Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bullying in the Sport of Figure Skating

For the last six months or so Grace has faced bullying at the rink where she trains. She has been so distraught by the treatment she has received at the hands of other skaters that last spring I began to come to terms with the reality that she might well quit the sport. After she competed at Skate Detroit at the end of July, we allowed Grace to travel to Minnesota to train for a month in a club where she had trustworthy friends. Beyond the scrutiny and reach of the girls who had been insulting and ostracizing her, Grace thrived. She returned home with stronger jumps and spins, but also with more confidence and with a renewed sense of hope and possibility for her future in the sport of figure skating. While she was away, we made a coaching change so that when Grace returned the conditions in which she would train in her home club had been shifted.

For the two weeks Grace has been back she has been delighted with skating. She has looked terrific on the ice. She’s been smiling and laughing and talking skating non-stop. Grace loves her new coaches and especially appreciates the way they push and are supportive of her on the ice. In short, we thought we’d turned a corner.

But last night, the bullying started again before and during an off-ice class. And again, Grace spent the evening in tears wondering why the other skaters dislike her so, what she has done to deserve the treatment she receives at their hands, and feeling helpless to change her circumstances.

Intervening in the behaviors that have produced such despair in Grace has been complicated by the fact that the worst bullying directed at her has been covert and implicit. Further, to be frank, the worst offenders have been girls. Their techniques – far from being unique – are well described in current research on bullying, but little addressed in public discourse about prevention or in anti-bullying policies. Girls, it turns out, are far less likely to act aggressively toward others in ways that we would typically think of as bullying. Instead, girls who bully tend to practice what psychologists term relational aggression, which is characterized by persistent exclusion from social activities; public humiliation through gossiping, whispering, and the practice of organizing a group to ignore and exclude one individual; the withdrawal of attention and friendship.

Relational aggression is most often covert. Bullies engaging these strategies operate beyond the gaze and hearing of adults. But relational aggression is also under-recognized and frequently excused by adults even when they are in a position to see, hear, and intervene. While the sexual aggression of boys is too frequently tolerated under the adage “boys will be boys,” relational aggression is perceived as an inevitable feature of girlhood and similarly naturalized. Individuals and organizations fail to intervene because they think, "girls will be girls." Absent a more nuanced understanding of how bullying manifests among girls, adults frequently fail to recognize what is happening or are more likely to tolerate relational aggression than other more explicit forms of bullying.

The consequences of relational aggression for its victims can be severe. Girls who are targets of this form of bullying are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, and suicidal ideation. In a sport like figure skating, in which there is - however little we like to talk about it - an ideal skater body, even absent bullying body issues can arise. Grace, who is taller than the typical skater and appears to be significantly older than she is, works very hard at conditioning as well as to maintain a body-fat ratio that will serve her well on the ice. While she currently exhibits confidence about her body's strength and beauty, I worry about how her body image may be impacted by the bullying she is experiencing. During the worst periods of marginalization and exclusion at the rink, she has been inclined to spend hours alone at home and has exhibited some depressive symptoms. She is tremendously strong, tremendously smart, and tremendously sensitive. Grace is an affectionate child and wants and needs to be liked in return. There is no doubt that her emotional wellbeing has been damaged by her experience at the rink and her commitment to the sport of skating has been impacted.

Skate Canada has an anti-bullying policy that can be found here:

Having a prohibitive policy is an important step in the address of bullying. However, Skate Canada's definition of bullying describes what the vast preponderance of literature in the field agree are the characteristics of the sort of bullying typically perpetuated by boys. Even the cartoon, the organization has placed next to their definition, shows boys not girls. This seems a particular problem given that figure skating is a sport in which adolescent and teenage girls are the majority.

It is tempting, very tempting to think of the kinds of everyday micro-aggressions Grace is experiencing as mere unkindness. However, all of the empirical and qualitative studies I've found (in six months of research) of girls around the world (studies undertaken in Australia, Great Britain, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States, for example) coalesce around a recognition that relational aggression is, in fact, a form of bullying; that relational aggression is the prevailing form bullying takes when perpetrator and victim are both girls; and that the emotional damage caused by relational aggression among girls has serious and occasionally life threatening consequences for victims.

