way with the goal of interrupting the other skater’s practice. These parents need to understand that getting involved in the action on the ice won’t help their skater‘s career, and it’s up to the coach to do the coaching.

My mother was extremely strict with me about training. She often lied to my coaches, telling them that I was only skating five days a week when I was really skating seven. When I broke my pelvis, she made me train for two months before taking me to a doctor. During practices, I would regularly complain about the pain, and she often told me that I was becoming “soft” for not training as hard as I had before I had injured my hip.

Once my x-rays came back, and it was confirmed that there was something medically wrong with me, instead of feeling upset that I had a serious injury, I felt validated. While my mom did seek out some of the best physical therapists in Massachusetts to help me recover, she wouldn’t allow me to any take time off from skating. I was afraid of taking a session off to rest my hip for fear of her thinking I was not “working hard.” Today, as I observe the new generation of up-and-coming skaters, I see this pattern of parental behavior repeating itself.

When I look back on my mom’s actions, and as I watch the actions of today‘s parents, I can see that it was not healthy for the parent-child relationship. There is no denying that pushing a child to skate with an injury, or forcing them to skate multiple hours per day, is incredibly detrimental to their well-being. This type of behavior tends to be found in every rink in the country. It makes me wonder why my mom, and so many other parents in this sport, act in potentially detrimental way. I have a couple of theories.

Some parents enter the sport for all the wrong reasons. These parents are destined to be stage moms. They live vicariously through their child. Their child’s success become their success. They see every action their child does as a reflection on them. Unable to distinguish between the boundaries of a healthy parent-child relationship, these moms and dads get blinded by their own dreams.

While some parents get their children involved in skating with the sole motivation of cashing in on their skater’s fame, others are unaware of the complex world that they are entering when their son or daughter becomes a competitive figure skater. These parents appear to get caught up in trying to help their child succeed by pushing them too hard. I believe much of this extreme behavior these parents exhibit comes from a place of love. It’s understandable how they might feel helpless in the sport and want to grasp on to any sort of control to help their child’s career. The problem is, though, that most parents don’t realize how their effort to help their child can instead have the opposite effect.

Some very talented skaters will fail to make it to past regionals or sectionals but because of minute reasons like not holding a spin for enough rotations or subjective judging. For a parent who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their child’s career, combined with countless hours sitting in a cold ice rink, a child’s failure can be heartbreaking and confusing, perhaps leading them to act in extreme ways.

Understanding this can be hard for some overzealous moms and dads. There are no rules for how to make a skater a winner, and there are no rules for how a parent should behave. It is up to the parent to keep him or herself in check and to see the big picture. This sport can suck people in and make them believe that skating is all that matters in the world. It isn’t. A child’s well-being is the most important thing. Not making nationals or taking a season off to rest an injury isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When a parent becomes too involved in a child’s career and turns it into a career of their own, it can not only hurt their relationship, but it can also make their child resent the sport and their mom or dad for becoming so controlling over what began as a fun activity.

In addition, children feel their parents’ stress. The worst thing for a skater–or any child–is to feel like they let a parent down. It needs to be understood that a child’s mistake during a competition is their tragedy, not their parents. A parent’s job is to be the shoulder for a skater to cry on. After all the time, money, and sacrifice they put in to a skater’s career, it’s easy to blur those boundaries. I can understand how parents want to do anything and everything to facilitate their skater’s accomplishments. However, sometimes even the most loving parents can end up hurting their children if their obsession with success becomes too great.


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    Many have wondered about your relationship with your sister Emily. How was her relationship with you and your mother affected by your skating and the time your mom spent at the rink? During the time of the ‘baby ballerinas’ the moms were all known to be extreme. How tense was it between the families at competitions? At what point did you start to lose your love for competitive skating?

    One of your competitor’s mother actually chose them from an orphanage because she felt she’d make a good skater. Was there a reason you switched from ballet to skating? Were you encouraged by your mom in any way? Was your sister involved in ballet or skating?

