Saturday, January 14, 2012

ISI WeSkate vs USFSA Basic Skills

You're an adult skater, or maybe you're an adult with a child who skates and you want to skate too. You may have a choice between a rink with the Ice Skating Institute (ISI) weSkate program or the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) Basic Skills program, which one do you pick?

Really, it doesn't matter.

You may run into people who tell you in an excited voice, "USFSA is the better program because that's the one that trains Olympians." Well, that's a slightly odd statement. USFSA is the national skating assosciation that interfaces with the International Skating Union, so yes USFSA oversees US elite figure skating for international and olympic competitions. ISI is an association of rinks and stresses recreational skating. You (and your child, if you take your child to learn to skate) aren't elite skaters; Don't worry about which program you're learning to skate in. In fact, I've been told that for many years USFSA did not have a learn to skate program. Instead, everyone learned to skate via the ISI program. Kids switched to USFSA when they had an axel.  World champions have come out of both learn to skate programs.

Basic Skills


Which rink should you pick?  With one exception, I wouldn't make a decision based on the rink's skating program. There's more important priorities: Driving distance, schedule of classes, the rink culture, the quality of the ice, the parking, the presence of people you know, the size of the adult program, even the area of the city. If you take a couple of sessions and don't like that rink, you can switch to a completely different program at another rink. You're not locked into one program.  You'll learn the close to the same skills in both programs, but arranged in a slightly different way, since the programs don't line up exactly.

I've known coaches I respected a lot who swore by the learn to skate program for ISI. You can tell you're in this program if they talk about pre-Alpha, Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma levels. ISI focuses on recreational skating. There's lots of competitions with imaginative programs: interpretive, props, family, similar pairs, etc. that won't look like USFSA competitions you've seen on TV. It's a really recreational skater friendly program, and focused on making skating fun for the entire family. I started skating in an ISI rink and I like the program.

USFSA Basic Skills for kids levels are numbered 1-8, but there is an Adult basic skills program numbered Adults 1-4. I will say that if you have a choice between a rink that teaches an Adult 1-4 class, or teaches Adults in the 1-8 curriculum, I personally would prefer to take group lessons at the rink that teaches adults using the Basic 1-8 curriculum or go to an ISI rink.  I don't understand the logic of giving adults a truncated skating curriculum a la' Adult Basic 1-4, but it seems to be normally what you'll find at USFSA rinks if there's an adult program. I have not found anyone who defends the USFSA Adults 1-4 program. If you understand the rationale for Adults 1-4, I'd like to hear it.

If you get to a rink and find out that they don't have adult classes, ask if you can just skate in the kids classes. My skating guru, the Big Guy, started figure skating in his 30's in the kids curriculum at an ISI rink. A decade later, the kids (now in their teens or twenties) would come up and chat with him on public. No one seemed to care there was an adult in the kids class. I've heard of other adult skaters doing this too.

Regardless of which program you go with, depending on your age, athleticism, and ability you may find you need to repeat certain levels. Don't worry about it. (I met a woman who took Alpha 3 times while she took her grand-daughter to her learn to skate classes.)  Have a good time.  Better to learn your skills well than to speed through. Learn to skate isn't a race. If you have a significant other, I've seen some married couples having a wonderful time at the rink and sharing the experience of a Learn to Skate Class.

The Xanboni website, talks a lot more about learn to skate as Xan is a dedicated Basic Skills Coach. It's worth it to go through her posts and get some insight into learning to skate programs from a coach's perspective. Her post is much more technical than this one and compares the programs level by level.

There are still some rinks out there that have their own internal learn to skate programs.  They may be seasonal rinks, or just have a a long history of independence. Don't worry if you run into this; You're going to learn stroking, crossovers, three turns, and backwards skating, no matter what learn to skate program you're in.

Finally, none of the adult programs I've skated in have had any of the interpersonal drama that seems to come from the parents of kid skaters. I took learn to skate at 3 different rinks (two ISI, one USFSA). Uniformly, the adults were easy going, genial and collaborative.


  1. My rink taught the ISI classes when I first started but switched to USFSA about a year later. When I completed Adult 4 and moved into Adult FS, I found it overwhelming as all levels of adult FS were in one class. I floundered for a class term and then decided to go back and take Basic 7 with the kids because there were so many skills I hadn't learned in the adult curriculum, as you mentioned. My rink doesn't mind adults in the kids classes and it I'm happy.

    Even though my rink no longer teaches the ISI levels, they still keep a rink membership in the program so we can participate in ISI competitions. I will likely never get good enough to do a USFSA comp but I love competing at ISI, especially the Spotlight programs.

    1. I *think* the rationale for Adult 1-4 is that it focuses more on edges and less on spins and essentially cuts out jumps because adults get so much dizzier spinning and often are too timid to try the jumps. Of course, this does a disservice to adults who actually want to keep going since then we get to FS1 with a bunch of missing skills. It's basically a program that's for fun. The only other thing I can think is that it's also a way for adults to progress more at their own pace: since two levels are each compressed into one, there's more room for moving forward on one skill while being "stuck" with another.

  2. @ MommyTime. I've heard the 'adults don't want to jump or spin' story about Adult 1-4 too, so maybe it is the real reason. But I think it's a self fulfilling prophecy. I'm in an Adult Basic 1-8 program and of all the adults in it, I (at 60) am the only one who doesn't jump or spin. Every other adult skater does all the elements (except the over 40's who laugh at anything with deep knee bend). The rink understands that, and it doesn't matter, when I do all the other elements they just pass me up, or ask me to substitute something. I'm doing dance; Why should they care if I learn to jump? This is how an adult program should be run. Teach adults all the basics, but be flexible about elements since adults have injuries, or different interests.

    I think that really, as in Nancy's case, USFSA is doing an injustice to adults. Since USFSA corporate focus isn't at recreational skating (the focus is on competition), this isn't an area that the managers may pay not pay any attention too.

  3. Taking alpha three times? I probably took Gamma ten times and have been in Delta for almost as long--LOL!

  4. I love ISI skating competition and the program. I started with USFS so I had a bit of a head start. After passes through pre silver dances and silver MIF. After my #me too moment, the USFS gold level judge didn't support my skating achievement and she would not recuse herself from my tests. I had no choice but to do ISI testing. It has been great and much more fulfilling with the amount of programs pre competition. I also use all those programs daily to get my heartrate up with continuous skating. I do not have an ISI club nearby. I joined a club that welcomed me and I help them out by doing costumes or whatever I can do from a distance. Several of the adult members meet-up with me for workshops and competitions. Also, I am welcomed into the theater and large group numbers.