I don't like the idea of being or becoming the ugly American who advances all things American. However, it is true that the United States Figure Skating Association has developed a far more elaborate and nuanced anti-bullying policy than Skate Canada and one that could be used as a model for an address of relational aggression among figure skaters in Canada and among female athletes in the sport, in particular. The USFSA SafeSport Handbook includes emotional abuse as a manifestation of bullying. This resource can be found at

Closer to home, some of the scholarship I have read suggests that both boys and girls who bully are more likely to stop if another child speaks out against their actions. Further, these studies suggest, victims of bullying experience the interventions of other children not only as a relief, but also as creating conditions for emotional healing. Prohibitive policies and systems of discipline and punishment are important. But positive responses to bullying are also a significant deterrent to relational aggression, as well as other more explicit forms of bullying. Training in good sportsmanship that teaches skaters how to recognize all forms of bullying and gives them opportunities to practice effective intervention might also serve to prevent the kinds of experiences that Grace has suffered. Grace and other skaters like her would benefit tremendously from mentorship by older skaters. If Grace had an older confidante at her rink in whom she might confide and who might model strategies for navigating the social as well as athletic demands of the sport, she would have an easier time, I believe.

Today, Grace is afraid to go to her off-ice ballet class. There is a new instructor who has been making the skaters choose partners. For Grace, this is an ongoing exercise in public humiliation endorsed by adults. No one will partner with her. No one has willingly partnered with Grace in an off-ice class for more than six months.

I remind Grace of the wonderful skaters she has met - young men and women who may not remember the small and graceful acts of kindness they have shared with Grace during workshops or in chance meetings in the lobby of some rink; skaters like Ryan Bradley, Agnes Zawadzki, and Gracie Gold who are Grace's heroes on and off the ice. I remind her to emulate their kindness rather than return the smaller, meaner treatment she receives from her teammates. I think Grace does that in ways and to a degree that I struggle to attain.

For today, I struggle with rage. My beautiful kind daughter is in pain. She is suffering because of the conjoined cruelty of her teammates and the failure of her Club to institute meaningful interventions on her behalf. To be fair, the Club did intervene when a boy began imitating the bullying Grace was receiving from the girls in her Club. But they intervened in that moment because the boy acted out explicitly and publicly. I see Grace's pain in her posture, in her eyes, in the run-through of her short program I am just able to catch after work. I hear the fear of further humiliation in her voice as she asks for permission to skip ballet.

Today, both Grace and I are dealing with our sense of the unfairness of it all. No child deserves to be bullied and, certainly, Grace deserves better from her sport, from her Club, and from her teammates. It's a hard day.

Below are links to some (not all) of the materials available from both popular media and peer-reviewed academic journals on Bullying.

Popular sources on Girls and Bullying:

Scholarly sources on Girls and Bullying (relational aggression);jsessionid=662CC67D705D4498013424F4F622668D.journals?fromPage=online&aid=4492232

Relational Aggression and Athletics;jsessionid=DB0870A59E40780919704B4DE01750C3

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sochi for Justice

The fact that I LOVE the winter Olympics should not come as a surprise to anyone. I delight in winter sports and when it comes to Olympic competition in them, I am an addict. But I confess that I feel torn about Sochi.

On 4 December, media outlets reported that retired figure skater, Johnny Weir had lashed out angrily at LGBT activists protesting anti-gay laws in Russia in an address delivered at Barnard College. According to these reports, Weir downplayed the impact of the laws, telling his audience that they only prevent having “anal sex in front of libraries.” Despite numerous reports (and videos posted online) of gay and transgender Russians being beaten, tortured, and humiliated by anti-gay thugs (who, by the way, seem very often to have also embraced neo-Nazism), Weir is reported to have justified his defense of Russia, arguing that he has never experienced homophobia in Russia.