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      Hi Dave,

      Emily and I weren’t that close growing up. When we were younger, we were very different. I spent most of my time skating and competing, and she went to boarding school. After my mom died she left her senior year of college to come live with me in Michigan. I think at the time I didn’t realize how selfless she was. There were moments when I resented having her around because I was 18 and believed that I didn’t need a “parental figure,” but when I look back on it now I realize how much I really did need her. She helped me in so many ways. Since I quit skating, she and I have grown really close, and we talk on the phone almost every day now.

      When I was competing, there was definitely some tension between the parents of my competitors. There were times when I remember my mom getting upset with some of the other parents. There were a lot of different catty things that went on, and various rumors that went around.

      I think I lost my love for skating after my mom passed away. I no longer had that strong support system. Although I enjoyed skating well at competitions, it was hard not having that one person to share my success with.

      I switched to skating from ballet when I made the choice to move to the Cape. I was taking ballet classes in Boston, and it would have been impossible to commute daily to Boston Ballet. My mom let me make the choice without too much input on her behalf, and I don’t remember the transition being that difficult for me.

      My sister never skated, and she wasn’t really ever involved in any sports. She did some acting when she was younger, but she mostly focused on school.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    You have explained 95 percent of what I write about on my blog. I very much recommend you find a DVD copy of the Canadian series “The Tournament,” throw out the second disc, and watch the first. It’s hockey, not competitive ice skating, but you might find it all familiar. A little too familiar.

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    Such a telling article, Jenny. At our club we actually have board members who will reprimand parents who are abusive in any way, and there have been several in the last year who have been warned. As you can imagine, when you hear ranting and raving in any number of languages, it’s not pretty. Whoever said that music is the universal language never heard a skating stage parent at full throttle! Both my husband and I live by this mantra – “close mouth, sit on hands, hug when over.” We may never introduce our skater as a “national champion” but we will always be proud of “our champion.”

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    Jenny, thank you for your thoughts… your voice gives a very personal insight to the world of the skater. You share with us a refreshing point of view. Thank you.

    I can’t help but wonder though why there is a picture of Ann Patrice McDonough. I noticed you mentioned Tonya Harding but not necessarily APM. It makes one wonder if you weren’t alluding to APM’s parents. I know you probably don’t want to single someone out in your peer group but it makes us speculate even more. Maybe you can switch APM’s picture with Tonya’s if you don’t want us to assume that the skater’s parent you are talking about is APM. Just a suggestion. Thank you once again.

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    This goes in all children’s sports. My husband told me horror stories of bad behavior by parents when he used to play Little League baseball. The parents get too involved, too worked up, as if they are the ones playing baseball or skating instead of their child. It is ridiculous and spoils the fun for everyone. I cringe every time I see a news report where physical fights break out between parents at children’s sporting events. It just reinforces the predominant problem of the Stage Parent.

    I have followed your career and have videos of you, Jenny. I have a video of the World Jr. Championships which you won. I remember seeing what ease you skated in that competition. I also loved your “Chicago” routine and that gorgeous sparkly dress you wore. I often wondered why you left figure skating, but after reading your blogs, I can understand why.

    You are one heck of a writer and commentator. It is wonderful to hear a new voice, an honest voice, in the world of figure skating. Your blogs are honest and fair, and most importantly, you are coming from the viewpoint of somebody who has actually been there. So you know what really goes on in the skating world, as opposed to other self-proclaimed pundits of skating who never even placed a single blade on the ice. I like the fact that you are not afraid to be honest and truthful, even if the comments may not be flattering about a skater (although they are TRUE.) In other words, you write what most people think but are afraid to say.

    I was sorry to hear you left figure skating, but I applaud your courage in beating your eating disorder and working to keep yourself healthy. I look forward to reading more of your
    articles about skating, because you present an honest, fresh view, an insider’s view which is very valuable and insightful.

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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Los Angeles, CA