I started figure skating when I was about five years old and I was competitive all through high school. In eighth grade I was required to do a community service project, so I started volunteering as a coach at my home rink. Since then, and in total, I’ve been coaching for 12 years, including four years with Special Olympics New York as head coach.
Special Olympics has helped me think about figure skating from a different perspective. It's all about the building blocks. Working with athletes with intellectual disabilities forces you to break down each move and approach each skill from a different angle for each athlete. If an athlete is having trouble stroking or staying on one foot, we go back to the one foot glide because that is one of the fundamentals of a stroke. If they're having trouble with the one foot glide, we go back to the two foot glide. These are building blocks all the way up to triple jumps.
As an athlete, your abilities, your passion, and your effort translate into competition. If you don't have passion then you're not going to make it in a solo sport. As a coach, instilling your love for the sport within your athletes will help them stay motivated and build that same passion. I find that competitions help build that determination. Not winning or even placing at a competition is a huge character builder and I encourage athletes to use it as a motivator.
It can be disappointing when you get a participation ribbon when you're used to getting medals, but that's when I ask my athletes, “Are you doing this for the medal or you doing this because you love skating?” And they tell me, “I'm doing this because I love skating.” And I tell them that this medal should not matter whatsoever. If you're winning gold every single time, you're not being challenged enough. When they see athletes who are at higher levels at a competition, they see what they are working towards. They want to work towards that level. They can get to that level. And getting to that level becomes our new goal.
“Not everyone can just get on the ice and build these skills but you’re doing it! It's hard, but you’re doing it. And that's amazing.”
Because of the adversity that many people with intellectual disabilities have faced in their life, a lot of them have been trained to think that they can't succeed. The key to overcoming that mindset is getting them to build confidence in themselves. Figure skating is not an easy sport. I have some athletes who are really hard on themselves. They say, “I didn't do this right, I’ll never get it.” And I say, “But you're doing it, right? Not everyone can just get on the ice and build these skills but you’re doing it! It's hard, but you’re doing it. And that's amazing.”
It is important to be their biggest fan and cheerleader. My athletes know that no matter what, we’re still going to love them and we're still going to accept them. It's not just telling them that they're great, but showing them they are capable of achieving so much through their passion and dedication to the sport. That confidence from figure skating—or any sport—translates into their life beyond the rink, and that makes me proud to be a coach.