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 In The Loop Issue #18 Extended Articles


December 1, 2014

The Secret Sauce for Competition Confidence Has Many Ingredients
Coaches and Skaters Who Have Mastered the Art©2014

by: Merry Neitlich, Director of the Coach’s Edge

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 second installment we look at the secret ingredients for competition success from Tom Zakrajsek, Phillip Mills, and Jim Peterson.


Tom Zakrajsek Continues His Passion for Life-Long Learning
Many know Tom Zakrajsek for the successful development and accomplishments of many elite skaters including Max Aaron, Rachael Flatt and Jeremy Abbott, to name a few.  Mirai Nigasu recently moved to Colorado Springs to train with Tom for the 2014 – 2015 season.

Tom has a strong desire to give back to skating by sharing his knowledge. With an advanced degree in Sports Medicine, Tom applies the nuances of that education to his own athletes’ Periodization and training. He recently launched a new website with the purpose of sharing his coaching tips and strategies at www.coachtomz.com.

Tom is always seeking new ways to enhance his skaters’ successes on the ice and in life. Last August, right before the season got into full swing, he had 30 skaters participate in a communication skills program called I-SPEAK Your Language taught by me from the Coach’s Edge learning theory models. The skaters had great fun interacting with each other while learning their primary communication style and also how to more effectively communicate with those who have different styles than their own.

The skaters left the training with an understanding that strong communication skills will not only help their progress on the ice but also apply to every facet of life both in the rink and outside of it.

Tom and team coach Becky Calvin even demonstrated a hilarious role-play of a skater giving up on a program run-through after a fall. The skaters broke into groups of the four different communication styles and provided examples of how a coach might talk with a skater in their own style preference to help overcome this problem. The joy felt by the skaters was infectious.

Tom analyzed his skaters’ primary and backup communication styles to plan on how to best work with them in the competition setting. Although already an accomplished World and Olympic coach, Tom’s philosophy encompasses seeking new ways to help his skaters achieve success.

Zakrajsek said, “In addition to learning valuable life lessons and improving their communication skills the skaters experienced a natural team building camaraderie that happened during the training. Days later my skaters were still talking about what they learned and sharing stories of how they have successfully applied this knowledge into their lives. We all had a great time. We can all definitively learn something new and unique to help our athletes succeed.”

As far as competition preparedness, Tom ‘has an app for that!’ Tom trains his skaters throughout the year with his well-known Periodization program which incorporates a continuous component of competition readiness.

Tom builds competition success into his Periodization planning with each athlete just like every other aspect of goal setting, such as learning new elements, increasing speed and flow and internalizing the nuances of programs. "Competition is practice and practice is competition. My goal with every athlete is to normalize them for competition. Daily training can be as intense as competition. It's great practice to ramp up the training periodically. It builds competition resiliency", Tom said.

Tom expects his skaters to try as hard as they can each day at the rink. Performance expectations start to ramp up in July as new elements and transitions are secured and become part of program run-throughs. By mid- to late-August all new elements should be getting consistent and ready for competition.

Local competitive events occur on Saturdays during high training season in what Tom calls Sport Concept Classes. His skaters are divided into competitive teams. Perhaps one week they are representing various countries while the next they become team members of the various houses from the Harry Potter books. According to Tom, “These competitions develop a strong sense of team work while the skaters have fun and compete their best. This is the time to learn, take risks and develop as technicians and performers while developing competitive strategies.”

Tom works hard to get to know each skater so he is as prepared as possible to support them in competition. As the season approaches he increases his communication with the skaters’ parents and coaching team wanting to be updated on how the skaters are doing on all fronts.

Before going to major events Tom and Becky have a fun ritual providing facts about the competition city, country (if it is an international event), and the competition venue. Upon arrival they take the skaters on short jaunts to learn to feel and appreciate the location. According to Tom, "This helps our skaters engage in the present moment and experience a bit of tension releasing fun."

On the day of competition if any skaters are showing any jitters he calmly chats with the skater using warm smiles and playing little games such as I Spy or reflex games. This is not a time for long technical discussions. He just keeps the mood light.

To focus his athletes he reminds them of their accomplishments and why they have chosen to be there and taken this exciting path. Using lots of eye contact, Tom reminds them of his adage that competition is just like practice since every practice is like competition.

To Tom competition readiness starts with a long-term plan and goal setting. The competition is just one part of the plan and his Periodization model.

