Monday, February 25, 2013

Why new skates almost always feel weird

Just what is muscle memory?
I spent a fair amount of time talking to a customer today about muscle memory. It was clear when I was done that that they didn't get it. Hopefully I'm a better writer than orator, because I'm going to try to make sense of it here.

While in skating we tend to call the adaptation to new skates or adjustments to old skates muscle memory, the more clinical term would be gross motor skill. Essentially we have two sets of motor skills which we use to complete physical tasks: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Let's quickly talk about what fine motor skills are and be done with that. Tasks such as writing, feeding ourselves and getting dressed involve the use of small muscle groups and hand eye coordination. These are fine motor skills. Another term for this is manual dexterity.

Gross motor skills, on the other hand are things that we do with minimal thought. These are actions such as standing, walking, even jumping and kicking. While fine motor skills require a conscious thought and planning, gross motor skills happen pretty much automatically. These are almost as automatic as breathing and blinking the normal person.

How does it factor into skating?
Unless you were that rare mutant individual born with metal blades protruding from your feet, skating wasn't exactly natural when you first started, remember? But now that you've been doing it for a while it's developed to something that's pretty much as simple as walking. Don't get me wrong, it will always take a lot of thought for a figure skater to launch and land a triple axel or a hockey player to carry the puck through the defense with a spin move. But just going out and taking a few laps around the rink doesn't require watching your feet I hope.

This is here just in case you didn't believe that kids can
be uncoordinated at times. See, I told you!
So let's back up a second and talk about how gross motor skills and how they change. We've all seen growing kids go through crazy awkward states where they are so uncoordinated their limbs seem like their mortal enemies at times. And yes, even though I remember my young self as the acme of athletic grace, apparently we were all that kid at one point. So just what is the issue with the poor kids in this state? Simple they are growing so fast they they have to readjust their gross motor skills to adapt to bigger feet, and longer legs, arms, torsos and heavier heads (It's possible that I made up that last one).

If your skates fit properly, they are an extension of your body. This means that when you get a new pair of skates, you're essentially going to go through that brief awkward growth spurt where you need to readjust your gross motor skills. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on what might be different from one skate to the next as I did that in two previous blog entries here. But I will point you in that direction in case you missed them. Check out - Decaffeinating the Horror of New Figure Skates and/or New Hockey Skates, tougher than your feet? if you want more info on what changes from one skate to the next.

So what should I expect?
One of the amazing things is that even putting on the same exact model and size of skate is going to often require adjustments to your gross motor skills. Skates are still primarily made by hand. As a result, no two skate boots are exactly the same. The blades, also installed by hand on every pair of skates, aren't always in the same place. This means, that while the adjustments are going to be smaller when staying in the same model and size, there will still be some.

Perhaps a better way to explain this for an adult would be to compare it to an injury. Let's say you've broken your foot. In fact let's say you've done such a number on it that the only way they can set the bones results in your foot being turned outward, off by 90 degrees from where it should point. Yes, once you've gone through rehab and learned to walk again, you look like half a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Then after a many years go by and you're tired of people pointing their finger at you and laughing, you find someone with an actual medical degree who can fix your foot so it points the proper way. The adjustment to walking on your foot which now points in the proper direction might take less time than it did after the first injury, but there will still be an adjustment. Your gross motor skills would take weeks, or even months to re-map your newly aligned foot and walk naturally.

While it looks painful, this is actually a new exercise class
combining yoga and pairs skating.
On skates we balance on a blade which is a mere eighth inch wide for hockey or three sixteenths inch wide for figure skating. The tipping point between your foot being neutral and off balance can be as little as half the width of that blade. Think about that. If your blade is off by a mere sixteenth of an inch it could mess up your skating. Further, the older we get, the less adaptable we become to these changes. I'm chalking it up to the fact that we haven't had a growth spurt for a long time, but I'm guessing there are other factors involved.

