Behavior Analysis Tools for Figure Skating

Note to Readers: This post is a companion piece to an education article appearing in the January-February 2019 Professional Skate Magazine entitled “Behavior Analysis for Popped Jumps.” If you have not read that article this may be confusing, you can read the current issue here. After March 1, 2019 you may contact me for the original article.

Behavior Analysis Tools for Figure Skating

Diving Right In

The Professional Skate Magazine article outlines four steps to using contingency analysis in your coaching practices.

  1. Identify the target behavior

  2. Identify the reinforcer

  3. Identify the antecedent conditions

  4. Bring it all together

Within those I noted that being able to separate form from function, and the practice of fading are two key skills. This post will dive deeper on both of those and discuss some next steps.

Form versus Function

In any coaching situation, we’ve all known the problem athlete. No matter how much we encourage, cajole, or punish them, they seem to keep missing a critical skill. In other words, they have stopped improving and continue to make the same mistake over and over. For coach or athlete, this is massively frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be the end.

As the coach, you’re going to go through the four steps above and may find yourself asking “what IS the reinforcer for the mistake behavior?” This can be especially tough if your response to mistakes is letting the athlete know they did it wrong. This is where the form versus function distinction comes in. In this case, the form of your feedback is negative, coercive, abrasive, or even straight up mean. So how could this being reinforcing? If you refer back to the article, you’ll notice that one of the big four functions is attention. Here, the yelling, joking, corrective commentary, despite the form, is still attention for the athlete. Functional attention doesn’t discriminate between nice and not nice and can be as simple as just facing the athlete or making eye contact.

The distinction of form versus function boils down to ‘the what’ (form) versus ‘the why’ (function). In the article, I shared the big four whys of (1)attention, (2)escape, (3)access, and (4)stimulation. We’ve already given a few examples of attention maintained behaviors and reinforcers that function to provide attention. I’ll go through the other three briefly now.


An example of an escape reinforced behavior would be a mistake that results in ‘time out.’ Many times escape maintained behavior is due to an uncomfortable environmental element that is eliminated or reduced when the reinforcer is delivered. If a skater is fatigued or uncomfortable with their surroundings, mistakes resulting in time resting or a change in surroundings may become more frequent.


Access is very similar to escape but the distinction is the reinforcer itself is the thing they are trying to access. In contrast, escape reinforcers, like ‘time out,’ have a secondary effect of removing the element that is causing discomfort. Access reinforcers are what most might call incentives. Snacks, breaks, or socializing are common forms of access reinforcers.


Stimulation reinforcers are relatively rare among athletes that are normally developing but can actually be valuable amongst mastery level athletes. (That mastery deep dive is for another day) Stimulation maintained behavior is more frequent in nonverbal, or limited verbal individuals where their sensory experience of certain behaviors reinforces that behavior and they have little in the way of counter control through verbal relations. This is effectively a special category of access, where they engage in a behavior because the physical sensation involved makes that behavior more frequent. If you think you have an athlete that is engaging in a detrimental, stimulation maintained behavior, you can contact me for more resources.

Among these big four, attention is the most common reinforcer. The great implication here is, if your athletes are suffering from performance plateaus or persistant mistakes, try changing what athlete behaviors get your attention. When an athlete does the correct(or at least improved) behavior, give them visual and/or verbal acknowledgement promptly and consistently. When they make a mistake, don’t respond to the mistake. It’s likely they know they made a mistake, which can be aversive in itself, and if they are reinforced with attention, any comment, no matter the form, will just make the mistake behavior more frequent.


Fading is a process of changing elements of an athlete’s environment in order to shift them from training to performance without performance losses due to changing environment. Early on in training, they may work in a studio or gym in order to learn the basics of any particular jump or move. This is a great way to introduce risky stunts in a safer environment than on the ice. But this also means that a hard shift from the gym to the ice may change so many environmental conditions that the athlete struggles to repeat the target behavior under the new conditions. This is why many coaches try to train in conditions that replicate competition. But as we just noted, some tricks are too high risk to attempt for the first time on ice.

The solution here has two elements.

First, Fading

Manage the training conditions to start in easy to learn/low risk and as the skill becomes more persistent, add more and more elements of the competition environment. This may take the form of using lots of matts at first for safety and transitioning to a sprung floor, then solid floor, then ice. Or training 1 on 1 and then in groups, then with a small audience, then with some judges, progressively increasing the audience and judging presence to get closer to a competition experience.

Second, Variability

Include some degree of environmental variability early on. This is to prevent what is called over-discriminated behavior. You may have previously seen this in the athletes that are fantastic in practice at their home venue but seem to fall apart whenever they travel or compete. This is a known situation where consistent practice that reinforces the target behaviors under the same conditions over a long period of time makes those behaviors very consistent under those exact conditions but hard to translate to other similar conditions. The best way to counter this is to regularly change venue, time of day/week, training activity, etc. Structure in training is still important, but structured training that includes some variability will produce athletes that can more fluidly compete across differing conditions.

Wrapping Up

By distinguishing between the form of reinforcers and their function and using fading techniques in a somewhat variable training environment you will be well on your way to getting your athletes to that next level of performance. What I’ve written here is just one more step toward behavior analytic skills that can improve your coaching skills. If you know a coach who may benefit from these skills, please share. If you would like to learn more, post below or contact me and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.