Tricks of the Trade: The Role of Learn-to Speedskate Programs

Tricks of the Trade: The Role of Learn-to Speedskate Programs

Every speed skater dreams of skating their best. Many dream of reaching world records and standing on the podium. Some even accomplish those dreams. But long before these dreams become reality, athletes must first learn how to speed skate, and for many skaters, this involves enrolling in a Learn-to Speedskate Program. Today, we chat with Mike Kooreman, Speedskating Program Manager at the Utah Olympic Oval, and Learn-to Speedskate Coach Sara Nielson, about the advantages of Learn-to Speedskate Programs.

What to Expect when You First Start Out

Mike says that when doing a Learn-to Speedskate Program for the first time, many skaters want to go fast right away. But they soon learn that speed skating takes time and patience to learn. “When you see speedskating on TV or live, you want to try it [so] you can go fast. You just want to race. [But] you learn pretty quickly that it doesn’t just happen like that….One of the most difficult parts of speed skating is actually taking that step back to really focus on learning the correct technique, before you can start to go fast.”

Sara says that the focus of Learn-to Programs is “going over the basics of the technique, like base position, basic straightaways, and basic corners. If everybody in the class is very new, it’s very basic. [We go over] the fundamental things that they need to know first. If [students] have been through the class several times, then we make it more complicated as we go, or we’ll split them up into different groups, depending on their level. We also throw in some fun stuff. We always end…with fun races on the last day.” Mike adds that by waiting until the last day of the session to do fun races, students have gotten “some of the technical skills they need in order to be able to enjoy a little bit more speed.”

The Importance of Good Skates

One of the most important factors, when you’re first starting out, is having a good pair of rental speedskates. Mike says, “We’re actually really fortunate here at the Oval, [because] we’ve got such a large supply of…rental speedskates that are high quality. The reason that’s so important is because speedskating is a feeling sport. With a lower quality skate, you’re never going to find the right feel. Once you do the sport for a while, you start to understand that it’s a feeling thing. You look for a certain feeling in your technique, and in your skating. If you’ve got a pair of speed skates that aren’t going to allow you to [get] the right feeling…it’s very difficult to learn the sport the right way. And so in order for a person to learn how to speed skate correctly, it’s very important for them to be on good speedskates that [will] allow them to do that.”

But Do You Have to Be Good at Skating?

So how good do your basic skating skills need to be in order to do Learn-to Speed? While different programs may have different requirements, Sara says, “I’d prefer that students know how to skate on their own…but I don’t think they necessarily need to go through fundamental skating classes [beforehand].” Mike says, “We used to require that everybody do the Learn-to Skate Program before doing Learn-to Speedskate, but that’s a lot to require of somebody, so we got rid of that element. But it’s [still] a good idea for someone to be comfortable on skates. Even if you do a couple public sessions or something like that, it’s good to get on the ice and know what it feels like to have skates on. And then we can take it from there.”

The Age Factor

If you’re wondering if Learn-to Speedskate is for the young at heart as well as the young in years, Mike says, “One of the cool things about speed skating is that anybody, at any age, can come out and enjoy it. There aren’t many sports…where you can do that.” Sara says, “We’ll take anybody that can stand up and skate on their own. We’ve had kids as young as 4 out there, all the way up to adults. And we mix everybody together in the same class to make sure…they get the attention that they need at the level they need.”

Mike adds that there are advantages to combining students of different age levels. “Because we have adults and…kids [together], we have a good mix of people, and it’s fun. You get a different perspective. You get the patience of the adults, and you get the energy and excitement from the kids. And it just makes for a better atmosphere. So we…like to see [skaters] of any age coming out.”

How do Coaches Know When You’re Ready for Club?

A common question among Learn-to skaters is, “How will I know when I’m ready to move up to the club level?” Mike says that all depends on two things: 1) your skill level, and 2) the coach’s discretion. “Obviously, you need to be able to cross over. You need to be able to skate and have the basics of the technique down that we teach in the Learn-to Program. We used to have a standardized system where, if you could do a list of things, then you were good enough to move up. But what I’ve found is that…the best thing we can do [as coaches] is to have a little bit of discretion when we move somebody into the club. What we don’t want is to move somebody in who’s so far behind that they’re not going to get the attention they need. We want to make sure that when they’re done with the Learn-to Program and moving into the club, they can at least keep up, even if it’s on the back of the slower group. That way, we can make sure that as coaches, we can give them some good attention.”

What Makes a Successful Learn-to Program?

In order for a Learn-to Speedskate Program to be successful, Sara says you need “good coaches, patience, ice time and, obviously, skaters. You need people to participate in the program, but you need to show that you have a good program. That’s all been developing [at the Oval] over the past few years.” Mike adds that a key element in making a successful program is combining technical instruction with enjoyment. “What I was surprised at, when I started coaching, was that skaters get a lot of enjoyment out of the focus on the technical aspects of the sport. We want to have fun, [and] we do have fun. But we also need to make sure that we’re adding instruction, or that technical focus, so that when people come out [for Learn-to]…they have something very specific to focus on the whole time that they’re on the ice. And I think that’s the key to having a successful program.”

Generating Interest

Sara says that in order to generate interest for the Learn-to Program, “We go to some parades and community events…and [also] try to target people that come into the Oval that are already interested in skating. It’s a lot of word-of-mouth.” Mike adds that another thing that has helped is actually getting people on the ice with speed skates. “Something new that we did last year that worked out really well was getting people on the ice after big events using rental speedskates. We’ll be hosting a long track World Cup this November, so the plan is to do the same thing. We’ll have all the rental speedskates available and get as many people out on the ice as we can. Out of all the things we do—the parades, the community events, and the advertising here at the Oval—I think the most important thing we can do is to actually get people on the ice with speed skates. Nothing hooks people more than actually getting to try the sport, because once you get skates on and you get out there, you have a whole new perspective for it.”

Dedication and Determination

Sara says that as a coach, two of the most important things she teaches her students are “dedication and determination. Speed skating’s not an easy sport….It’s a lot of technique, and it can get frustrating sometimes. But if you have a love and passion for the sport, you can be successful. [As a coach], you teach students…to push through those practices, even at a Learn-to level, and that they have to stay focused. They’ve got to be determined to get the technique down, and be dedicated to showing up to practice. And I think that’s a good life skill outside of skating as well.”

Mike agrees: “Whether you know it or not, as you participate more and more in speedskating, you’re learning things about life that are going to help you outside the rink. With that technical focus, or whatever it is that you need to focus on to make yourself better, it starts bringing some passion and drive and desire out of [you]. And then you start learning about hard work, focus, and dedication, and dealing with things that don’t go your way. You just keep working at it. [And] that’s just like life….You keep putting one foot in front of the other. You keep your focus on, ‘What do I need to do next? How can I pass this?’ You make stronger people by teaching them how to skate.”

*Thanks to Jerry Search for images of Utah Olympic Oval Speedskating Club.

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