The Verdict
Don't get frustrated if your new skates don't feel perfect right away. Anyone who has bought a few pair knows this is the case. Just like you'd have to adjust if I replaced your feet with a different pair (not that I'm qualified or interested in doing that) you won't entirely have to re-learn how to skate. Sometimes the gross motor skill adjustments will be slight and this is typically how it should be. However, even slight adjustments can take weeks to make. It took six weeks before my last pair felt natural on my feet, but I did switch skate brands.

If the adjustments are serious you're probably going to need some help from your friendly pro shop staff. Blade alignments can help both figure skaters and hockey players. Sometimes it's just a matter of shifting the blade. Of course if you bought your skates from us, we're going to take care of getting that fixed for you. If you bought them elsewhere, we can help with that too, it just isn't included in the price.

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© 2013 Scott Noble
All Rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or part is strictly prohibited without the author's prior express written permission.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ten mistakes you didn't know you were making by buying your skates online

Buying Skates on the internet is a great idea right?
Recently, a customer showed up in my shop with a pair of skates he had purchased online. I try not to take it personally when people do this and it's usually easy enough. I don't mind losing a sale to price once in a while. The economy is crap, we all do what we have to do to get by. However, In this case, I was appalled. He attempted to save $26 by buying online. But what he really did was purchased a much lower level skate ($100 cheaper retail price) with none of the services I include for free on new skates and saved exactly TWO dollars.

The simple fact is, unless your nearest hockey shop is in another state, there's only one reason to buy skates online--price. I'll be honest with you, sometimes that's enough of a reason in itself. But that's the exception rather than the rule. If you're trying to save twenty or thirty or even fifty bucks, you're at risk for shooting yourself in the foot. If you found a pair that's on closeout at a hundred bucks or more off retail, it might be a good deal.

The following is a list of ten things that just may go very badly for online skate purchasers

1 - Those aren't the skates you tried on (assuming you tried some on)
The single most important factor in purchasing a pair of skates is fit. It's a simple premise, if the skates don't fit right, they aren't comfortable, they don't work properly, skating is a miserable experience. While most skates in the same model and size are going to offer a very similar fit, no two skates are exactly the same. The problem here is that much of the skate assembly process is still done by hand.

I had a customer years ago who came in, tried on a pair of skates and decided that he wanted to mull it over before making the purchase. He came back the next day and I grabbed a pair in the model and size he'd tried on the previous day. Once they were on his feet he told me, "There's no way this is the right pair, the top of the toecap feels like it's cutting into my foot." In fact he tried on the second of the three pair and had the same sensation. When we got to the last pair in his size he said they felt great and bought them.

Figure skaters have known for years that you cannot order skates online. While they are all similar, no two pair fit exactly the same.

2 - Those aren't really on clearance, they are defective
We've all heard the saying, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is." While most brands of skates are on a redevelopment cycle, not all of the skates on sale are there because they were last year's model. One of the problems with the hockey industry is that they are notoriously cheap when it comes to R&D of new products. The end result of this means that the majority of product testing falls in the lap of unwary consumers. It also means that skate brands typically have leaders and losers.

A common deal a few years back was a free high end stick with a pair of skates (which were heavily discounted). Here's how that deal translated:
  • People bought the skates and weren't happy with them. 
  • People bought the stick and weren't happy with it. 
  • Major retailers realizing they were carrying a bunch of inventory that people hated asked the manufacturer to help them out with the garbage they produced. 
  • Manufacturer, pressured by their biggest dealers made them a nice offer to keep them happy.
  • Retailer bundled two horrible products into "the deal of the century"
  • Unwary consumer got stuck with two products they were unhappy with for a low price
The only way to make sure you know exactly what you're getting is to buy it in person.

3 - Sneaky Skates
The big online retailers have enough buying clout to order SMU (Special Make Up) and Limited Edition skates. These essentially are skates that are produced in such limited runs that only the biggest two or three online retailers sell them. The problem with these skates is that the online retailers control all the information and pricing on many of them. While most of the Limited Edition skates are in the brand catalogs, the SMUs are always going to be a skate that you cannot see in person.

