How Competitive Figure Skating Works

By: Alia Hoyt
competitive figure skating
U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner performs in the Women's Figure Skating Free Program during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

In a world where contact sports like football and soccer seem to rule supreme, it's surprising that so many people become transfixed by competitive figure skating. On the surface, the sport may seem pretty girly. After all, competitors routinely wear tights, sparkly costumes and enough stage makeup to keep L'Oreal in business. The reality is that these athletes have devoted their lives to projecting an image of effortless grace, when in fact it takes strength, balance, flexibility and even pain to pull off an excellent program.

When ice skating took shape in its earliest form, it was for transportation purposes rather than fun. Skeletons dating back to 10,000 B.C.E. found in the Netherlands had animal bones tied to their feet — crude skating blades. Though ice skating surfaced in other parts of the world, figure skating really began to take shape with the creation of the Edinburgh Skating Club in 1742. At this point, however, the pastime was closed off to women.


In 1772, a British figure skater named Robert Jones penned "A Treatise on Skating," which conveyed his belief that successful skaters must have artistic and athletic abilities. He also encouraged women to become involved with the sport. Although much of the credit for the development of competitive figure skating is given to Jones, a 19th-century American ballet dancer named Jackson Haines is considered by many to be largely responsible for morphing it into the sport we know today. Prior to Haines' influence, figure skating was stiff and less creative than it is now. In the 1860s, Haines began to incorporate dance movements into skating routines. His style was so well-liked that it became known as the international method of figure skating, which prevails today.

So what does it take to become a competitor in the sport of figure skating? And what notorious scandals have been associated with the pastime? Next, find out about the tests skaters must pass to compete.


Testing and Types

competitive figure skating
U.S. husband and wife pairs team Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim took first place in the Figure Skating Team Event during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 9, 2018 in South Korea. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Scott Hamilton. Michelle Kwan. Sasha Cohen. Evgeni Plushenko. All of these names elicit images of grace, beauty and explosive strength in the minds of people who dream of filling their skates. For most figure skaters, reaching superstardom is a long shot — it takes an immense amount of dedication and time to get there. Fortunately, there are many levels of competition for figure skaters of all ages, including juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior and senior. U.S. Figure Skating enforces only two age requirements for testing purposes: Skaters testing for a junior level must be younger than 14 years old, and those testing for intermediate status must be younger than 18 [source: USFA].

At each level there are different classes of tests that all competitive skaters must pass to participate in qualifying competitions. The intensity and required proficiency increases with every testing level. U.S. Figure Skating (which abides by the stipulations set forth by the International Skating Union) classifies these tests as follows:


  • Moves in the Field: Moves in the field must be skated with good edges, control, flow, extension, carriage and rhythm. Skaters are judged on accuracy, edge quality, turn execution, extension, quickness, power, continuous flow, posture/carriage, bilateral movement and strength.
  • Free Skate: Skaters are required to show good form and precise choreography while completing axels, lutzes, two other single jumps and solo spins. (You'll read more about these maneuvers in the next section: "Key Moves in Competitive Figure Skating.")
  • Pairs: Testing requires partners to complete synchronized double or single jumps, jump combinations, one pair and one solo sit spin, and three different lifts, among other elements.
  • Pattern Dance: Testers must show excellent technique, timing and expression in any one of a number of dance styles, including swing dance, cha-cha, European waltz and the tango.
  • Partnered Free Dance: This test includes multiple elements such as lifts, spins and step sequences.

To compete at the top level, skaters must qualify first at regional events, then the sectional championships. If a skater qualifies at sectionals, he or she receives an invitation to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, a huge honor considering that only the top four competitors at each of the three sectional events are invited.

There are five major types of competitive figure skating: men's singles, ladies' singles, pairs, ice dancing and synchronized team skating. Components for each of these competition types may not be exactly the same at international competitions, such as the Olympic Games, but they're very similar.

In individual skating, competitors must perform both a short and long program. The short program requires skaters to showcase seven technical elements with connecting steps (a combination of jumps, footwork and spins) in less than 2:50. The long program, or free skate, allows skaters to showcase more artistic ability and is worth two-thirds of the skater's score. Men are given 4:30 +- 10 seconds, and women have 4:00 minutes +- 10 seconds to perform the long program, which has few (if any) technical requirements.

Pairs skating requires many of the same technical elements as individual skating, but also specifies that each pair perform lifts and throw jumps. Pairs must also prove their mettle by skating in sync with each other.

In synchronized/precision skating, teams of 16 to 24 members compete. Complex formations, single jumps and synchronized footwork are all required elements of a good program. Teams perform both a short and long/free skate program. Judges pay particular attention to synchronicity, formations, spacing, footwork and arm motions.