I have been a fan of Weir’s for a very long time. He has been an elegant skater, blending athleticism with grace in breathtaking jumps and a sense of musicality unrivaled among the men against whom he skated. Weir has also faced his share of setbacks, including a disastrous freeskate at the U.S. National Championships in 2003. He came back the following year to win the National title in spectacular fashion. (See his 2004 Nationals long program here.) I have admired Weir’s tenacity, the grace of his own coming out, his in-your-face resistance of homophobia within the American skating world and among media commentators, in particular. But Weir seems to have gone off the rails on the matter of international participation in the Sochi Olympics. In some sense, although I’d like to believe those of us who feel torn about participation have not succumbed to the apologist stance Weir appears to have embraced recently, I do think his confusion mirrors our own.

There are arguments in favor of participation that make sense and Weir, himself, has made some of them. In this interview with Keith Olberman, Weir and Olberman discuss the ineffectiveness of Olympic boycotts, citing the failure of the international community to influence Soviet involvement in Afghanistan after their 1979 invasion of that country. In the interview, Weir also discusses that extraordinary moment in Olympic history when Jessie Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin at the apex of Nazi power in Germany.

As it happens, my father was at those Olympic Games in Berlin. My dad wrote in the diary he kept at the time about his admiration of German social order and architecture, and about his pride at Owens’ accomplishments. And his fractured perception—or lack of perception—about the contradictions between these perspectives also reflects a kind of generalized myopia among Americans of the period: our collective inability to recognize our own racism, the resonances between that racism and the racial ideology of the Nazis, and the terrible if differently realized danger both ideologies posed to minorities in our respective nations. Owens, himself, noted that Franklin Roosevelt never acknowledged his victories saying, “Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.”

Weir was wrong to minimize the import and impact of homophobic law in Russia. He was also wrong to hold up his own individual experience as a gay man in Russia as a means of discrediting the experiences of Russian LGBTQ peoples who have been targeted both by state sanctioned and vigilante homophobes. Weir has an opportunity as a former Olympian and as an NBC commentator to speak up and speak out for justice and equality—to do so would be to make good on his own Olympic oath. Many more of us are also wrong or will be wrong if we do not recognize the opportunity we have to examine the contradictions between our condemnation of the Russians and the homophobia we tolerate or acquiesce to by our silence here at home.

I do not believe that boycotting the Sochi Olympics will have significant impact on homophobia within the Russian state. Sadly, I am not convinced that even the most extraordinary performances by LGBTQ athletes will change the minds and hearts of those who craft and enforce anti-gay laws nor the hearts and minds of those homophobic vigilantes in Russia who have taken it upon themselves to seek out, torture, and humiliate LGBTQ Russians. I also do not believe that those extraordinary performances will change the hearts and minds of U.S. legislators advocating that the perpetuation of their own American brand of homophobia be sanctioned by U.S. law. What those extraordinary performances will do, however, is to give heart to those who struggle for justice within Russia and beyond. They will be a gift to queer and ally activists around the world and most importantly, at this moment, in Russia. The Olympics are an inherently political gathering, designed to promote peace, international understanding, a sense of brother- and sisterhood among nations. I believe that the Sochi Olympics constitute an opportunity for athletes, coaches, the international media, and fans to make that Olympic principle manifest in the games and beyond and to honour the Russian activists who are risking their lives for freedom and equality.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

True Grit: Coaching, Teaching and Growth Mindset

Two of my children, Dan and Lucy, who both play hockey, attended Heartland Hockey Camp in Deerwood, Minnesota for over ten summers. Heartland Hockey Camp is owned and operated by Steve Jensen, a former NHL player with the Minnesota North Stars and the L.A. Kings. Steve also played in the 1976 Olympic Games and led that team in scoring with 52 goals. In any case, at the start of each camp, Steve would gather all the players in the camp fitness center for a talk. And every year for over ten years, my children heard the same message: you can be the most talented player on your team, but if you don’t work hard every day, all the time, you aren’t the most valuable player. Careers are made through determination, perseverance, hard work, not through talent.

