This four-part article was based on interviews with seven elite figure skating coaches Kori Ade, Marina Zoueva, Tom Zakrajsek, Phillip Mills, Jim Peterson, Audrey Weisiger, and Yuka Sato; an elite competitor and Olympian, Paul Wylie; and two prominent and highly successful sports psychologists Dave Diggle and David Benzel. In our first of four installments we will look at the background that prompted such an extensive article to be written and hear the stories from Kori Ade and Marina Zoueva.
What makes one skater be able to stand up to the pressure while others struggle with nerves and consistency? Is it the athlete’s make-up? Is it the coach who knows how to help create confidence for their skaters? How much confidence is gained working with a sports psychologist?
The 2013 –2014 competitive season leading up to the Sochi Olympic Games was packed with great skating, coaching changes, the expected drama and more than a few disappointing moments. One highlight of the season was watching Gracie Gold’s journey to becoming our national champion. When we witness this type of success we know many factors are involved. Gracie had years of stellar coaching and some great competition successes along the way. Her transformation to achieving the kind of national and international success she had this past season was wonderful and fascinating. However, more than a few coaches, skaters and skating enthusiasts wondered how much of this success was due to the ability of her new coach, Frank Carroll, to steady her nerves and get her to focus.
The Professional Skaters Association Survey on Competition Best Practices
In 2012 the Coach’s Edge worked with Jimmie Santee, Executive Director of the Professional Skaters Association (PSA), to prepare and analyze a national coaches’ survey on Best Competition Practices. We reported on many best practices from Periodization for training in the months and weeks leading up to competition, what happens the week prior to an event, nutrition, individualized competition plans for athletes, dealing with the families, and what to do on competition day.
Some of the highlights of the survey included tactics to create mental toughness in their skaters and also what coaches do to stay calm and focused on the skater’s learning/competitive style in order to provide each athlete what he/she needs on competition day. We learned that athlete nutrition is a key component for most PSA coaches as was visualization of successful run-throughs. We even explored the debrief process. It was interesting to learn that 1/3 of the coaches debriefed immediately after the event, 1/3 debriefed after the results were posted, and 1/3 waited to debrief until back at the rink. The detailed survey results can be found here: www.coachsedge.biz
At the 2012 PSA Conference we rolled out the results of the survey. In addition, part of the agenda at the conference included a panel of elite coaches and two Olympians discussing their best competition strategies. Sarah Hughes won Gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Todd Sand, along with partner Jenny Meno, won three World medals, was a three-time U.S. national champion and skated in two Olympic Games (1994, 1998). Sarah and Todd both shared the belief that their best ally to combat competition nerves was to feel completely prepared. They stockpiled many clean programs creating muscle memory and confidence to compete cleanly and strongly.
Coaches from all over the country shared informative and successful tips in the survey results that they use to get their skaters to be their best at competition. There were, however, many requests to find out more details and specifics of highly successful coaches. This article is the result of these requests and based upon personal interviews conducted with a number of elite skaters and coaches who have had great success on the national and international field. It is by no means an exhaustive list of effective competition strategies but rather a look into what these individuals have done that has created top competition results at the highest levels.
What PSA Elite Coaches Say About Competition Success
We asked seven elite coaches to share their strategies. You may be surprised to see what some of them had to say.
Kori Ade Sings TAPS
Last season highlighted Kori’s warm and long-term relationship with Jason Brown. Many commented on the success this team had which was based on over 15 years of working together as a team.
Kori self-professes that her strongest asset is the intuitive side of her coaching. She connects with each student by coaching and training based on where they are on a given day. “By tuning into each athletes’ head space in the moment I can reach them and connect on a deeper level maximizing what will happen for that lesson.” She added, “I become a chameleon for each skater tuning into where that athlete is at that particular time.
“Learning to teach the very technical side of skating is something I continue to focus and improve on as I go. I constantly strive to learn from the experts. The learning is never over.”
The Total Athlete Performance Seminars or TAPS program was created by Kori years ago as an integrated and comprehensive on-ice and off-ice endeavor. This most unusual curriculum offers various components which Kori uses to get to know each skater better and better over time. The activities include lessons on the ice, of course, but you might find Kori with her skaters at an outing to a theater where each student goes on the stage and improvises, or perhaps on a different day they are writing poetry or making an art project. She uses these activities along with participating in off-ice physical training with her skaters and engaging them in ongoing sports psychology strategies to help them grow as individuals. All of these efforts help her get to know exactly what each individual student needs to achieve their potential as a human being on this planet.
Jason Brown had an amazing break-out year during this past Olympic season. He has been participating in Kori’s TAPS program since he was 7-years old. Kori suggested I speak with Jason to get his take on the TAPS program. This is what Jason had to say, “Through the program we all learned that everyone has feelings. It’s what we learned about those feelings and how to deal with them that really counted. We were our true selves and got to confront our fears, anxieties, disappointments, successes and competition challenges. We all supported each other in a way that made things special.”
Kori commented, “Many of my skaters credit their skating success to the program. TAPS allows me to get to the core of each athlete incorporating creative activities along the way. Through the program I learn how each child ticks in life and at competition. I grew up in an artistic environment with both parents and a grandmother that taught art at high-levels. Creativity was the norm in how our house ran. I am thankful I am able to use those experiences in my coaching every day.
