Thursday, 25 June 2015

Interview With Trevor Laak


In today's blog, I wanted to venture away from the usual fare on the blog for a bit and talk a little about an incredible resource that's very much out there and you may not even be aware of. Launched in 2008, iCoachSkating.com is probably the most comprehensive library of technical skating knowledge ever compiled. It's one thing to read about something but any of us who have ever laced up and got on the ice know that the majority of instruction you're going to receive and of course absorb comes from visual learning and actually getting out there and experiencing something. For those of you who are in no way familiar with what the site really is, it's a compendium of instructional videos from some of the BEST coaches out there walking you through (step by step) the elements of figure skating - from the bare bones basics to jumps, spins, footwork and even choreography and off ice training exercises. As a reader of the blog, you'll be familiar with many of the names. I've interviewed some of the featured coaches and choreographers like Michelle Leigh, Douglas Webster, Tom Zakrajsek and Sheila Thelen before. Whatever your background or interest level, some of the other names are just going to jump out at you: Frank Carroll, Pasquale Camerlengo, Kori Ade. In the words of Edina Monsoon, "names, names, names sweetie!" For a change, rather than me wax poetically about what makes this site relevant to EVERYONE (not just coaches and skaters) I thought I'd sit down and chat with the site's founder Trevor Laak and give you a first hand look at what makes iCoachSkating.com so important:

Q: Why did you decide to start iCoachSkating.com?

A: A: It was actually kind of a long process to develop the idea. Basically when I went from being a skater to a coach, I started to recognize that some of the things that I had been taught - or how I was taught - wasn't working with my skaters. For example, I was taught to step up into an 'H position' on an axel and if you watch in slow motion what actually happens with an axel, there is no 'H position'. I had a lot of questions and I started to seek information. I ran across Audrey Weisiger and the whole Grassroots To Champions team and I started to learn immediately from them. I had been doing a whole bunch of video analysis on my own before I met them and had developed all kinds of new teaching methods on my own but when I started to work with them I was like wow... I was like a kid in a candy store. There were so many new ideas and concepts. Essentially, I thought to myself if I'm so excited by all of this, there's got to be so many other people who are ALSO excited just to learn these new coaching techniques and ways of learning jumps and spins. So why don't we create an online resource that makes it easy for people to learn - that they can access at any time and from anywhere.  

Q: It's such an interesting concept and something that hasn't been done before and one thing that really stuck with me when I was watching the videos was the value of these videos as a training tool for coaches. Were coaches your initial target audience or were skaters or both?

A: My initial target audience was coaches and in fact, I didn't have a way to limit skaters and skating parents from joining the site but I made it clear that the focus was on the coaches. The reason I did that was that I suspected the people using the material would be just like me; they'd be coaches that wanted to be better coaches. We initially launched the site in June 2008 and by 2011, the site had tons of adult skaters on and skating families also and many were asking for additional information. I said 'well, are you a coach?' and they said 'no, but please let me fly under the radar because this is so valuable to me.' In 2011, that's when we opened it up to everyone because we found that especially adult skaters, they want to know details about the sport that they don't get from their own coach. It's been a great relationship with adult skaters all over the world. Skating families as well! We hear from them that it's helped them become better skating parents and helped them understand what their coaches are saying and in some cases it helps them make better coaching decisions in terms of maybe staying with a coach, changing coaches or just becoming more informed and being a more educated consumer.


Q: Do you have many younger skaters who are using the information or is mainly adult skaters?

A: I would say for the skaters on the site, it is definitely weighted toward adult skaters but we do have quite a few younger skaters on the site. For younger skaters, it really depends on their personality. Even with the best intentions of their parents, some just don't like to learn skating from a video. But others love the site and get a tremendous amount of value from it because it makes their own lessons with their coach that much more impactful. They tend to focus more on the right things. For some young skaters it works, for some it doesn't. That's one of the reasons we have a guarantee. If it doesn't work for you, no problem. You get your money back.

Q: Where the focus of what I generally write about is skating history, one thing that jumped out at me in reviewing some of the videos on the site is how wonderful it is to have this archival footage of coaches like Frank Carroll, like Charlie Tickner demonstrating their coaching techniques. Do you think that these videos have appeal to non-skaters or fans as archival material?

A: I think there is some aspect of historical value because coaches like Frank and Charlie for sure show the traditional style of coaching. That's how I was taught to skate, and I learned those same methods of teaching at every coaching seminar I would go to. But I'm also really excited to showcase many newer ideas on iCoachSkating. The vast majority of skating coaches already know how Frank Carroll teaches because he's spent years sharing his knowledge. I think the website is valuable to the average coach and skater because it contains lots of non-traditional ideas that they are not as familiar with.

Q: Obviously the technical side is your priority but is exploring teaching choreography and that side of it something you want to focus on more in the future?