This morning, I found this video of a Weekend Ted Talk on the front page of the Huffington Post. In it, Angela Lee Duckworth makes the researcher’s version of the same argument. Her research, she says, demonstrates that “grit” or the will to persist and not IQ or talent is the primary determinant of both academic and professional success. In fact, Duckworth says, “Talent doesn’t make you gritty. Our data show very clearly that there are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.”

Now, part of what constitutes grit, Duckworth argues, is “growth mindset,” a way of thinking about or understanding one’s own learning identified by psychologist, Carol Dweck. Growth mindset is “the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. ” Individuals who possess growth mindset, say both Dweck and Duckworth, are much more likely to persist through failures because they understand that failure is not a permanent condition, but a learningful one.

In February 2011, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (U.S.) published a report entitled Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. The report identifies eight habits of mind necessary to write successfully at the postsecondary level. They are:

Curiosity: the desire to know more about the world

Openness: the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world

Engagement: a sense of investment and involvement in learning

Creativity: the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas

Persistence: the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects

Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those
actions for oneself and others.

Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.

Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

Interestingly, these habits of mind match up nearly seamlessly with the ways in which coaches of elite college athletes define coachability. Coachable athletes, coaches report, listen to and trust coaches. They are receptive to feedback; they learn well from indirective, formative feedback as well as directive or critical feedback. Coachable athletes become students of the game; they are inquisitive, ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers. They seek advice from many sources. Coachable athletes, say coaches, become their own coach: they internalize over long periods of time, a coaching voice that provides feedback to them in situ as it were: as they train, practice, and play. Coachable athletes are open to and seek change, growth, and development. They don’t frustrate easily, but persist through frustrations or disappointments. Coachable athletes are flexible and adaptable even and especially to the unexpected, whether they are surprised in the moment of performance or in training. Finally, coachable athletes partner with their coaches in their own training and development as well as in the coaching of a team; they cultivate reciprocal relations with their coaches and offer feedback to them, clarifying their own needs and interests as well as offering their insight to coaches. In other words, successful college writers and coachable student athletes share habits of mind. And these habits of mind, singly and collectively, sound a lot like “grit” and “growth mindset.”

Here’s the thing—and I’ll return to it in later posts as this one is already longer than it ought to be—I think those of us who teach at the postsecondary level and perhaps at prior levels as well should be asking ourselves whether or how our curricula, individual course design, assignments and feedback, and pedagogy actually support students in acquiring and sustaining habits of mind and qualities of coachability that constitute “grit” and “growth mindset.” Are we teaching/coaching these capacities? Or do we expect students to arrive in our classrooms with such habits already firmly in place? And if the latter is true, how do we respond to the criticism that our practices contradict what we know to be true about intelligence and ability: that they are not fixed qualities, but develop and grow over time?

I worry, I admit, that children and young adults are far more likely to find support in cultivating grit and growth mindset—the habits of mind for continuous learning and for success variously measured—at the rink (or on the field, or in piano or ballet lessons perhaps) than in the university writing classroom. At the very least, I think we, teachers, should show more grit than we have to date in our consideration of such questions.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lessons from Western Ontario Sectionals: Risk and the Learningful Failure

Western Ontario Sectionals have passed and we are back in the arguably lower stress conditions of everyday training. Grace achieved mixed results. She had a very rough outing in her short program—skating slowly, tentatively, and without presence of mind. This performance garnered a personal low score that put her in the first group of skaters for the long program. She was shaken by the low score and felt sad that she hadn’t been able to put together a competition performance that reflected what she had been accomplishing on practice ice. Coming back strong in the long program, though, Grace scored a personal best. She pushed herself for power and grace. She exhibited presence of mind, attacking every element. The performance wasn’t perfect, but there were extraordinary moments—that’s for sure—including a beautiful double lutz/double loop combination.