Often these skates cut corners and lack features that you would expect to see in the price point they are being sold in. There's no way to know until you get them. While the price might seem good, be prepared for disappointment.

4 - You don't understand the real price
The individual I mentioned at the start of the article had been looking at a pair of closeout skates in my shop that were marked down to $85 below retail cost. We spent a fair amount of time talking about skates, fitting him the proper size and discussing the bonuses he'd get by buying them from me. A week later he showed up with a pair of skates that were $26 cheaper online.

Somehow, he forgot that every skate we sell include the first three sharpenings which come to a $24 value. So, in reality he saved only $2 on the purchase price. We also throw in the heat fitting with skates we sell which is normally $19. The most important detail he failed to understand is that we stand behind what we sell with lifetime boot punching, free blade alignments if required and free labor on customization such as heel lifts. The online retailer was done helping him with his skates the moment they put the shipping label on the box. Even worse, he was duped into buying a model with a $100 lower retail price, so rather than saving $2, he bought an entry level skate for the same price he would have had an elite level skate.

So remember you get $43 worth of free services right up front when you buy skates at Rocket Skate. Down the road, you're going to get our support to make sure that your skates fit and work properly for as long as possible.

5 - Murphy's Law
Sometimes skates just aren't put together right. The case of another customer who bought a pair of high end skates online comes to mind. When he came to me looking for them, he asked if I could match the price. On the particular skates he was interested in, I couldn't even come close to the online closeout deal he found of about $100 below wholesale. I told him he should take that deal online.

When his skates arrived he struggled skating in them for weeks. Eventually he brought them in to me concerned that the blade had been installed incorrectly. In fact, the entire skate had a significant manufacturing flaw; the outsole had been installed about a half of an inch off center. This put the blade impossibly out of alignment to the point where they couldn't be corrected without a serious amount of work.

He contacted the manufacturer, who told him the online retailer would have to determine if it was a defect. After sending it back to them at his cost, they shipped the skates back to him (again at his cost) claiming there was nothing wrong with them. He was left with a pair of skates that needed a repair costing more than the skates were worth as well as some headaches he shouldn't have had.

I've also had customers break a skate under warranty that I was able to repair on the spot. Sometimes the manufacturer warranties the repair sometimes they don't. But if you bought them online, you'd have to ship your skates to the retailer and wait for them to fix them and ship them back. That generally takes longer than a few hours.

6 - The two size down rule is a lie
If there's one piece of gear that has to fit you properly it's your skates. Online retailers give you a rule of thumb telling you to calculate your skate size by deducting anywhere from 1 to 2 sizes from your shoe size. Even if I hadn't been fitting skates since 2001 I could tell you there's a flaw in their guidelines--they cannot agree on a number. Aside from that consider the obvious, do you buy shoes without trying them on? Do you always wear the exact same size shoe? I don't. Further, width, instep height, arch height and foot shape are all important factors in determining which skate will fit you best.

I've fit thousands of people for skates and the only rule I can tell you is that the measuring stick is just a starting point. I've had people that had perfect fits four and a half sizes smaller than their shoe size, and people who had a perfect fit a half size smaller. The only way to know for sure is to have a professional fit you. But, don't be the guy who wastes their time getting fit so you can buy online. If you don't value the service they offer enough to at least consider buying skates from them, don't take advantage of it. Best Buy is about to close almost a quarter of their stores claiming internet show rooming as the issue; think how much harder it must be on the small business you rely on to sharpen your skates.

7 - Blade alignments
Even when a pair of skates is put together right for the average person, it doesn't mean that they are going to work for every person. I've seen enough feet in my lifetime to tell you there aren't two the same (even on the same person). Thus, a pair of perfectly set up skates might not be perfectly set up for the individual using them.

What does that mean? It means you might not have to pronate (that's the horrible feeling that your ankles are too weak to keep your skates from tipping in). For most people pronating is the result of either wearing skates that are too big or lacing them too loosely. However for about 10% of hockey skaters, it's because their skates aren't set up properly for their feet.

We can fix that and if you bought skates from us, we'll do it for free. If you didn't, it's $50.

