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My life on the ice: Figure skating coach Dannielle Starkey has it all figured out | Welcome and General | ConnectedCoaches

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My life on the ice: Dannielle has it all figured out

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Dannielle 1

DANCING ON ICE: Dannielle Starkey 'in the zone' during her competition days

  • The former British junior champion sheds light on the world of figure skating.
  • The chance to travel the world was a welcome reward for the countless hours of practice.
  • Being under the wing of two acclaimed coaches was a big influence on Dannielle’s decision to go into coaching.
  • Teaching children discipline, respect and self-confidence is just as important as winning medals.
  • Parents must have deep pockets as funding a committed skater can be an expensive undertaking. 

When Dannielle Starkey answers the telephone, she is at her mother-in-law’s house, putting her feet up. ‘She’ll be sitting around for a while, no doubt,’ I think to myself as I take a cursory glance over my interview questions. 

But before you get the wrong impression, I must explain that this period of immobility is most definitely an exception to the rule. Dannielle is not the sort of person to spend five minutes sitting on the sofa in normal circumstances, let alone a whole afternoon. 

She has just been told by an accident and emergency doctor that she has broken her foot. 

For a skating coach, personal trainer and group exercise instructor, this is not good news. 

I can hear her one-year-old daughter cheerfully chatting away in the background as Dannielle explains to me how she had been hobbling around for three weeks with a bad foot, not realising the extent of the injury until, two days previously, she had woken up in the morning and couldn’t walk. 

A not too pleasant afternoon at the Royal Blackburn Hospital ensued, and now, here she is with her leg in plaster, already getting itchy feet (quite literally probably) as she frets over the disruption to her busy coaching schedule. 

In the week that sports coach UK launched its Reach campaign, aimed at attracting more women into coaching, Dannielle’s skating story is one of glitz and glamour, of high-profile television shows and teenage globetrotting. 

Get your skates on 

Figure skating is an early specialisation sport where there is a strong correlation between performance level and training time. Dannielle certainly clocked up the hours when she was growing up. 

‘A rink opened up in Blackburn, and Mum and Dad took me along, and then I pestered them for skates. That’s how it all began,’ she says. 

It was a case of love at first sight from that first trip to the ice rink as a seven-year-old, and when she began taking lessons, it soon dawned on her parents that they had better get used to seeing a lot less of her. 

‘My coach used to say I was a grafter, and while I had some natural talent, it was mostly my character that helped me,’ Dannielle explains as she recalls those early years. 

And as the ice never melts, the year-round training schedule began to place demands, not just on Dannielle, but also her parents. 

‘My dad’s the only one that drives so he had to face the brunt of it, taking me to training and competitions. But both my parents were fantastic. I can’t fault them. My school was supportive too, and my friends.

‘It didn’t affect my schooling one bit. I was very good, I did all my homework, passed all my exams. I juggled everything. I had to. And that has helped me to become organised in later life.’ 

Practice makes perfect, and so, after tireless repetition, Dannielle’s proficiency on the ice grew, and success came hot on its heels. She won the British junior championship at 15 and, as the youngest competitor in the senior championships the following year, took home the bronze medal. Two years later, in 2004, she won silver. 

Famous faces 

Her two coaches were Karen Barber – who was head coach on ITV hit reality show Dancing on Ice – and fellow Dancing on Ice trainer Stephen Pickavance, a two-time British champion.

Karen, who was the 1983 European bronze medallist and competed at two Olympic Games with partner Nicky Slater, was the tougher of the two, remembers Dannielle. 

‘It wasn’t a case of having a woman’s shoulder to cry on as I would say Karen was the harder person,’ she says. ‘I was closer to my male coach. That said, it was nice to have a female perspective.’ 

Under their guidance, Dannielle continued to prosper, and she has fond memories of her trips abroad with her Great Britain colleagues. 

‘We would have a training camp beforehand so it was productive in terms of the work we put in, but we also had time to explore. 

‘You’ve got the opportunity to travel that most people at such a young age don’t get, and I’m really grateful for that. At 16 and 17, I went to Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Canada. It’s not just about the skating, it’s about life skills and encountering new experiences.’ 

Dannielle retired from competition when she was 21 and decided to take a year out of the sport. 

It was something I needed to do, but I missed it so much. Then I had the opportunity to cover Stephen’s business in Blackburn for six months while he was teaching the Dancing on Ice celebrities so I did my coaching exams and filled in for him. 

‘When a job at the rink came up full-time, I left my job with the NHS and took it.’

Life in the fast lane

Dannielle, now 30, has approached her coaching qualifications with the same single-minded determination with which she tackled her competitive career and is a qualified Level 2 figure skating coach. She has been teaching adults and children of varying levels for over five years at Blackburn Arena.

She has also gained qualifications in the fitness industry and is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor, teaching classes in private gyms and in the community.

She juggles these roles with being a student and a mother to her one-year-old daughter, Brooke. 