Far more significant and meaningful than the low and high scores, however, were the lessons Grace carries away from her first Canadian sectionals and forward into training. I think Grace learned an important lesson about the importance of her attitude toward practice and lessons—about the importance of not merely of showing up for training, but of bringing the fullness of one’s attention, energy and will to practice ice. I think she learned that she has the potential to accomplish the extraordinary, but that potential is only realizable to the extent that she risks training at the outside edges of her ability and prior knowledge in ways that prepare her to skate with her whole self—fully investing each moment with commitment and drive. The imperfections of Grace’s long program constituted, in other words, learningful failures. She can study the successes of her program as well as those moments of imperfection and use the information she gathers to design foci for her own training. The performance is worth studying because of the extent to which she committed herself to each element, every transition, to her music, and to the story she was telling her audience through that music about the world and about herself.

I have lost count of the number of students enrolled in my courses over the years, but I imagine I have now taught over a thousand students. I have worked with some extraordinarily gifted young people as well as some who might have thought of themselves or been told they were quite average, but who wrote in exceptionally powerful ways for my classes.

In some ways, I admit, I am most interested in the latter category of student: the ones whose abilities as intellectuals and as writers have been systemically underestimated, but who are doing battle against the internalization of that particularly demeaning evaluation of their potential. And it strikes me that students in this category begin to thrive precisely at the point at which they no longer fear failure—at the moment they recognize that there are far worse experiences than falling short in performance, that not all failures are equal, and that the learningfulness of their own failures is a condition they can create. Moreover, students who resist their categorization as average and whose experiences of failure generate a willingness to risk practicing and performing at the outside edges of their ability with the support of teachers and coaches learn that risk is fundamental to extraordinary performance.

Skating safe and writing safe are neither learningful habits for training nor do they produce performances that are impressive to watch or read. And that, I think, is a terrific lesson to learn at thirteen years of age.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recovering Hope in the Sport

Some time ago, I allowed this blog to go fallow. When I began writing about competitive ice sports, in general, and figure skating, in particular, I was interested in what I saw as the resonances—both metaphorical and literal—between skating and writing. I was intrigued by what I saw (and continue to see) as the critical and dynamic interplay between technical understanding and ability and aesthetic innovation in both spheres of activity.

In skating, I thought I recognized a grammar of the body that enables and constrains both the physical and aesthetic performance of the athlete. In skating, this grammar is governed by the universal laws of physics and tested (creatively transgressed within limits) by the body of the skater as well as by her aesthetic sensibility across stages of physical, intellectual and emotional development. In skating, one can teach the sport, I suppose, as mere technique. But why would you when excellence in the sport is achieved not by the rehearsal of established technical ability alone, but through the explosion of spectator beliefs about that which is physically and aesthetically possible to achieve?

In the teaching of writing, many of us are working with students in both classroom and one-with-one settings (coaching) in ways that are deeply informed by the pedagogical theory of Lev Vygotsky. Briefly, Vygotsky demonstrated that students learn better and retain knowledge longer when they are provided with meaningful intellectual scaffolding as they learn in what he termed the “zone of proximal development:” at the outside edges of their prior knowledge. Simply put, when students are asked to repeat what they already know, they learn less, learn more slowly, and retain new understanding for shorter periods of time than when they are provided with support for using prior knowledge in order to produce new understanding. I have been intrigued with the sport of figure skating and with coaching of skaters for the ways in which I can observe this principle in use. Skating is a sport learned through the acquisition of technical understanding and ability under conditions of supported experimentation and risk.

I didn’t stop blogging because I lost interest in either the sport or what might be learned about teaching by studying the relationships and interactions between skaters and coaches. I stopped blogging because relationships within the world of skating can become poisonous in the same way that those within academia can. Internecine struggles within skating clubs among parents and between coaches can suck the joy out of the sport with astonishing rapidity for parents and, more importantly, for young skaters like my daughter. And as in such battles in academia, in skating the stakes can be absurdly low. In my professional life, if there’s a battle in which the stakes seem significant, I’m willing to stay with the struggle. But I don’t have the energy or the will for battles animated by ego, narcissism, and naked aggression—the willingness to harm anyone or anything to advance one’s own interests—either in academia or in figure skating. Particularly not in figure skating. Under the heading of “fool me once…” when poison seeps into the lobbies of rinks and the stands of ice arenas, I’ve learned to put my gas mask on and stay low.

