Sport of Skating 101

Competition Basics

There are several types of competitions offered within the US Figure Skating Association. Competitions are hosted or sponsored by a specific figure skating club or school. On any given weekend, you could probably find a competition going on somewhere in the country!

There are a variety of events offered at each competition, so there are usually multiple ways a skater can compete. Events can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Free skate program – This is what people traditionally associate with skating. A program skated to music containing a variety of jumps, spins, footwork or other elements
  • Compulsories – A program without music where each competitor is required to execute the same required elements. Depending on level, may only be skating on half the sheet of ice.
  • Skills events (jumps, spins, footwork, etc) – An event to demonstrate skill in a particular element, usually with minimal connecting movements or choreography. Each skater is usually required to execute the same elements. Some jump competitions may allow the element to be skated twice and the best attempt judged.
  • Showcase and Theater on Ice events – An program performed to music, which may include props or costumes, where the focus is on entertainment, theatrical interpretation, portraying a story, a character, or an emotion. May be sub-divided into categories for light or dramatic, solos, duets, or ensemble numbers.
  • Pattern Dance – A set pattern of steps meant to portray a specific ballroom dance such as a Waltz, Cha-Cha, or Tango
  • Synchro – A team event where a group of skaters demonstrates various coordinated skating skills in a program, such as unison skating or forming shapes and lines together.

Besides test level, events can be divided into smaller groups or combined based on age groups and gender. Adults are not combined in events with
younger skaters except occasionally in dance or showcase.

Basic Skills Competition

This is usually the first type of competition a skater ever participates in. The events offered are generally only for the beginning levels of skating.

Non-Qualifying Competition

This is a competition that can offer events all the way through the highest test levels. Placements in events apply only to that competition. Often times a club will offer a basic skills and a non-qualifying competition at the same time.

Qualifying Competition

These are the competitions a skater must participate in to get to the National Championships. Skaters move progressively through each round by placing high enough to advance to the next competition. The US is divided into Sections and then further subdivided into Regions. Competitors must compete in the region and section of their home club.

Map of Regions and Sections for US Figure Skating
Regionals – Oct/Nov
Sectionals – Nov/Dec
Nationals – Jan

Here’s some additional helpful information from US Figure Skating for first time competitors.
USFS Competition Prep Guide

Whatever happened to 6.0?

Coming soon: discussion of 6.0 vs IJS system

So just what does “Pre-Preliminary” mean and what is testing all about?

As skaters grow in their skills, there are many test levels they can take to show their progress. The first levels, Basic 1-8 and then Freeskate 1-6 are usually taken with a coach in Learn to Skate classes or privately with a coach. Once those are passed, there are eight named levels that are attempted in formal test sessions. Clubs usually host several test sessions a year. The skater performs the required elements in front of a panel of 3 USFS certified judges. Each element is scored and the entire test is given a Pass or a Retry.

For each level, there are two tests, a Moves in the Field (MIF) test and a Freeskate test. The Moves test must be passed before the Freeskate can be taken. The highest freeskate level passed determines what at what level a skater will compete in competitions. The time limits for the programs and allowed difficulty of elements progressively increase as the freeskate levels go up. The skaters you see on TV have passed all the tests through the Senior level.

The levels, in ascending order, are as follows:

  • Pre-Preliminary (aka Pre-Pre)
  • Preliminary
  • Pre-Juvenile (aka Pre-Juv)
  • Juvenile
  • Intermediate
  • Novice
  • Junior
  • Senior

Skating Disciplines

  • Singles – Ladies
  • Singles – Men
  • Pairs – A man and a lady skating in unison. Unique features of pairs skating include: traveling lifts with the lady held fully above the gentleman’s head, throw jumps, paired spins, death spirals, and side-by-side elements (jumps, spins, and footwork).
  • Ice Dance (partnered and solo) – Translating dance to the ice. Originally started as performing ballroom dance patterns, it has grown extensively over the years to include paired spins, daring lifts, and inventive choreography. Until the 2014-2015 season, it was the only discipline that allowed music with words.
  • Synchro – see prior discussion under Competition Events section.