A: It definitely is. I'm actually fascinated by the creative side of skating and have been heavily involved with Grassroots To Champions and Young Artists Showcase so I'm fascinated by the creative process. It's challenging to convey that information. I could sit down and talk with Pasquale Camerlengo. He's an international choreographer and has choreographed a number of really fantastic programs for the Japanese men, for example, and when you talk to him about the process, it's still sort of this high level discussion. In some ways, it would be more value if I could get a video of Pasquale working with one of those high level skaters so people could actually SEE the process because for some reason, when people talk about the process they often leave all sorts of details out. 'I see what the skater can do.' Well, what does that mean to the average coach? It means what's the vocabulary the skater has in terms of movement and how can I apply that? Often times, an average coach doesn't have a strong movement vocabulary themselves so they are at a bit of a loss to interpret what someone like Pasquale is saying.


Q: It's certainly a challenge with the IJS with rules constantly changing every season. Let's take spins, for instance. Has this posed an issue with developing content for the site? 

A: I think that's a really good question. Originally, we really wanted to provide information about the IJS and be like 'okay, here's the latest and greatest and here's what these rules mean' because honestly, it doesn't seem like anyone's really stepping up and providing that. You and I can go and read the rules and the way you may interpret it could be completely different than how I would. I mean, I could sit in a room full of top coaches and we'll all have different opinions about what those rules mean so it became clear pretty really on that that was going to be a dead end. I made sort of an executive decision to pull away from that and really don't have any IJS content on the site anymore. That's not to say we don't have training that's related to the IJS. We have a video on pretty much every spin position you can get into and how to teach those positions but we don't say what points they are worth this year and what combination of those positions are valid. We just help the coaches teach the positions so when they read the rules and have a clear interpretation of what the rules are, then they can apply the educational information that's on our website and help their skaters accomplish those elements to give them maximum points.

Q: Is pairs, for instance, something you'd ever consider branching out to?

A: I was a pairs skater and I'm absolutely fascinated by pairs and always have been. When I skated pairs, it was so much fun but the simple fact is that what I do takes time and effort and I have a limited amount of resources in terms of time and effort. The number of people in the U.S., Canada and around the world who would benefit from me putting out that information probably wouldn't be worth the time and effort. When it comes right down to it, if I publish something on pairs, probably one out of every ten might actually be interested in it or use it. It comes down to the question as to where I can really put in that time and effort to have the biggest impact on the sport.

Q: Wearing a skater's hat, what I love about these videos is that they really have the potential to supplement lessons. For instance, if you know that you're learning a flip/loop combination that day and only have say, a fifteen minute lesson, you can watch a video of a high level coach showing you the arm positions, what edge you should be on for take off, how you pick in for the flip and you kind of have a head start. Does that happen a lot?

A: That's another really good question. Originally, I would have thought the same thing. As it turns out, it's often more after the fact. For instance, the skater might have a lesson on back three turns from their coach and they didn't know they were working on back three turns in that lesson. But after that lesson, they get super motivated and want to know everything they can about back three turns and it seems to me, that's when they turn to us, use the search function and find the topic they're interested in. Others may be watching every video as it comes out and sort of storing that information away in their brains and going back and reviewing that information when they need it.

Q: One thing Sheila (Thelen) mentioned to me when I was speaking to her is the fact that a lot of younger or less experienced coaches have a hard time teaching a double axel, for instance, if they didn't have one themselves. Going back to what you were saying earlier about vocabulary, is that something you find with your coaching audience that's made the videos even more valuable?

A: Yes, it is. It's actually one of the most important functions that we play... allowing coaches to be even better coaches than they were as skaters. We think of teaching a double axel and if you can take that information and back out that information into how you teach an axel or even a waltz jump and you have the potential for that skater to make that much more progress when they do get to the double axel. What we're finding is coaches are not only better prepared when they are getting to double axels and triples that they themselves have never done before but the skaters themselves are ALSO better prepared because the skaters have the fundamentals in place so that a double axel or triple CAN happen.

Q: What is the price point on all of this? Are people paying for a monthly membership? A yearly one? How does that all of that work?

A: A monthly membership is $29.97 and an annual membership is $267.00 so you are saving more than 25% by joining for the whole year.

Q: Why should someone absolutely join?

A: I could give you the answer in one word and I'll give you the word and then explain it. The word is CONFIDENCE. We hear this over and over and over again not only from the coaches who are members of the site but also skaters and skating parents. When you have more information, it builds your confidence. For example, coaches who are on the site know that if they are teaching it the way some elite coach is, they are doing something right. In the areas they feel weak, they can strengthen those by going into the website and learning new ways to teach it so we are taking a weakness and turning it into a strength and that also builds confidence. It works similarly for adult skaters. They might tell us that their skating isn't improving as much as they thought it would, but they are developing confidence by knowing they are doing the right thing to get the progress that they want.  

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

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