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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Remote Coaching Makes Training More Accessible—Even for Skaters

Every time the Olympics come around, we all see how sports have the potential to break down global barriers. However, the truth is that not all aspiring athletes have access to the kind of elite coaching necessary to make it to the games. But thanks to remote technology, and my own recent experience of coaching virtually, I can see how this is going to change in the years to come.

When ice rinks shut down in March 2020, I offered my students something I formerly would have thought impossible: Zoom figure skating lessons. I called them Teleskates. I was a competitor at the US National Championships four times and I have been a coach for over 21 years. I’ve coached with a sprained ankle propped up on the barriers. I’ve coached using notes, whispers, and hand signals due to laryngitis. I’ve coached while nine months pregnant. But I never imagined coaching with this particular constraint: no ice.

At first, I designed my sessions to include a mix of visualization, sports psychology, off-ice stretches, and strengthening exercises. From my living room, I guided my athletes through something I called “sock skating,” where we walked through their elements and programs on the floor in order to retain muscle memory. I tried having them talk through their corrections and, to flip the script, pretend to coach themselves. I checked in to see how my students were feeling, asked follow-up questions, and tried to keep things fun. I jokingly suggested we get ice cubes from the freezer just to remember what it was like.

As the rinks started to open, and my athletes started to lace up again, I admitted to myself that coaching from home was actually better for my family. Without commuting to several different ice arenas over 30 minutes away and across the traffic-clogged bridge near my house, I could be with my now 9-year-old more. This was giving me new quality time with him that I couldn’t bring myself to give up.

I pivoted my plan to incorporate video analysis into my Teleskates and have been doing that ever since. I still meet with my skaters while we’re both logging in from home, but they send me videos from their practices, filmed either by their parents or other coaches. We watch these videos together through screen share and I harness the unparalleled power of slow-motion (or even just the pause button). Let’s just say a lot of cringing happens when athletes see their mistakes for themselves.

I can verbally tell my skaters that their legs are bent (when they should be straight) hundreds of times, but my message has a lot more impact when they see for themselves. Seeing truly is believing. At the end of every session, I text detailed notes to my skaters listing what we discussed, so they can reference my corrections and tips while at the rink. “If you look at these,” I say, “You can get a lesson from me every day this week!”

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One of my students, 14-year-old Jayne Kim, who I’ve coached for over seven years, says, “Zoom video lessons have helped me see the small details and see myself more objectively.” Her mom Mia adds, “This has given her a different perspective on her skating. Plus, we like that there is flexibility in scheduling.” It’s true: We aren’t restricted by tight session schedules and boxed in by Zamboni breaks.

I’ve been using video analysis with my phone inside the rink for many years, along with my fellow coaches. (In fact, my own coaches incorporated video analysis long ago when I was training, by having a video camera operator standing by the side of the rink. Back then, we’d take the VHS tapes home and watch them on our TVs.) But looking at the footage together from home, without the distractions of other skaters’ music, the voices of other coaches, and the pressure to get in more repetitions, we can concentrate on the corrections with more focus.

This isn’t just possible in the figure skating world. Former triathlete Mackenzie Madison is also leveraging video to help her athletes remotely. She is based in Oregon but coaches triathletes around the world. She does the majority of her work through social media and texting and enhances her video analysis of running and swimming form with apps like Dartfish. A self-described data geek, she’s also using Garmin, GPS, and Training Peaks to track her athletes’ progress from afar.

What she feels has been the biggest and most surprising benefit of coaching remotely is something I’ve also experienced: increased human connection. She says she has opened herself up to more consistent contact with her remote athletes than ever before.

“You can’t be too formal with this, or there isn’t going to be a connection,” she says. “To make up for the distance, I’m making this more of a partnership. I want people to feel heard.”

While she of course still values coaching in-person, she is finding that she can provide more individualized attention to her athletes in this format, and she keeps detailed notes on each athlete. “It’s all about being creative, changing things up as a coach, and encouraging your athletes to make changes as well.”

With my skaters, I’m still combining off-ice exercises with video analysis. Daniela Senitta, mother of Charlotte, age 12, is happy to see how much stronger her daughter is getting from the off-ice portions of our lessons. Senitta, who is also a former figure skater, says, “I can see that this is translating to how she’s performing on the ice.”

Lauren Cozza’s 9-year-old son, Joey aka “Kid Boogie,” took up competitive breakdancing during the pandemic through the Kids Breaking League, located in the Bronx, in New York City. Breakdancing, or "breaking" (yes, the same breakdancing that's been popular since the 1970s), is now a rapidly growing sport that will debut in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Joey still trains through zoom on Thursday nights even though his mom also drives him 30 miles from the NY suburbs for in-person training sessions and competitions, called Battles, on the weekends. Due to her work schedule, Cozza can’t make this commute more than once per week. Plus, she likes that, on Zoom, her son isn’t distracted by the other kids. “It’s just him and his own space.”

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Each breaking training session starts with strength and conditioning warmups, then they work on their specific elements, like headspins, freezes, and footwork. Cozza has been impressed by how Joey’s coaches, Victor “Kid Glyde” Alicia and Indio “6 Step Before The Lord” Garcia, have been able to teach technique from afar. The coaches started remote coaching with just their smartphones at the beginning of the pandemic and now the Kids Breaking League studio has installed big screens so that the in-person kids and coaches can see the kids zooming in from home.

Cozza notes how it has widened the demographic. “For some battles and training sessions, kids have zoomed in from Canada, Puerto Rico, and Colombia.” As a prize for winning a recent battle, Joey won a one-on-one Zoom class with legendary breakdancer Alfredo "B-Boy Lego" Sotelo in Miami, an experience her son described as “epic.” This wouldn’t have happened without a remote option.

Cozza says she most appreciates how the coaches have been able to create and maintain real relationships with the kids remotely. “Even though we started this online, Joey feels like he’s gotten really close to the coaches. They’ve done a good job hyper-focusing on the remote kids and checking in with them. When Joey does get to see them in person, he lights up.”

Indeed, this has been the most remarkable part of remote coaching for me. I’ve been able to directly talk with my students and hear from them in a way I didn’t feel like I could in the rink. My students and I are facing each other directly and there does seem to be more time and space to interact more meaningfully.

Maybe it’s like that phenomenon when people lose one sense, their other senses become stronger. It’s almost as if, without the ice, other methodologies and opportunities have opened up. I know my students better now than I ever have.

To be clear, what I’m doing over Zoom is supplemental. All of my students also have coaches inside the rink, with whom I am in constant contact. Of course, in-person coaching will always be the most effective way to train. As triathlon coach Madison notes, “The one thing I can’t gauge as well from afar is effort.” But we’re seeing that, just like in every other business, geographical barriers are breaking down, thanks to remote capabilities.

This is good news for athletes who can access elite coaching no matter where they live. This is also good news for coaches who, like me, are parents, or coaches dealing with health issues, or coaches who have to relocate far away from their athletes. The fact that athletic training can happen effectively online to an extent will have a long-reaching impact on sports going forward.


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