2018 Governing Council Meets in Land of the Mouse

Orlando Meeting Packed with Contentious Issues

by George S. Rossano

In the alternating “lean” and “full” year rotation of Governing Council meetings, this is a full year, and boy is this meeting packed.  As a conclusion to a disappointing Olympic quad where the U.S. won only one individual medal, in Dance, and fell flat in Men and Ladies, while Pairs was a distant also-ran, the agenda for this meeting reeks of panic as U.S. Figure Skating finally is beginning to recognize the U.S. development system in woefully out of date, and that the development timeline for singles and pairs skaters lags the rest of the world by two to four years.

Illustrative of this problem, consider that for the last ten years the average age of the World Junior Ladies Champions is 14, with these skaters landing jumps up through triple Lutz + triple toe loop; while for the Men’s Junior champions the average age is about 16.5 with these skaters landing triple Axels and quads.  And while the U.S. wallows in an archaic system of testing testing testing with a plethora of marginally different division requirements with their development-impeding rules, the rest of the world continues to advance.  At the most recent World Junior Championships the Ladies Champion landed two quads.

At the same ages as the World Junior Champions, American ladies are mostly still competing in Intermediate, allowed only a handful of triple jumps; and the men mostly in competing in Novice attempting most of the triples but not triple Axels or quads.  It will take U.S. Skaters in Intermediate and Novices another two to four years to work their way up to senior, having to take another four to six tests of the several dozen tests a skater might take from Learn to Skate through the Senior Moves and Senior Free Skate tests.

By the time they get to senior American skaters are often over the hill by modern international standards.  The track-record for U.S. skaters over the last two quads shows that the U.S. development system does not allow old dogs to learn new tricks.  The traditional paradigm that skaters must first develop the highest standards of skating skills and other “fundamentals” before they can blossom into champion skaters just doesn’t work anymore.  The idea that any skater that develops these fundamentals will then blossom into a champion no matter their age is a myth.  If skaters haven’t blossomed by about 14 for the ladies and 16 for the men they never will, no matter how skilled they are in fundamentals.  The U.S. development system was designed for the 1950s, not the 21st century.

U.S. Figure Skating has been flogging the fundamentals horse for several years now, to no avail.  Over the past three season the scoring system has been manipulated to increase the importance of Skating Skills, weighting them ever more heavily, and eliminating program components for Transitions and Composition for skaters in the 12-16 age groups.  The result of that has been no increase in Skating Skills scores for this age group.  And at the same time, when you compare the Total Points and Skating Skills scores for U.S. Juniors and Seniors to the rest of the world you find that foreign skaters (primarily Canada, China, Japan and Russia) with the same Skating Skills scores as U.S. skaters, substantially outperform the U.S. in Total Points and the most difficult jumps completed.  The bottom line is that U.S. Skaters do not convert their skating skills into total points as effectively as foreign skaters.  And while the 12-16 age group in the U.S. is let off the hook for developing Transitions and Composition, the rest of the world the 14-16 age group is poised to enter Junior and Senior with all five component skills.

U.S. Figure Skating needs a new paradigm for skater development.  The U.S. needs to completely rework its development system from top to bottom and end to end so that skaters can become as good as they can as fast as they can.  This has been my mantra for skater development for the past two seasons, and it’s nice to see it is gaining a little bit of traction in U.S. Figure Skating – but still not yet enough to impact the kinds of business brought before the Governing Council. While some items nibble around the edges of this problem, little is offered this year to come directly to terms with fundament deficiencies in the development system timeline.  As a committee chair has repeatedly reminded me over the years, the ship of U.S. Figure Skating turns VERY slowly.

Competitions Task Force

Revisions to the development system are indirectly addressed in five broad concepts being presented to the Governing Council by a Competitions Task Force.  This original motivation for forming this task force was to address the unwieldy size and schedule of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships which currently includes championships for Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, Junior and Senior.  It subsequently expanded to include many additional initiatives that have resulted in a complex proposal affecting non-qualifying competitions, qualifying competitions, the structure of the national championships and the creation of development camps. 