Phillip Mills Uses Creative Choreography With His Own Competitive Experiences

We all know the expression that the only thing constant is change. Well for those in the skating world this is truer than ever since the International Judging System (IJS) came into being in 2006. And because there are constant updates to the IJS a choreographer's job is at the mercy of these changes in the same way a passenger is at an airline's mercy as they change the departure gate from A32 to D14. It is the choreographer's responsibility to track, implement, and monitor their works of art to be in a constant state of compliance with the evolving IJS rules.

As a master rated choreographer, Phillip Mills has been creating programs for World and Olympic competitors for 26 years. He has seen his share of changes in skating but one thing remains constant: his dedication to his skaters, his craft and his process for instilling competition excellence. Phillip has choreographed programs for some of the world’s finest skaters including the 2014 World Silver Medalist Tatsuki Machida, two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, to name a few.

Mills shared, “Ultimately the choreography is for the judges and audience to partake in the experience. It is the job of the choreographer to develop a program which tells a story for the audience to enjoy. It should be one that the skater is comfortable [with] and one in which they can interpret with ease and confidence. Once the program is learned and the details internalized, competition day should just be another experience of expressing that program on the ice for all to see.”

Perhaps unusual in some choreographic situations, Phillip has had the opportunity to put many elite skaters on the ice for major events. His athletes are competition ready when they know their uniquely crafted program fits their individual style, personality and skills. He and the coaches he works with review and practice the intricacies of the program with their skaters running complete run-throughs every day. Over time he makes small positive changes tweaking things to make the skater feel completely comfortable and ready to skate clean and beautifully.

For over ten years, Phillip worked as an integral member of a team based in Colorado Springs with Carlo and Christa Fassi. Among the many successful skaters this team worked with was World Champion Jill Trenary. In 1989 there was a lot of anticipation; many thinking Jill would win the World title. Ultimately she came in third that year winning the bronze medal. In 1990 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jill went again with her team to try her hand at topping the podium. She doubled her triple flip placing her third after the short program.

Carlo Fassi had a firm belief that athletes, in a similar fashion to many animals, could sense tension and nervousness on the part of those around them. In fact, he confided in Phillip telling him that he and Christa were both nervous and didn’t think it best for either of them to lead the 20-minute long program warm-up for event. They asked Phillip to do so.

Because of his many years receiving sports psychology training as a national competitive gymnast combined with the fact that he performed for 13-years as a principal dancer with an international ballet company, Phillip simply does not get nervous at competitions and the Fassi’s knew this to be true. Phillip led the warm-up using his competition game plan for Jill and it went very well.

Afterwards, the team returned to their hotel to get some rest and stay calm. They returned to the venue in plenty of time for a physical off-ice-warm up and for Jill to get ready with costume and make-up.  The timing was just right putting the team in the hallway outside the entry to the arena with just enough time to feel the atmosphere and focus on the program at hand. Jill had an amazing performance and became the World Champion in 1990.

In general, on competition day, Phillip turns his focus to each skater honing in on their mood or state of mind with laser-like precision. He is all business, yet at the same time he is light and fun according to successful Olympic pair coach Jim Peterson. Phillip offers sound advice sharing strategies that have and continue to work well to bring out an athlete's best performance. He prides himself on his calm focus throughout the competition which transfers to his skaters.

Like many coaches, Phillip starts the pre-event warm-up with some cardio, stretching and running through the various elements in the program. He may select one or two moves that are most challenging for that competitor having them conjure up one word to concentrate on to make that element a success. Next he tells his skaters to point on the ice to the various locations of each spin, jump and footwork sequence. "Once we get to this point I have the skater visually skate the program imaging where they will be on the ice for each element. I always ask how the program went. I remember one time working with a senior man at nationals,” he said. “He told me that as he visualized his program he missed his triple lutz. I had him concentrate on his technique and visually skate it again several times successfully. He nailed it in the event. There is great power in visualization."

Once while at the boards at the U.S. National Championship with a pair team, he noticed that they, along with their coach, were getting tense and the tone of everyone's voice was getting tighter. Phillip knew he had to break the mood. He quickly pulled something out of his pocket and turned to the group of three saying, "Chapstick, anyone?" This made them all laugh at the silliness of the question and the mood relaxed instantly.

Phillip continues to learn and refine his technique for getting the best out of each skater, especially on competition day. He also preaches the notion of treating every practice like competition so that competition is just another practice. Every lesson he teaches has a plan for each individual skater and their particular goals. To learn more about his skaters and methods you can check out his website at www.phillipmillschoreographer.com.

