Doug Ladret finished off his pair lecture series with a discussion of the pair partnership -- all the things that affect the pair other than the skating itself.
He listed some of the things to take into account when putting together a team:
1. Size. Not only do you want a small girl and a large boy, but you want to look at the biological parents of each skater to see what they might look like when they're done growing.
2. Skating ability at that time. It's not dependable to pair up partners of very different skill levels, hoping that one will catch up.
3. Style. The two partners' styles may not mesh at first, but do they demonstrate the ability to adjust?
4. Looks. "It's not nice to say it, but it's part of the business, part of the sport," said Ladret, in the unenviable position of stating the uncomfortable fact that everybody knows. "The judges -- whatever's aesthetically pleasing to their eye is what's going to catch them." Given a choice, he said, it's good not only to choose attractive skaters, but those whose looks complement one another. He said the "Mutt and Jeff" Soviet pairs of the early 1980s won competitions, but you don't remember their names.
5. Potential. My notes here say only, "Frustration. Anger against coach for putting together." I'm not sure if that's what Ladret was saying, or I was jotting down my own thoughts!
6. Age. In many cases, said Ladret, it's good to have an older guy to guide along a younger girl. He didn't go into why. On the other hand, a 20-year-old guy with a 10-year-old girl is just going to look wrong, no matter what they do on the ice.
An alternative to competing with an age-mismatched pair is to put them together, not to compete, but to give them some pair experience. That should work, as long as the parents know ahead of time. Guys between 8-12 and girls between 6-10 are good for this approach. They can learn fundamentals like side-by-side spins and how to communicate.
In addition to the two members of the pair, the other people involved are each skater's spouse or significant other, family and extended family, freestyle coach, and peers, as well as the pair coach. There may be schools or colleges involved as well. Ladret said that in order for all this to work, one thing must be subtracted: "Ego. You want the pair to develop its own ego."
To help the skaters understand each other, Ladret recommended having the boy be thrown, perhaps by the coach or a larger male pair skater; and having the girl try lifting, perhaps with a small girl off-ice. Then they can respect each other more, and have better understanding of how scary or how timing-sensitive these elements can be. Ladret said the coach should not permit the skaters to correct each other, but to voice their corrections aloud and have the coach correct errors. "You need to determine a head honcho and that is you, the pair coach," Ladret said. But both singles and pair coaches must put their egos aside and think what will be best, considering that pair's potential.
Always have the two skaters side by side looking at the coach, whenever there are corrections to be made. That way, they will feel like a team, even against the coach. If the coach scolds one skater while standing next to another, the scolded skater may feel ganged up on, which is not good for the pair. But if the two feel like a team, then they will make the correction together as a team.
To help keep pair teams together, give them a light at the end of the tunnel. Have them commit season by season, so they know it's not forever.
Have goal meetings, with input from the skaters and their parents, so everyone is on the same page.
Don't rush too quickly into forming a partnership. Make sure your skater finds the right girl or boy as a partner, even if it means waiting.
Scarcity creates false value, said Ladret. He was trying to be polite about it, but a grinning attendee said, "You talking about the boy? I know a lot of pair boys this year who don't have a partner." In other words, there are many girls wanting to skate pairs, and few boys; but that doesn't mean that the boys can get away with poor manners, sloppy skating, or less commitment to the sport. They still have to put in just as much, or their partners will not stay with them.
Another attendee said she is instituting a push to get more boys into the sport, and told her rink management, "By August 2003, I will have 100 boys figure skating, and your job is to create a pair environment."
Ladret agreed that "we need to glamorize pair skating more. How are we going to get a pair to win, if we don't keep pushing from the bottom?"
The coach should make the skaters understand that theirs is a business relationship. They can sign contracts which outline the terms of the partnership, under the coach's guidance. The business relationship also requires that the two skaters not date each other.
One coach talked about how the families of the partners handle unequal financial situations. The wealthier of the two families understands the restrictions, and will choose events that are not so expensive, or otherwise keep the costs low. The important thing is to have the richer family understand the situation while the family with less does not have to feel the pressure of thinking, "Since we can't put out the money, our child will have to quit." Ladret said the coach needs to keep the expenses down, and make sure the wealthier family understands that this will be the case, but the final product will still have high quality.
It's not a healthy situation to have half the partnership paying all the costs. The boy (assuming the girl's family is paying) may get a free ride, but there's added pressure. He may be told, "You didn't land your double axel, but my girl did. I'm paying for more lessons for you."
One coach's pair splits the expenses evenly between the two families, although one has much more money than the other. They simply don't do anything that each family can't afford. And the pair does everything together -- ballet lessons, gym work. Neither skater gets any extra privileges or a free ride because of their finances. This is the way the parents wanted to do it.
Coaches can ask the families how much they can afford per month. If one can afford, say, $500 a month, and the other can afford more, the other family will have to decide if they want to cover the costs for anything beyond that amount. Coaches can also use their energies to arrange fundraisers, exhibitions, and trust funds for their skaters.
I asked what should happen if a pair is good together technically, but one member is abusing the other. Ladret said unequivocally that when it's actual abuse -- meaning, I think, that it's not something that better communication can resolve -- the team should not continue, since it's not worth it, no matter how good they are technically. He gave Berezhnaya and Shliakov as an example. That team was obviously going places technically. But Shliakov's behavior toward Berezhnaya had to be stopped.
Where do coaches set their personal boundaries with a pair team? Ladret said firmly that the bottom line is: "We have to set our emotions aside. Take it as a business dealing." This holds true, for example, when you have the unpleasant task of telling parents that half of a brother-sister pair is much more talented than the other half.
"Sometimes, you have to be cold and hard with the parents," he said. "You have to tell them, 'You're spending money that isn't necessary. I don't feel good taking your money.'"
At the end of the session, Ian MacAdam (South Atlantic senior men's competitor, coach, and now brand-new pair skater with Heather O'Connor) announced that he would be starting a mailing list for pair skaters and coaches so people can stay in touch and share knowledge.