Ice dancing is an offshoot of ballroom dancing and requires strong attention to timing and rhythm. Ice dance partners are prohibited from doing lifts any higher than the male partner's shoulders, and jumps aren't allowed. Ice dancing competitions require pairs to perform two compulsories, dances chosen by the International Skating Union (ISU), such as the tango or waltz. Skaters perform an original dance, which they choreograph and choose the music for, as well as a free dance (similar to a free skate).

Next, we'll take a closer look at the technical elements of the skaters' programs.


Key Moves in Competitive Figure Skating

competitive figure skating
Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang of China demonstrate the death spiral at the Figure Skating Team Event at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games Feb. 9, 2018 in South Korea. XIN LI/Getty Images

There are dozens of different moves that competitive figure skaters can showcase during programs. Here's a sampling of some of the most popular and common moves, jumps, throws and spins:

  • Stroking: This is the side-by-side maneuver by which a skater glides on the ice. Stroking also allows skaters to pick up speed.
  • Throw jump: In this common pairs move, the male partner throws his female partner in the air, where she completes one or more revolutions. American pair skaters Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent became the first in history to land the first quadruple jump (a quadruple salchow) on Nov. 17, 2007, at the 2007 Trophée Eric Bompard competition in Paris, France.
  • Axel: A commonly required jump, the axel is considered to be one of the most difficult moves for skaters perform. This is the only jump in which the skater launches from a forward position. The skater then lands on the back outside edge of the blade on the opposite foot. Very advanced skaters attempt double and triple axels.
  • Lutz: When attempting this difficult jump, the skater takes off from the back outside edge of the blade. He or she then lands on the same edge, but on the other foot.
  • Toe loop: In this jump, the skater uses the toe pick of his or her skate to gain momentum to take off from the back outside edge and land in the same spot.
  • Sit spin: A sit spin is pretty much what it sounds like. The skater spins in a sitting position, with one leg bent to support the spin and the other leg extended. This forms an angle of less than 90 degrees between the thigh and the calf of the skating leg.
  • Combination spin: This is a spin wherein the skater performs several types of spins and changes feet during it. The skater must maintain a constant speed throughout the spin, despite repeated position changes.
  • Layback spin: The layback spin is usually attempted by women because it requires a great deal of flexibility in the back. It's performed during an upright spin. The skater's head and shoulders must drop backward while the back arches to complete the form.
  • Death spiral: A move performed by pairs during competition, the death spiral involves the male partner spinning while holding the hand of his female partner, who maintains a horizontal spin above the ice.

On the next page, we'll take a glimpse inside the skater's arsenal of equipment.


Tools: Equipment, Attitude and Nutrition

competitive figure skating
Russia's Alina Zagitova's stunning costume at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow in January 2018 is just an example of what you might see skaters wearing on the ice. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

It's certainly possible to be a competitive figure skater at any age, although most of the skaters competing in international competitions are relatively young, from their mid-teens to mid-twenties. Many — although not all — of the skaters who go on to compete at this level begin lessons as children, even as toddlers.

U.S. Figure Skating offers a Basic Skills Program through which novice skaters of any age can learn the fundamentals in more than 800 registered rinks across the country. In fact, many countries' figure skating governing organizations offer similar programs. Most of these programs introduce the sport as both fun and easy, although it does require a lot of determination and practice. In the early days when many skaters fall down as often as they skate, the program also demands resiliency.


Proper clothing and skates are key to successful figure skating. While skates don't necessarily have to be brand-new, they shouldn't be broken in to the point where they provide little or no support. They should fit the foot snugly and lace up correctly. U.S. Figure Skating recommends that skaters purchase new or used skates from a reputable pro shop to ensure a perfect fit. Experts also encourage skaters to wear layered clothing during practice sessions, as rinks are air-conditioned to between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 and 15.5 degrees Celsius). Form-fitting but not overly tight pants are recommended as well, although tights often provide the best fit inside the skate.

It's not a bad idea for novice skaters to wear mittens or gloves: Frequent falls bring them in close contact with ice on a regular basis. Beginning skaters and children under the age of 6 are advised to wear helmets to prevent head injury. Once skaters reach higher levels of competition, their clothing becomes much more elaborate and expensive. Custom costumes for high-level skaters can cost thousands of dollars.

Ice skating is an aerobic activity and is a great way to stay in shape and burn off unwanted calories. According to U.S. Figure Skating, competitive skaters can burn between 450 and 1,080 calories per hour, whereas recreational skaters burn between 250 and 810. Competitive figure skaters are encouraged to practice safe nutritional habits by eating a well-balanced diet and making sure to ingest enough water, protein, fats, fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, Vitamin D and iron. Experts also recommend that skaters eat five or six small meals spread out over the course of the day rather than three large ones. This helps even out blood glucose levels and stimulates their metabolism.


