When going down the checklist of a great skater, the boxes always include deep knee bend, explosive power and leg extension with each stride. But an often-overlooked characteristic of elite skaters, and something they all have in common, is the utilization of their edges.
When watching players at 8U and 10U, it’s a little easier to tell who has more experience on their skates because of their ability and confidence on their edges. This is the perfect time for kids to start learning how to use them.
“It’s paramount,” said Carrie Keil, power skating coach for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U-17 and U-18 teams. “It’s probably one of the biggest pieces of your skating foundation.”
Every skate blade has two edges – inside and outside – and the quicker they can successfully navigate all four (both feet), the faster they’ll begin to make strides as a better skater.
Keil gives youngsters, parents and coaches some advice on how to maximize edges to build the foundation of a strong skater.
Get the Right Fit
It seems obvious, but properly fitting skates are crucial. Buying skates that a kid will fit into three seasons from now is setting up him or her to fail now.
“That’s your contact point with the ice and it’s going to play a big part in how successful you are,” Keil said. “If you buy a skate they can wear for three years, their foot is going to be sloshing around.”
Lace 'Em Up
Keil said there are varying opinions on how the skates should be laced. Many NHLers will not use every eyelet when lacing up their skate, skipping the top one or two holes. This is to create more ankle and knee bend.
However, for a child just starting out, Keil believes it’s important to lace the skates all the way up for support. They don’t have to be cinched so tight that they cut off circulation in the toes, just enough that there isn’t a lot of play in the ankle.
Straightening the Bender
A derogatory term on the ice rink, a “bender” is someone who skates with a wider stance, ankles bending inward and both inside edges on the ice.
So, what causes someone to become a bender? Often it’s blamed on “weak ankles” but Keil doesn’t believe in such a thing.
“I don’t like the phrase ‘weak ankles,’” Keil said. “We all started walking around 1 and there’s no such thing as a weak ankle. Some kids have less ability to control their ankles when they’re in skates – especially if it’s their first year of skating. If they haven’t been skating since 3 or 4, it’s going to take a while to establish the ability to control the skate and what the foot is doing in the skate.”
She believes that it is a physical incarnation of a mindset.
“After coaching for more than 30 years, my general opinion is that it’s a confidence thing,” Keil said.
Kids with less experience feel safer with a wider base.
“When you get the legs wider apart and let the ankles cave in a little bit, that’s pretty secure,” Keil said. “It’s not good for the speed generation, it’s not good for power, it’s not good for skating, but it’s secure. A lot of kids do it by default, ‘This feels like I have my balance.’”
Kids, who are younger than 8, are still working on basic motor skills, so they can’t necessarily balance on one leg for long. When kids are first learning to use their edges, it’s okay to start on two feet and two edges.
“When you turn on the ice, your blades and legs will be at a slight angle to the surface of the ice and that’s what tips you over to your outside or inside edges,” Keil said. “When you’re on two feet, one leg will be on the outside edge and one will be on the inside edge if they’re both tipped in the same direction.”
Keil suggests starting off with glide turns each direction in order for players to get comfortable using all four edges.
Crashing the Comfort Zone
If it’s a new skater, coaches shouldn’t try to push the child outside of his or her comfort zone right away. It’s important to build a level of confidence, both mentally and physically, before starting to push a player beyond their comfort level.
Keil said it’s important for coaches to create an environment that makes the player feel as though they can achieve.
“You have to start with creating a comfortable relationship between the coach and the child,” Keil said. For the children, that means trust. If a child trusts their coach or parent, or any teacher, they’re going to be willing to try things.”
If a coach is working with a child for the first time, that’s not a good time to make them go outside their comfort zone. Once the trust is gained, then it’s time to move beyond the comfort zone and challenge them.
“Once you’ve attained that trust, as a coach who is trying to build on that relationship, it’s imperative that you build on it and present the athlete with things outside their comfort zone,” Keil said. “But you can’t do that right off the bat.”
Moving on Up
Once a player finds comfort on their edges with two feet, they can begin to work on the individual edges with each skate. Gliding in circles on one leg – alternating between the inside and outside edges – will get kids more comfortable on one foot.
“Forward inside edges are the easiest,” Keil said. “The outside edges are very difficult to master, they take a lot longer.”
For more advanced movements, players can use sharper cuts, alternating between inside and outside edges. Alternating feet and turning using only on their inside or outside edges, will develop better balance while gaining ankle control.
The Jagged Edge
Working on edges is the most unique part of skating because the movements cannot be duplicated in dryland training, so it’s an ageless practice.
“You can cross-train for knee bend, leg strength, cardiovascular fitness, stride mechanics – any other facet of power skating can be trained for dryland, except edges,” Keil said. “Coaches come to me and ask, we only have 10 minutes to devote to skating, if you were going to pick one thing, what should we do? I always say edges, because you can’t cross-train for edges in dryland. Aside from rollerblading, where you’re working on ankle control, there’s nothing you can do for edges, because everything you do in dryland is in shoes.”
It might not be the most glamorous aspect of skating, but carving out time for edge work in practice is going to shape better skaters.