Recently, there has also been growth surge in the more artistic categories of skating. These include events like Theater on Ice and National Showcase. While still requiring a certain amount of technical skill and achievement, in these categories entertainment, creativity, and artistic expression carry a higher value. When you think of a Stars on Ice or Disney or Ice production, those are more in line with a typical showcase type event.

How do people become judges and why are they so scary?

Judges are people too! The US Figure Skating Association maintains a rigorous process for training and appointing judges. Although many come from an active skating background themselves, it is not a requirement. The people you see at the judges stand put in many hours of volunteer time to learn how to recognize the skating elements and good skating skills, what is appropriately expected at each level, and how to properly conduct themselves.

When in training, they practice judging extensively at test sessions and competitions and have their results compared to the actual judging panel results. This process is called “trial judging”. Trial judges also have to attend seminars, take written tests, and receive positive reviews from their peers before being appointed.

After being appointed, judges must continue to actively participate in judging activities and meet continuing education requirements to maintain their appointments. All judges are volunteers and are not paid for their efforts. They come from varying walks of life, but have one thing in common: they love this sport and want to see skaters do their very best. They only look scary because they are concentrating so hard!

The language of figure skating

Like so many disciplines, skating has its own lexicon of terms. It may feel like people are speaking a foreign language when you first enter the world of skating. Here’s a great primer on some basic you’ll hear thrown around the rink. You’ll sound like a pro in no time!

Anatomy of a skate

  • Boot – The upper portion of the skate, usually constructed of leather, including the tongue, heel, and sole
  • Blade – Metal portion, attached the sole of the boot with metal plates and screws
  • Toe pick – Jagged tooth-like ridges at the front of the blade. Assists the skater in spinning, jump takeoffs, and other footwork. Made famous in the movie “Cutting Edge” for tripping people up! Hockey blades do not have toe picks.
  • Rocker – Blades are not flat from front to back. They are shaped front to back with a slight curve, like the bottom of a rocking chair. The entire length of the blade is not in contact with the ice; because of the shape the skater can rock slightly forward or back on the blade. Most of the time the balance point is under the ball of the foot.
  • Hollow – Blades are also not flat from side to side. They are slightly hollowed out. Hold a skate so that you are looking at it from the back (heel). The blade shape should look like an upside down U because of the hollow.
  • Edge – Two distinct edges are formed on each side of the blade because of the hollow. While a skate blade is around an eighth of an inch wide, the skater is actually balancing on one of the even thinner edges.

Guards are hard plastic covers worn on the blades to protect them from nicks when walking around off the ice.
Soakers are soft, absorbent covers places on the blades when stored to help keep them dry and free from rust.

Edges

Because of the shape of the blades’ rocker and hollow (see previous section), the full metal of the blade is never in contact with the ice surface at all times. Three things determine what “edge” a skater is on:
1) Which portion or side of the blade is touching the ice. The inside edges are closest to the big toe; think of someone standing knock-kneed. They would be on inside edges. The outside edges are on the outer edge, nearest the pinky toes. The visual for this is someone standing bow-legged.
2) The direction the skater is traveling, forward or backward.
3) Which foot is supporting the skater’s weight, right or left.

Putting these together gives you the following 8 possible edges:

Right Forward Outside Right Forward Inside Right Back Outside Right Back Inside
Left Forward Outside Left Forward Inside Left Back Outside Left Back Inside

Understanding the different edges is fundamental because which ones are used help determine the variations of jumps, spins, and footwork.

Jumps

Jumps are generally divided into two categories, edge jumps and toe jumps. Almost all jumps take off backward and land backward on one foot. Edge jumps refer to the skater pushing off of an edge to take off into the air. Toe jumps refer to when the skater uses the toe pick of the skate to assist them into the air. The types of edges and which toe picks used when entering a jump determine the type of the jump.

How many times the skater turns around while in the air determines the rotation of the jump. Most jumps, with a few exceptions noted below, measure rotations in full 360 degree circles. A jump that rotates fully once is a Single, twice is a Double, three times is a Triple, and the rare four times is a Quadruple or Quad for short.