A major structural deficiency for the task force initiatives is that the financial impacts for these proposals are not addressed.  These proposals affect the finances of non-qualifying competitions, qualifying competitions, club finances, competition expenses for competitors, the cost of the national championships and the cost of the proposed development camps, and more.  It is simply unreasonable and irresponsible to ask the delegates to approve these initiatives without knowing what they will cost and how they will impact the finances of skaters, clubs and the Association.

There are five broad initiatives (sections) being presented by the task force.  Each of these is intended to stand alone, so that any combination can be approved or not as the delegates might chose.  The most significant two are actually closely related, dealing with the elimination of Juvenile, Intermediate and Novice Championships and the restructuring of the qualifying competitions.

Section 1

This initiative creates a National Qualifying Series (NQS) to allow a small number of skaters the opportunity to qualify for Sectionals without competing at Regionals.  This concept developed from the problem that Regionals have becoming less and less economically viable due to stagnant entry fees, increasing ice costs, diversion of some income to Headquarters and reduced grants from U.S. Figure Skating, leading to the question whether Regionals might be replaced with qualifying for Sectionals based on skaters’ seasonal results in non-qualifying competition.

What is proposed, however, no longer addresses the cost of Regionals, but simply allows an alternate route to Sectionals for a small number of skaters – 6 each in Ladies and Men’s singles, 3 in dance and 3 in pairs.  Yet another series will be created, the scores from which will used to create rankings.  The top scoring skaters will qualify for Sectionals.  To be part of the series a competition must be held to the standards of a Regional competition and a manual will be produced to specify the details of that.  What began with concern over the cost of Regionals has morphed into a series for those who do not like the idea of “one and done” to advance from Regionals to Sectionals, and want to give skaters multiple chances to qualify for Sectionals – for as many competitions might be part of the series, or until they run out of money, whichever comes first.  This series is great for clubs whose non-qual already meet the expected requirements to be levied, but not so much for everyone else.  It’s also great for skaters who have tons of money to throw at entry fees to chase a top score, but not so much for everyone else.

Devilish Details:  No one knows at this time what financial impacts are for clubs to "upgrade" their competitions to participate in the series.  For smaller clubs this is sure to result in a major bump in competition cost to join the series.  In some areas where enough high appointment officials are not available, joining the series may prove impossible.  This initiative has the potential to cause skaters to abandon the smaller non-quals n favor the series.  The economic impact on the smaller clubs could be devastating.  Part of the concept also assumes that Sections 3 and 4 will pass concerning the qualifying competition structure.  It is not specified what happens if this section passes and sections 3 and 4 do not.  There will be a complex bureaucracy created to manage this series (which actually will be three series, one each for singles, pair and dance).  The cost of which is unknown.  The series will run through 15 September, but qualifying entries are due 1 September.  Skaters will not know for sure they have qualified through the series before entries are due for Regionals.  To make sure they are not shut out of qualifying, skaters would have to enter Regionals anyway.  Then, if they qualify through the series they would not get back their entry fee for Regionals – a huge waste of their money.  It is unknown whether geographic uniformity in the judges’ marks is adequate to implement this concept.  No studies are offered that it is.

Section 2

This initiative would create a High Performance Development Team and Team Camp.  The camp would be held 2-3 days following the National Championships (which would be reduced in sections 3 and 4 to Junior and Senior only).  The purpose of this is to provide Juvenile though Novice skaters a development opportunity that would replace the current national championships. The initiative also includes increased opportunities for critiques by elite officials and increased opportunities for international competition.

The various parts of this imitative clearly have potential value.  What is not clear, though, is whether these things will be a superior or even adequate substitute for the national championships, or no more than a useful addition.  It was questioned by one delegate in my area, who is the parent of a lower level skater, why the national championships would be eliminated before there was quantitative proof the substitute programs actually worked.  Good question!  Maybe, they suggested, the camps should be established and evaluated in a couple years with quantitative metrics before the championships are discontinued.  Good idea!

