Compulsory figures

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Sonja Morgenstern skates a compulsory figure

Compulsory figures or school figures were formerly an aspect of the sport of figure skating, from which the sport derives its name. Carving specific patterns or figures into the ice was the original focus of the sport. The patterns of compulsory figures all derive from the basic figure eight. They have mostly disappeared from competitions but retain some influence, having evolved into moves in the field (MIF).

In competition[edit]

Until 1947, competitors at figure skating events were required to skate a total of twelve figures (six different figures skated on both feet) which were worth 60% of the total score. With the increasing number of entrants, figures competitions (which were then skated outdoors) began to take a very long time, so in 1948 the number of figures was reduced to six (alternating left and right foot starts) while retaining their weight at 60%. This competition format continued until 1968.

Ralph Borghardt and Gabriele Seyfert examine the print of a loop figure at the 1964 East German Championships.

Pressure to reduce the weight of compulsory figures began when the Olympic Games and other skating competitions began to be widely shown on television. Figures were not considered appealing or exciting to television audiences. Completion of the figures and their analysis by the judges could last eight hours at the World Championships.[1] In addition, skaters who excelled at compulsory figures were often not the most talented at free skating, but sometimes accumulated such a large lead from the school figures that they won the competitions overall. Such results would often leave general viewers stunned because they had watched only the free skating and had little or no knowledge of the compulsory figures.

A reform was undertaken to put more emphasis on the free skating. The first step was taken in 1968, when figures were reduced to 50% of the total score.[2] In 1973, the number of figures was reduced from six to three, and a new segment, the short program, was added to competitions.[2] Despite the reduction, figures often began at 8 am at ISU Championships, such as 1975 Worlds and 1983 Europeans.[3][4] In 1983, skaters would often spend almost twice as much time practicing figures, up to five hours a day, as they did practicing their free skating.[4]

From 1973 to 1975, the weights of compulsory figures, short program, and free skating were 40%, 20%, and 40%, respectively. From 1976 to 1988, this changed to 30%, 20%, and 50%. In June 1988, the proportions were changed to 20%, 30%, and 50% for the 1988–89 and 1989–90 seasons.[5] In addition, ISU member nations voted 27–4 to eliminate compulsories entirely from international competition after July 1990.[5] Less practice ice being available in Europe meant that most European nations voted in favor of abolition.[2] The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand voted to retain figures.[5]

Opponents of figures said they held back talented skaters such as Janet Lynn and Midori Ito, while supporters said they instilled discipline and produced higher quality of basic skating technique.[2][6] In 1980, ISU president Jacques Favart stated that figures "are a waste of time and they prevent ice skaters from being more creative".[4] With less coaching and ice time required, Hugh Graham, president of U.S. Figure Skating, estimated that skaters' expenses would be reduced by at least 50% after abolition.[5] In the summer of 1997, U.S. Figure Skating voted to end domestic competitions in figures after the 1997–98 season.[2]

"In my opinion, the quality of skating itself (not jumping) has gone down. Figures taught how to use edges, like Robin Cousins and Brian Boitano still do, that with a couple of pushes they can get across the whole rink. You don't see that with the new skaters."[6]
—1984 Olympic bronze medalist Jozef Sabovčík speaking in 2003 on the effect of the elimination of figures.

Compulsory figures are no longer a major competitive event and few competitive skaters have the interest to learn how to do them. Some adult recreational skaters, however, still find pleasure in the control and mental stamina required to master figures and the Ice Skating Institute (ISI) still holds competitions and events that require multiple levels of proficiency. Compulsory figures also remain a part of artistic roller skating. The inaugural World Figure Championship & Figure Festival was held in August 2015 in Lake Placid, New York.[7]


Figures are composed of either two or three circular lobes. The simplest figure, the circle eight, consists of a circle skated on an edge on one foot tangent to another circle skated on the corresponding edge on the other foot. The place where the circles meet is called the center, and a line through the center of the circles is called the axis or long axis. The change of foot at the center is accomplished by a thrust from the former skating foot onto a strike by the new skating foot at the point of intersection of the two circles (the short axis).

More complex two-lobed figures include a three turn or bracket turn at the halfway point on each circle, or a double three – two three turns placed symmetrically to divide the lobe into thirds.

The most basic three-lobed figure is the serpentine, skated by doing half a circle on the middle lobe and a change of edge on the same foot to complete the full circle at the end; and then repeating on the other foot to complete the figure. Variations on the three-lobed figures include placing a rocker or counter turn at the centers instead of a simple change of edge, or combining a change of edge with the turns in the ordinary two-lobed figures.

A paragraph figure is an advanced two-lobed figure skated entirely on one foot, with a change of edge at the center. The entire figure is then repeated on the other foot over the original tracing.

Most figures are skated on circles about three times the skater's height. However, a special class of figures, the loops, are done on much smaller circles, about five feet in diameter – approximately the height of the skater. Here the skater curves sharply inward at the top of the circle to make a teardrop-shaped loop tracing about a blade-length wide (similar to a limaçon with an inner loop). The basic loop is a two-lobed figure, but like the other two-lobed figures it also has more difficult serpentine and paragraph variants.