She has a first class foundation degree in sport and exercise science – with modules concentrating on psychology, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and research – and is hoping to complete the degree at the University of Central Lancashire in the next 12 months. 

It is an exhausting schedule, but then she is used to it. 

The power of role models 

So did she always want to go into coaching after she hung up her skates? 

‘It was always in my mind, yes. There were two female coaches at Blackburn ice rink, and seeing them do that job, you think to yourself as a kid, “Maybe that’s something I can do when I’m older.” 

‘It is not a male-dominated sport. There are a lot of male skating coaches, but there are a fair few females as well.’

Dannielle currently teaches alongside Pickavance, her former coach, and is honest about her chances of unearthing the new Robin Cousins or Torvill and Dean and leading them to national or international glory. 

For her, coaching is as much about social and emotional development as celebrating individual achievement. 

‘You’re very lucky to get one skater who is talented and who stays with you. That’s the hardest thing, I find. It can be quite ruthless. 

‘But if the kids grow up enjoying it and build a good friendship network and learn discipline, respect and self-confidence, then that can sometimes be more important than having a medal round your neck – especially kids who are quite shy. When you see them coming out of their shell, it is a great feeling.’

Regarding coaching techniques, toys on ice, says Dannielle, are the key to making your sessions fun and engaging for younger children. 

‘We do parent and toddler sessions, and that’s all based on fun and getting them comfortable on the ice and moving. Having toys on the ice is a great way of doing that. 

‘With the older ones, we can have a joke and a bit of fun, but essentially, in a lesson, they are there to learn, and the parents wouldn’t be happy if we lost sight of that. 

‘If they are having a bad day, I will say, “OK, we won’t do what I was planning. What do you feel like you can do?” And more often than not, it turns out to be a good session.’ 

Providing the right messages 

Figure skating is an ‘image sport’, and as such, negative headlines do sporadically crop up. 

We are not talking Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan-style controversies, but the spotlight has fallen on the sport in the past regarding the issue of eating disorders. 

In so-called aesthetic sports like artistic gymnastics and figure skating, there is a magnified focus on body shape and appearance. Former United States national champion Jenny Kirk estimated 85% of national level competitors suffer with eating disorders or serious body image issues. 

It is not something Dannielle has ever encountered herself, however. 

‘There have never been any issues in my time as a coach,’ she says. ‘Most of the girls enjoy having the new dresses and the sparkly outfits because it makes them feel special. 

‘Personally, it didn’t bother me, wearing competition outfits. They have got a little bit better now, not as skimpy, and girls don’t have to wear dresses – they can wear all-in-one catsuits. 

‘Some girls do slightly worry about thigh size, silly as it sounds, but they can wear black tights so there are ways around it to make women feel more comfortable. But I’ve not encountered it since I’ve been teaching. 

‘If you are at an elite level, you will be training so hard, you will have the body shape that is right for you. And just because somebody might be a little bit bigger than someone else does not mean it will be detrimental, it might actually work in their favour.’ 

STRIKE A POSE: Dannielle waits for the music to start before commencing her routine

D’oh! Or rather dough! 

There is a big problem facing skating though, and that is the cost of competing in the sport. 

At elite level, things are looking rosy, with UK Sport announcing last year that figure skating would benefit from an investment of £1,699,940 for its high performance programme over a period of four years – a large rise from the previous funding package. 

But at grass-roots level, promising skaters are not so lucky. 

‘The fact it is such an expensive sport with such little exposure is the biggest obstacle facing skating,’ says Dannielle. 

‘It is solely on the families to pay. There’s the travelling and the outfits, but even entering local competitions. It can cost £50 a time, which is ridiculously expensive for a young child who is going on for a one-and-a-half-minute programme. 

‘It is hard to justify putting them in for competitions when there is such an expense tagged along with it.’ 

Dancing on Ice 

At least Lancashire lass Dannielle can offer a helping hand on the funding front. Having lived in Blackburn all her life, she has connections in all the right places.

‘You grow up with people in different sports as well, and you become friends with them, and if you need anything, there are always people to ask. It’s nice to have those connections.’ 

It may also help that Dannielle is something of a minor celebrity... in Holland. 

She performed on the Dutch version of Dancing on Ice in 2007 as one of the professional skaters. 

‘It was an experience,’ she laughs before vowing her moment in the TV spotlight will never be repeated. 

From now on, she plans to keep both her feet planted firmly in her coaching role – when the plaster cast is finally removed, that is!

Dannielle’s top tips

  1. Always take time to develop your own knowledge and skills – sport is an ever-changing environment.
  2. Listen to your athletes – they are all individuals. Allowing them some input into their sessions may make them more productive.
  3. Engage young athletes by incorporating fun into the sessions.
  4. Recognise that you are a role model to the girls you coach. Help to build their confidence and keep them motivated to stay fit and active.

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