Devilish Details:  This initiative has a large number of moving parts, with no clear understanding of haw they will play together without unintended consequences.  One high level official working on this concept described the details of the initiative as “fluid.”  If the initiative is still a work progress who knows what we are really going to get in the end.  This is going to be an extraordinarily expensive initiative to fund.  No budget is provided.  It is assumed that eliminating the Juvenile through Novice championships will pay for this, but that is just a wild wishful guess.  Where’s the budget?

A great deal is made in the rationale that the lower level championships are not predictors of future success, and that it is impossible to identify future senior champions in these divisions.  But then they propose to replace the championships with camps that only a small number of select skaters will have access to, in effect trying to identify for the camps what they say can’t be identified in this age group.  There are about 2000 skaters in the Juvenile through Novice competition structure.  What value is a program that only a few percent can benefit from when we don’t even know which of these skaters will even be in the sport in 2-4 years?  Programs like this are something that needs to be made available to all skaters nationwide.

Of all the business before the Governing Council this is the only one that has any real potential to impact skater development in the 12-16 age group, but its reach is far too limited.

Sections 3 and 4

These sections are related, and address an extensive restructuring of the qualifying completions.  The original motivation was the size and complexity of the national championships.

When the Juvenile and Intermediate championships were first created they were a standalone competition; one that cost a lot of money.  In an attempt to cut costs it was thought that these events could be worked into dead time in the Novice through Senior championships, making use of the officials and equipment already at big nationals.  As it turned out, there really was no dead time, and the Juvenile and Intermediate events ended up being schedule sequentially at the start of nationals, followed by the Novices, then the Juniors and ending with the Seniors.  The results has been a championship schedule that is exhausting and brutal for everyone involved with no cost saving.  In effect little nationals and big nationals have ended up being held back to back.  In recent years the JIN events have been held in one arena as a standalone competition and the JS events in the main arena.  It would not be surprising to find that the cost of the two together is more than the cost if they were held apart.

When talk of breaking up nationals back into two parts began, the discussion was mainly over where the Novice championships would go.  The discussion was mainly should the championships go back to a JI nationals and the original NJS nationals, or should the division be JIN nationals and JS nationals.  However, like some of the other initiatives from the task force this issue took on a life of its own and turned into a restructuring of the entire qualifying competition structure, in the hope that it might spur skater development.  What is proposed in these sections is the elimination of Juvenile, Intermediate and Novice championships, where Juvenile and intermediate would end at Sectionals, all novice pairs would compete at one super-sectional, and all novice dance would compete at another super-sectional.  The top two novices from each sectional (total of six) would compete with the Juniors at big nationals.

Devilish Details:  These sections are six pages long, dense with words and charts, with no evidence provided that they will actually spur the type of development needed – moving up faster through the competition structure.  This restructuring will have profound impacts on the clubs and the economics of the qualifying competitions, none of which is addressed.  To allow Novice singles to compete with the Juniors, the Novice program time would be extended to match Junior, at which point you basically have a Junior event and a Junior-lite event in the competition structure.

The rationale argues these are meaningless titles but also laments skaters are sandbagging to win these titles and not moving up.  Which is it?  Clearly they are meaningful to the skaters.  The question is which will be more motivating to the JIN skaters, having the quest for a notional titles, or the quest to be selected as one of the 1% who will go to a camp and get a ranking?  On this count one local delegate in my region said “I rather win Wimbledon than have a number one ranking.”

When Louis B. Mayer explained why he created the Academy Awards he essentially said, “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

Although the JIN championships are not predictors of reaching elite status, they are powerful motivators to work hard every day for a clear goal; more so than a 2-3 day camp once a year.  The majority of Junior champions also do not go on to become Senior champions, so it could be argued that it also is a meaningless title that should not be offered.

