Why Figure Skaters Pop

Today’s Topic: Why Figure Skaters Pop/Circle and How to Break the Cycle


A figure skater attacks element after element in her long program, nailing the jumps, achieving beautiful pictures in her spin positions, she begins to feel the thrill and excitement that comes from skating a clean program…. And then…. As she approaches the final jumping pass, she begins to think to herself, “Don’t mess up, only one more jump”.   She sets up the takeoff, and before she knows it, before she can change anything, she is opening up in the air, and oh no!  A popped jump!  A feeling of frustration and defeat.  Loss of points that could possibly be the difference between a medal and no medal.


A parent watches their athlete on a practice session, feeling the frustration build as their athlete circles around and around – never going for the double axel they have been working hard to master.  The parent begins to think, “Why isn’t she just going for it” and “She’s wasting time”.


A coach stands rinkside as the early notes of their skater’s music fill the arena.  The skater begins her program, gracefully embodying the character of her program.  As the skater sets up her first jumping pass, the coach notices a slight hesitation.  She wills her skater to go for the jump, but her attempts are futile as the skater pops the intended triple to a single, leaving valuable points off the table. T he skater, feeling defeated, struggles through the rest of her program, unable to get her mind back on track.


As a figure skater for over 25 years, a coach for 15, and now in the role of sport psychologist for youth, collegiate, and elite athletes, I remember those feelings of frustration, defeat, and self-doubt associated with popping all too well.  Popping jumps, circling around, balking before I even gave myself the chance to try – it all felt like a wall I couldn’t figure out how to climb.  It was a cycle that felt nearly impossible to break… until I understood why I was popping and developed strategies to help me.  Now I am passionate about helping up-and-coming athletes overcome their own challenges with popping or circling and regain a sense of control over their body and mind.


What is popping or circling?


First of all, for those unfamiliar with these terms, popping is a word used to describe a situation when a skater is taking off to do a multi-revolution jump, but at the last second, when the skater should be pulling in to start the rotation, they suddenly open up and do only a single revolution.

Circling is similar to balking in gymnastics.  A skater plans to complete a jump and skates into it, but at the last minute aborts their attempt and skates around the rink to try again. Often skaters will circle many, many times before ever actually attempting the jump.


Why do figure skaters pop or circle?


1. Self-Doubt and Lack of Confidence

Self-doubt and lack of confidence can result in negative self-talk, which feeds into the self-doubt and makes it more likely for a skater to pop or circle.

For example, if I tell you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, what happens??  My guess is that you thought of a pink elephant!

Now, what do you think would happen if you were thinking “Don’t pop” or “Don’t mess up” as you set up for a double axel?  My guess is that you would be much more likely to pop or circle because the thought of it is in your mind.  Even though it might feel like a positive thing to think, it is really your self-doubt or lack of confidence talking.


2. Fear

This could be a fear of injury, fear of embarrassment, fear of failure/making a mistake, but fear can be debilitating and result in an increased likelihood of popping and circling.  Our body is wired to respond to fear by going into a fight or flight response (back when we were cave people this is how we knew to run away from lions, tigers, and bears).

There might not be animals about to eat you when you are on the ice, but your brain sees your double axel as scary and threatening and responds in similar ways.  You might notice your heart rate speed up, your breathing gets shallower and faster, your muscles tense up, and your thoughts begin to race.  None of these things are helpful for maintaining timing on that double axel.

The more a skater circles and pops, the more the fear grows.  Using breathing to calm your body down, imagery to practice building confidence in your mind, and positive self-talk can all be helpful strategies for overcoming fear.


3. Feeling Pressure

The pressure might come from coaches, parents, competitors, or from the skaters themselves.  Focus on the pressure to do the jump can alter timing, increase the likelihood of self-doubt, and contribute to frustration.  It is important to recognize and be aware of where the pressure is coming from, reduce it if possible, and focus on the things that are in your control as a skater rather than the pressure you are feeling.


4. Frustration

Popping and circling are patterns or cycles.  The more you pop or circle, the more frustrated you get, and the more frustrated you get, the more you focus on that instead of on the things that will help you successfully execute the jump.  It is important to use mental skills to maintain a positive mindset, but also to reset or take a ‘time out’ if you notice your frustration growing.


5. Perfectionism

This is a common attribute for figure skaters.  Perfectionism is a good thing… in small doses. Research shows that it does increase motivation, drive, and desire, but it can also contribute to pressure and negative habits such as popping or circling.  If a skater goes into each jump with the expectation that it must be perfect and they feel slightly off on the setup, they are likely going to pop or circle and try again.  It is important to let go of some of the need to be perfect in order to give yourself a higher likelihood of going for the jump and more chances to build your confidence and consistency.


5 ways to break the cycle


1. Take a ‘time out’ after the first time it happens

  • Go back to an earlier progression (walkthroughs, exercises, single or double jumps).
  • Move on to another skill and come back to it later in the session.
  • Take a few laps around the rink focusing on taking ten deep breaths to reset your body and mind.

Continuing to pop or circle is going to reinforce a habit you don’t want to get into.  The more you can keep doing things to build confidence rather than decrease it, the better!


2. Breathing

In through your nose, out through your mouth.  Make sure to breathe deep into your belly. This will help create a relaxation response in your body and reset it after it has experienced feelings of anxiety, fear, or frustration.


3. Be kind to yourself

Use affirmations!  It can be easy to beat yourself up or put more pressure on yourself when you pop or circle multiple times, but this is only going to increase the negative feelings of frustration and disappointment.  What would you say to a friend if they were getting frustrated or experiencing self-doubt?  Try saying that to yourself!!


4. Use Imagery

See yourself completing the jump in your mind to build confidence in your ability to do it.  It can also help to watch a video of yourself landing the jump and then imagining it in your mind to enhance the experience.  Imagery can be a great way to reset after popping or circling.


5. Focus on what you want to have happen

Use focus words.  For example, on a double axel you might think “attack, tight, check” to keep your mind focused on what you want to do in the jump, rather than on what you don’t want to do.


I’d love to support you or your figure skater on breaking the popping/circling cycle. You can schedule a free consultation phone call with me here to discuss options for individual coaching sessions.  As the figure skating season gets underway, this is a perfect time to work toward building confidence and decreasing self-doubt.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.