The Judging System

competitive figure skating
An ice skater in front of the judging panel, which includes nine judges and a technical panel. Eddy LEMAISTRE/Corbis/Getty Images

U.S. Figure Skating, along with many other national figure skating associations, is folded under the huge umbrella that is the International Skating Union (ISU). The ISU was formed in the 1890s to serve as the governing body that sets the performance requirements and rules for figure skating, speed skating and ice dancing competitions. Once figure skating had become internationally established and accredited, the sport was included in the Summer Olympic Games in 1908 and 1920, and it was switched to the Winter Olympics lineup in 1924. Ice dancing joined the Olympic lineup in 1976. Today, the ISU rules govern all of the competitions that lead down the golden road to the World Championships and the Olympics, which are considered widely the two most prestigious figure skating competitions in the world.

As we've learned, competitive figure skaters have a laundry list of requirements they must meet during the various programs. In the United States, this judging system is followed at all regional and sectional events, including the U.S. Championships, the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships and the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships. This system is also followed in other skating competitions governed by the ISU, including the Olympics and World Championships.


In previous years, the ISU Judging System relied on the 6.0 points system, in which the judges submitted scores and the skater or pair of skaters ranking closest to 6.0 at the end of the competition won. According to the ISU, today's judging system focuses entirely on "evaluating the quality of each element performed (Technical Score) and the quality of the performance (Presentation Score). It's considered to be a fairer and more balanced scoring system. Under the old system, skaters dreaded being chosen to go first because they believed that judges consciously or subconsciously gave lower scores until the end of the competition, when they were able to compare more of the athletes.

Judges are now responsible only for evaluating the quality of each individual performance, thanks to the work of the technical panel. While nine judges oversee ISU sanctioned events, the technical panel is made up of three officials: the Technical Controller, the Technical Specialist and the Assistant Technical Specialist. Their purpose is to identify the different technical elements performed by each skater as they are completed. The Technical Specialist takes the lead on this task and is backed up by the Assistant Technical Specialist and the Technical Controller to ensure that any mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. Skaters and judges may also call for a review of the Technical Panel's work if they think a maneuver was missed or categorized incorrectly (such as a double axel being mistakenly classified as a single, which merits a lower difficulty rating).

To further cement the integrity of the technical assessment process, a video replay operator is employed to record the programs so that they can be reviewed if needed. A data operator also records all of the maneuvers and their difficulty levels. In case of disagreement, the majority among the three officials rules.

Having been relieved of this burden, the judges can concentrate on the quality of the maneuvers performed. In the next section, we'll examine the scores the judges assign to skaters.


Breaking Down the Score

competitive figure skating
USA's Alexa Scimeca Knierim (front second from left) and Chris Knierim (front second from right) react in the 'kiss and cry zone' after competing in the Figure Skating Team Event at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 9, 2018. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

With all of the technical responsibilities of scoring moved to an appointed panel, the judges are free to focus on the athletic and artistic merit of the performances, as well as the other program components. Scored on a scale of .25 to 10, these components are:

  • Skating skills: The overall quality of the performance, flow on the ice, edge control and technique. The judges also take into consideration how effortless the skater's acceleration and deceleration are.
  • Transitions/linking footwork and movement: The variety and difficulty of footwork, movements and positions performed.
  • Performance/execution: The performance value, which is how well the skater or pair of skaters interpret the choreography and music. Judges also look at the execution of the routine, which includes the precision and quality of movements performed.
  • Choreography/composition: The concept and vision behind the program, as well as its originality and how well the movements match the music
  • Interpretation: Perhaps the most artistic and intangible component, interpretation is how the skater or pair of skaters translate movement to match the music.
  • Timing: How well the athletes skate in time with the music, as well as how well they translate the rhythm into the choreography

The technical score (also called the element score) is a substantial portion of the overall score. Each maneuver is assigned a level of difficulty, or base value prior to competition. During the performance, the judges give a grade of execution in the range of +3 to -3 to each move performed. Then, the base value and the grade of execution are combined to determine the total element score.


A skater's final score is reached by adding his or her technical score and the presentation score. Their scores for short program and free skate scores are tallied together to form a final overall score.

Skaters wait for scores to be announced in an area known as the "kiss and cry zone." The purpose of this area is for skaters to do pretty much that — kiss and cry with their parents, managers, coaches and other supporters while they wait for the judges to render an overall score. At the end of each competition, every skater is given a breakdown of his or her scores and how he or she was evaluated.