But things have changed for me and for my figure skating daughter. I recently accepted a faculty post at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. We have moved here and Grace is now a member of a new skating club. The Kitchener-Waterloo Skating Club is trying out a new approach to the development of its skaters—an approach predicated on cooperative coaching of individual skaters, more significant and sustained group coaching, and an organized and developmentally based off-ice program. To succeed at this new initiative, the Club is working with both skaters and parents to build a meaningful social support network for all skaters. I’m pretty sure I heard the Club President, Dr. Paul Mallet, and lead coach, Kris Wirtz, correctly in the last parents’ meeting: for all skaters.

For my daughter, this new approach has meant group lessons not only with her coach’s skaters, but with skaters throughout the Club. She is being taught in group lessons, not only by her own coach but by many different coaches. Grace has the opportunity to work with her lead coach, Lorri Baier, who among other accomplishments possesses significant experience as an elite international competitor. Grace is receiving support from all of the Club's coaches including group and micro-coaching from the current coaches of skaters who in all likelihood will compete at Sochi and have a good shot at standing on the podium there. And all of the coaches with whom Grace is working are actually talking to each other! Working cooperatively with one another!

I am trying not to be mindlessly na├»ve and optimistic about how this Club experience might prove to be very different for both Grace and for me, but—holy insert-expletive-here. I am slowly and carefully unbuckling my gas mask. And that means, perhaps, that I can write about figure skating and teaching again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Response to My Last Post

I put up my post, chronicling my worry and fear about whether I'm being a good enough Mom for Grace right now, and received this response from a friend via my Facebook page. I got all weepy as I read it at the rink while I watched Grace skate. She had a fantastic lesson today with Jason. When she's on, she's just breathtaking! And so is this response to my post. I have permission to share it with you! Thanks, Erica!

Hi Frankie,

As a fellow blogger, I just wanted to send you a private response to your blog about Grace and the upcoming competition.

Reading through your blog as a mom-person ... it seems to me you and Grace have a parallel experience going on. So I thought I would, as Chris Gallagher says, "risk complexity" and offer you some unsolicited advice ...

She hasn't been able to find the joy this week, but then, it seems neither have you ... so I'm just wondering if the "lesson" this week is about modeling joy in the face of disappointment or difficulty. The transition into a new skating class, with a higher calibre of girls, will require Grace to work through some stuff, and part of that may mean she needs the new hair and dress to embody the performance of a self she'll become (but may not be just yet). I know it's difficult in a sport, because there is an emphasis on outcomes (whereas in writing we can focus on the process), so here's my unsolicited advice:

Make time to discuss how beautiful her struggle is, how her passion is an embodied thing (the shaking), and how fortunate you are to witness that. (This will help you, too). Her name is, after all, Grace. Sometimes, we moms focus on protecting our kids from pain, forgetting that the pain of birthing a new self (in this case, a new skater) really is like labor. She might need you to be the "midwife of her ideas" (I knew I could work Socrates in here somehow), to model the love and language of love within the struggle (bell hooks).

Praise the difficulty, be thankful for it (in a karmic sort of way) because it means Grace is being prepared, honed, challenged in order to gain tools that will serve her well later, in ways you can't possibly imagine.

But most of all, don't forget you too are learning to be a new kind of skater mom. And I'm willing to bet this process is beautiful, Grace-ful, and affirming in the end.

There. I know I don't know you very well, but I wanted to send this to you because I have to watch my kid take it in the chops every time she competes in culinary competitions. My mom alarm always sounds, the "should have" or "should I?" voices start, and I forget to witness her beautiful struggle as only another woman and mother can.

Have a great day!