8 - Customer support
If you were considering two electronic products at pretty much the same price, customer support might be the major determining factor in the decision. I just picked up a new cell phone at Best Buy even though it was a few bucks cheaper on Amazon. Why? It was worth it to have them migrate all the data and apps from the old phone.

Skates can be as big a nightmare as electronics if you're on your own breaking them in. The difference is that electronics give you mental distress when they don't work while skates give you physical pain AND mental distress when they don't work. Most people need a little more help than they get from just a heat fit. Skate buyers average 2 to 4 punches on new boots (punching is an isolated boot stretching technique which customizes the fit of the boots).

Four boot punches is going to set you back $20 to $40 for skates purchased elsewhere. Of course there is no guarantee that four punches is going to do it. I had a young skater who came in so frequently that she would have spent over $200 in boot fitting services had she not bought the skates from me.

I've also helped people by adjusting the pitch of their skates on new boots. Pitch is the angle of the skate boot relative to the ice and it's one of the most difficult things to adjust to when switching skate brands. It's pretty easy to correct, but if you didn't buy the skates from me, it's going to set you back $26 instead of $10.

9 - The same price isn't as good as our price
Rocket Skate can special order most skates priced over $450 and match the prices on the internet. We can fit you for the skate you're interested in and have them here in less than a week. Add in our $42 worth of free services, professional fitting, the assurance that your skates will be comfortable and our support for the life of the skates and tell me who has the better deal now, us or them?

10 - Because it feels good
So let me see, we have better value, better service, you know what you're actually getting, we're going to take care of fitting and warranty issues and we actually care if your skates work for you after you've paid for them. If for some reason that isn't enough, maybe you should just buy them at a small local retailer because it's just feels better to do. The odds are pretty good that your friendly hockey shop owner isn't in the business for the money. If he is, I feel sad for him. Personally I do this because I love what I do. If I was in it for the money, I would have boarded up the shop a long time ago. Don't get me wrong, it's hardly lucrative but I don't love it enough to move into a cardboard box when things go bad.

If you feel good supporting a faceless out of state corporation that actually does make a lot of money selling hockey gear, by all means, do spend your money there. Personally I feel much better spending my money a small businesses who provides local jobs and outstanding service to their customers. I like keeping my cash in the local economy when I can. I don't mind that my sales tax supports local programs either.

Here's another bonus for you. Did you know that the first 10% of all Rocket Skate profit goes to charities that feed the hungry, help people afford housing and take care of orphans? Probably not, since we don't talk about it much. We don't do it so we can brag about it, we do it because it's the right thing to do. I'm talking about it now because you help us to continue doing it with your patronage and feel good about that too.

So what's a skater to do?
You'll have to figure that one out. You can gamble on the possibility of a better deal on the net or you can have a conversation with your local small business owner. To me it comes down to who you want to trust. I'd personally pick the guy who is going to see you regularly and sharpen your skates. I'd pick the guy who you've known for years over the voice on the telephone.

The bottom line is that no one is going to work harder than Rocket Skate to make sure that you have the best experience in your new skates that you possibly can. If you do the math, our prices are almost always better than the online shops. Bring in your best deal and if it's really that good, we'll let you know that you should take it. But at least do yourself the favor of checking first.

If I can leave you with some math, here is the deal the guy from the first story ended up with by trying to save $26:

Rocket Skate Deal - Total price $275 +tax

  1. Elite level skates ($359 retail value) - $275
  2. New Skate Sharpening - Free
  3. Two sharpenings for later - Free
  4. Heat fitting - Free
  5. Boot punching - Free for the life of the skates
  6. Peace of mind - Free
Deal he took - Total price - $307 +shipping
  1. Recreational level skates ($249 retail value) - $249
  2. New Skate Sharpening - $12
  3. Two Sharpenings later - $12
  4. Heat fitting - $19
  5. Boot Punching - $15/average
  6. Peace of mind - unavailable

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© 2013 Scott Noble
All Rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or part is strictly prohibited without the author's prior express written permission.