Is your would-be Steve Yzerman or Sasha Cohen ready for the slick stuff? Learning to skate requires "a little determination, a lot of practice and no fear of falling down," according to the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA). Outdoor arenas typically don’t offer lessons, but they’re a perfect place to practice – or get your basic bearings. Scratch the surface with these tips for beginners.
1. Start with skates. Supportive footwear is step one. "A skate needs to be an extension of your foot," the USFSA notes. Boots should fit snugly, laced tightly and consistently from toe to ankle (if you can slide a finger down inside the back, it’s too big). "It’s going to be less painful for the child," says Gayle LaVictoire, facility supervisor of Buhr Park in Ann Arbor. "You don’t want them ‘skating on their ankles.’" Dull blades are trouble, too; ensure they’re sharpened (a service offered at many rinks). And watch for frayed laces, especially on rentals.
2. Balancing act. Standing on steel slivers is nothing like standard shoes. But the trick is actually in the arms, which should be straight up and out to the sides, so the body’s in a "T" shape. "If your arms are down, you don’t have a good center of balance," explains Candace Tamakloe, head coach of Detroit’s Renaissance Figure Skating Club. Good alignment also means the knee is over the toe, shoulders are back, chest is out, head’s up and back is straight.
3. Learn to fall. Mastering a proper swan dive before a real tumble is a big safety skill. Get your hands in front of you, says Tamakloe, bend your knees, and fall to the side; "It protects you from falling on your head or face." Buhr Park’s staff also stresses prevention: If in motion, grab your knees to re-center body weight, and glide to a slow stop. That avoids wrist injuries, since it’s a natural reaction to brace a spill with your hands.
4. Get moving. Make like a duck or penguin, LaVictoire says, and waddle. "Shift your weight from foot to foot. You actually barely lift your feet when you skate." For younger kids, Tamakloe compares it to a choo-choo train. After a few "shifts," her students try keeping both blades still for a "two-foot glide" – or, after a bit of practice, a "one-foot glide," bringing the other foot up to the opposite knee. "Swizzles," or circular in-and-out motions, are another great first movement. Just don’t hug that wall. Buhr Park offers two- and four-legged "skate learners," which are walker-like braces for kids to grip while still practicing on open ice.
5. Speed it up. Zipping along looks much cooler than chug-chug-chugging on the ice, but it’s scarier, too. "We turn it into a game," Tamakloe says. "You skate as fast as you can; then slide down the ice, just to show them it doesn’t hurt." That’s how she kicks off lessons in "stroking," which involves gliding from foot to foot. "One good fall and then you realize it wasn’t that bad, and it doesn’t affect them that much."
6. Halt! While it’s fun, there are easier ways than smashing into sideboards. A prime beginner’s brake is the "snowplow stop." Start from a standstill, march forward, bring blades together into a glide – and then push feet out, pigeon-toe style, into a "V," with knees slightly bent. Be sure to press, Tamakloe says, or you’ll end up in the splits!
7. Snazzier skills. Consider space when practicing fancier – or even basic – moves, like wiggling into a backwards motion. Many rinks are less crowded during weekdays and nights, clearing a bigger, more-comfortable path for beginners. And if you’re at a hockey rink, use those lines painted on the ice. For instance, face-off circles in the end zones are great guideposts for practicing turns.