Competitive figure skating is bound by the iron-clad International Skating Union rules, and there's seemingly little room for error. But figure skating scandals are some of the most salacious in the wide world of sports. We'll take a look at a few of them on the next page.


Skating Scandals and the Rules They Inspire

competitive figure skating
U.S. skater Ashley Wagner reacts to her score after competing in the Ladies Short Program during day one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in February 2014. Darren Cummings/Pool/Getty Images

As with any competitive sport, a thick rule book governs the way competitive figure skaters can behave and dress. But costume rules weren't clearly defined before the 1988 Olympics, when Katarina Witt donned a costume cut scandalously high on the leg. A guideline dubbed the "Katarina Rule" says that skaters can't show bare midriffs and that their hips and buttocks have to be completely covered. Men are prohibited from wearing sleeveless shirts, tights or competing bare-chested. In addition, overly theatrical costumes are frowned upon. Skaters may not wear costumes with "excessive" amounts of sequins, beadwork, feathers or other decorations. Violations of this rule can cause a deduction of one-tenth to two-tenths of a point.

Another skater who inadvertently inspired a rule was Tara Lipinski. In 1998, the then 15-year-old dynamo took home an Olympic gold medal, making her the youngest woman at the time to win one. The International Skating Union (ISU) imposed an age limit on competitors that's now in effect: Male and female skaters must have reached their 15th birthday prior to July 1 of the previous year. The idea behind this rule is to keep young women from attempting overly difficult jumps at such a young age, hopefully sparing them from excessive long-term damage to their bodies.


However, young female skaters are still intent on wowing audiences with difficult moves, and in 2014 in Sochi, Yulia Lipnitskaya was six days younger than Lipinski when she won Olympic gold with the Russian team in the team event, making her the youngest Olympic gold medalist in ladies figure skating. Though in August 2017, she retired at the young age of 19 after being treated for anorexia.

The ISU has strict rules that govern substance abuse. The anti-doping policy requires that athletes undergo both urine and blood testing year-round to prevent and catch drug abusers. You can read even more about the rules on the ISU's Web site.

One of the most notorious events to rock the sport was the infamous and brutal knee-clubbing incident of 1994. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were widely considered to be two of the world's best figure skaters at the time. In an attempt to secure Harding's spot at the top, her then-husband and his associates clubbed Kerrigan's knee during a practice session. Although Kerrigan was unable to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she still received a bid to the Olympics, where she took the silver medal. Harding placed eighth. Although she was never considered directly responsible for the brutal attack, Harding later accepted a lesser charge and pleaded guilty, which resulted in her lifetime ban from the sport. The events all play out in the film "I, Tonya."

In 2002 another scandal rocked the figure skating community during the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. During the pairs skating event, the Russian pairs team Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze narrowly beat the Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Such controversy erupted over the perceived error that an investigation eventually revealed that the French figure skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne had been pressured into a vote-swapping deal with the Russians to vote in favor of the Russian pair. Eventually, Olympics and skating officials decided to reward both teams with the gold medal.

And more recently in 2014, despite out-skating Ashley Wagner (by a lot) at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Mirai Nagasu didn't make the U.S. Olympic team. The three spots went to Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Wagner, who placed fourth in the U.S. Championships after falling twice during her free skate. Wagner's performance in Sochi wasn't without controversy either. Wagner skated two clean programs, but ended up behind Russian Julia Lipnitskaia, who fell in both of her programs; Japan's Mao Asada, who skated a disastrous short program; and fourth-place finisher Gracie Gold, her American teammate who also took a tumble on the ice. Wagner finished in seventh place overall.

Clearly, competitive figure skating provides the world with all of the factors necessary for good athleticism and entertainment. Drama, beauty and intrigue abound among these often pint-sized athletes, compelling millions of people around the world to watch the sport on television and anticipate the competitions.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Associated Press. "Harding Tells Harrowing Story in New Book." 15 May 2008.
  • Barr, John and William Weinbaum. "Wanted Man: 'Little Taiwanese' and His Big Role in an Olympics Scandal." 18 April 2008.
  • Caple, Jim. "Entering the Mo' Cry Zone." 22 July 2008.
  • "Canadian skaters get gold; judge suspended." Feb. 15, 2002 (Feb. 9, 2018)
  • "Female Figure Skaters are Eating Wrong." USA Today. 2003.
  • Fortin, Joseph D. and Diana Roberts. "Competitive Figure Skating Injuries." Pain Physician. July 2003.
  • International Skating Union.
  • New York Times. "Skater Yulia Lipnitskaya Retires at 19 After Battling Anorexia." Aug. 28, 2017. (Feb. 9, 2018)
  • Rosewater, Amy. "Coming of Age in Skating Should Not Be Like This." 28 Jan 2008.
  • U.S. Figure Skating.