How to Guide a Young Child Towards Becoming a Figure Skating Champion

Advice From Olympic Figure Skating Coach Tom Zakrajsek

Tom Zakrajsek - Olympic Figure Skating Coach
Tom Zakrajsek - Olympic Figure Skating Coach. Photo Courtesy Tom Zakrajsek

About Tom Zakrajsek:

Tom Zakrajsek has taken young figure skaters from the very beginning and has coached them to national, world, and Olympic levels.

In April of 2012, he took the time to chat with Jo Ann Schneider Farris,'s Guide to Figure Skating, about what parents of young children need to do if they wish to see their child become the most accomplished figure skater possible.

What advice do you have for parents or coaches of new and young figure skaters?

One of the first things parents and coaches should do is see if there is one quality in a child that stands out that may be a characteristic that shows the possibility of greatness in skating.

Some things to look for are:

  • Wanting to be on the ice
  • Flexibility
  • Natural strength
  • Artistry
  • Natural action in stroking
  • The ability to learn and retain information from lesson to lesson
  • The ability to practice what they are being taught on their own
  • Fearlessness and the ability to manage falling

How can a parent who desires great things in figure skating to happen for his or her child make sure everything is being done "right"?

My own coach, Norma Sahlin, said the following to me when I began my career as a coach:

"When you see someone is young and talented, you have to insist that they learn things correctly."

All skaters must be taught proper skating technique, but when a coach has a skater with natural ability, the coach must make sure they are doing every part of the skill correctly as opposed to accepting how they naturally do it. Their basic techniques must be built for higher level skills that they learn several years in the future.

I admit that after more than twenty-two years of coaching skating that I have had lots of experience with breaking bad habits!

My experience of correcting bad habits has to do with skaters who start working with another coach and then change coaches and come work with me later after many years of bad or sloppy technique. Consequently, the worst thing for the parents or the skater to do is put the coach in a position where they demand high level goals but don't practice enough or take enough lessons to achieve those goals.

It is a figure skating coach's responsibility to make sure a skater learns proper technique. Learning proper technique for figure skating means putting in lots of practice, but also means that lots of supervision is required.

How can a parent or coach guide a child into becoming a champion?

Finding the right coach is essential. I believe only those who teach skating full-time can make champions. Look for a coach who is patient, who is professional, and passionate about molding and teaching young skaters.

I have taught skating for twenty-two years now and have the experience and drive to mold and make young skaters into champions, but I'm not the only choice out there. There are plenty of people like me who have the knowledge, qualifications, and drive to do what I have done.

I never go up to parents of skaters and tell them I can make their children skating champions. Instead, if they approach me about lessons, and I see potential, I do say that a child has ability to succeed. I then tell the parents what needs to be done to achieve success in the sport.

What has to be done to mold a figure skating champion?

There are three steps into becoming the best figure skater possible:

  1. First a child must acquire certain skating skills.
  2. Next a skater must stabilize the skills.
  3. The last step is refining the skills.

The acquiring, stabilizing and refinement of skills is done at the lower levels and that process takes about 5-7 years.

While they are learning skills, the skater and parents must also learn "the game of figure skating" which is how to compete and handle the pressure of performing and being accountable to their goals. This will serve them well if and when they get to the national and international team level where US Figure Skating and the USOC expect consistent achievement and reliability of earning medals and/or winning as well as guaranteeing spots for the Junior World, World and Olympic teams that is a direct result of how they place at those competitions.

What jumps must a skater land before he or she is thirteen years old then?

All of them! My student, Rachael Flatt, was only twelve years old when she won the US National Novice Ladies title. She had landed triple jumps by then. By the time she was thirteen or fourteen, she had mastered the triple loop, triple flip, and triple Lutz.

Skaters on a competitive track should be able to do an Axel and at least three double jumps by the time they are seven or eight years old.

For boys it can vary a little. It is beneficial to acquire a triple Axel and triple-triple combination BEFORE hitting the senior ranks and a quadruple jump around the ages of 16-19, if they wish to gain experience competing these skills before they are competing on the national and international stages where they are required in order to be competitive.

How many practice sessions and lessons do you recommend?

I require my skaters to put in at least three forty-five minute on-ice practice sessions a day during the school year and at least four in the summer. My students usually take at least one private lesson a day, but I recommend two. I also work on jumps off the ice for two ten minute lessons a week with my skaters. I also require skaters to work with supplemental coaches on skating skills, conditioning, ballet and jazz, and moves in the field. I also recommend my skaters work with a support coach on spins, too.

How do you make sure your students practice the skills you teach them?

Every one of my students is required to keep a notebook. In the notebook, I give them required skills to practice in a certain order. During every session they skate, I expect to see that notebook open.

I don't force, but I do push my students to work hard.

What about school and activities outside of the rink?

I leave how to school my skaters to the parents. Rachael Flatt was never homeschooled. School does give skaters a chance to socialize with other people that are not skaters. I think going to regular school helps teach accountability to other adults besides parents and coaches.

I also encourage my skaters to take music lessons and master an instrument, but I don't require that. Knowledge of music or the ability to play a musical instrument will definitely help a skater.

What else do you encourage or monitor?

I encourage skaters to watch other skaters. I expect them to watch skaters compete in events above their level.

I have every student keep a spreadsheet that shows me their daily activities. If young skaters are not getting at least ten hours of sleep, I address that issue.

If a skater and his parents are not doing what I expect, we discuss what can be done to remedy the situation.

If a skater is not achieving the goals you set, should they give up?

I don't believe in giving up. I believe in working harder.