When asked what Phillip might recommend to young coaches to maximize their effectiveness at competitions he said they should follow their heart and find their own way. He added that they might invest wisely in the many PSA courses available. He suggested that having a subscription to Psychology Today can help advance their ability to keep their athletes in the moment at competitions. Phillip suggests that the teaching is done once you reach the event location. Offering a series of technical commands close to the event can make doubt and fear creep in at a critical time.
What would Phillip do if his skater was close to taking the ice at a competition but all of a sudden the athlete exhibited a huge uptick in their nervousness? He commented that he might say, “Look, a little bit of nervousness is OK, in fact it’s normal. But if you want to be petrified, you’re pretty much finished anyway. Would you prefer not to skate?” He added, “The skaters usually knock it off at that point.”

Jim Peterson’s Fun Training Environment Creates Consistency and Competition Readiness
Jim Peterson’s firm yet laid back personality creates a fun training environment for his team of skaters. Jim coaches at the Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex in Ellenton, Florida, where he continues to build a strong team environment for his skaters.

Jim was PSA Developmental Coach of the Year in 2009 and 2010 – it is a rare accomplishment to win this award two years in a row. Some of Jim’s most notable former skaters include U.S. Pairs Champions Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, Olympians Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett and, most recently, 2014 Sochi Olympians Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay.

Jim commented, “We were all very proud of Felicia and Nat’s performance at the Olympics in Sochi. They were relaxed and hanging back skating at their first Olympics. They prepared correctly and they got their work done. They knew they did everything they possibly could in that moment. Felicia and Nate were able to skate just like they trained at home. They kept a very relaxed environment and stuck to a normal schedule as much as possible and it paid off.”
Jim’s easy style includes a lot of competition readiness and practice. His strategies include lots of team building efforts among all of his seven pair teams and singles skaters. His skaters all take ballet class together, participate in the same off-ice training classes, work with the same jumping coach, and have team meetings where they all sign up for competitions or chat about the newest IJS rule changes. Jim stated that he is also quite fortunate to have had the same off-ice trainer training his athletes for 12 years.
”As far as our pair teams, we work as a team to understand that each team is only as good as their weakest element. We work on those skills and continually build up the pair relationship. It takes commitment and lots of time from both members of the team,” Jim remarked.

Teaching the mental aspect of skating is very important as well. “You are only as good as your weakest element,” says Jim. Coaches must teach their students to be aggressive and strong so that they will feel confident and ready when they take the ice for competition. Jim says, “I speak to my skaters to empower them with strong and inspiring words. I never speak down to them. A coach must continually build up the male and female dynamic of a partnership on the ice. Every team needs to have a positive outlook.

“I work with my skaters to get them to tell me what they need at competition. I need to support each skater in their own way. The most important aspect of competition is to expect the unexpected and plan for everything. They must be prepared to persevere through any challenge that might come up.”

It is critical to Jim that his skaters have a lot of competition practices to build consistency. He plans a whole day of competition including official warm-up times. He fills the stands with other skaters, parents, judges and coaches to try and simulate competition as much as possible. The skaters get critiques from the judges and use Dartfish to review the elements after the event as part of their debrief. The Dartfish program has the ability to review each element in slow motion in order to specify what needs to be improved. All videos are kept on file for further review as well.

“My skaters also visualize their programs about an hour and a half before competition. This allows your body and mind to remain in the moment, focused and relaxed so that the moment your feet touch the ice, you know you are ready to conquer. Before each skater takes the ice, it is essential that they go through a proper off-ice warm up. Skaters can go through their program, take some nice deep breaths, and talk about what they are feeling,” Jim explained. “By saying you are nervous, it helps to relieve nervousness. It is just your body’s way of saying you’re ready.”
Jim notes, “I teach with an aggressive, strong viewpoint to help each skater learn that they are trained, ready, strong and beautiful skaters. I learned to speak to my skaters in a way that empowers them from my former coach Rod Luddington and from Frank Carroll’s firm yet supportive style with a little wink.

“I love this quote from Kurt Browning, ‘Once you step on the plane I know I’ve done everything I can do to prepare.’ I know that once we leave for an event my work is done. Micromanaging skaters at competitions is the worst thing a coach can do. By this time coaches just be should be supportive and caring and ready to help take on those last minute unexpected challenges.”

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




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