Mental equilibrium

I’ve been lucky to have some really great skating coaches since I got back on the ice. The support, the guidance, and the patience have all made my perennially awkward self feel tons more at ease in the inherently uncomfortable position of being an adult skater.

There are some deficiencies in my scattershot skating re-education, for sure. There are moves from the Free Skate 6 curriculum that I’ve been able to do for months while Free Skate 1’s back-outside three-turns are still glaringly absent from my repertoire. But for someone who’s skated at five different rinks in the past year (three of which are still in my lesson rotation) with coaches whose backgrounds are a veritable kaleidoscope of experience, I am both pleased and surprised at how comparatively consistent my training has managed to be.

The most prevailing constant in the 13 months I’ve spent back on the ice, though, is my coaches all making the inevitable observation that I overthink just about everything I can. And that it will be the biggest (and most unnecessary) hurdle I’ll encounter.

I mean, at this point, I’m pretty conformable with being my own worst enemy and sabotaging my own success. But it’s one thing to acknowledge it in my head and deflect it with self-deprecating jokes; it’s another thing entirely to have it frankly laid out in front of me by a whole slew of individual coaches and coming to terms with some uncomfortable truths.

When I was skating as a teenager, my coach would pick me up for private lessons. Our drive to and from the rink together gave us plenty of time to chat about any number of things. I don’t remember exactly how we’d get onto the topic of the young woman who was hands-down the best skater at the rink, but I do recall how my coach used to speak of her in such a mournful way every time: This girl was a phenomenal skater but the wreckage of eating disorders and mental blocks kept her from advancing as far as her talents should have taken her. She’d proven a handful of times that she had the skill to land at least a double axel; determinedly psyching herself out robbed her of what could have been such incredible repeat success.

I couldn’t quite connect the dots between knowing you can physically do something and actively inhibiting your own ability to consistently pull it off, presumably because I lacked the self-awareness to see how I'd been doing the same to myself for years. And while I am nowhere (nor have I ever been anywhere) near gearing up for my own attempt at even walking through the setup of an axel, I sure do have a better understanding of the mind-body partnership in skating these days.

Most recent example: I can do a mohawk just fine; I freeze up on the transitional one connecting front and backward crossovers while practicing for my MITF Pre-Bronze test. Every time without exception. Maybe it's the speed that's freaking me out, maybe actually applying that edge-change step is too far a cry from a footwork sequence or casually practicing it from a controlled edge. Whatever it is, it's gonna translate to lost points when I finally go in front of judges for the first time ever. And I'll need all the wins I can get because I'm now suddenly dropping my free hip on the waltz-eight three turns on that same test.

I told one of my coaches how I do tend to throw up mental blocks that almost have a physical presence, which led to us hashing out the mental side of the sport. And it is a staggeringly dominant element to contend with. That mental proponent affects your ego: You have to be mentally tough enough to withstand non-stop corrections and incremental tweakings of elements you thought you mastered and were so proud of. It affects your perspective: You have to look at the time you spend on the ice as time spent working toward an ever-advancing finish line, not time you could be spending with loved ones or time you could be cleaning your house like a responsible adult or time you're just missing out on something else. It affects your confidence, pushes your comfort zone, toys with your self image, feeds on not your most recent success but rather your next stumbling step toward something new, and wreaks havoc on your body in ways you didn't know you could hurt. It is a constant eye on the horizon with little opportunity to rest on one's laurels, event the negligible ones of a second-chance skater.

It all adds up to some pretty harsh mental terrain that can swallow you up if you don't meet it with an even fiercer resolve.

That's how I first knew I was falling in love with this sport. When I was younger, it was all work with no payoff because I didn't even want to be there, and being dragged down by constant challenges with no counterbalance just made for a miserable experience. Now, it's blessedly hard to get discouraged when I'm here for the fight and have something to prove. Yes, I absolutely had a frustrating practice last week but it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more I rushed through an element that ate away at my confidence, the sloppier it got and then the more hopeless I got (never mind that I am not a morning person and 7:45 a.m. lessons are never gonna be my time to really shine--ESPECIALLY since I go into them sans warmup, which is another issue entirely). It also didn't help that I got to the rink that morning and instantly went from AW YIIISSSSS ICE TIME to just not feeling it at all, which is bound to happen on occasion. It is always a possibility to have a little too much of your favorite things.

Just as you need those burner sessions that suck the wind out of your sails after an incredible breakthrough to keep you proportionally humbled, you also need a phenomenal session to keep you motivated enough to push through those excruciating lulls in progress. It occasionally puts a ding in every up, but it sure does soften the blow of every down, too.

The best part about taking one awfully circuitous route through the skating curriculum is that there are all kinds of things to work on at any given time; the farther I go, the more overlap there is because the foundation remains the same--I'm just given a chance to attack it from three different angles. (Plus, I hardly ever suffer from not knowing what to practice on my own.) So, when the coach who focuses on edges suddenly revists some jumps that I've been working on with another instructor, it gives me the thrill of a wildly encouraging lesson. I came ready for something they had no way of knowing I'd be able to do: That means they're extra-congratulatory AND can give me something new to work on with the time they thought would be dedicated to something else. It's a perfect combination of encouraging and challenging all because of one unassuming item on the lesson agenda.

In a few hours, I'll be at the group lesson not with the coach who assumes I'm the best in my other classes despite my insistence to the contrary but rather with the one who will not settle for halfway. It is mortifying and anxiety-inducing and reminds me that I have gotten a skosh too proud, but it is also where I got my spins back. And where I get to work on the things that finally started coming together during Saturday sessions with my Soulmate Coach.

So many things in life are trade-offs, and skating is no exception: It will push you to oh-so-ladylike grunts of anger and grown-up tears of frustration, but just wait 'til you finally cross the threshold of Can't and Did. Anyone who's been there on their own journey isn't gonna judge you at all if everything you bit back during some gruelling practice sessions comes pouring out when you finally vault over what seemed like an unconquerable chasm. And even when so much of what it takes is more internal motivation versus external dexterity, the moment they come together is the greatest possible argument for leaving your heart on the ice. Every ounce of success means so much more when it really means something to you because you're doing it for the love of the sport.


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