Majority of skaters rotate in a counter-clockwise direction and land on a Right Back Outside edge. This is not a requirement, nor is a skater penalized for skating the opposite direction. When skaters first start skating, a coach will help determine which direction the skater seems to more naturally turn. The following jumps are described from the stand point of a counter-clockwise skater in a generally increasing order of difficulty. Reverse the words “Right” and “Left” for a clockwise skater.

  • Waltz – Edge Jump. One of the first jumps taught, this is only a half rotation. It takes off forward from a Left Forward Outside edge and lands on a Right Back Outside edge (RBO).
  • Toe Loop – Toe Jump. Takes off from a Right Back Outside edge with an assist from the left toe pick.
  • Salchow – Edge Jump. Takes off from a Left Back Inside edge. Named for the person who invented.
  • Loop – Edge Jump. Takes off from a Right Back Outside edge.
  • Flip – Toe Jump. Takes off from a Left Back Inside edge with an assist from the right toe pick.
  • Lutz – Toe Jump. Takes off from a Left Back Outside edge with an assist from the right toe pick. This entrance is considered more difficult because the body is actually leaning in a direction counter to the direction the skater will be rotating in the air. Named after the person who invented it.
  • Axel – Edge Jump. Same take off and landing as the waltz jump but with an addition 360 degrees of rotation. So because of the forward take off, a Single Axel actually rotates one and a HALF times around in the air. Named after the person who invented it.

Spins

Similar to jumps, the type of a spin is also determined by which foot the skater is standing on as well as the position of the body. Skaters almost always spin in the same direction that they rotate in their jumps. You will occasionally see the rare skater that can spin in both directions! For a counter-clockwise skater, spins on the Left foot are Forward spins. Spins on the Right foot are Back spins. Reverse this for clockwise skaters. For the very curious, these terms come from the actual direction of travel of the blade while spinning. If you watch very carefully or watch a slow motion close up, you might notice this.

These are general descriptions of the most common spins. Within each one, there is virtually no limit on creativity for varied arm and free leg positions, grabbing and holding of the free leg, or twisting or folding of the body. These can increase the difficulty level of the spin. Skaters, coaches, and choreographers are constantly innovating new spin variations.

  • Upright or Scratch – The basic spin position. Body is generally in an upright position with arms and free leg crossed in front.
  • Layback, Haircutter, Bielman variations – These variations on the upright position involve enhancements like the skater leaning backwards with the free leg counterbalancing behind, grabbing the free leg and pulling it up near the head, or pulling the free leg completely over the head with one or both hands.
  • Sit – Standing leg is bent at least 90 degrees, free leg usually extended out in front. Variations include the Broken Leg where the free leg is held bent to the side, Cannon Ball where head is bent all the way over to the knee, and Pancake where the skater folds over and pulls in the free leg and, as the name implies, flattens them selves like a pancake.
  • Camel – Straight standing leg with the free leg lifted such that the knee is at or above hip level. Skater looks like a T in this position. Gets its name because of the camel looking “hump” when the skater is in this position. Variations include the Donut where the skater reaches back to grab the free leg and pulls it close to the head. If viewed from above, the body is forming a donut-like circle.
  • Combination – When a skater goes through more than one basic position in a single spin
  • Change Foot – When a skater starts a spin on one foot then transitions directly to a spin on the other foot with no transitional footwork.
  • Flying – When the skater enters a spin by jumping into the air and then landing directly into the spin position

Footwork

The terms are almost endless for all the various types of steps, turns, gliding movements, and anything else people can dream up to do on skates. Without going into too much detail, here’s some common terms you’ll hear.

Turns Three turns, Brackets, Rockers, Counters, Mohawks, Choctaws, Twizzles, Loops
Gliding Moves Spirals, Spread Eagles, Ina Bauer, Lunges
Other choreographic moves and stops Pivot, Bunny hop, Ballet jump, Mazurka, Split jump, Snowplow stop, T-stop