By Bob Wagner, director of Global Communications for Xerox

(From the editor: In the photo above, RIT Tigers hockey players Todd Skirving and Mallory Rushton helping Rochester city school students learn to skate at Xerox Skate for a Day.)

Teaching children how to skate gave me an unexpected lesson in customer communications.

For three straight years now, I have participated in the “Skate for a Day – Community Youth Health and Wellness Outreach Program,” in which a few dozen Rochester city school students have a day of fun and fitness at the Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, N.Y. I’ve joined other volunteers, including players from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) men’s and women’s hockey teams, to help teach third- and fourth-grade students to skate.

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Skate for a Day

Helping Rochester city school students learn to skate are RIT head hockey coach Wayne Wilson (front) and senior forward Todd Skirving (back).

It’s a great event. For half the day, the students participated in sessions that promoted good nutrition, exercise, teamwork and academic excellence—including a skate on the arena ice. Xerox sponsors the event to give the students a memorable experience that educates and even inspires them about the importance of lifelong health and fitness. It’s co-sponsored by the Atlantic Hockey Conference (RIT is a member) and includes free tickets to the weekend’s AHA championship tournament.

This year’s session was a little different from previous years. I prepared. I watched some YouTube videos that explain how to teach beginners to skate. I know how to skate. But I found in the previous two years that it wasn’t so easy to explain how to do it—especially to third and fourth graders who were skating for only the first or second time.

I needed to understand my customer.

So I memorized a few simple things a beginner might be able to grasp. One was that just like you’ve got to walk before you can run– you’ve got to stand on the ice before you can skate on it. So bend your knees slightly with your legs spread, and find your balance.

Another was to be clear about how skating is different from walking. When you walk, you move your feet in the direction you want to go. And that’s the first impulse a lot of skaters have, but that’s not how you do it. On skates, you turn one skate at an angle and push off it while the other foot points straight ahead and glides. Your weight transfers from the push foot to the glide foot. If you try to skate the way you walk, you’ll never get any traction.

Turning, stopping, performing the Salchow jump — I would save those for another day — or in the case of the Salchow jump, another lifetime. My talking points would be simple, addressing what I believed would be the heart of the matter for this audience.

Lesson taught, lesson learned

So how did it work out? I tried my brief curriculum on a number of the students, and I found that even these simple concepts can be hard to grasp. Told to bend their knees, some bend to a crouch. Told to turn their foot, some turn their whole bodies. Told to push off, some can’t help but keep their feet straight, leaving them unable to catch an edge.

But I kept at it, and I was pretty sure some of the students I tutored were making progress.

And sure enough, a big payoff came near the end of the session. Two students were pushing their skating trainers. One was not getting any traction because he was walking, his skates continually slipping while he grasped desperately to the trainer. His companion, however, had the basic technique down. As I skated by, I overheard her say to him, “No, not like that. You need to turn one of your skates to the side and push off on it. Like this.”

That girl had not only learned my lesson—she had become an evangelist! It was one of the many signs that these young future leaders, buyers, sellers, end-users and competitors were having a positive, memorable experience in what was for many their first personal encounter with professional coaches, college athletes—and Xerox.