“The most important aspect of competition is the preparation we did beforehand and realizing that the unexpected will happen during competition from time to time. Part of the TAPS program is surprising each skater with the unexpected. They have to cope with this sudden change and overcome them. I might, for example, go into the rink lobby and grab one of my students who had been sitting for 30-minutes doing homework and tell her that her 5-minute warm-up is about to begin and she should get her boots on NOW to run her program. Another time I cut one of my skaters laces and told her that the warm-up for her event was about to start. She was the second skater and had better get that lace replaced right away. They all learn to adapt to control the things they can and to adapt to those situations they can’t control.”
This year Kori worked with Ryan Jahnke to develop “Game On: A Creative Approach to Coaching.” This is a manual filled with 24 games to provide fresh excitement for coach’s lessons, to get their skaters out of emotional ruts, and to build a sense of team among a coach’s skaters. It is offered on the PSA website here: http://ow.ly/zZDY4
While at competition Kori has to think on her feet, like all coaches do, to help calm and focus any skater who needs it. She relies on solid training principles such as teaching her athletes that not all jumps are perfect but those skaters on the podium have a wide range of landability.
While training her skaters, Kori insists that all of the transitions and the integrity of the choreography are always incorporated into every run through. She gradually adds doubles to their programs and folds in triples as they are ready. She insists, “I tell my skaters to put their egos aside and to be rational about what they can do early on and into the season.
“I am quite proud of my skaters for what they are willing to do to become the best that they can be both on and off of the ice.”
Marina Zoueva Tells Us Skaters are Like Fine Wine – They Need Time to Develop
Marina said during a recent conversation, “When I think of having skaters be confident for competition the most important issue for me is having consistent and stable practice. Every skater is different and every dance team has their own special needs. It is the coach’s job to figure this out early on and develop a plan for them for the long haul as well as to create short-term goals
Marina is the only one of two coaches in PSA history to win both the Coach of the Year and Paul McGrath Choreographer of the Year awards in the same year. This was a well-deserved honor as she had two teams in the 2014 Sochi Olympics whom each earned an Olympic medal: Meryl Davis & Charlie White achieving the Gold and Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir earning Silver. Marina’s awards were not a big surprise to the 500 coaches at the 2014 PSA Awards Ceremony. Her great feat in training these two spectacular teams in the same facility side-by-side was nothing short of amazing.
“One of my strategies for helping skaters achieve competition consistency”, Marina said, “is to make them feel successful along the way. Every day there is a little progress and a bit more each team can depend on. It is the coach’s job to make sure the skaters can see this slow improvement along the way. This helps to create confidence.
“Ice dancing has its own complexities for preparing the members of each team. Even selecting the proper music for the programs is very involved. Input must be gathered from the skaters and the coaches. And of course there is off-ice strength conditioning and many dance lessons to be folded into the training program.”
Marina prides herself in having numerous conversations with her athletes discussing their philosophy in life. “I try to teach them that skating is only a part of life and that the qualities of a successful skater are the same qualities of a successful human being. We must all be positive people and consistently strive to improve ourselves. We should never forget that skating is about developing life skills as well [as] it is about skating.”
Marina acknowledges that every athlete has difficult training days. She uses a set schedule and written weekly plans to advance the short-term and long-term goals for each skater. Her coaching philosophy looks at creating a slow and steady progression for each student. This philosophy’s success is clearly evident given the fact that she worked with Meryl and Charlie for over a decade.
She noted, “I work with my teams to have them experience the pleasure and love of what they are doing. The enjoyment seems to far outweigh the difficulties and this process instills a sense of confidence and achievement.”
While skaters are developing, Marina involves the families early on setting clear expectations and defining everyone’s roles: the skaters, the coaches and the parents. She reinforces these expectations and guidelines consistently.
As competition becomes closer, Marina chats with each skater to identify what is going on in their heads as they prepare. Marina says, “It’s important to be close and really know every skater in order to guide them to confidence. Any concerns that arise must be dealt with head on. I find that as we prepare, I experiment with each athlete to see what will work best for them in their current way of thinking. If I suspect there are any nerves, we talk about things and I try to make them feel secure. I remind them that we are all a team and we all work together to reach our goals.
“Starting two weeks out from competition day, we like to see our kids performing exactly how they train. They should be competing at least 75% of their 100% best, “she remarked.
“As far as competition day, I feel that if a skater is not somewhat nervous they ought to see a doctor,” Marina laughs. “On some occasions certain skaters may fall apart during an event. We know it can take patience and time to develop a positive competition mindset. It is the coach’s job to be strong and calm and to be saying the right things to each skater at the right time. For some skaters, it can take their lifetime of skating for them to reach their best of competition performances.
“I make it my job to love and respect the parents and the kids. Together we make the team work. None of us are soldiers – we are all human. I am so lucky and so proud to have the students who have chosen me to coach them,” Marina opined.
This four-part article about competition confidence was written by Merry Neitlich, Director of the Coach’s Edge. Merry is a contributing member of the PSA as a National Seminar and PSA Conference presenter. www.coachsedge.biz