The speed at which U.S. skaters choose to move up through the competition structure is driven by other things than the quest for titles, and can be manipulated in far more direct ways.  Canada has the equivalent of Intermediate through Senior championships.  Japan has Novice through Senior championships.  Russia has the equivalent of Intermediate through Senior championships.  None of these countries has a problem getting their skaters to move up through their system.  (I have no idea what China does as its websites are few, and unreadable by me!)  What the U.S. system has is too many competition levels that are too similar, and too many tests; far more than China, Japan and Russia (and most other countries for that matter).  What other countries also have that the U.S. does not are age rules that force skaters to move up and not linger at the lower levers.

The most effective way to reduce the development timeline in the U.S. would be to set age limits for Juvenile, Intermediate and Novice that are consistent with the rest of the world (for example, under 12 for Juvenile, under 13 for Intermediate, under 14 for Novice), to require Novice and Junior champions to move up, to reduce the number of competition levels, and to reduce the testing requirements to compete.  Skaters above the age limits would be eligible to compete in corresponding open events in non-quals .  Skaters might also be allowed the choice of skating up one level in qualifying competition as they can in non-quals.

The initiatives in sections 3 and 4 are prime examples of the maxim in system engineering complexity is not your friend.

Section 5                                                                                                                                                       

This initiative requires that Senior competitors must achieve a minimum technical score during the season to compete at nationals.  In a polite kind of way, the rationale says basically that with all the best seniors getting buys to nationals, many of the skater qualifying out of sectionals really aren’t senior quality.  It also points out the events run so long that some fans leave early before the last warm-up group is over.  All true.  But there is the additional problem that senior events at nationals are scheduled to end too late, particularly on school nights.  If events are shortened, but still end after 10 PM, some fans will continue to go home early.  In Canada, China, Japan and Russia senior singles championships typically have up to 24 competitors, and in most countries to avoid the dregs, fans have been conditioned for years to show up after the first or second warm-up.  And to be a bit cynical, who cares if they leave early, we already have their money.  The more important question is whether the length of events supresses tickets sales in the first place.

Devilish Details:  It is not said what criteria will be used to set the minimum scare.  Who does the setting is covered but not the criteria.  If a skater in the top four in one section does not have the minimum score but the fifth skater in another section does, it appears there will not be a fillup rule, but that is not clear.

Not Ready for Prime Time

While there are some potentially productive ideas in the Competition Task Force proposals, the task force has achieved the remarkable accomplishment of putting together a plan that is both dizzyingly complex and yet also lacks sufficient details to know how all the peies will really work together and what they will cost.

Section 1 needs work but could probably be fixed at Governing Council if the task force chose.

Section 2 is worth trying for a few years if subject to periodic quantitative reviews for effectiveness, and further study of how to expand its benefits to more skaters.

Sections 3 and 4 should be withdrawn.  They are an abomination.

Section 5 would push the senior events towards quality over quantity, which would be a good thing.

What to do with Nationals?

If sections 2 and 3 are withdrawn (or rejected by the delegates, as they should), Nationals should be split back in two.  This can be done within the current rules with little managerial pain.

The current rules refer to a single U.S. National Championships, but there is no requirement that each championship be held on the same dates or even in the same cities.  For Kansas City Nationals, the Junior and Senior events where in Kansas City while the Juvenile through Novice events were in Independence, more than 10 miles away.  It could just as well have been 100 or 1000 miles.  There is also a rule in place that different events can be hosted by different clubs.  2020 Nationals could be bid out with Novice through Senior events held by one LOC in one city and Juvenile and Intermediate events held by another LOC in another city on other dates.  This is how Russia organizes its national championships.

If organized as a “lean” competition with a lean schedule and lean staffing, the Juvenile and Intermediate events could be completed in three days and would cost less than holding them at big nationals, for a net savings.  It would also take three days off the schedule for big nationals, making it easier to book venues.  The schedule at big nationals is also going to benefit next season from the ISU reduction in warm-up times from 6 to 5 minutes and the reduction in the lengths of the pairs and men’s free skating.

Return to title page

Copyright 2018 by George S. Rossano