Practice of compulsory figures is sometimes referred to as "patch" because each skater is assigned a defined area (or patch of ice) on which to skate.


Figures were formerly identified by these numbers in the rulebook. Each figure has several variants depending on which foot, edge, and direction is used to start the figure.

  • [1-4] Circle Eight
  • [5-6] Serpentine
  • [7-9] Three
  • [10-13] Double Three
  • [14-17] Loop
  • [18-19] Bracket
  • [20-21] Rocker
  • [22-23] Counter
  • [24-25] One Foot Eight
  • [26-27] Change Three
  • [28-29] Change Double Three
  • [30-31] Change Loop
  • [32-33] Change Bracket
  • [34-35] Paragraph Three
  • [36-37] Paragraph Double Three
  • [38-39] Paragraph Loop
  • [40-41] Paragraph Bracket

ISI-specific figures[edit]

The Ice Skating Institute includes in its highest test level a number of figures from outside the ISU standard rulebook:

  • "Rocker Double Three" is essentially a "rocker" (ISU 20-21) with "double-three" (ISU 10-13, 28-29, 36-37) outer lobes
  • "Paragraph Bracket Loop," is a figure with a one full-size lobe, with a bracket turn, and one loop-size lobe, with a loop
  • "Loops to the Outside" has two loop-sized lobes (with the loops skated outside the lobes instead of inside) on either end of a full-sized central lobe
  • "The Flower," which has four loop-sized lobes (again, with the loops on the outside of the lobes) enclosed (at the 0, 90, 180, and 270 degree points) within a large outer lobe, with alternating three and bracket turns (at the 45, 135, 225, and 315 degree points).

The ISI has also offered "creative figure" and "free figure" events, in which the skaters skate figures of their own design (which must be submitted to the judges in advance, on paper). They differ from each other mainly in judging emphasis.

The ISI publishes figures information and diagrams in the ISI Skaters & Coaches Handbook. In ISI testing and competitions, figures are treated as completely separate and independent events from free skating events, with their own separate test levels and awards. There is no requirement for ISI skaters to enter both free skating and figure events, and relatively few do so.


The criteria that are used to judge figures include:

  • The circles are perfectly round, without wobbles, flats, bulges, or curling inward.
  • All the circles in the figure are the same size.
  • The turns on a figure are lined up with the central axis, and the circles themselves also all line up.
  • The turns are symmetrical in shape and executed on true edges without scraping or "flats".
  • Loops are shaped like loops, and not circular or pointed.

Judges normally stand on the ice, off to one side, to watch the execution of the figure. When the skater has finished, the judges typically check the alignment of the figure from different angles, peer closely at the tracings of the turns, and pace off the diameters of the circles to check their sizes.


Compulsory figures require a blade that is less sharp than that used for free skating in order to achieve finer control over the edges and turns. A figure sharpening has a shallower hollow, which prevents accidental "flats" caused by touchdown of the other edge. Blades for compulsory figures don't need the large toe picks necessary for jumping, so blades made specifically for skating compulsory figures have toe picks that are smaller and sometimes placed higher on the front of the blade than free skating blades; this helps the skater avoid accidentally dragging the toe picks on the ice. Compulsory figures also do not require the extremely stiff boots used in free skating to support the foot and ankle on jumps. When compulsory figures were a regular part of competition, many skaters simply recycled their old worn-out "freestyle" boots and blades for figures by grinding down the bottom toe pick and having the blades sharpened for figures.

A device called a scribe – essentially, a large compass – is commonly used as an aid for learning and practicing figures. It is used to lay out the initial shape of a figure and to check the shape and size of circles already skated, and as a straightedge to check the alignment and placement of the turns. However, scribes are not permitted in competition, nor may skaters rely on painted markings on the ice, usually meant for ice hockey rinks (such as advertising logos, faceoff spots, circles and the red and blue centre/zone division lines) to align their figures.


  1. ^ Harvey, Randy (9 January 1988). "It's Compulsory, but Is It Necessary? : For Now, Tedious Competition Counts; Debi Thomas Takes Lead". Los Angeles Times. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Loosemore, Sandra (16 December 1998). "'Figures' don't add up in competition anymore". CBS Sportsline. Archived from the original on 27 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "World skaters in final practices". Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. March 3, 1975. p. 9. 
  4. ^ a b c "EISKUNSTLAUF: Das Schlimmste". Der Spiegel (in German). 7 February 1983. 
  5. ^ a b c d "No More Figures In Figure Skating". Associated Press. The New York Times. 9 June 1988. 
  6. ^ a b "Jozef Sabovcik: Online Interview". GoldenSkate. 2 February 2003. 
  7. ^ Sausa, Christie (1 September 2015). "Figures revival". Lake Placid News. [permanent dead link]

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson, Susan A.: "And Then There Were None". Skating, March/April 1991.
  • Evaluation of Errors in Figures, 6th edition. USFSA, 1964.
  • ISI Skaters & Coaches Handbook (formerly titled ISIA Test Standards), ISI, frequently revised. Descriptions of ISI Figure 10 figures based on the 1987 edition.
  • USFSA figure tests