It looks like organized chaos: helmeted toddlers on tiny blades whizzing about every which way on the frosty rinks of Canada. Not one of them stands still or waits a turn to try out that forward stroke, that tottery stop. It’s go-go-go amid an array of colourful props. Most importantly, they look as if they are having fun.
The scene is prime evidence that there is a revolution going on in the way Canadians are learning how to skate. It’s the new face of the CanSkate program, retrofitted to use all the scientific research on LTAD, or long term athlete development. LTAD is an acronym that is not part of everyday parlance, but it is becoming the byword of Canadian sport. About a decade ago, Sport Canada asked all sport associations across the country to adopt it and adapt it to their development programs. Skate Canada watched and learned from the rest and is one of the most recent to take the plunge. On September 1, 2014, the new CanSkate program became mandatory at all 1,200 skating clubs in Canada.
Before the launch about 60 per cent of clubs had already converted to the new program and about 3,400 (64 per cent) of Canada’s 5,300 coaches have taken the training to teach it. Now all clubs and coaches are teaching the new CanSkate curriculum. Currently, 125,000 skaters participate in CanSkate, the majority of the association’s 173,000 skating members. Clearly, this program drives Skate Canada.
The scientific studies have shown parents and coaches and athletes when it’s the best time to train a certain skill. “Quite often we miss the boat in some of those areas, so science [for example] has told us that the best time to train flexibility is between six and 10,” said Monica Lockie, chairperson of the learn-to-skate resource group. “If we don’t get that information to all our athletes, by the time you are 14, you can still make progress in that area, but you can’t take it to your maximum potential had you trained it in that window of trainability.”
The new program will be a key guide on when to train stamina, strength, flexibility and when to acquire certain skills. “Skill acquisition is a big one,” Lockie said. “They say the golden years of learning are between seven and 11 and that’s when we really have to build those neural pathways in the athletes that will be there after puberty.”
The new CanSkate program works to build and reinforce important basic skills. Instead of just introducing a skill at one level and then leaving it, the skater will work on the same skill at many different stages. The coaches have a chance to introduce the skill, develop it and then perfect it over a longer period of time.
One of the early skills is a push-glide sequence. In the old system, it was introduced only in stage two, and then skaters moved on to other skills in different stages. But now the push-glide sequence is part of every stage. Forward crosscuts, another big one that is a little more advanced and harder to learn, is introduced without high expectations early and then through subsequent stages, the expectations rise. By stage six, those toddlers should be a whiz at forward crosscuts.
So how does this look in practice? It seems chaotic on the ice, but that’s not a bad thing. Under the old system, skaters would line up, stand still and wait their turn while the coach worked with them. There would be lots of empty patches of ice, with no activity. In the new system, every little group is following its own path, in various circuits and stations. Where there were toddlers standing still, wiping their noses and waiting their turns in the old world, now they are all moving constantly, from station to station, skill to skill. “The number of repetitions they get in practicing those skills increases by 400 per cent by going on that circuit,” Lockie said. The skaters don’t lose focus. They no longer ask for bathroom breaks.
The feedback from coaches? Some are leery of change, Lockie said. But many who have been immersed in it already marvel at the swift progress young skaters make. One youngster moved up to the STARSkate program (Skate Canada’s learn to figure skate program) after only one year in CanSkate, rather than two or three.
The program basically runs itself when set up, but that’s because the Skate Canada committee, headed by Lockie has painstakingly created a detailed guide for coaches. Her biggest mission, Lockie said, was to create a program that worked anywhere or for anybody: a large club with 20 coaches on staff to a small club with one. It had to work seamlessly for all. “It’s taken a lot of the preparation work away from the coaches,” Lockie said. “It makes sure that our delivery is a lot more standardized across the country.” In the old system, it was up to the individual coach to come up with a lesson plan: great for coaches with 30 years of experience, harder for newbies.
This new program focuses on learning to skate, but it does not focus on figure skating skills. That makes it a prime tool for any beginners for any ice sport in Canada, like hockey, speed skating and ringette. While setting up the program, Lockie spoke to coaches from all ice skating sports to find out what basic skills they needed before they entered their sport-specific program. And she went to coaches like Tracy Wilson to talk about the essence of skating, and how, for example, to allow the body to move freely.
“We want to continue to be the best learn-to-skate program in the country,” Lockie said. Skate Canada coaches are the perfect ones to take that on. They are probably the most technical ice sport coaches around. Skating coaches understand how the blade works, how to get power and edges from the blade, and how the biomechanics of movement of the stride really work. The success of the program will lie in getting all Canadians to skate, even if just for pleasure, for fitness, and to feel safe on the ice.
The old system has produced countless world and Olympic champions, such as Patrick Chan and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Just think what the new program will be able to do.